MONEY buying a home

Why It’s a Good Thing That Cash Buyers Are Exiting the Housing Market

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Cash buyers skew the market by soaking up inventory that could be purchased by a young family looking for a first-time home purchase.

In many parts of the country, housing prices gave returned to pre-recession levels. That’s good news for sellers, bad news for buyers. But buried within the latest housing data is some good news for everyone — everyone on Main Street, anyway.

All-cash buyers seem to be finally retreating. The percent of homes purchased by all-cash buyers share in May was close to its long-term average going back to January 2000 of 24.8%, and well below its recent peak of 42.2% in February 2011, according to data released Thursday by RealtyTrac. It’s one sign that the housing market is on the road back to a normal, “how do we find a place to live?” market, and away from the “how do I make a quick buck?” market.

What’s an all-cash buyer? Someone — or something — with a lot of money. All-cash buyers don’t need mortgages, they just show up with a check and buy a home. Generally, they are big investors, like hedge funds and foreign entities, who have no intention of living in the homes. They skew the market by soaking up inventory that could be purchased by a young family looking for a first-time home purchase. They also make such buyers look bad. If you were a seller and had two offers — one all-cash, and one that still required financing to be arranged — which would you choose?

“As housing transitions from an investor-driven, cash-is-king market to one more dependent on traditional buyers, sales volume has been increasing over the last few months and is on track in 2015 to hit the highest level we’ve seen since 2006,” said RealtyTrac vice president Daren Blomquist.

The out-of-whack housing market has been suffering from a record level of all-cash buyers for the past several years – well above historical norms, according to mortgage expert Logan Mohtashami. He says the retreat of cash buyers is positive development.

“This is a positive as total sales are rising with less cash buyers as a part of the market place…Less cash means more traditional buyers in the system, which means the supply and demand balance is more correlated to Main Street economics,” Mohtashami said. “(This year) is trending between 24%-27% which is still very high, but this is the first time it’s under 30% in every report.”

Of course, the shrinking number of cash buyers doesn’t mean prices are going down. In Manhattan, for example, the average sales price for an apartment just hit a record high — $1.87 million. And it’s not just New York. Home prices in Dallas, Denver, and San Francisco are positively bubble-icious, rising about 10% last year, soaring past pre-recession levels.

But with more first-time homebuyers and fewer inventory, at least the dynamics of home buying might change a bit.

“The competition in the market place is … different,” said Craig King, COO at Chase International brokerage, covering the Lake Tahoe and Reno, Nevada, markets. “While inventory is tight many investors have dropped out of the market and cash deals are not as prevalent as they were. Even in multi-offer situations much has been equalized. This is great news for first-time buyers.“

If you’re looking to buy a home this year, make sure you know how much home you can afford (here’s a calculator that can help). And be sure to check your credit, since improving your credit scores can save you thousands of dollars in interest over the life of your mortgage.

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MONEY buying a home

Should You Ever Pay Cash for a Home?

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Consider what paying in cash will do to your savings — emergency, retirement and otherwise — in the short term.

While some of us may be struggling just to afford a down payment, there are people out there who are paying for their homes in full in cash. Finding a great property and forgoing all the bank paperwork and loan repayments may seem like a dream, but it can, in fact, be a mixed blessing. So, if you are looking to buy a home and could afford to pay all cash for it, should you?

Running the Numbers

A great place to start in this process is figuring out how much money you would save buying a home in an all-cash payout versus with time-based loan payments. Compare the sticker price to the eventual price tag of your home if paid for with a 15- or 30-year fixed mortgage with a down payment of around 20%. You will save money on interest, but it’s a good idea to factor in the loss of the mortgage interest deduction when it comes to tax time. Also, consider what paying in cash will do to your savings — emergency, retirement and otherwise — in the short term.

Pros

If you truly have the money available immediately and it won’t put you in jeopardy of going into debt if an emergency were to come up, you will most likely save money by not paying interest on a loan. You will also avoid all of the paperwork that comes with securing a loan, pesky closing costs and the often-frustrating loan process.

Your credit history also will not come into play, which may be beneficial if you have a shaky credit past or have run into trouble before while still having considerable savings. You will also have available equity in your home that you could likely tap in case you hit tough financial times. Furthermore, you can only lose the amount of money you have put in because you are not leveraged, meaning you do not need to get as concerned about market fluctuations.

Another benefit is mostly psychological — you actually own your house, giving you a sense of security and pride. Probably most importantly, you are a very attractive buyer to motivated sellers, giving you an edge over other buyers. The deal will be simpler and faster for both sides and buying in cash may even put you in a position you to get a better deal. After all, time is money.

