Skip to Main Content

Home Buyer's Handbook

Thinking About Buying a Home?

Buying a home can be one of the most rewarding experiences of a lifetime— and one of the most stressful. After all, a home mortgage loan is the largest contract most of us will ever sign. Add to that the unfamiliar terminology and the endless stacks of legal documents, and it’s not surprising that many people are confused by the whole experience.

But buying a home doesn’t need to be a headache. In fact, with a little preparation and the right attitude, it can even be fun.

Can You Afford a House?

Perhaps you know people who bought homes and now complain about being “house poor.” That’s because they underestimated what they needed for home payments, maintenance, and other expenses. While some people don’t mind making sacrifices to own a home, you don’t have to be unpleasantly surprised later if you take the time now to figure out what you can comfortably afford. We’ve provided some formulas and worksheets in this chapter to help you.

In general, experts say you can afford a home that costs about 2.5 times your yearly income. Income can include salary, dividends, Social Security benefits, public assistance payments, child support, and alimony. To accurately estimate what you can afford with your income, you’ll need to answer the following four questions:

  1. How much can you afford to spend for monthly home loan payments?
  2. How much money do you need each month to meet other obligations? (Consider utilities, home maintenance, medical bills, groceries, entertainment, and all other expenses.)
  3. How much cash have you saved for a down payment and other costs? (You usually need a minimum of 3.5 percent of the purchase price in cash or down payment assistance. If you’re a U.S. veteran, then you may be eligible for a Veterans Administration Loan (“VA Loan”) with no down payment.)
  4. How much will you need for home closing costs? (These are the costs involved in transferring ownership. Usually they should be no more than two to four percent of the total amount of your loan.)
Terms to Know:

Long-Term Debt: Anything you owe and are paying back on a schedule of ten or more months. Long-term debt usually includes your mortgage loan payment, car and student loans, credit card payments, child support, and alimony.

Gross Income: Your total income before taxes are taken out. Besides wages, this can include income such as alimony, child support, and public assistance.

PITI: Principal, Interest, Taxes, and Insurance—all of which make up your monthly payment.

Principal: The total amount you are borrowing to pay for a home. This is usually the purchase price minus the down payment.

Interest: A lender’s charge for the use of the borrowed money, usually paid each month during the term of the loan.

Taxes: Property taxes are usually included in your monthly payment.

Insurance: You purchase homeowner’s insurance to protect your property against damage. The payment may be included in your monthly loan payment. As with any purchase, you should collect quotes on insurance policy prices from several companies to try and get the best deal you can. You may also have to pay for mortgage insurance, which protects the lender in case you default, or don’t make your payments on your loan.

Pre-Qualify for a Loan

Pre-qualifying is a process lenders use to give you a quick evaluation of your credit-worthiness and the maximum loan amount for which you are likely to qualify. In most cases, this is not approval, but rather it’s a snapshot of your finances that gives you a ballpark figure to work with. You may decide to set aside more for expenses. Even before you have a specific house in mind, you can meet with a lender to find out how much you qualify for. You don’t need to spend as much as a loan officer says you can afford, but it’s a good way to determine the maximum amount you should spend. And remember, pre-qualifying with one lender does not obligate you to get your loan from that lender. Don’t sign any paperwork that would obligate you at this point.

In the meantime, you can get an idea of what size loan you might qualify for by going through the worksheet below.

Lenders offering conventional loans (loans not backed by the government) don’t want you to take out a loan you can’t afford. Generally the lender won’t allow you to pay more than 45 percent of your gross monthly income toward all your long-term debts combined, including your home loan payment, car and student loans, credit card payments, child support, and alimony. However, lenders are sometimes willing to consider compensating factors in evaluating your loan, so this ratio is subject to some variation. In fact, depending on your circumstances, this ratio can range from 36 percent to 50 percent. Your lender can assist you in more accurately determining the loan amount for which you may qualify.

The federal government also guarantees certain loans made by private lenders. Uncle Sam wants to encourage home ownership, so the Federal Housing Administration (“FHA”) offers relaxed guidelines that let people with higher debt ratios and smaller down payments qualify for loans. With an FHA loan you can spend a higher percentage of your income on housing and still get a loan. Again, these ratios are subject to variation. Generally, your home payment can be between 31 percent and 40 percent of your income, and your monthly debt payments (including your home payment) can be between 43 percent and 50 percent of your income.

Loan Qualification

Before you fill out the Loan Qualification Worksheet, find out the current industry numbers from a loan officer or mortgage broker. The following numbers can change, but were current as of the date of this publication.

Loan Qualification Worksheet (PDF)

If your monthly debt payments are higher than 50 percent of your gross income, talk to loan officers about ways you can reduce your long-term debt. Or, you may choose to delay buying a home until you’ve paid off more of your debts.

What’s Your Price Range?

