After tallying up your debt, you’ve finally decided on an action plan — you’re ready to become a homeowner.
Debt is one of the biggest hurdles to owning property. About 61 percent of millennials have been forced to delay buying a home due to student loan debt, according to a study by SoFi, leading many to aim for a quick debt payoff. With debt no longer looming overhead, it’s easier for future homeowners to purchase a house in confidence.
Of course, this is not a problem solely faced by millennials. Members of many generations struggle with the cost of purchasing a home in today’s economy, especially given that the typical consumer owes an average of $90,460 in debt, according to Experian.
I get it, because my wife and I initially decided to delay home ownership when we vowed to pay off her student loans ASAP. Thankfully, we were open to considering other opportunities as they arose, regardless of her debt.
Taking Advantage of Opportunities
In hindsight, we had blinders on while paying off her $80,000 in student loans as fast as we could. We became fully consumed by our goal.
Luckily we had a huge realization part-way into our journey.
Paying off debt as fast as possible while completely ignoring all other opportunities was not the right choice for us.
It took an amazing deal on a townhouse to make us rethink our strategy. Long story short, we came across a two-bedroom, one-and-a-half bath townhouse less than three blocks from the beach for just $79,000.
The mortgage was a bit more than half of our old rent payment, and we knew that once we outgrew the townhouse we could rent it out for much more than the mortgage payment. On paper everything seemed perfect, but still, we were hesitant.
We couldn’t swallow the $16,000 down payment, plus closing costs when we knew it would significantly slow down our student debt pay off.
That’s when we had our light bulb moment: The student loans didn’t own us.
The Benefits of Home Ownership
Yes, we needed to pay off our loans, but we didn’t need to do it as fast as humanly possible. We could use some money to close on the townhouse, especially if it made long-term financial sense for us.
The trade-off? We would gain more economic security by building equity while only slightly delaying our debt payments. Though it added about a year to achieving debt-free status, we got an amazing deal for a home just three blocks from the white sand beaches.
Taking Off Your Debt Repayment Blinders
My point is, it may not sound super responsible to go out and make a home purchase when you’re in the midst of paying off student loans.
However, it is important not to let your debt blind you to new opportunities.
Debt can be a significant hurdle, but it is not one impossible to overcome. Depending on how large your remaining balance is, it might be possible for you to seek a mortgage. At the same time, it is also important to recognize how many years remain before your debts are paid.
“If you have a small student loan balance you can pay off in a couple of years, it might make sense to wait to take on a mortgage until after your student debt is paid,” says certified financial planner Ben Dobler.
“But if your student loans have an especially high interest rate, paying down your loans before they accrue a large amount of interest can make sense,” Dobler adds.
Recognizing the most salient financial decision, both in terms of current opportunity and expected interest payments, can help in your decision-making process. We almost missed a fantastic deal because of our laser focus on our student debt repayment — which ignored the benefits of purchasing a home sooner rather than later.
Keep Your Debts in Mind
Of course, the type of loan being repaid can influence your ability to purchase a home. Federal loans and private loans can involve different repayment options, which can affect your finances in a way that makes buying a home with student loans more difficult.
“If your loans are held by the federal government, you can use an income-driven repayment plan if needed to limit your payments to an affordable amount,” adds Dobler. “For loans from private lenders, or if income-driven repayment isn’t an option, refinancing your student loans for a lower interest rate or different term might still be a way to reduce your payments.”
Sometimes there may be a bigger opportunity to discover. Would you turn down your dream job while paying down debt because it would cost you $2,000 to move to where the job is located? Probably not. What happens if you’re never offered your dream job again?
“In addition, if you’re living with your parents rent-free, you might want to make a dent in your debt before striking out on your own, where you'll have to pay the full costs of housing yourself,” Dobler recommends.
Focusing on both goals requires some sober assessments of your current finances.
Ask yourself — is it worth to pay an extra $2,000 toward student debt, rather than using that money to relocate? The answer will vary for each person and circumstance, but don’t let debt completely blind you from other stellar long-term opportunities.
Finally, make sure that your financial obligations — be they buying a home or student loan payment — are doable with your current income.
“The general rule is that your mortgage costs should be no more than 28 percent of your income,” says Dobler, “and your total debt payments including the new mortgage should be no more than 36 percent of your income.”
If you can manage to make a mortgage work alongside your student debt, without it breaking the bank, it might just be a good idea to take that deal.
The Bottom Line
Did we buy the townhouse? You bet! We decided it was the best long-term financial move, despite the temporary setback. In the end, it was the right decision for us.
The townhouse is now a rental, earning positive cash flow each month. The property has appreciated in value since we bought it. We’re glad we were able to take off our blinders before it was too late.