Cons

Paying cash for your home likely means most of your savings or at least a lot of your money will be tied in one asset, leaving less money to invest in other, diversified assets. Also, real estate has a historically lower return on investment than stocks or bonds, meaning you could be losing out overall if other investments would have outperformed the interest on a mortgage.

Additionally, you are sacrificing liquidity, so it’s probably only a good idea to buy a house with cash only if you can afford it without emptying your emergency fund. A home can take months to sell, and borrowing against your home’s equity brings fees and borrowing limits into the equation. You further lose the financial leverage a mortgage provides because your payment is locked in and hopefully received a favorable interest rate. Lastly, you will not qualify for the tax deductions mortgage payers receive, which often total over $10,000 when itemized.

How you pay for your home is a very personal decision and paying in all cash will likely work for some people but not for others. This generally makes sense if the home’s price does not subtract a significant portion of your liquid assets and/or the interest rate you would pay on a mortgage is higher than what you could earn on other investments. It’s important to properly assess your financial situation and long-term investment strategies, the drawbacks as well as the benefits.

Read next: How Much Rent Can You Afford?

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The Layperson’s List of Mortgage Application Junk Fees

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You should challenge fees that make no sense.

From time to time we bring you posts from our partners that may not be new but contain advice that bears repeating. Look for these classics on the weekends.

Thanks to two home purchases and refinancing my mortgage five times, I’ve become very familiar with that eternal home loan enigma known as the mortgage junk fee. As a result, I always challenge the more questionable junk fees — and you should too.

So what is a junk fee? Well, it refers to dubious lender or broker fees designed purely for increasing their profits. Yes, some fees are legitimate; after all, lenders and brokers have to make their money too, but in many cases junk fees are 100% profit.

So how can the layman know whether or not the fees listed on the itemization statement are legitimate? Well, here are three tips — and a junk fee glossary — that should keep you from overpaying at closing time:

1. Comparison Shop

The best way to fight excessive junk fees is to comparison shop your loan and make sure that you try to negotiate each one down to, at the very least, the lowest price you receive.

2. Challenge Questionable Fees As Early As Possible

It’s important to understand that the time to challenge these fees is not when you’re at the settlement table signing papers. Instead, do it after you’ve got several estimates in hand from which you can compare fees.

3. Understand What You’re Being Charged For

It’s a cliche, but it’s true nevertheless: knowledge is power. So here’s a junk fee glossary that will shine a light on some of the more common charges:

Where applicable, at the end of each description I’ve included the percentage of institutions charging each of these junk fees based upon a survey conducted by Bankrate.com; the lower the number, the more negotiating leverage you should have to get the fee removed or lowered.

Administration. A pure junk fee that’s supposedly used to cover the cost of managing the loan during the closing process; it’s outrageous and ripe for negotiation. (14%)

Application Fee. This fee is shameful. No lender that wants your business should ever charge this fee. Imagine paying money to simply fill out the application to buy a service. This is equivalent to a hamburger stand charging you money to place your order for a cheeseburger. (18%)

Appraisal Fee. Lenders need to know the value of your home. But in times of rising home prices this is usually unnecessary if you refinanced or bought your home within the previous year. (83%)

Closing Costs / Settlement Fees. These fees cover services that must be performed to process and close your loan application such as title fees, recording fees, appraisal fees, credit report fees, pest inspection, attorney’s fees, taxes, and surveying fees. Watch for double-dipping with other junk fees. (93%)

Commitment Fee. This odd fee is supposedly the cost of processing the loan terms-and-conditions paperwork. Completely bogus. (2%)

Credit Report. This is exactly what it says. Credit reports are extremely cheap; they’re generally free to individuals at least once per year. While they aren’t necessarily free to the lenders, it is highly doubtful they are paying even $100 for it. This is usually a big profit maker for the lender. (81%)

Document Prep. This is a classic junk fee that nobody should ever pay. The process of preparing paperwork is an inherent part of the lender’s job. This is tantamount to a burger joint tacking on an additional Burger Preparation fee on top of their advertised menu price. (34%)

Discount Points. This fee is used to buy down the interest rate. (47%)

Express Mail Fee. Again, another junk fee that should be inherent to the lender’s job. This is also sometimes listed as a Postage or Courier Fee. Despite the high number shown in the bank rate survey, I’ve successfully got this charge removed all but one time. Don’t feel bad for the lender — they aren’t losing any money here. (81%)

Fee. That’s right. “Fee.” If you see this garbage charge, immediately call your lender to get a detailed explanation of this. As she stammers and stutters, be ready to pounce on any instances of double dipping that crop up.

