5 Ways to Calculate How Much House You Can Afford

how much house can i affordParticularly for those looking to buy their first home, the big question is always, “How much house can I afford?” I can still remember my wife and I trying to crunch the numbers when we bought our first home back in 1993. I was scared to death that we wouldn’t be able to afford the mortgage payments. But we did, and as the months and years went by, our mortgage payments became more manageable.

If you’re considering buying a home, it helps to have an idea of how much you can afford. It’s very important to think of this question from two different perspectives. The first is simply how big of a mortgage will you qualify for. The answer to this question depends on a lot of factors, including your income, existing debts, interest rates, credit history and your credit score. We’ll look at several calculations that most lenders use to evaluate mortgage applicants.

The second perspective is a bit more subjective–how much home do you really need? Just because you can qualify for a mortgage, doesn’t mean that you should. Banks will qualify you for as much as they possibly can given their existing underwriting policies. But just because the money is available doesn’t mean you should take it.

With that, let’s look at 5 ways to calculate how much house you can afford, beginning with a standard rule of thumb:

2.5 to 3 Times Your Annual Income

This was the basic rule of thumb for many years. Simply take your gross income and multiply it by 2.5 or 3 to get the maximum value of the home you can afford. For somebody making $100,000, the maximum purchase price would be $250,000 to $300,000.

Keep in mind that this is a very general rule of thumb, and there are several factors that will influence the results. For example, the lower the interest rate you can obtain, the higher the home value you can afford on the same income. This is one reason why your credit score is so important. A good credit score of 760 or higher can net you an interest rate that is 1.5% lower than if you had a fair score of, say, 620. A 1.5% lower rate can easily translate into savings of tens of thousands of dollars over the life of a mortgage.

If you don’t know your credit score, you can get your FICO score for free from one of several credit scoring companies. Also keep in mind that some suggest higher or lower multiples. I’ve seen banks recommend ratios as low as 1.5 times salary or as high as 5 times salary. I think that for most situations, a good starting point is 2.5x your income.

Resource: Get a free mortgage rate quote from LendingTree

The 28% Front End Ratio

When banks evaluate your home loan application, one very important calculation is known as your housing expense to income ratio. Also called the front-end ratio, banks will take your projected housing expense for the home you want to buy (principal, interest, taxes, and insurance) and divide by your total monthly income. Generally, mortgage companies are looking for a ratio of 28% or less.

For example, if your income is $10,000 a month, most banks will qualify you for a loan (subject to other factors, of course) so long as your total housing expenses do not exceed $2,800 each month. While the 28% mortgage to income ratio is followed by many institutions, some will qualify a borrower with a slightly higher ratio.

Resource: 11 Home Buying Programs for Low Income Families

The 36% Rule

Even if your housing expense to income ratio is 28% or less, you still have one more hurdle to clear—the debt to income ratio. Also referred to as the back-end ratio, it takes your total monthly minimum debt payments and divides by your gross income. Debt payments include not only your projected mortgage, but also minimum credit card payments, car loan payments, school loan payments, and any other payments on debt.

Bankers typically are looking for a back-end ratio of no more than 36%, although some will go a bit higher than this. To relate both the 28% and 36% numbers, here is a chart showing the calculations for various income levels:

Gross Income28% of Monthly Gross Income36% of Monthly Gross Income

Special HFA Rules

An FHA mortgage has special rules set by the government. For the mortgage payment expense to income ratio, the percentage cannot be greater than 29%. For the back-end ratio, the maximum to still qualify for an FHA loan is 41%. Note that although FHA loans are government sponsored, you still apply for the loans through private banks and mortgage companies. If you’d like to get see current rates, check out our mortgage rates, which are updated daily.

The Dave Ramsey Mortgage

Dave Ramsey takes a very conservative approach to home buying. If you can, he believes you should pay cash for a home. But if you do have to finance the purchase, Ramsey says you should finance your home with a 15-year mortgage and that your mortgage payments, including insurance and taxes, should be no more than 25% of your take home pay. He also believes you should not buy a home until you have a 20% down payment.

If you decided to follow Dave’s approach, simply divide the amount of down payment you have available by .20. For example, if you have $25,000 saved for a down payment, the maximum amount you could spend on a home would be $125,000 ($25,000 / .20). Using this example, you’d finance $100,000 on a 15-year mortgage. At prevailing rates, and making some assumptions about insurance and taxes, the monthly payment would be about $1,000.

Of course, you’ll also need the income to handle the mortgage payments. Here is a table of your maximum monthly payment under the Dave Ramsey approach to mortgages. I’ve assumed take-home pay is 75% of gross income:

Gross IncomeMonthly Take-HomeMaximum Monthly Payment

If you are a first-time home buyer, following Dave’s approach is going to be very difficult. Heck, it may be difficult if you are buying your second or third home. We certainly could not have bought our first or second home under these conditions, but it’s still an approach to consider.

Finally, if you are saving to buy your first home, a great tool to track your finances is Personal Capital’s free financial dashboard. Connect your accounts and it will track your spending, saving, and even your investments.

Next –> What Credit Score Do You Need to Buy a Home

Topics: Mortgages

9 Responses to “5 Ways to Calculate How Much House You Can Afford”

  1. I would suggest deciding the highest monthly payment you are comfortable with for a 15 year mortgage, then getting a 30 year mortgage for that amount. The just make extra principal payments each month to bring your total monthly payment what you thought you could afford for the 15 yr.

    This allows you pay the mortgage off in about 15 years and avoid a lot of interest, but still provides you with the flexibility in the event of a job loss, emergency, or just make a desired lifestyle change in the future.

    As long as rates for the 15 year and 30 year are close this seems to be the best solution to me.

  2. this is one of your more compex posts. i didnt think that there was this much to consider when buying a home. and this is just the finances, there are other things too like the neighbours and schools and stuff. i think i may rent a little longer 🙂

  3. There is more to this problem. One must take into consideration landscaping and home maintenance.While a new home will not require much maintenance or landscaping costs initially there will eventually be large expenses such as water heater malfunction, air condtioning/ furnace replacement (most units are warrantied for 10 years, major appliances, roof replacement(usuallly last 15 to 20 years. Landscape maintenance is also very costly even if you do the work yourself. I found this out recently when I had to do all these within 2 years. I had the resources to go through this huge hit financially. So saving at least 10 % of your gross income is the solutuion.(“The Richest Man in Babylon”) Al

  4. cindy cavanaugh

    Me and my husband filed a chapter 7, due to medical bills and a seperation. What do we have to do to get our credit in shape or what do you suggest to be able to get a home loan. Before the chapter 7 I had outstanding credit. Could you please assist me in this matter.

  5. Good post. Too many people buy huge expensive homes while living on a tiny income. I bought a house for $350k, and I make more than $100k a year (fluctuates from year to year because I’m a professional investor).

  6. Hi. My husband and I are looking to buy a house sometime next summer but I am concerned. I actually need some advice. I am 57 years old and unfortunately I have been unemployed for the last 3 1/2 years and still unable to find employment. My husband works full time and has a NAVY pension of about $22,000 per year with a salary of over $123,000. He works government contract and the contract expires 12/19/14 at which point he will receive a 6 month severance package of about $45,000 after taxes and he plans to take out his 401 K which will be about $90,000 once he is done with the company (my husband is 59). Anyway his credit score is better than mine because mine is only 521 as I have a collection account which is a school loan, I am paying $100/month on it but until I pay the balance in full of $3689.00 by the end of the year they will keep reporting me negative. Anyway we want to buy a new house but the price range is around $460,000. My husband wants to leave me off the mortgage because I am not working, my credit score is only 521 and the school loan that is in collections is hurting my score until we pay it off by the end of December. We had a short sale back in August of 2008 but I know that only stays on for 7 years so it won’t come off until August of 2015.

    Anybody help us in reference to the loan amount and if we could get one despite my credit score? I have been paying off credit card debts now, never missing a payment. I will be paying off the school loan in December once my husband gets the money. Also, I am trying to get employment but its tough. Also the short sale won’t come off until next August 2015, should we wait until September 2015? We are planning to put down at least $60,000 on the house. Would this help with the past issues of short sale, credit problems such as settlements and missed payments due to unemployment from me and a job change for my husband as well as location change and moving? We were able to get a car loan but in my husband’s name only at 1% due to his salary being high. What are the chances of obtaining a mortgage from a bank or possibly a credit union with these kinds of credit problems in the past? Again, I know due to a lot of credit issues in the past, missed payments due to job change, and location, and unemployment, what kind of mortgage can we obtain?

    Anybody help us? We want to buy a house and get a mortgage for at least 15 years.

    SIGNED: Dire need!

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