With patience, you can pay off large amounts of debt and improve your credit. MONEY wants to hear how you're doing it.
Have you gotten rid of a big IOU on your balance sheet, or at least made significant progress toward that end? MONEY wants to hear your digging-out-of-debt stories, to share with and inspire our readers who might be in similar situations.
Use the confidential form below to tell us about it. What kind of debt did you have, and how much? How did you erase it—or what are you currently doing? What advice do you have for other people in your situation? We’re interested in stories about all kinds of debt, from student loans to credit cards to car loans to mortgages.
Read the first story in our series, about a Marine and mother of three who paid off more than $158,169 in debt:
My kids have been understanding. Now I teach them about needs and wants. The other day, I was coming home from work, and I said, “Do you need anything from the store?” My son said, “We don’t need anything, but we’d like some candy.” If they want a video game, they know they need to save their money to get that video game—and that means there’s something else they won’t be able to get. They understand if you have a big house, that means you have to pay big electricity and water bills. I’m teaching them to live within their means and not just get, get, get to try to impress people.
Do you have a story about conquering debt? Share it with us. Please also let us know where you’re from, what you do for a living, and how old you are. We won’t use your story unless we speak with you first.
Banks are asking for a lot of documents these days, so don't assume the process will be speedy.
You’re scrolling the online listings, looking for houses, when — boom — the love of your real estate life pops out from the page. You’ve found the perfect home, with the best imaginable location, layout, size, finishes, and price. You’re ready to buy.
Just one problem: You haven’t started looking for a loan yet. And the seller will only accept offers from pre-approved buyers. Unfortunately, you won’t be able to make that happen by tomorrow.
Getting a loan, even a pre-approval, doesn’t happen overnight. There are key hoops you must jump through. How long should a borrower expect each step to take? And why must you start before you begin your hunt, especially in a competitive market? Let’s take a look.
Step 1: Comparison shopping for loans.
It’s unlikely you would buy a car, piece of furniture, or appliance without shopping around. You definitely shouldn’t take on a 30-year loan without some serious research.
Search for mortgage providers online, and visit a local bank or credit union. Schedule a meeting with a mortgage loan officer, who will pull your credit (more on that below) and give you a reasonable estimate of the interest rate, closing costs and terms you can expect. Then expand your search to other financial institutions, including community banks or other credit unions, or continue looking online, and compare the terms you’re offered from each bank.
Although each lender will look up your credit information, you don’t need to worry every inquiry will hurt your credit score. The Fair Isaac Corporation, or FICO, allows people to “rate-shop” for a mortgage without dinging their credit scores, as long as you do all of your shopping within a 14-day window. Abide by that timeline and the credit bureaus will regard that first credit pull as a “ding” but ignore the subsequent ones.
Helpful tip: When comparing lenders, pay attention to the annual percentage rate (APR), not just the interest rate. The APR covers the “total cost” of borrowing, including loan origination fees and other ancillary costs.
Total Time: 14 days.
Step 2: Get a pre-qualification letter.
Most buyers will require your pre-qualification letter before they’ll even consider your offer — but don’t worry, this step is quick and easy.
Ask any of the lenders with whom you spoke to during your mortgage shopping spree for a pre-qualification letter. These are relatively easy to get and simply give a rough, unverified estimate of the loan size you may qualify to receive. Most lenders will give you a pre-qualification based on your verbal self-reporting of your income, assets, debts, and down payment size.
Helpful tip: You don’t need to take out a loan from the same lender that gave you your pre-qualification letter.
Total Time: one to three days (overlapping with the timeframe for the first step)
Step 3: Get pre-approved.
The pre-approval stage is when lenders verify everything you’ve told them. You’ll need to supply identification documents such as your Social Security card, proof of income, assets, and employment, as well as records of any debts you hold. The lender will pull a credit report.
If you have a simple situation, such as stable employment with no debt, this process can be as short as one to two weeks. If you’re self-employed, own several other houses, have had a previous divorce or bankruptcy, have a pending court case or lawsuit against you, are in the U.S. on a temporary visa, or have other complicating factors, the loan officer may require additional documentation, which can extend the process several weeks or months.
Once you’re pre-approved, you’ll receive a conditional letter stating the exact amount of loan for which you’re approved.
Helpful tip: All else being equal, sellers often prefer to work with buyers who have pre-approval letters, rather than pre-qualification letters, particularly in a competitive market where homes get multiple bids.
Total Time: one week to several months
Step 4: Final loan approval.
Armed with your pre-approval letter, you make an offer on your dream home and it’s accepted. (Hooray!) Next, you’ll need the lender to conduct an appraisal.
In this instance, an appraisal is official verification that you’re buying the home at a reasonable market value. It protects the lender from the risk of loaning an unreasonable sum, such as $300,000 on a house that should be valued at $220,000.