Flood Check/Certification Fee. In order to comply with federal regulations and secondary mortgage requirements, lenders are required to obtain a certification from a surveyor indicating whether the property is within a flood hazard area. (95%)

Funding Fee. This is similar to a wire transfer fee, so watch for double-dipping. (14%)

Lender Fee. These fees are borne by the lender during the closing process and may include attorney fees, application fees, recording fees, courier fees, etc. If this number appears excessive to you, ask for a detailed breakdown of all costs involved with this fee. Then after you get the breakdown, make sure the lender is not double-dipping by charging you a Lender Fee and a Courier Fee. Due diligence on your part usually makes this one of the more negotiable fees. (46%)

Origination Fee. This is a payment associated with the establishment of an account with the lender.

Processing Fee. This fee is fairly common and covers the cost of processing the loan. (45%)

Reconveyance Verification Fee. A fee — if not an outright scam — charged to have someone verify that the bank holding the seller’s loan actually reconveys the title, or clears the loan. Pure poppycock.

Tax Service Fee. This is a fee to cover a third party the lender hires to monitor and/or pay the property tax bills. (82%)

Title Fees. These fees may include escrow fees, document prep fees, messenger service fees and recording fees for recording the title onto the deed. Watch for double-dipping here. (29%)

Title Insurance. This fee covers the costs of assuring the lender that you own the home and the lender’s mortgage is a valid lien. It also protects the owner in the event someone challenges ownership of the home. (83%)

Underwriting Fee. A lender charges mortgage underwriting fees to cover the cost of evaluating your total loan application package, including your ability to pay the loan back. This should include your credit report, employment history, financial documents and appraisal. Again, watch for double-dipping; there should be no credit report fee if there is also an underwriting fee. If you’re working with a broker, he shouldn’t be charging you for a separate underwriting fee, as this is handled solely by the lender. (40%)

VA Funding Fee. This is required by law and is intended to enable veterans who obtains a VA home loan to contribute toward the cost of this benefit, thereby reducing the cost to taxpayers. It is usually in the vicinity of 2% – 3% of the loan. If you aren’t getting a VA loan, then you shouldn’t be charged this fee.

Warehouse Fee. A lender will tell you this is his cost of temporarily holding the loan before it’s sold on the secondary mortgage market. Utter garbage.

Wire Transfer Fee. This fee covers the cost of transmitting cash via the inter-bank wire transfer system to you, your prior lender or the company closing the loan. Similar to the Funding Fee, so watch for double dipping. (50%)

Remember, federal law prohibits lenders from charging fees for nonexistent goods or services, as well as markups of settlement expenses when no additional services are rendered. But the good faith estimates that the lenders hand out have very minimal legal backing, so in the end it is up to you to make sure that you are not being taken for a ride at closing time. Knowing the make-up of your junk fees is a great place to start.

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MONEY

How We Paid Off Our Mortgage in 7 Years

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Andrea Stewart and Jerimiah Honer bought their house on a 0.10-acre lot in Sacramento for nearly $300,000 in 2008.

The idea behind paying off a loan faster than scheduled is pretty simple: It saves you money. That’s a huge part of the reason Andrea Stewart and Jerimiah Honer decided to repay their 30-year mortgage in just seven years — by doing so, they saved more than $130,000 in interest. Now the couple has an opportunity to achieve other goals, like invest beyond their property and existing retirement funds, travel and maybe do a little shopping. The frugal pair hasn’t done a lot of that in the last several years.

Stewart, 32, and Honer, 36, worked hard to save money as they tried to accelerate their loan repayment, but they acknowledge they also had a lot of luck. Paying off debt is a different journey for everyone, but here’s how they quickly achieved their dream of owning their own home.

The Details

Stewart and Honer bought their house on a 0.10-acre lot in Sacramento for nearly $300,000 in 2008. Their combined annual income from their full-time jobs amounts to roughly $150,000, but they received supplemental income from a variety of sources along the way to repaying the mortgage. They made a 10% down payment and received a 30-year mortgage with a 6.75% interest rate, but they refinanced twice, to 5.25% and then to 3.875%. Honer calculated their estimated savings of $130,000 using the lowest rate. The couple had some student loan debt when they took out the mortgage, but by paying an additional $200 a month toward their education debt, those loans were paid off by the end of their first year in the house.

That’s when they switched their attention to the mortgage.

How They Paid Off a 30-Year Mortgage in 7 Years

The property itself had a huge impact on the couple’s ability to put a lot of money toward their home loan. The house is close to downtown Sacramento, allowing them to easily commute by bicycle and sell their second car. Honer and Stewart also grow most of their own food.

“It’s actually easier to go into your backyard and pick things than go to the grocery store,” Honer said. “We like the organic element as well as it’s a huge bill cut.”

