How to Actually Afford to Buy a Home in America

Home buyers today face tough challenges – housing prices have soared, a dollar doesn’t go as far as it once did and rent is more expensive than the past.

How are people today making such a large purchase despite these hurdles? With more flexibility and a bit of financing creativity, today’s buyers are finding ways to achieve homeownership.

Know your options (and credit score)

The first step to knowing if you can afford a home is figuring out what financing options are available to you, including what mortgages you’re eligible for and how much you need (and can afford) to put down upfront.

Learning the minimum FICO score required by lenders and understanding your own credit score are important starting points.

Many home shoppers aren’t sure how much they have to put down on a home, what the lender-required minimum down payment will be (it’s not always 20%), or what programs are available to help with down payments, like FHA loans.

Before buyers even start thinking about saving for a home, they should know what their financial resources are and if they’re eligible to buy.

Make enough money to save

With fewer resources to pull from than their older, wealthier counterparts, renters wanting to buy face tough financial headwinds.

According to the Zillow Group Consumer Housing Trends Report 2019, renter households typically earn a median income of $37,500 annually, which is nearly $40,000 less than the median household income netted by households who recently bought a home (of whom the median household income is $75,000 annually).

While there are ways to enter into homeownership without making $75,000 in household income, it’s hard to afford to buy if you make significantly less. “If you’re making $37,500 per year, it’s probably not feasible for you to buy in almost any market,“ says Zillow Chief Economist Dr. Svenja Gudell.

While households purchasing homes are more likely to have two incomes than renter households (and thus a higher median household income combined), even two-income households struggle to afford to buy in competitive markets.

Save enough cash (but not as much as you think)

One of the most daunting parts of home buying? The down payment. In fact, two-thirds of renters cite saving for a down payment as the biggest hurdle to buying a home, according to the Zillow Housing Aspirations Report.

For people buying the national median home valued at $229,000, with the traditional 20% down payment, that’s $45,800 upfront – just to move in.

“The down payment remains a hurdle for a lot of people,” says Gudell. “But they should know they don’t have to put 20% down.”

Although putting down less than 20% means additional considerations, such as the cost for private mortgage insurance (PMI), some find it worth the hassle. In fact, according to the Zillow Group Consumer Housing Trends Report 2019, only one-fifth of recent buyers (20%) put 20% down, and just over half of buyers (56%) put less than the traditional 20% down.

Buyers are also getting creative about piecing together a down payment from multiple sources. According to the report findings, 34% of buyers who get a mortgage also get help in the form of gifts or loans from friends and family to come up with a down payment. 

Know your deal breakers, but be flexible

To get into a home – even if it’s not the home of their dreams – some of today’s buyers are considering homes and locations outside of their initial wish list and getting increasingly flexible when it comes to neighborhood, house condition and even home type.

“I do think people get discouraged when they look in their target neighborhood and they see homes around $170,000 when they’re looking for a $110,000 home,” Gudell says.

Affordably priced homes do, in fact, exist. But in popular areas, where people most often want to live, it’s going to be harder to find that cheaper home, Gudell says.

"If you’re willing to take a longer commute and make a couple trade-offs, you might be able to find a home that is farther out that might be cheaper,” Gudell explains. “You have to leave the paved path before you can find cheaper choices.“

Related:

from Zillow Porchlight https://www.zillow.com/blog/what-it-takes-buy-home-america-221191/

5 Reasons to Buy a Home This Fall

Real estate markets ebb and flow, just like the seasons. The spring market blooms right along with the flowers, but the fall market often dwindles with the leaves – and this slower pace could be good for buyers.

If you’re in the market for a home, here are five reasons why fall can be a great time to buy.

1. Old inventory may mean deals

Sellers tend to put their homes on the market in the spring, often listing their homes too high right out of the gate. This could result in price reductions throughout the spring and summer months.

These sellers have fewer chances to capture buyers after Labor Day. By October, you are likely to find desperate sellers and prices below a home’s market value.

