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Should I Pay Off Debt Before Buying a House?



Question: My husband and I got married two years ago next month, and we’d like to buy a house. We’re not ready to start a family just yet, but it seems like home prices are just going to go higher. My husband thinks now is the time to strike. Plus, we’ve seen ads for some really low mortgage rates.

The problem is this: We have, between us, about $14,000 on eight credit, store, and gas cards. I’m wondering if we should use some of the money we’re saving for a house and pay off some of those cards. But then, home prices might go even higher, and we’ll have missed our chance.

Is there a math formula for figuring this out? 

— Hope in Pennsylvania

Howard Dvorkin CPA answers…

Here’s the only math formula that matters: Do you earn enough money to pay both your debts, closing costs, and a monthly mortgage?

The reason this country faced a housing bubble and a terrible recession a decade ago was simple: For many Americans, the answer was “no.”

Four years ago, I wrote a book called Power Up. This part speaks directly to your situation, Hope…

In the past, millions of Americans got themselves into some nasty predicaments because they bought homes they couldn’t afford. They took out exotic mortgages and decided not to analyze the downside to these mortgages, which were costly and have a negative impact on cash flow.They were so enamored of what they thought they could buy (note, I said buy, not afford) that they decided to ignore the fatal risks.

The real question here is, “Do you need a house right now?” Interestingly, Hope, I was just recently reading about a study by thePennsylvania Association of Realtors that shows, “One in 3 new homeowners are categorized as want to buy customers, while more than 1 in 4 are need to buy customers.”

What’s the difference? Well, think of it like buying a car. When you need a car right now because yours finally died, you’ll overpay. You certainly don’t want to do that with a house.

Bottom, line: Pay off your debts first.

You mentioned math, Hope, so let’s do some. You have around $14,000 in credit card debt.  The average credit card interest rate is about 15 percent a month. So you’re being charged nearly $600 a month just in interest.

Imagine that $600 going toward a monthly mortgage payment!

If you and your husband can pay off your credit cards, you can then take the money that formerly went to debt and put it into a savings account for your house.

Another expert and host of the Money Girl podcast, Laura Adams, agrees with me…

Laura Adams, author, and host of Money Girl podcast responds…

The types and total amounts of debt you can handle depend on your goals and the bigger picture of your finances. But in most cases, you should opt for paying off the credit card debt first. Here’s why.

A mortgage is considered “good debt”

In some cases, using debt is a smarter move than spending cash, especially for a home. That’s because mortgages are relatively inexpensive debt. The average 30-year fixed-rate mortgage cost about 10% in 1990, but today (2019) 4% rates are widely available. There’s also been hints that the Federal Reserve may lower rates, which could drop mortgage rates even lower.

One reason a home loan comes with a lower interest rate than other types of debt, such as credit cards or personal loans, is because it’s secured by the property you purchase. Not only can a lender foreclose or take your home back if you don’t pay a mortgage as agreed, but you also go through a strict approval process.

The tax benefits of mortgages

Another unique benefit of having a mortgage is that it can cut your taxes if you claim the mortgage interest tax deduction. A tax deduction saves money because it reduces your taxable income, which lowers the amount of income tax you have to pay.

When you borrow money to buy, build, or remodel a home, you’re allowed to deduct the mortgage interest you pay each year. Depending on how much you earn and your tax rate, claiming the deduction could reduce what you owe or increase your tax refund by thousands of dollars.

Beginning in 2018, you can deduct interest paid on your main home and a second home on mortgage balances up to $750,000 (or $375,000 if you’re married and file taxes separately). This is down from $1 million or $500,000 for loans taken out in previous years, which is still deductible.

The main requirements to claim the mortgage interest deduction are that:

  • your debt is secured by the property
  • you have an ownership interest in the home
  • you file taxes on Form 1040 and itemize deductions on Schedule A.

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Another financial goal you may have missed

There is another financial goal besides paying off debt that you didn’t mention and that’s savings. If you’re not saving at least 10% to 15% of your income for retirement, then you may want to prioritize that goal instead of paying off any debt ahead of schedule.

You might also want to consider using some of the funds for emergency savings, if you don’t have an emergency fund set up. Once you send money to a lender to pay off a loan or credit card early, you can’t get it back if you fall on hard times or have unexpected expenses. A good rule of thumb is to always keep an emergency fund equal to at least three to six months’ worth of your living expenses.

Even though there are advantages to having a mortgage, you should never get one that’s more than you can afford. Make sure you can handle the monthly payment, plus property taxes, insurance, any homeowner association dues, and estimated annual home repairs.

Having a mortgage allows you to save and invest more money than you otherwise would. So, I recommend taking out a mortgage and using your cash to beef up your emergency fund and save more for retirement, if you aren’t already. Otherwise, pay the credit card debt from highest to lowest interest rate. Paying off a low-rate mortgage should be the last financial priority.

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