Not only did they save a lot on gas, vehicle expenses and grocery bills, they also budgeted as if they made less money in the first place. Honer crunched the numbers, and even though both he and Stewart have full-time jobs, they figured out they could manage under one income. The second income went toward the mortgage, and Honer made his own amortization schedule to determine how much they could afford to pay (and eventually save).

Much of their success stems from their mindset toward money.

“I think we were always frugal to begin with — we’re both savers,” Stewart said. “One of the things we asked ourselves when we made a purchase was, ‘Is this really going to make us happy?’ … We try to have experiences like traveling and things like that, yeah, but I don’t think [we like] a lot of stuff.”

Or, as Honer puts it: “We don’t know how to spend money anymore. We kind of forgot.” He also said that they’re not “big credit people,” and even though a mortgage is a helpful credit instrument, it was important to them to be out of debt as soon as possible.

Tips for Paying Off Debt Fast

For anyone interested in trying to replicate their success, there are a few things to know. First, they paid off their other debt obligations (student loans). In addition to cutting out expenses and keeping to a strict budget, Honer and Stewart received some money besides their regular income, which they put toward the loan. The two are aspiring writers and made some money from side gigs, but they also received personal-injury settlements from two separate times a car hit one of them while riding a bicycle. Getting hit by a car isn’t exactly good fortune, but the settlements amounted to $37,000, which helped cut down the debt. Inspired by a friend’s successful pregnancy through egg donation, Stewart twice donated eggs and received about $6,000 each time.

Their story is a combination of hard work, a solid financial situation and luck, but a lot of their success comes down to decision-making: They could have done a lot with their regular income and the additional money they came into, but they chose to put it toward a specific goal. That means their home cost them thousands of dollars less than it could have if they paid for it on schedule.

There’s not much they would have done differently, though they admit they could have saved more, rather than just pay off the home loan and contribute to their retirement accounts. Honer and Stewart don’t see themselves changing their spending habits now that this huge loan is behind them, and they plan to stay in the home for a long time. Now they’re interested in exploring other investments and maybe even retiring early some day.

“I hope it helps some people,” Stewart said of her decision to share their story. She posted about it on Reddit, where it generated a lot of conversation. Her advice? “I would say just think about what makes you happy.” That’s what drove their decisions, and it kept them on track for years.

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MONEY Debt

What Happens to My Debt If I Get a Divorce?

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Just like your marital assets, debt gets divvied up too.

While you might have known that marital assets are separated during divorce, did you know that debts are as well? Yes, debt, just like any other possession, has to be divvied up and re-distributed during divorce. Unfortunately, this can make an already difficult process even more stressful. However, understanding how your debts might be split before entering your proceedings could help you better plan for your new life and give you peace of mind. Here is an easy-to-understand breakdown of what happens to your debt during a divorce.

Credit Card Debt

The responsibility of credit card debt during divorce tends to be decided by whether or not the credit card was under a joint or single account. While the rules on joint accounts vary from state to state, most cases consider marital debt to be any debt accumulated during the partnership, regardless of whose name appears on the account. This means you’ll most likely be considered partially responsible for debt on the account, whether or not you were the one to make the payment. Separate accounts, however, are just that — separate. Whomever’s name appears on the account will, more often than not, be awarded full responsibility.

Mortgage

Here’s where things get a little complicated. The division of a mortgage isn’t as straightforward as credit card debt during divorce. Because a mortgage is typically such a monumental expense, most states offer a variety of options for dealing with the situation. Ownership of the mortgage will typically be awarded to someone who makes significantly more than their former spouse or has been awarded full custody of the former couple’s children. In either of these situations, one party will be required to buy out the other’s equity in the house. Of course, the couple can decide to bypass all of these decisions and simply sell the home if they so choose.

Medical Expenses

Depending upon where you live, your state might have a different view on whether or not you and your former spouse share medical debts. “Community Property” states (Arizona, California, Idaho, Louisiana, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas, Washington and Wisconsin) all debt will typically be divided amongst all parties. While this might greatly simplify the process, it leaves you open to taking on debt that you had no part in acquiring. In “equal division property” states however, the court will take a variety of factors into consideration when determining the responsibility of medical debt. This will usually include whether or not you and your spouse were living together at the time the debt was acquired, whether or not you were legally separated at the time, whether or not the debt falls under the umbrella of “necessary care,” and what impact that debt might have on any children you and your former spouse might have had.

While divorce is far from an easy process, knowing how it might affect your financial situation can really help you reduce the stress and handle other expenses it brings. Take the time to sit down and look through all your financial documents: bills, credit statements, loan papers, etc. Pull your free annual credit reports to see what accounts are reported in your name, and periodically revisit them to watch for important changes. Creating a financial snapshot can help your and your attorneys determine the best course of action for you and your family.