2. Fewer buyers are competing

Families who want to be in a new home by the beginning of the school season are no longer shopping at this point. That translates into less competition and more opportunities for buyers.

You’ll likely notice fewer buyers at open houses, which could signal a great opportunity to make an offer.

3. Sellers want to close by the end of the year

While a home is where an owner lives and makes memories, it is also an investment – one with tax consequences.

A home seller may want to take advantage of a gain or loss during this tax year, so you might find homeowners looking to make deals so they can close before December 31.

Ask why the seller is selling, and look for listings that offer incentives to close before the end of the year.

4. The holidays motivate sellers

As the holidays approach, sellers are eager to close so they can move on to planning their parties and events.

If a home has not sold by November, the seller is likely motivated to be done with the disruptions caused by listing a home for sale.

5. Harsher weather shows more flaws

The dreary fall and winter months tend to reveal flaws, making them a great time to see a home’s true colors.

It’s better to see the home’s flaws before making the offer, instead of being surprised months after you close. In fact, the best time to do a property inspection is in the rain and snow, because any major issues are more likely to be exposed.

Top photo from Shutterstock.

Related:

Originally published October 2015.

from Zillow Porchlight https://www.zillow.com/blog/fall-a-great-time-to-buy-185456/

Van? RV? School Bus? 6 Questions to Ask Before Choosing a Home on Wheels

We’ve all seen photos of the perfectly manicured home on wheels: the reclaimed wood-lined walls, the occupants dreamily sipping coffee and watching a sunrise. People of all ages (including me) are asking themselves, “Can I do that too?" 

When I first saw the van that would one day be mine, I thought it was perfect for me. The 1986 GMC Vandura had a comfy bed, turquoise cabinets and twinkle lights that made me weak in the knees.

But a mobile life can involve just as much work as a stationary one – sometimes even more. You won’t have to pay a mortgage, but you might need new brakes. You won’t have to rely on neighbors to water your plants when you travel, but you will have to keep a tiny space organized and livable on the road.

If those things don’t scare you off, the rewards can far outweigh the work. Here are some important questions to consider first.

Which home is right for you?

There are various names for homes on wheels and recreational vehicles.

The RV is a self-contained, manufactured home on wheels. It typically contains a bathroom and a kitchen, and depending on the version you choose, it can be driven or towed. If you own a vehicle with towing capacity, a towable RV allows you to park and move around more freely.

Camper vans are more compact but offer fewer amenities. They might have a small kitchenette but rarely contain a bathroom. If you’re willing to rough it on the road, the camper van can be a more affordable option.

Then there are the more creative approaches to mobile living. People have converted school buses and vintage Airstreams into living quarters. Choosing the vessel for your life on wheels is an important decision, so weigh your options carefully.

How will you use it?

Previously, people bought mobile homes when they retired. These days, the options for remote work allow more people to embrace a mobile lifestyle, with many variations. Some people want to travel regularly, while others park their homes and only occasionally switch locations.

My motivation for buying a van was the freedom to spend month-long stints on the road and rent out my house whenever I left. As a freelance writer, I often travel in search of stories, and this seemed like a perfect way to do so. I could have the comforts of home and the freedom of wheels.

However, since dropping $5,500 on the initial purchase and about $1,000 in repairs, I’ve landed a full-time job. It’s now more of a weekend camping vehicle than a home. The extra headspace that once seemed luxurious now feels cumbersome, especially when I’m driving over windy mountain passes and spending $60 to fill up my tank. Also, the $80-per-month insurance feels extra expensive, now that I’m paying for something I don’t often use.

I’ll travel regularly in my van someday, but my experience illustrates the importance of knowing how your van will facilitate the life you wish to lead. Where will you go, how often will you go and what will you do? Looking back, I would have gone for something a little smaller and lower maintenance.

Freedom can become debilitating if you don’t know how you’ll use it.

Where will you park?

Campgrounds, RV parks, Walmart parking lots and city streets have all become temporary homes for people who live on the road. But you must consider parking laws, safety and cost – every single night.