Scheduling a time for a licensed appraiser to visit the property is frequently the longest part, and may take up to two weeks (depending on availability in your area, as well as the flexibility of the seller). Once the appraiser makes a home visit, the approval (or rejection) comes through within a day or two.
Time: three days to two or more weeks
The good news? Now that you’ve passed the appraisal process, you’re ready to close on this loan — and this house. Enjoy the moment, before you have to start packing.
A woman says a mortgage loan officer told her, "Moms often don’t return to work after the birth of their little ones."
Wells Fargo Home Mortgage agreed Thursday to pay $5 million to settle allegations that its home loan officers discriminated against pregnant women and women on maternity leave out of fear that the mothers would not return to work, potentially jeopardizing their ability to repay the loans.
Six families alleged that loan officers employed by Wells Fargo, the biggest provider of home loans, made discriminatory comments during the mortgage application process, made loans unavailable to them, and even forced mothers to end maternity leave early and return to work before finalizing the loans. One of the six complainants was a real estate agent who alleges he lost a commission due to discrimination against one of his clients.
Lindsay Doyal, one of the women who filed a complaint with the Department of Housing and Urban Development, says that she was denied a mortgage despite providing several letters from her employer confirming that she intended to go back to work, the Washington Post reports. Doyal says she received an e-mail from a Wells Fargo loan officer that said, “moms often don’t return to work after the birth of their little ones.”
Since 2010, HUD has received 90 maternity leave discrimination complaints, 40 of which have been settled, with a total of almost $1.5 million going to loan applicants. The families in the Wells Fargo case will receive a total of $165,000, and Wells Fargo will create a fund of up to $5 million for other affected mortgage applicants.
“The settlement is significant for the six families who had the courage to file complaints, and for countless other families who will no longer fear losing out on a home simply because they are expecting a baby,” HUD Secretary Julián Castro said in a statement. “I’m committed to leveling the playing field for all families when it comes to mortgage lending. These types of settlements get us closer to ensuring that no qualified family will be singled out for discrimination.”
Wells Fargo promised to enact new Temporary Leave Underwriting Guidelines and educate their loan officers.
“We resolved these claims to avoid a lengthy legal dispute so we can continue to serve the needs of our customers,” Wells Fargo said in a statement. “Our underwriting is consistent with longstanding fair and responsible lending practices and our policies do not require that applicants on temporary leave return to work before being approved. The agreement resolves claims related to only five loan applications from a period when Wells Fargo processed a total of approximately 3 million applications from female customers.”
More Americans could face a housing-related financial hardship in retirement, according to a new Harvard study.
America’s population is going to experience a dramatic shift during the next 15 years. More than 130 million Americans will be aged 50 or over, and the entire baby boomer generation will be in retirement age — making 20% of the country’s population older than 65. If recent trends continue, there will be a larger number of retirees renting and paying mortgages than ever before.
A recent study published by Harvard’s Joint Center for Housing Studies describes how this could lead an unprecedented number of America’s aging population to face a lower quality of life or even financial hardship. However, the same study also points out that there is time for many of those who could be affected to do something about it.
Housing debt and rent costs pose a big threat
According to the data Harvard researchers put together, homeowners tend to be in a much better financial position than renters. The majority of homeowners over 50 have retirement savings with a median value of $93,000, plus $10,000 in savings. More than three-quarters of renters, on the other hand, have no retirement and only $1,000 in savings on average.
While renters — who don’t have the benefit of home equity wealth — face the biggest challenges, a growing percentage of those 50 and older are carrying mortgage debt. Income levels tend to peak for most in their late 40s before declining in the 50s, and then comes retirement. The result? Housing costs consume a growing percentage of income as those over 50 get older and enter retirement.
How bad is it? Check out this table from the Harvard study:
More than 40% of those over 65 with a mortgage or rent payment are considered moderately or severely burdened, meaning that at least 30% of their income goes toward housing costs. The percentage drops below 15% when they own their home. If you pay rent or carry a mortgage into retirement, there’s a big chance it will take up a significant amount of your income. In 1992, it was estimated that just more than 60% of those between 50 and 64 had a mortgage, but by 2010, the number had jumped past 70%.
Even more concerning? The rate of those over 65 still paying a mortgage has almost doubled since 1992 to nearly 40%.
The impact of housing costs on retirees
The impact is felt most by those with the lowest incomes, and there is a clear relationship between high housing costs and hardship. Those who are 65 and older and are both in the lowest income quartile and moderately or severely burdened by housing costs spend up to 30% less on food than people in the same income bracket who do not have a housing-cost burden. Those who face a housing-cost burden also spend markedly less on healthcare, including preventative care.
