Homeownership Can Be a Reality for Recent Grads

by Michele DiGirolamo
November 29, 2017

If you're a new college graduate and your life plan includes homeownership, don't be daunted - there are steps you can take to embark on your journey to the American Dream.

But first, take a moment to reflect.

"New graduates should carefully consider whether buying a home makes sense at their current time in life," says Robert Farrington, founder of TheCollegeInvestor.com. "Recent graduates typically have a high amount of uncertainty in employment, location, family and more.

Obviously, if you've already landed a high-paying job, have a squeaky-clean credit rating and have saved or been gifted cash for a down payment, you're golden. Start house shopping.

But if you're not sure if your life or financial situation is house-ready, consider the following issues to tackle and actions to take to reach your goal.

Decide if you're ready to buy

The first thing to do is to evaluate the pros and cons of renting versus buying.

Renting has many pluses, especially for typically mobile, cash-strapped and debt-laden graduates. You don't need much equity, you save money and time in the form of home maintenance and repairs, and you aren't tied down to a location should a job offer in a far-off city beckon.

On the other hand, buying gives you an appreciating investment, access to tax credits, autonomy in home improvements, stability if you're looking to start a family and, eventually, freedom from mortgage payments.

Take a look at your finances

The next step is to assess your financial situation. Mortgage lenders are interested in your credit score, your income versus your expenses and your employment history.

Start with your credit score; if you don't already have a credit history, open a credit card and start building your history. Student loans contribute to your credit rating, so be sure to make all payments on time.

Check your credit score for free at AnnualCreditReport.com. If you have a bad credit history and score, work on improving both. Generally speaking, you'll need a credit score above 650 to qualify for a mortgage and above 750 to get the best mortgage rates, but the threshold varies depending on your circumstances and the type of home loan you're seeking.

Work diligently to pay off your debt, whether it be student loans, credit cards or any other kind of debt. Securing a mortgage with a pile of debt is difficult, as is managing hefty student loan and home loan balances.

Make sacrifices; live with your parents for a while, eliminate luxuries including dining out or get a second job. The bonus is that making regular payments to whittle down your debt will improve your credit score.

As for employment history, typically lenders want borrowers to have one to five years on the job.

Calculate your DTI ratio

New grads have several considerations when embarking on their journey to homeownership, Farrington says.

"The biggest is debt-to-income ratio," he says. "This is one of the biggest metrics banks look at before lending."

This means that your total debt payments, including mortgage and student loans, should not exceed 36 to 50 percent (dependent on assorted variables) of your income. If it does, you'll have a difficult time getting a mortgage.

And, start saving. Remember you need more than just the down payment when purchasing a house. Other upfront costs include paying for a home inspector, taxes, closing costs, not to mention home furnishings and incidentals - everybody needs a new bathroom throw rug, right?

Mortgage preapproval and first-timer programs

When you're ready to go house shopping, first get a mortgage preapproval. It tells you how much you can borrow and is essential at the bargaining table. Don't be tempted if you're approved for a higher-than-expected mortgage amount. Homeownership brings many expenses, including utilities, insurance, maintenance, taxes and possible homeowners association fees. You don't want to end up house-rich and cash-poor.

"In some areas, there are first-time homebuyer programs that could help 20-something graduates purchase their first home," Farrington says. "Check with your state or local housing authority to learn more."

According to Credible.com, many states offer some form of housing assistance to first-time homebuyers, with some targeted at student loan borrowers. And new Fannie Mae policies announced in April can also help student loan borrowers qualify for a mortgage.

In one initiative, Fannie Mae will exclude non-mortgage debts, such as student loans, car loans or credit card debt paid by someone other than the student - such as a parent or grandparent - from consideration in the debt-to-income ratio for a borrower looking to qualify for a mortgage.

In another, Fannie Mae no longer requires lenders to factor in 1 percent of your college loan balance when deciding whether to lend you a mortgage. Instead, lenders can now consider a borrower's actual student loan payment, which may be lower than 1 percent of the balance and can favorably tilt the debt-to-income ratio.

One last piece of advice: Make sure you're buying where you can actually afford to live, and adjusting your expectations if need be. It's okay to start out small and work your way up to your dream home.

Michele DiGirolamo is a former longtime reporter for United Press International and a freelance writer for MoneyGeek.com.

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