RV parks and many campgrounds offer hookups for electricity and water. If your home is designed to accommodate those amenities, they’re nice to have. It helps to research campground details before you hit the road. 

If you’re freeing yourself from rent or a mortgage, you might not want to dump that money back into parking each night. National forests offer free camping, as long as you’re 100-200 feet away from any road, trail or water source. Ask local ranger stations about access to dispersed camping and local regulations. 

While mobile life is often celebrated with a backdrop of ocean beaches or beloved national parks, cities are something to consider too. They just require a little extra consideration.

Vans have a leg up on bigger, flashier RVs when it comes to cities, especially if your van doesn’t look like someone lives in it. 

The most important piece of advice when considering where to park: Do your research. Reserve a spot when heading to popular parks, call ranger stations for information about parking in the area, join local forums, and always collect information ahead of time so you you’re not searching for a place to sleep in the middle of the night with no service.

How much does it cost?

Paring down your belongings can be a great way to save money. But mobile living isn’t always cheap.

First, there’s the cost of your vehicle, which can vary considerably. Conversions – van, Airstream, school bus, etc. – can be expensive, even if you’re doing the work yourself. For example, this stylish Sprinter van conversion cost $54,120. You’ll see a huge range on RV prices as well, from several thousand to millions of dollars.

Once you find a home that’s right for your budget, you’ll need to consider living costs too.

Camping fees are about $20 per night, which can be alleviated by free parking. But you won’t get water and electrical hookups unless you pay for them.

Vehicle insurance will add a few hundred to several thousand dollars in yearly costs. Comprehensive auto insurance, while more expensive than bare-boned liability plans, will protect your home and belongings from vandalism and theft.

I learned the hard way that an RV insurance plan is required of any vehicle that’s been converted into a living space. Even though my van isn’t technically an RV, AAA initially refused to tow me when I broke down in Seattle because I didn’t have RV insurance. I’ve since upgraded, which has been worth it for the peace of mind. 

Depending on the age and condition of your vehicle, you’ll also need to factor in regular repairs. And don’t forget gas money! You’ll spend a lot more on gas for your mobile home than you will on filling up your regular car. And the more toys you carry with your mobile home, the more your gas bills will climb.

Where will you go to the bathroom?

Unless you’re able to find a mobile home with a built-in shower and toilet, personal hygiene can be a challenge on the road. But there are plenty of creative ways to make it work.

A membership to a gym chain with locations across the country, like Planet Fitness or L.A. Fitness, will allow you to access showers and bathrooms – not to mention a workout, which can be vital when your living space only allows you to walk a few feet in either direction.

Campgrounds and truck stops also provide facilities to the traveler looking to freshen up.

If you don’t have a toilet, you’ll likely find yourself using truck-stop and cafe bathrooms. But a late-night bathroom break could mean toilets aren’t available, and you’ll have to settle for whatever is around.

Can you work on the road?

Remote work opportunities have freed many people from the constraints of a typical office job. But working from a mobile home is much different than a home office.

First, consider how often you’ll need to work and where you’ll be able to do so. It might be helpful to stay close to developed areas where there are plenty of establishments offering free Wi-Fi.

If you can work comfortably inside of your mobile home, you can use your mobile device as a Wi-Fi hotspot or purchase a dedicated Wi-Fi hotspot for $100-150. Whichever option you go with, you’ll need to sign up for a service plan with data. Check on the coverage area of service providers before you pick one – they’re no use when you’re in a dead zone!

Working from the road also means you’ll need electricity, which is nice to have for other uses, too, like charging your cell phone or running a fan to stay cool when your engine is off.

Solar panels are a convenient, rechargeable and environmentally friendly energy source. 

I can see my van parked on the street from the window of my house right now. I’m still not entirely sure what a mobile life will look like, but figuring it out is half the fun.

Related:

Originally published September 2017.

from Zillow Porchlight https://www.zillow.com/blog/home-on-wheels-tips-220828/

Say What? Home-Buying Lingo You Should Know

DTI, PMI, LTV … TBH, it can be hard to keep all this stuff straight. This lexicon of real estate terms and acronyms will help you speak the language like a pro.