Now use the following charts to figure out your appropriate price range. You’ll need to know what interest rates lenders are offering on loans. Rates vary from day to day and from lender to lender, so call several to find the best rate. A loan officer may ask to meet with you in person. That’s a classic sales pitch, but if the help is free, go ahead and take it if you want. Choose a loan officer you believe can give you the best service and the best deal. Also, consider whether you want a 15-year or 30-year loan. Other terms may also be available. Check with a lender.

Monthly Payment Tables (Principal and Interest Only)

For loans that fully pay off the debt over the loan term. Locate a current interest rate at the top of the following tables. Follow that column down to find the monthly payment closest to your monthly home payment amount from Step 1 of the Loan Qualification Worksheet (if applicable). Then, read across to the far left-hand column to find the total loan amount for which you qualify. Add the money you’ve saved for a down payment to this figure. Then subtract estimated closing costs. This represents the maximum amount you should consider paying for a home.

Remember, these tables do not include other housing expenses such as property taxes, mortgage and homeowner’s insurance, or maintenance and they do not include other debt obligations you may owe. Use the Household Income/Expense Worksheet on the following pages to find out what you can really afford.

Monthly Payment Tables (PDF)

Figure Out What You Can Afford

Now that you know the amount a loan officer says you can afford to pay each month for a loan, double check the figures. In other words, be skeptical. Use the worksheet below to figure out what you can comfortably afford to spend each month. This time, write down all your expenses (including the money you’d like to set aside for a retirement fund, travel, or any other items you feel you can’t do without).

Household Income/Expense Worksheet (PDF)

How Will You Ever Come Up with a Down Payment?

You’ll need to cover the up-front costs, including the down payment. Here are some suggestions:

What Do Lenders Want from You?

You may think you know what you can afford in a home, but will a lender agree? Lenders can seem like your best friends or your worst enemies when buying a home. They are your key to qualifying for a home loan, and you need to impress them with your responsibility. They want to give you a loan—that’s how they earn their money—but they have to make sure you can pay it back, too!

Lenders usually want you to have at least two years of verifiable employment and a record of paying your bills on time. To check the financial data you give them, they will get your credit report from a credit bureau. It is well worth your time to get a copy of your credit report in advance to be sure it doesn’t hold any unpleasant surprises.

A credit reporting agency will give your credit report a credit score, which will help determine what kind of mortgage you qualify for. If your credit record isn’t perfect, you will get a lower credit score and may only qualify for a loan with a higher rate of interest than the best rate available.

Credit scores are three-digit numbers used by credit bureaus based on a consumer’s debt profile and credit history.

Consumers who have a prime credit score are seen by lenders as a low risk. However, some consumers are considered subprime. Subprime consumers get higher interest rates and loan fees. Since lenders and credit bureaus may know much more than you about your ability to obtain credit, it is important to pay close attention to certain factors affecting your credit score. Credit scoring models are confusing and vary among creditors. These models help creditors determine whether you are prime or subprime. Although none can guarantee you a prime credit rating, the following tips may help you in improving or maintaining your credit score:

Mortgages are also marked with a grade. For example, the higher your credit score is, the higher the grade of “paper” you qualify for and the lower amount of interest you have to pay. The highest grade of paper mortgage loan is considered a prime mortgage and a lower grade is often called a subprime mortgage. Ask your mortgage lender if they are offering you a prime or subprime loan. Some lenders may specialize in subprime lending and try to sell you their product even though you might qualify for a prime loan. If you believe you should qualify for a prime mortgage, be sure to comparison shop with a company that provides them.

If your finances haven’t been stable, you often can take steps to rebuild your credit record and become a better credit risk. Call your bank or a nonprofit consumer credit counseling agency to see if it offers a course on re-establishing credit. Or, go over your records with a mortgage lender for suggestions.

If you have a question or concern about a mortgage lender, contact the Minnesota Department of Commerce at (651) 539-1500.

Here are the key questions lenders will ask:

What Is Underwriting?

Ultimately, you’re going to have to convince a lender that you’re worthy of a loan. A lender may tell you that underwriters will make this decision. The loan officer and loan processor do most of the screening and qualifying by collecting information. The underwriter reviews the file, assesses the risks, and gives a final stamp of approval. Lenders don’t like bad risks, so they will carefully analyze your records to answer these questions:

If the answer to both questions is yes, a lender is likely to approve your loan.

Gather These Records

Your lender needs about six weeks to collect, review, and verify all of your financial records. All you can do is wait and perhaps answer a few more financial questions. You cannot close on a home until the underwriting process is complete and you are approved for a loan. Start collecting the following records for your loan application as soon as possible.

For the past ten years:

For the past two years:

Liabilities:
Provide up-to-date information on payments you’ve made and what you still owe on the following

Assets:
Provide information on any of the following resources you have:

If you are self-employed:

Other: