The fallout from the pandemic pushed Anna Kordon, 28, to start saving to become a homeowner.
She is single and lives rent-free with her parents in a two-bedroom apartment in Brooklyn, New York. But sheltering in place with family for the past six months has come at a cost. “There’s virtually no privacy. My parents are always fighting. And it stresses me out,” Kordon said.
With bars closed, and spending on going out limited, she is able to put away $2,000 a month for a down payment on a home and is setting her sights on a few neighborhoods in New Jersey hoping to buy next year.
“If anything, the pandemic has reminded me just how much I need my own place,” Kordon said.
As the coronavirus crisis tosses millions of people into unfamiliar territory and sparks an unprecedented amount of economic uncertainty, Americans are choosing homeownership as their main financial priority.
A September study by the financial comparison website Finder.com revealed that nearly 37% of people would use their savings to put a down payment on a home, ahead of covering credit card debt (19%) or buying a car (16%). The trend was reflected across all age groups.
“With the pandemic, the home has become a priority for people because we’re all spending more time there,” said Britny Lawhorn, assistant publisher of mortgages at Finder.com “People are working from home. Events are happening more at home. The home has become a more centralized point in our lives.”
It’s true that many Americans are still without work, or employed by industries that are on shaky ground. But if you’re one of the lucky ones who have benefited from the remote work era, you could be positioned to put more cash aside for a major investment like a home in the not-too-distant future.
“If you have your job right now, you might actually be in a better situation than you were pre-COVID,” said Daniel Geltrude, a financial consultant and certified public accountant in Montclair, N.J. “COVID has caused cost saving. People aren’t going out. They aren’t commuting. So, as bad as COVID is, there are opportunities if you’re looking.”
Mortgage rates are competitive. So you have a leg up if you’re in the early stages of the process and have time to shop around. The Fed has announced plans to keep interest rates low, which should support low mortgage rates into the foreseeable future. And the demand for real estate is high right now, so waiting for the market to cool off might serve you well.
But to kick start an effective savings strategy, you first need to figure out what you can afford to pay toward a monthly mortgage bill. That’s more important than immediately thinking about the down payment. After all, what good is a deposit if you can’t keep up with the payments?
To gauge your mortgage spending power, subtract your current monthly expenses from your take-home pay. Then factor in the cost of homeowner’s insurance and property taxes. That number, the amount you’d have leftover each month, will dictate what you’ll likely be able to afford to pay after you’ve moved into your new home. It’ll also help you determine how long you’d need to save in order to afford your down payment.
Then, the fun part begins. You’ll also want to check out homes and neighborhoods you’d like to live in – virtually or in-person. Find out how much the houses are selling for, and adjust your expectations accordingly.
“Driving in neighborhoods that might be interesting to you when you’re just starting to save can also be super motivational and can probably help drive your savings as well,” said Kerry Melcher, a third-generation realtor and head of sales and brokerage at Opendoor, a real estate platform.
And then, there’s the hard part — actually saving.
Most people aim to put down 20% of the home’s value, which looks better to lenders and tends to get you a better mortgage rate. One of the most effective ways to do this is having your employer deduct a set monthly amount from your paycheck and funneling the funds toward a higher-yield savings account.
“If you want to save on a regular basis, the best way to force that discipline is to get on a payroll deduction plan what comes out before you see it,” said Brian Allen, a Missouri-based financial planner.
Investing those savings in the stock market is too risky. Setting up a high yield savings account or money market account will ensure you get a return on your money based on your timeline for buying a home, experts say.
Still, if you pull the trigger too soon, you may find yourself buying at a time of low inventory and high prices.
The pandemic caused renters in big cities to exit in droves and snap up homes in the suburbs over the summer. The virus also slowed down new home builds and sent materials prices skyrocketing, so there are fewer affordable options to choose from right now.
“Inventory is going to be in the toilet for a while,” said Toby Mathis, a founding partner at the financial advising firm Anderson Law Group in Las Vegas. “Resist the temptation to chase a house in this market, you may see it come back down next year.”