Appraisal management company (AMC): An institution operated independently of a lender that, once notified by a lender, orders a home appraisal.

Appraisal: An informed, impartial and well-documented opinion of the value of a home, prepared by a licensed and certified appraiser and based on data about comparable homes in the area, as well as the appraiser’s own walkthrough.

Approved for short sale: A term that indicates that a homeowner’s bank has approved a reduced listing price on a home, and the home is ready for resale.

American Society of Home Inspectors (ASHI): A not-for-profit professional association that sets and promotes standards for property inspections and provides educational opportunities to its members. (i.e., Look for this accreditation or something similar when shopping for a home inspector.)

Attorney state: A state in which a real estate attorney is responsible for closing.

Back-end ratio: One of two debt-to-income ratios that a lender analyzes to determine a borrower’s eligibility for a home loan. The ratio compares the borrower’s monthly debt payments (proposed housing expenses, plus student loan, car payment, credit card debt, maintenance or child support and installment loans) to gross income.

Buyers market: Market conditions that exist when homes for sale outnumber buyers. Homes sit on the market a long time, and prices drop.

Cancellation of escrow: A situation in which a buyer backs out of a home purchase.

Capacity: The amount of money a home buyer can afford to borrow.

Cash-value policy: A homeowners insurance policy that pays the replacement cost of a home, minus depreciation, should damage occur.

Closing: A one- to two-hour meeting during which ownership of a home is transferred from seller to buyer. A closing is usually attended by the buyer, the seller, both real estate agents and the lender.

Closing costs: Fees associated with the purchase of a home that are due at the end of the sales transaction. Fees may include the appraisal, the home inspection, a title search, a pest inspection and more. Buyers should budget for an amount that is 1% to 3% of the home’s purchase price.

Closing disclosure (CD): A five-page document sent to the buyer three days before closing. This document spells out all the terms of the loan: the amount, the interest rate, the monthly payment, mortgage insurance, the monthly escrow amount and all closing costs.

Closing escrow: The final and official transfer of property from seller to buyer and delivery of appropriate paperwork to each party. Closing of escrow is the responsibility of the escrow agent.

Comparative market analysis (CMA): An in-depth analysis, prepared by a real estate agent, that determines the estimated value of a home based on recently sold homes of similar condition, size, features and age that are located in the same area.

Compliance agreement: A document signed by the buyer at closing, in which they agree to cooperate if the lender needs to fix any mistakes in the loan documents.

Comps: Or comparable sales, are homes in a given area that have sold within the past six months that a real estate agent uses to determine a home’s value.

Condo insurance: Homeowners insurance that covers personal property and the interior of a condo unit should damage occur.

Contingencies: Conditions written into a home purchase contract that protect the buyer should issues arise with financing, the home inspection, etc.

Conventional 97: A home loan that requires a down payment equivalent to 3% of the home’s purchase price. Private mortgage insurance, which is required, can be canceled when the owner reaches 80% equity.

Conventional loan: A home loan not guaranteed by a government agency, such as the FHA or the VA.

Days on market (DOM): The number of days a property listing is considered active.

Depository institutions: Banks, savings and loans, and credit unions. These institutions underwrite as well as set home loan pricing in-house.

Down payment: A certain portion of the home’s purchase price that a buyer must pay. A minimum requirement is often dictated by the loan type.

Debt-to-income ratio (DTI): A ratio that compares a home buyer’s expenses to gross income.

Earnest money: A security deposit made by the buyer to assure the seller of his or her intent to purchase.

Equity: A percentage of the home’s value owned by the homeowner.

Escrow account: An account required by a lender and funded by a buyer’s mortgage payment to pay the buyer’s homeowners insurance and property taxes.

Escrow agent: A neutral third-party officer who holds all paperwork and funding in trust until all parties in the transaction fulfill their obligations as part of the transfer of property ownership.

Escrow state: A state in which an escrow agent is responsible for closing.