In many cases, these burdens can become too much to bear, often leading retirees to live with a family member — if the option is available. While this is more common in some cultures, this isn’t an appealing option to most Americans, who generally view retirement as an opportunity to be independent. More than 70% of respondents in a recent AARP survey said they want to remain in their current residence as long as they can. Unfortunately, those who carry mortgage debt into retirement are more likely to have financial difficulties and limited choices, and they’re also more likely to have less money in retirement savings.
What to do?
Considering the data and the trends the Harvard study uncovered, more and more Americans could face a housing-related financial hardship in retirement. If you want to avoid that predicament, there are things you can do at any age.
- Refinance or no? Refinancing typically only makes sense if it will reduce the total amount you pay for your home. Saving $200 per month doesn’t do you any good if you end up paying $3,000 more over the term of the loan. However, if a lower interest rate means you’ll spend less money than you do on your current loan, refinance.
- Reverse mortgages. If you’re in retirement and have equity in your home, a reverse mortgage might make sense. There are a few different types based on whether you need financial support via monthly income, cash to pay for repairs or taxes on your home, or other needs. However, understand how a reverse mortgage works and what you are giving up before you choose this route. There are housing counseling agencies that can help you figure out the best options for your situation, and for some reverse mortgage programs you are required to meet with a counselor first. Check out the Federal Trade Commission’s website for more information.
All that said, avoiding financial hardship in retirement takes more than managing your mortgage. A big hedge is entering retirement with as much wealth as possible. Here are some ways to do that:
- Max out your employee match. If your employer offers a match to retirement account contributions, make sure you’re getting all of it. Even if you’re only a few years from retiring, this is free money; don’t leave it on the table. Furthermore, your 401(k) contributions reduce your taxable income, meaning it will actually hit your paycheck by a smaller amount than your contribution.
- Catching up. The IRS allows those over age 50 to contribute an extra $1,000 per year to personal IRAs, putting their total contribution limit at $6,500. And contributions to traditional IRAs can reduce your taxable income, just like 401(k) contributions. There are some limitations, so check with your tax pro to see how it affects your situation. Also, while contributions to a Roth IRA aren’t tax-deductible, distributions in retirement are tax-free.
- Financial assistance and property tax breaks. Whether you’re a homeowner or a renter, there are assistance programs that can help bridge the housing-cost gap. Both state and federal government programs exist, but nobody is going to knock on your door and tell you about them. A good place to start is to contact your local housing authority. The available assistance can also include property tax credits, exemptions, and deferrals. Check with your local tax commissioner to find out what is available in your area.
Stop putting it off
If you’re already in this situation, or know someone who is, then you know the emotional and financial strain it causes. If you’re afraid you might be on the path to be in those straits, then it’s up to you to take steps to change course.
It doesn’t matter whether you’re a few months from 65 or a few months into your first job: Doing nothing gets you nowhere and wastes invaluable time that you can’t get back.
The former Fed chair revealed that he was recently turned down in an attempt to refinance his mortgage.
The former Fed chairman isn't the only one having trouble taking advantage of rock-bottom interest rates these days.
Yesterday former Federal Reserve Board chief Ben Bernanke drew a lot of you-gotta-be-kidding-me news coverage when he confessed, during a conference panel, that he was recently turned down for a mortgage refinancing.
His point: Maybe bank’s lending standards are a bit too tough these days. Despite very low interest rates and the accommodative Federal Reserve policy he engineered, it’s still not easy for many people to get a mortgage.
The New York Times has a reasonable-sounding theory for why Bernanke, a guy who definitely should be able to make his payments, might have run into trouble. He’s changed jobs recently, which the automated software banks increasingly rely on tends not to like. And these days banks, under close scrutiny from regulators, are less willing to bend when the computer models say no.
Nevermind former super-powered central bankers with million-dollar book deals. What’s it really like out there for everyday home owners and would-be buyers?
“For a lot of borrowers, rock-bottom interest rates are an attractive nuisance—they can’t get through all the hurdles to get them,” says Keith Gumbinger of HSH.com, which tracks data on mortgages. Access to the most affordable mortgages, says Gumbinger, currently starts at a relatively high credit score of 740. In the loosest environment, back when the bubble was blowing up, that number was 680.
According to the Mortgage Credit Availability Index, published by the Mortgage Bankers Association trade group, lending standards have been steadily easing over the past couple years. The index, which gets higher as loans become easier to get, stands at about 116, compared to 100 in 2012. But the MBA also says the index would have stood at above 800 had it been calculated back in 2006. So we are a long way from the old, easy standards.
Gumbinger says today’s standards should be seen in a longer historical perspective. Though they are much tighter than they were during the boom, they aren’t so different from standards seen in the 1980s and mid-1990s.