Read next: Can a Debt Collector Come After Me If I Never Got a Bill?

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The Right — and Dangerously Wrong — Ways to Pay Off Your Mortgage Early

Beware mortgage accelerators.

You probably don’t need a pricey service to pay down your mortgage more quickly.

There are many great reasons for wanting to pay off your mortgage fast — not in the least part because it can save you a lot of money in interest payments.

Although mortgage accelerators may be a tempting way to speedily pay down your loan, it’s worth being cautious. They just might be too good to be true.

How do mortgage accelerators work?

There are primarily two types of mortgage accelerator products, and they’re both designed to help you budget your finances.

One type of mortgage accelerator product asks borrowers to send the accelerator company money, and this company will in turn send biweekly checks to your mortgage lender. This product has an initiation fee of about $300, as well as a monthly fee of about $5. Biweekly payments can help you pay down your mortgage more quickly — but this isn’t something you can’t do yourself (without fees of about $2,000 over a 30-year period).

A second mortgage accelerator deposits your paycheck into an account that acts like a line of credit. As you pay your bills, you draw against this balance. Whatever’s left at the end of the month is then used to pay down your mortgage.

Here’s the rub: Some of these accelerator products have high upfront costs for the software that’s used to manage your monthly cash flow. And while you do have to pay interest against this line of credit whenever you draw against it, if you use this money to pay down your mortgage, you could ultimately end up paying a higher interest rate than the interest rate on your mortgage itself.

Rather than paying for a service to help you budget or borrowing from one loan to pay another, you can achieve the same goals with the help of easier budgeting tricks. You can simply set up a system on your own that eliminates any fees or interest you’d pay using a mortgage accelerator product.

Round up payments

By increasing monthly payments to the next $100, $500, or some other amount you choose, you can shave years off your mortgage payments. This money essentially prepays your mortgage and lowers your balance so that you owe less overall.

Make an extra payment

One extra payment a year can make a big difference. There are a few ways to approach this plan. Making half a mortgage payment every two weeks (instead of a full mortgage payment every month) will result in an extra payment — you’re making 26 payments a year with this plan. Another way to accomplish this is to calculate a new payment by multiplying your monthly payment by 13 and dividing by 12.

Refinance

If you can afford a much higher payment, refinancing your 30-year loan into a shorter 15-year or 20-year loan will not only shorten your mortgage term but also lower your interest rate. Consider your financial situation and job security before making the leap — higher payments could become a burden in the event of unemployment.

Make a lump-sum payment

When you have a nominal balance with no interest to deduct, a lump-sum payment could eliminate this debt. This strategy makes sense only if you have the cash readily available and aren’t planning on using money pulled from retirement plans, since there could be taxes and fees associated with anything you withdraw.

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MONEY buying a home

Our Dream House Was a Money Pit

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Here's how we dug ourselves out of a financial mess.

Once upon a time purchasing a home landed at the very top of my bucket list.

At 25 years old it felt like the next logical step in growing up—a move that would inch my wife, Jessica, and me closer to the American dream.

From the outside it appeared we were ready for it. We’d built up our emergency fund, paid off our car loans, and started setting aside cash for a down payment. We did everything by the book.

Well, not everything.

When it came time to pull the trigger on our new home, we completely maxed out our budget—effectively signing ourselves up for months of financial strain, emotional stress and major regret.

Landing Our Dream Home—$50K Over Budget

In 2009 Jessica and I were living in the Dallas–Forth Worth area. At 23 and 24 years old, respectively, we were doing great.

I was a firefighter/paramedic, and Jessica was studying photography at the University of North Texas while working as a preschool teacher. Together, we pulled in $75,000—and had zero debt, no kids, and about $25,000 saved up between our emergency fund and retirement accounts.

We were renting a one-bedroom apartment for $750 a month, but loved the idea of putting down roots and moving into a home where we could eventually raise a family.

So, with giddy excitement, we began house hunting for properties in the $150,000 to $170,000 range—a number we settled on after plugging our finances into an online mortgage calculator.

We also decided to look into an FHA loan for first-time homebuyers, which would only require us to make a 3% down payment. I knew 20% was the rule of thumb, but it just wasn’t really something I saw other first-time buyers my age doing. Plus, putting down 3% would preserve some of our savings, and I liked having a reliable cushion to cover us in emergencies.

Two months into our search, we noticed a “for sale” sign on a stunning house just a few doors down from a home we’d just viewed. When our realtor offered to give us a peek on the spot, it was love at first sight.

The house was enchanting: It was just a few years old, with four full bedrooms, 2,400 square feet, and a lush backyard. We couldn’t find anything wrong with it, until we heard the price—$206,000.

