Should we buy our dream house?

What happens when a great opportunity comes along, but you don’t quite have the resources to take advantage of it? That’s what Greg wants to know. He and his wife have found their Dream House. They think they can buy the place — but only if they’re willing to take on some short-term debt in addition to the mortgage. Greg wants to know if this is a smart move. Here’s his story:

My wife and I are in our late twenties, no kids (yet), both safely employed and living very comfortably with a combined monthly income of around $5,000 after taxes. We currently have about $28,000 in student loans, and plan to pay them all off within the year. The original amount was $37,000 six months ago, so we’ve been making quick progress with them. One loan is in deferment while my wife is in school, another requires $80 a month for the payments, and the one we are aggressively paying off has no monthly payment due until 2014 because of our extra payments. Basically, we only need $80 a month to satisfy our loans for the next two years. We have no car payments, credit card debt, or anything other than the student loans.

Everything was going as planned until two weeks ago we found a house we absolutely loved. We’ve checked it out, and aside from minor cosmetic things, its move-in ready. It’s a foreclosure with an asking price around $136,000 (houses are cheap in the Houston area!). We’d plan to stay in the area a minimum of ten years, if not longer.

Given our situation, is it wise to scramble to get the minimum amount necessary to buy this house? We hadn’t planned to begin saving up for a house for another six months. Last week, my dad offered us a monetary gift to cover the down payment. We have the ability to pay for inspections, closing costs, insurance and everything else (about $7,000 total, assuming the seller won’t cover some of these costs), but it might mean wiping out our small savings and taking on some short-term debt. We’d also have to pay about $1,600 to break our apartment lease, but at least that can be spread out over three months.

Moving so quickly without any heavy financial preparation was not how we envisioned buying a house, but we don’t want to risk losing what amounts to our Dream House. Since it only recently came on the market, we don’t know if it will be something we can wait on or not.

Being the committed debt-haters that we are, the minor (non-mortgage) debts we’d have to incur to buy the house hopefully wouldn’t last very long anyway. Worst case scenario puts our monthly house/tax/insurance payments well within the range of affordability for us too. Our current loans would go on hold for maybe six months while the minor debt is paid off, then proceed at a slower pace due to the $1200 a month we’d be paying for housing instead of the the $600 we currently pay.

If you were in my position, what would you do? Jump on the chance for a Dream House? Or take a more financially conservative approach and risk losing out on it? Any and all opinions would be much appreciated!

This is a tough call. Folks like Dave Ramsey would say, “Don’t do it.” Ramsey would argue that Greg and his wife should first repay all of their student loan debt and then save enough for a substantial down payment. (Or even enough to pay for the house in cash.)

I’m not nearly that prescriptive. Absolutely, the prudent financial choice is to wait. Dream Homes are problematic — dreams change, and Dream Homes are often more common than buyers believe. Plus, when you have to scrape money together to buy a house, you leave yourself vulnerable to unexpected disasters. By exercising deferred gratification, Greg and his wife could reduce their debt and/or build enough savings to make a substantial down payment.

That said, personal finance is as much about emotions as it is about money. And heaven knows, Kris and I have made a pair of impulse home-buying decisions:

  • In 1994, we bought our first home. We didn’t really have a reason for buying a house; it just seemed like the adult thing to do. A mortgage broker crunched the numbers, told us what we could afford, and we started shopping. We didn’t shop for long. Within a week, we’d found a house we liked. Two days later, we’d made an offer and had it accepted. Looking back, we rushed things, but it turned out okay because we bought less home than we could afford.
  • In 2004, Kris and I bought our Dream House. We hadn’t intended to move, but when one of Kris’ co-workers brought in a sale flyer for an old farmhouse, we acted quickly. Within 48 hours, we’d made an offer (and had it accepted). In retrospect, this was a poor financial decision. On paper, we could afford the place, but in reality, my debt-load made things tough. If I could give my younger self advice, I’d say, “Don’t do it!” Things have worked out for us, but they could easily have turned sour.

If Greg and his wife are willing to unwilling to pass up this opportunity, they should at least take steps to mitigate the possibility that things will go wrong.

  • Take out a small mortgage with a low interest rate. Banks will grant mortgages with housing-expense ratios of 33%. That is, they’ll let borrowers spend up to 33% of their gross (pre-tax) income on housing, including taxes and insurance. But what’s good for the bank isn’t necessarily good for you. Greg and his wife can make things easier by trying to keep their monthly expenses below 25% of their gross income.
  • Make debt reduction a priority. If they buy this house, Greg and his wife have to be willing to make some short-term sacrifices: cheap vacations, a reduced restaurant budget, and so on. They have to give up a lot of the little everyday pleasures in order to attack their non-mortgage debt. All purchases require trade-offs, and big purchases require big trade-offs.
  • Build a big emergency fund — ASAP. Speaking from experience, owning a home is expensive. One rule of thumb is that it costs 1% of the home’s value every year for maintenance and repair. This seems accurate to me. Greg and his wife should work hard to create a home repair fund, one that’s separate from their everyday emergency fund.

What do you think? Should Greg and his wife jump at the chance to buy their Dream Home? Even if doing so means carrying more debt than they’d planned for a few years? Or should they wait until they know they’re financially prepared? Share your personal experience so Greg and his wife can make an informed decision!

Note: Upon reading this post, Kris made an interesting observation. “You’re missing an important point,” she said. “Are they looking at a one-of-a-kind home? That makes a difference. Maybe their Dream House is a converted fire station or an old farmhouse in a sea of cookie-cutter homes. If that’s the case, they should take it. But if it’s similar to a lot of other homes, they should wait.”

Update: This has been a great discussion. Thanks for contributing. Here’s a response from Greg, answering many common questions. (And here’s another.)

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