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Prospective home buyers should answer the question, “How much home can I afford?” before they begin house hunting. Knowing their spending limit keeps consumers from getting emotionally involved in properties they can’t afford. It prevents buyers from wasting their time (and everyone else’s) on homes for which they don’t qualify. And finally, the process of exploring these limits can help buyers sort out their spending priorities and make smarter financial decisions. This is where affordability calculators come in.
Most kinds of affordability calculator focus on a single debt-to-income (DTI) ratio. They take the user’s gross monthly income (before taxes) and multiply it by a pre-selected DTI, usually something like 36 percent. From that result, they subtract any other payments like auto loans, credit cards and student loans, and what remains is the maximum house payment — principal, interest, taxes and insurance. However, most personal finance experts believe that even buyers with identical income and debts shouldn’t necessarily spend the same amount on a home. There’s nothing in most affordability calculators, for example, that accounts for payment shock. Payment shock is the amount of a new housing expense divided by the old housing expense. Most underwriters don’t want to see payment shock that exceeds 150 – 200 percent. If a would-be buyer currently rents for $500 a month, it won’t necessarily be easy for him or her to get approved for a mortgage with a $2,000 a month payment. Instead, they might be better off with a more conservative scenario.
Users can incorporate their own priorities into their maximum purchase price by using LendingTree’s Home Affordability Calculator — its three scenarios allow them to select a conservative, moderate or aggressive approach and choose their next home based on its calculations. For example, a family with $75,000 a year in gross income, $100 a month in other expenses and $25,000 for a down payment could choose from purchases prices ranging between $281,000 and $413,000 at a 4.00 percent interest rate.
By clicking the + Assumptions link, users can alter some of the calculations — inputting actual insurance, tax and homeowners association dues. This allows them to fine-tune their spending limits. In addition, home affordability calculators (and loan officers, real estate agents and mortgage underwriters) don’t estimate the effects of considerations like these:
i. Plans to start a family
ii. Impending retirement
iii. Cash flow needed for a new business
iv. Kids heading to college
v. Expensive hobbies
vi. Savings goals
vii. Kids moving out / graduating college
Consumers can adjust their inputs to factor in these and other items. For example, a family committed to donating ten percent of their income to charity can make sure their new home is affordable by choosing the “conservative” purchase price or by counting that donation in their expenses. And families expecting an increase in income or decrease in expenses — perhaps the children are finally graduating college or moving out — can simply choose the “aggressive” scenario or adjust their income upward, giving them a realistic idea of what they can comfortably afford after the blessed event occurs.
Another use for home affordability calculators is seeing how changes in inputs can affect the maximum home price. Suppose the family in the previous example has a $5,000 debt with a $100 a month payment. They can afford a house costing $281,000 to $414,000 at 4.00 percent with $25,000 down. Or they could reduce their down payment to $20,000 and pay off the debt. Which option gets them more house? Answer: Taking $5,000 from their down payment to get rid of the $100 a month expense does increase their purchase price range by more than $10,000. In addition, consumers can use this calculator to see how changes in interest rate and programs affect affordability. If the family above decides on a 5/1 hybrid ARM at 2.75 percent instead of a 30-year fixed loan at 4.00 percent, the maximum price range jumps to $328,000 – $479,000.
Finally, the calculator allows users to see how adjustable rate mortgages (ARMs) can affect home affordability. A 5/1 hybrid ARM might start at 2.75 percent, but what if its lifetime cap is 7.75 percent? At that rate, the maximum price drops to between $220,000 and $318,000. Buyers concerned about affording an ARM in a rising rate environment might want to limit their purchase price to something affordable even at a higher interest rate.