We knew it was well over our budget, but couldn’t bear the thought of letting it go. Plus, we’d been pre-approved for a $200,000 loan, which felt like permission to purchase a home of that size.

In hindsight, I know this was a terribly risky move, but at the time I didn’t know any better. And none of our friends or family advised us against buying the home.

After the closing costs were said and done, the total came to around $207,000. We plunked down $7,000—and moved in August 2010.

Plenty of House, Not Enough Cash

Although we loved the home, we were instantly struck by our high expenses.

While our original $150,000–$170,000 price range would have put our housing costs at a manageable 30% of our total income, springing for a $200,000 loan shot that number up to just shy of 50%.

But we felt confident we could handle the expenses, since I was banking on a steady flow of raises from my employer. (Spoiler alert: They didn’t.)

We’d just have to tighten our belts to sustain our $2,000 housing bills, which included the mortgage, insurance, taxes and utility bills.

That meant some serious lifestyle changes, like declining after-work drinks with friends and passing on the dinner date nights we loved. We couldn’t even afford to fully furnish and decorate the place—inviting friends over to an empty house was really tough on my pride.

Even worse, our new bills put an end to the $250 savings contribution we used to make every month. And forget about retirement—our nest eggs were put on hold entirely after moving into the house.

In a matter of months, we had gone from feeling financially flush to pinching every penny—a change that put unnecessary stress on our marriage. More and more we found ourselves nitpicking and bickering with each other.

Over the next nine months, as Jessica and I had many conversations about our decision, it became more apparent that we were being seriously weighed down by the house. We felt stuck, and began to wonder: Had we made a huge mistake?

About a year and a half after moving in, we made the drastic decision to put the house on the market in August 2012. There was no straw that broke the camel’s back—you can only go so long living paycheck to paycheck before you realize that something’s got to give.

While waiting for it to sell, we did everything we could to start saving again. We had a feeling we might take a loss on the house, and wanted to lessen the sting. So we began selling our belongings—our boat, TV, cars—and socked away the profits.

Jessica and I also explored ways of bringing in additional money on the side. She picked up freelance photography work, while I began building websites. All in all, we were able to shore up an additional $15,000.

We finally sold the house at the beginning of 2013, taking a $10,000 loss. While the hit didn’t feel good, the sale took a massive weight off our shoulders.

Our New Life: House Poor, Cash Rich

Armed with about $30,000 in savings and two travel backpacks, Jessica and I did something even crazier after giving up our homeowner status: We left our jobs—and decided to travel the world.

For two years we went all over Europe and South Asia, mastering the art of budget travel. We picked up odd jobs teaching English, painting houses—and even herding sheep! I also continued to do some web development work, and invested in a few blue-chip stocks.

By the time we returned to Texas in the fall of 2014, we had about $100,000 to our names—and were ready for a fresh start.

Jessica is still doing freelance photography work, as well as running a few photography workshops. And I continue to take on web development projects.

But, in a strange twist of fate, I also decided to break into the real estate industry. A few months ago, I earned my realtor’s license and was recently hired at a national agency. I’m looking forward to helping guide other first-time buyers to find a great house—in their budget.

Although we’re certainly not in any hurry to buy another home, if we ever do I’ll definitely be taking my own advice: Buy only what you can afford.

As you might imagine, living out of a backpack for two years really changes your priorities when it comes to material possessions. Having financial security and a better quality of life now means much more to us than a fancy house.

In the end, our version of the American dream has turned out to be different from most. But I’m happy that it’s ours.

(as told to Marianne Hayes)

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The $265 Billion Bill That’s Coming Due for Homeowners

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Brace yourself.

Millions of consumers will have to absorb a major hit to their household budget in the coming months. About $265 billion in home equity lines of credit (HELOCs) will enter the repayment period in the next few years, according to a study from Experian, and consumers may see their monthly payments spike — in some cases, triple or quadruple what they previously paid.

HELOC originations soared from 2005 up until the start of the housing crisis, and because many HELOCs enter the repayment phase after 10 years, these billions of dollars in outstanding credit balances are just now coming due. This wave of HELOC resets is expected to significantly stress borrowers’ finances and the lending industry.

“This analysis is critical as we want to not only help lenders prepare and understand the payment stress of their borrowers, but also give consumers an opportunity to understand what the impact may be to their financial status and how to be better prepared for it,” said Michele Raneri, Experian’s vice president of analytics and business development, in a statement about the study.

HELOCs are generally divided into two periods: draw and repayment. During the draw period, consumers can use the line of credit while making minimum, interest-only payments. Once the HELOC resets, consumers can no longer borrow from that line of credit, and they must restore the equity they haven’t yet repaid.