Fannie Mae: A government-sponsored enterprise chartered in 1938 to help ensure a reliable and affordable supply of mortgage funds throughout the country.

Federal Reserve: The central bank of the United States, established in 1913 to provide the nation with a safer, more flexible and more stable monetary and financial system.

Federal Housing Administration (FHA): A government agency created by the National Housing Act of 1934 that insures loans made by private lenders.

FHA 203(k): A rehabilitation loan backed by the federal government that permits home buyers to finance money into a mortgage to repair, improve or upgrade a home.

Foreclosure: A property repossessed by a bank when the owner fails to make mortgage payments.

Freddie Mac: A government agency chartered by Congress in 1970 to provide a constant source of mortgage funding for the nation’s housing markets.

Funding fee: A fee that protects the lender from loss and also funds the loan program itself. Examples include the VA funding fee and the FHA funding fee.

Gentrification: The process of rehabilitation and renewal that occurs in an urban area as the demographic changes. Rents and property values increase, culture changes and lower-income residents are often displaced.

Guaranteed replacement coverage: Homeowners insurance that covers what it would cost to replace property based on today’s prices, not original purchase price, should damage occur.

Homeowners association (HOA): The governing body of a housing development, condo or townhome complex that sets rules and regulations and charges dues and special assessments used to maintain common areas and cover unexpected expenses respectively.

Home equity line of credit (HELOC): A revolving line of credit with an adjustable interest rate. Like a credit card, this line of credit has a limit. There is a specified time during which money can be drawn. Payment in full is due at the end of the draw period.

Home equity loan: A lump-sum loan that allows the homeowner to use the equity in their home as collateral. The loan places a lien against the property and reduces home equity.

Home inspection: A nondestructive visual look at the systems in a building. Inspection occurs when the home is under contract or in escrow.

Homeowners insurance: A policy that protects the structure of the home, its contents, injury to others and living expenses should damage occur.

Housing ratio: One of two debt-to-income ratios that a lender analyzes to determine a borrower’s eligibility for a home loan. The ratio compares total housing cost (principal, homeowners insurance, taxes and private mortgage insurance) to gross income.

In escrow: A period of time (30 days or longer) after a buyer has made an offer on a home and a seller has accepted. During this time, the home is inspected and appraised, and the title searched for liens, etc.

Jumbo loan: A loan amount that exceeds the Fannie Mae/Freddie Mac limit, which is generally $425,100 in most parts of the U.S.

Listing price: The price of a home, as set by the seller.

Loan estimate: A three-page document sent to an applicant three days after they apply for a home loan. The document includes loan terms, monthly payment and closing costs.

Loan-to-value ratio (LTV): The amount of the loan divided by the price of the house. Lenders reward lower LTV ratios.

Market value coverage: Homeowners insurance that covers the amount the home would go for on the market, not the cost to repair, should damage occur.

Mechanic’s lien: A hold against a property, filed in the county recorder’s office by someone who’s done work on a home and not been paid. If the homeowner refuses to pay, the lien allows a foreclosure action.

Mortgage broker: A licensed professional who works on behalf of the buyer to secure financing through a bank or other lending institution.

Mortgage companies: Lenders who underwrite loans in-house and fund loans from a line of credit before selling them off to a loan buyer.

Mortgage interest deduction: Mortgage interest paid in a year subtracted from annual gross salary.

Mortgage interest rate: The price of borrowing money. The base rate is set by the Federal Reserve and then customized per borrower, based on credit score, down payment, property type and points the buyer pays to lower the rate.

Multiple listing service (MLS): A database where real estate agents list properties for sale.

Origination fee: A fee, charged by a broker or lender, to initiate and complete the home loan application process.

Piggyback loan: A combination of loans bundled to avoid private mortgage Insurance. One loan covers 80% of the home’s value, another loan covers 10% to 15% of the home’s value, and the buyer contributes the remainder.

Principal, interest, property taxes and homeowners insurance (PITI): The components of a monthly mortgage payment.