And people can get loans. The market for jumbo loans, which all but disappeared, is steadily coming back, says Gumbinger, as banks seek to add new loans to their own portfolios, and then cross sell other financial products to the affluent customers who qualify. Some required down-payments have fallen from above 20% to as low as 15%
And Gumbinger says people with a credit score as low as about 600 are often able to qualify for FHA loans.
Bernanke’s problems make for a funny anecdote, and speak to a frustration lots of would-be be borrowers are feeling. But things will likely continue to loosen up. Now that banks have largely gone through the low-hanging fruit of customers with impeccable credit, they’ll have to compete for a pool of somewhat-less-perfect borrowers. According to data from the mortgage software company Ellie Mae, the typical completed loan had a credit score of 727, compared to 742 in spring of last year.
Of course, the really big question is how much easier lending really ought to be. The easy credit of the 2000s created the housing disaster Bernanke spent his time at the top of the Fed racing to fix.
Even former central bankers can't get a loan
If you’ve failed to get a loan in this market, don’t feel too bad. Not even central bankers can catch a break–as Ben Bernanke, who chaired the Federal Reserve from 2006 through February of 2014, recently revealed that he has been unable to refinance his home.
“Just between the two of us, ” Bernanke told the moderator at a recent conference of the National Investment Center for Seniors Housing and Care, “I recently tried to refinance my mortgage and I was unsuccessful in doing so,” Bloomberg reports.
The audience laughed.
“I’m not making this up,” Bernanke insisted.
Bernanke also complained that stringent credit standards have made the process for first-time homebuyers excessively difficult, especially as economic conditions have improved. “The housing area is one area where regulation has not yet got it right,” Bernanke said. “I think the tightness of mortgage credit, lending is still probably excessive.”
As of press time, there is no word on whether current Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen has been denied for an auto loan.
Checking your credit report and getting pre-approved for a mortgage are key, says Century 21 CEO Rick Davidson.
We should be looking at smaller "starter" homes as our "stay put" homes.
If there is one thing we have been trained to fear about retirement, it’s crippling medical bills that threaten to force us out of our homes and decimate our nest eggs. But it turns out that we might be better off worrying about our future housing expenses, as these costs are the single largest category of spending in retirement.
Moreover, the costs of maintaining a home remain stubbornly high as we age, according to a new analysis by the Employee Benefit Research Institute. For those 75 and older, housing expenses accounted for a whopping 43% of spending, even as other expenditures (except for health care) dropped.
Time was that retirees were supposed pay down their mortgages or drastically downsize their homes before retirement. But that behavior has changed, perhaps as a result of the refinancing boom or the housing crash—or both. According to the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau, more people are carrying mortgage debt into their retirement years, up from 22% in 2001 to 30% in 2011.
Even as the rate of homeownership has remained stable, the median amount owed on mortgages for people aged 75 and older increased 82% during that same decade, from $43,000 to $79,000. Delinquency in paying mortgages and foreclosures also greatly increased for seniors from 2007 to 2011.
The lesson in all this is that while financing one’s home can be hugely beneficial, mortgages can grow into significant burdens when you’re living on a fixed income. The time to stretch yourself financially on a home is not when you’ve already left the workforce and have no way to make more money.
It’s not just larger mortgages that saddle retirees—it’s everything that comes with homeownership, including property taxes, homeowner’s insurance, home repairs, housecleaning, gardening and yard services. At the same time, transportation, entertainment and travel expenses all tend to decline as a natural course of retirement.
It seems that people have an easier time forgoing vacations and restaurant dining than they do square footage and lawns, which is understandable. The comforts of home can bring great stability during a time of transition. But as we struggle to figure out how much money we will need in retirement, we might need to consider how to defray the expense of these patterns.
For those in mid-career, now is the time to get control of our mortgage costs. As a recent study by Pew Charitable Trusts shows, Gen X has lower wealth than their parents did at their age, in large part because they hold nearly six times more debt, including student loans, unpaid medical bills and credit card balances. And that’s despite having generally higher family incomes than their parents did.
Given these headwinds, we may want to rethink the American way of constantly trading up to larger houses through our 40s and 50s. The more we grow accustomed to more luxurious living, the harder it will be to downsize when it makes sense. Perhaps instead of looking at smaller houses merely as “starter homes,” we should be looking at them as “stay put” homes instead.
Millennials face a different challenge. After taking longer to get started in their careers, they will end up buying houses later in life, which means they risk carrying significant mortgages into retirement. They would benefit from not biting off more than they can chew—putting more cash down than the minimum, not buying more house then they can really afford, and making sure to max out out their 401(k)s or IRAs. Home equity can be an excellent investment, but only if it enhances rather than jeopardizes financial security—now and in the future.