“Instead of using it like a line of credit, borrowing and then repaying the loan to restore the home equity that had been tapped into, most people simply took the maximum amount in cash and never tried to pay down the outstanding amount for the entire 10-year period,” said Charles Phelan, a debt-relief consultant who specializes in HELOC negotiation, in an email. He contributes content on the topic to Credit.com. “In effect, most existing HELOCs are therefore like a huge credit card debt that has been at the maximum limit for years, with only interest expense being paid each month to keep the balance the same and not reduce it.”

How much your payment increases depends on many things, like the interest rate and the length of the repayment period — a shorter repayment period generally translates into a larger increase in payment. Some HELOCs have no repayment period and require a lump-sum repayment when the draw period ends.

The HELOCs that are coming due were opened in very different economic times, under the impression that home values would continue to rise. Because that didn’t happen, borrowers may not be prepared to handle this significant change to their finances.

“A lucky few will be able to absorb the new high monthly payment without defaulting and thereby risking foreclosure, and some will have sufficient equity to obtain a traditional refinance to a new single mortgage,” Phelan wrote. “For a majority of homeowners with HELOCs, however, options are limited due to real estate prices having dropped to the point where the most HELOCs are not covered by equity. This blocks people from refinancing to a single new mortgage at a more reasonable payment level.”

Even if refinancing is an option, it requires the borrower to have great credit. Phelan said borrowers without the ability to refinance can look into government loan-modification programs, Chapter 13 bankruptcy or settling the second lien, but he expects HELOC defaults to skyrocket. No matter how you plan to address your HELOC reset, it’s crucial to have a grasp on your credit standing so you can better research your options for managing repayment and how those options will impact your credit. One way to get your credit scores for free is through Credit.com, where you’ll also get suggestions to help you improve your credit.

“With more than 10 million of these contracts having been issued during 2005-2008, a tsunami of defaults is likely and will be a downward drag on America’s housing recovery for years to come,” Phelan wrote.

If you took out a HELOC between 2005 and 2008 and you’re not sure what you’ll be facing when the HELOC resets, it’s time to look at your agreement and understand what you’re dealing with. Simply by calling your lender, you can get a handle on the situation and prepare to absorb this shock to your finances.

More from Credit.com:

MONEY homeownership

How Big Should Your Home Down Payment Be?

Getty Images/Michael Krinke

20% isn't always the magic number.

When buying a home, most people take on a mortgage. There are many things to consider when taking on a mortgage loan, including interest rate, closing costs and the down payment. Once you calculate how much house you can realistically afford, you can start looking at properties and considering how you will afford the house.

There are several ways to fund what will likely be the biggest purchase of your life. Before you start signing with lenders and sellers, it’s a good idea to consider how much down payment you should be making and how that will affect you both immediately and in the long run.

The Basics

In case you are really new to this, a down payment is the chunk of cash you pay upfront when buying a home. This money shows the lender that you are capable of saving and are so serious about this investment that you are willing to put that savings toward making the home yours.

The Magic Number

You may hear that the typical down payment amount is around 20% of the total property value. While some people (like veterans) can qualify for homebuying assistance, most people will have to put 20% down to secure their mortgage without paying private mortgage insurance or taking out a second loan. When you are thinking about what type of house you want and what exactly you can afford, it’s important to keep in mind you will likely want to have 20% of the property’s value in savings dedicated for just this purpose before purchasing a home.

Paying More

If you have more than 20% of the home price socked away in savings, there are some reasons for using it as a down payment. The more you put down, the better position you are in for negotiating a lower interest rate with your lender. You will also have to borrow less if you put more down, meaning you will pay less in interest payments over the life of your mortgage.

Before you jump into this option though, it’s a good idea to be sure you can comfortably afford this house without putting your regular costs at risk, consider what other debts you may have and whether you think the savings could do more for you if used elsewhere. For example, it’s important to maintain an emergency fund so that you have cash set aside if (and when) the unexpected happens.

Paying Less

While the financial crisis left many homeowners defaulting on their little-to-no-money-down mortgages, the tide has turned again, and now the minimum amount needed for a mortgage is only 3.5% (there are some zero-down mortgage programs, but certain restrictions apply). In order to pay less than the normal 20%, you have several options.

You can secure a second loan to make up the difference between what you can afford and the 20% mark. You can also take out private mortgage insurance (PMI) to give your lender peace of mind. In case you get into trouble making payments down the line, this policy would pay the lender. You can check if you qualify for a loan backed by the Federal Housing Administration (FHA). You can also look for state and region-specific down payment assistant opportunities through your local government. If you are buying a house with less than the typical down payment needed, it’s important to know that you are taking on more risk.

