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Live Your Life and Save for a Down Payment: You Can Do It!

February 23, 2015 | By

Keosha Burns has rented in Northwest DC for the past three and a half years, enjoying a vibrant social life with plenty of friends nearby. “I don’t have kids, so my priority is me,” says the 31-year-old. It wasn’t until Burns priced larger apartments in her area that she realized she’d be paying nearly what she’d expect to pay for a mortgage but missing out on the benefits of homeownership.

While knowledgeable about financial services and the home-buying process because of her job in communications at Fannie Mae, the publisher of The Home Story, she always assumed homeownership was “out of her reach.” She owed about $20,000 on her student loans and $5,000 in credit card debt.

That assumption is not uncommon. Sixty percent of young adults, aged 18-34, say their finances are the single biggest obstacle between them and homeownership.

“We’re scared to buy a home because they don’t know what the future will hold,” says LaTisha Styles, 31, CEO of Young Finances. “As a generation, we’re burdened by debt. Plus a lot of (recent college graduates) can’t find jobs.”

Styles had her own challenges with debt and unemployment. Her relationship with credit started in college when she applied for her  first credit card because she wanted a free t-shirt. Eventually she’d racked up $22,000 in credit card debt. “I felt locked down by the debt,” she says.

Ten months after graduating, she landed her first “real” job and put herself on a spending plan to pay off the credit card debt over three years. “I made sacrifices, but also had rewards,” she says. “You need to celebrate important milestones, like paying off each card.”

Control of debt is essential, she says, to show lenders you are responsible with credit. If you have too much debt, they won’t extend you more credit to buy a car or home. (Calculate your debt-to-income ratio.)

“And eventually you want to have some assets,” Styles says. She hopes to purchase her first home within five years.

Staying On Track

The conflicting desire to prepare for the future and save, versus the impulse to live for the present, is prevalent among young clients, writes H. Jude Boudreaux, a financial planner.

Learn to say “no” to yourself by deciding on your “yes” spending, Boudreaux advises.

For many young adults, “yes” spending might be their daily latte, Netflix subscription, and smart phone. “The clearer you are about what you want to do in the short and long term, the easier it is to make spending choices that you’ll be happy with when you look back at them,” writes Boudreaux.

Of course, the less you save, the longer it may take to put that down payment together. Or, looking at it this way: If you can forego that latte and save another $5 a day for a year, it would put you over $1,800 closer to your savings or debt-payment goal.

Making Plans

Burns and her grandfather sat down last year with some graph paper to look over her spending and debt. They determined how much more she’d pay out each month as a homeowner (with new expenses to pay, like utilities), and she began living within that plan — diverting the “extra” to pay off her credit cards. “That started to free up a lot of my income,” she notes. As the idea of homeownership became more “real,” Burns met with a free housing counselor and attended a workshop at the DC Housing Finance Agency. “The numbers started to add up,” she says, “and I realized I could afford to buy a home in this area.”

She paid off her credit cards, starting with smaller the balances first for “quick wins,” and opened a savings account not connected to her spending accounts to “limit temptation.”

With each paycheck, Burns set aside a little for herself, even if the splurge was as small as buying a new pair of earrings. “My mom always told me it was important to reward yourself with each paycheck as a reminder of why you’re working.”

And there has to be wiggle room. “I had just started my plan when the holidays hit, and I had to spend more than I’d allocated,” she says. “The important thing was that I got back on track the next month.”

With her credit card debt nearly paid off, Burns qualified for a home mortgage last fall and moves into her new DC condo this spring.

Know the Score

According to Eric Broermann, a real estate agent with McWilliams Ballard, Inc. in Alexandria, VA, the most common misconception among young buyers is how much they will have to put down. “They’re thinking 15 to 20 percent, and it can be much less than that,” he notes.

Some mortgage products require as little as 3 percent down for qualified borrowers. There are also zero-down options, including VA loans (guaranteed by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs) for veterans, servicemembers, and surviving spouses, as well as USDA loans for low- to middle-income borrowers in qualifying rural areas.

Additionally, many borrowers can qualify for special financing assistance from state and local housing finance agencies. Assistance is based on income, but also the cost of housing in your area. In DC, for example, borrowers can earn up to a combined $123,050 and still qualify for down payment and closing cost assistance.

NeighborWorks America®, a national nonprofit community development corporation based in Washington, DC, says 70 percent of U.S. adults are unaware of down payment programs available for middle-income homebuyers in their community. “I would argue that percentage is even higher,” says Rob Chrane, president of Down Payment Resource (DPR) in Atlanta.

“There are a lot of options out there if you’re serious about owning a home,” adds Styles. For instance, if buying in the city seems to expensive, consider alternatives such as living in a more rural area or buying a smaller home or condo, she says.

The message seems to be resonating. Last year, young adults, with a median age of 31-32, made up the majority of homebuyers, and 76 percent of them were buying their first home. “Having a mortgage may seem like a scary idea at first, but it starts to make sense when you look at the financial advantages,” says Styles.

“I’m investing in my own future and living the life I love,” says Burns.

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