Private mortgage insurance (PMI): A fee charged to borrowers who make a down payment that is less than 20% of the home’s value. The fee, 0.3% to 1.5% of the yearly loan amount, can be canceled in certain circumstances when the borrower reaches 20% equity.

Points: Prepaid interest owed at closing, with one point representing 1% of the loan. Paying points, which are tax deductible, will lower the monthly mortgage payment.

Pre-approval: A thorough assessment of a borrower’s income, assets and other data to determine a loan amount they would qualify for. A real estate agent will request a pre-approval or pre-qualification letter before showing a buyer a home.

Pre-qualification: A basic assessment of income, assets and credit score to determine what, if any, loan programs a borrower might qualify for. A real estate agent will request a pre-approval or pre-qualification letter before showing a buyer a home.

Property tax exemption: A reduction in taxes based on specific criteria, such as installation of a renewable energy system or rehabilitation of a historic home.

Round table closing: All parties (the buyer, the seller, the real estate agents and maybe the lender) meet at a specified time to sign paperwork, pay fees and finalize the transfer of homeownership.

Sellers market: Market conditions that exist when buyers outnumber homes for sale. Bidding wars are common.

Short sale: The sale of a home by an owner who owes more on the home than it’s worth (i.e., “underwater” or “upside down”). The owner’s bank must approve a lower listing price before the home can be sold.

Special assessment: A fee charged by a condo complex HOA when cash on reserve is not enough to cover unexpected expenses.

Tax lien: The government’s legal claim against property when the homeowner neglects or fails to pay a tax debt.

Third-party review required: Verbiage included in a home listing to indicate that the lender has not yet approved the home for short sale. The seller must submit the buyer’s offer to the lender for approval.

Title insurance: Insurance that protects the buyer and lender should an individual or entity step forward with a claim that was attached to the property before the seller transferred legal ownership of the property or “title” to the buyer.

Transfer stamps: The form in which transfer taxes are paid by the home buyer. Stamps can also serve as proof of transfer tax payment.

Transfer taxes: Fees imposed by the state, county or municipality on transfer of title.

Under contract: A period of time (30 days or longer) after a buyer has made an offer on a home and a seller has accepted. During this time, the home is inspected and appraised, and the title is searched for liens, etc.

Underwater or upside down: A situation in which a homeowner owes more for a property than it’s worth.

Underwriting: A process a lender follows to assess a home loan applicant’s income, assets and credit, and the risk involved in offering the applicant a mortgage.

VA home loan: A home loan partially guaranteed by the United States Department of Veteran Affairs and offered by private lenders, such as banks and mortgage companies.

VantageScore: A credit scoring model lenders use to make lending decisions. A borrower’s score is based on bill-paying habits, debt balances, age, variety of credit accounts and number of inquiries on credit reports.

Walkthrough: A buyer’s final inspection of a home before closing.

Water certificate: A document that certifies that a water account has been paid in full. The seller must produce this certificate at closing.

Related:

from Zillow Porchlight https://www.zillow.com/blog/real-estate-lingo-and-acronyms-230688/

Investment Property: How Much Can You Write Off on Your Taxes?

There are certain things you can do as a real estate investor to help manage your tax bill and maximize your after-tax return on investment. To do so, however, you need to understand the primary ways in which investment real estate portfolios get taxed. You must also have a general grasp of some abstract concepts like calculating your tax basis, as well as the depreciation of capital investments.

Warning: This article is not going to make you an expert. But it will acquaint you with the basic terminology so you can be better prepared for a meeting with your tax adviser.

Taxation of rental income

The IRS taxes the real estate portfolios of living investors in two primary ways: income tax and capital gains tax. (A third way, estate tax, applies only to dead investors.)

Rental income is taxable – as ordinary income tax. That means you must declare it as income on your tax return and pay income tax on it. Unlike wages, rental income is not subject to FICA taxes.

Your income is everything you get from rents and royalties on the property, minus any deductible expenses. You can’t deduct everything though. You can only deduct mortgage interest and repairs you make that restore the property to its original minimally functional condition. You can’t deduct capital investments like new buildings, additions or renovations. More on these later.