Before you apply for a home loan, it’s important to know where your credit score stands. The difference of just a few credit score points can mean better interest rates and a major savings over the life of your loan. You can get two of your credit scores for free on Credit.com, updated every month.

Your down payment amount makes a big difference both now and down the road, but it’s a good idea to leave yourself enough money to afford your next few monthly payments as well as closing costs and other immediate expenses the house may incur. Remember, this is just the beginning.

More From Credit.com

MONEY Debt

Millennials Aren’t Buying Homes, but Not for the Reason You Think

couple looking at house
Troels Graugaard—Getty Images

As student debt has exploded, young consumers are taking out fewer mortgages and auto loans. But are student loans really to blame?

There’s a familiar narrative that the burden of student loans is forcing young borrowers out of the auto and housing markets, crippling their ability to take the same financial steps into adulthood as previous generations.

Think again. A new study from TransUnion says that fears about how much student loan obligations are hindering young borrowers are overblown.

The study looked at consumers aged 18 to 29 who had student loans alongside those who did not, grouped by age and credit score, then tracked their performance on other types of loans in the two years after they started paying off their student debt.

The bottom line: While student loans are way up since the end of the recession, the study found no evidence that such loans are causing young adults to stop opening credit cards, buying new cars, or applying for mortgages. Sure, today’s millennials are doing less of all three than 20- to 29-year-olds did a decade ago—but that’s true whether they’re paying off student loans or not.

According to TransUnion data, the percentage of consumers in their 20s with student debt has jumped from 32% in 2005 to 52% in 2014. The share of student loans in relation to other debt held by young consumers has skyrocketed, too, increasing from 12.9% to 36.8% over the past decade. At the same time, their share of mortgage debt dropped from 63.2% to 42.9%.

But current conventional wisdom about the ripple effect of student debt on other types of borrowing is correlation, not causation, says Charlie Wise, vice president of TransUnion’s Innovative Solutions Group and co-author of the study.

“What we’re trying to do here is cut through the hype and say, ‘what’s the reality?’” Wise says.

The study tracked groups entering repayment at three different times—2005, 2009, and 2012—in an attempt to determine whether performance differed before the recession, immediately following the recession, and more recently as the economy has recovered.

In 2005, a smaller percentage of consumers with student debt had auto loans or mortgages relative to their peers without student loans. But after two years the gap narrowed, and in the case of auto loans, disappeared.

A similar pattern exists for the 2009 and 2012 groups, suggesting that borrowing trends in which individuals with student debt catch up to their peers over a period of a few years have remained steady.

So if student loan debt isn’t causing mortgage and auto loan participation to drop, what is?

Wise points out that about 50% of people aged 18 to 29 have credit scores that qualify them as nonprime borrowers—a percentage that has also held steady since 2005. What has changed, he says, is lending standards, which became stricter in the aftermath of the recession.

The study also shows that young consumers with student debt actually performed slightly better on their new accounts than their peers without student loans.

For example, consumers who started repaying their student loans at the end of 2012 had a 60-day delinquency rate on new auto loans that was 15% lower by the end of 2014 than their peers without a student loan.

The report counters research from a year ago by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York that found home ownership rates dropped more quickly among people aged 27 to 30 who had student debts compared with those who didn’t.

But TransUnion’s findings don’t come entirely out of the blue. A recent Wall Street Journal analysis of data from LoanDepot.com found that loan applicants with student loans aren’t any more likely than those without debt to be turned down for first-time home loans.

And some economists, such as Beth Akers, a fellow at Brookings Institute’s Brown Center of Education Policy, have pointed out that lower participation in the housing market among individuals with student debt is within the historical norm.

Akers says TransUnion’s report that student debt isn’t dooming young borrowers isn’t particularly surprising. “Given the fact that financial returns on investment for higher education are positive and large, the notion that debt is harmful to students is a little puzzling,” she says.

Getting clear answers to the question of how debt affects individuals is challenging, though.

Akers points out that you can’t randomly assign debt to people, and since there are significant differences between the backgrounds and demographics of households with student debt and those without, you can’t expect their behaviors around buying homes or cars to be the same.

Student loan debt may not be overburdening young consumers on a macroeconomic level, she says, but what’s still unknown is the emotional and social cost of carrying such debt.

TransUnion’s Wise describes the study’s findings as encouraging news. For soon-to-be college graduates, there’s evidence that they can stay above water with their loans, and for lenders, there are “credit hungry” millennials who are able to keep up with payments.

Wise’s major takeaway for both groups: don’t despair.

 

More on Managing Student Debt:

The 25 Most Affordable Colleges from MONEY’s Best Colleges
Why You Might Want to Take Student Loans Before Using Up College Savings
8 Ways to Stop Student Loans From Ruining Your Life

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