Capital gains tax

The second tax bill you need to worry about is capital gains tax. The IRS taxes you on any net profits you get out of a property when you sell it. If you’re flipping the property and you’ve owned it for less than a year, you pay short-term capital gains tax, which is the same rate as your marginal income tax rate. If you’re in the 28% tax bracket, you’ll pay a 28% tax on short-term capital gains.

If you hold the property for 12 months, you’ll qualify for more favorable long-term capital gains. Depending on your marginal income tax bracket, these taxes could range from 0% to 15%. In every bracket, however, the IRS takes a smaller cut out of long-term gains than out of ordinary income or short-term gains.

Calculating capital gains

You pay capital gains tax on the difference between your selling price in the property and your adjusted tax basis. Your adjusted tax basis in a property is the original cost you paid for the property, plus any amount invested in renovations and improvements (including labor costs on these projects) that you have not previously deducted for taxes.

If you have deductions associated with the property, you subtract them from your tax basis. If your adjusted tax basis is higher than your sale, you have a capital loss. You can subtract capital losses from a given year from capital gains to reduce your tax bill. If you have more capital losses than capital gains, you can “carry forward” these capital losses into future years to offset future capital gains. If you have no capital gains, you can deduct $3,000 annually until you have recognized all your capital loss carryforward.

How to defer capital gains taxes: an intro to like-kind exchanges

The IRS provides an important exception to capital gains taxation, made-to-order for real estate investors: If you own an investment property, you can sell your property at a profit and roll your money over into another property within 60 days without having to pay capital gains taxes at all. This transaction is known as a Section 1031 exchange, named for the section of the U.S. Revenue Code that allows it. You cannot swap your rental property for a personal residence, or vice versa. For this reason, these exchanges are called like-kind exchanges, in that the property you replace it with needs to be substantially similar to what you sold.

The 1031 exchange makes it possible for real estate investors to defer paying capital gains tax, which is another advantage over investing in mutual funds, stocks, bonds and other securities or collectibles. Outside of a retirement account, you have to pay tax on gains in these items by April 15 of the year after you sold them.

Depreciation and amortization

This is a broad concept, so we can only cover the very basics here. When you buy investment property – be it a building, a computer or a horse – the IRS knows that the item won’t stay young and new forever. Over time, the property will decrease in value. Depreciation is the process of claiming a deduction to compensate you for the property’s decrease in value during the year.

Note: You can’t depreciate your personal residence. You can only depreciate investment property. For more information on the process of depreciation, see IRS Publication 946, How To Depreciate Property.

Land, of course, doesn’t depreciate. But minerals underneath the land do. If you are extracting oil or other minerals, or timber, for that matter, from the land, you will account for the gradual loss in value through a process called depletion.

Likewise, when you make a purchase of investment real estate or capital equipment with a useful life of longer than a year, the IRS knows you will be using that property to generate income for a long time to come.

Except in certain circumstances, the IRS does not allow you to deduct the full cost of your investment in the first year. Instead, you must amortize your investment over a number of years. For real estate, you must spread the deduction out over 27.5 years.

Passive activity rules

Again, these rules are complex. But in a nutshell, if you are a passive investor – meaning you are not working day to day in the business of managing your real estate investments – you are subject to passive activity rules. Basically, you can only deduct passive losses to the extent that you can cancel out gains from passive activities. These rules restrict your ability to use passive activity losses to offset capital gains elsewhere in your portfolio. Congress implemented these rules in 1986 to eliminate tax loopholes and abusive tax shelters.

Most individual investor landlords can deduct up to $25,000 per year in losses on rental properties, if necessary (subject to income limitation). Hopefully you won’t have to make use of this provision much.

Property taxes

Expect to pay property taxes to local and county governments each year. Your local government will assess the market value of your property at its “highest and best use” and charge you a percentage of that value every year. You can deduct property taxes against your rental income, though, provided the property tax is uniformly assessed throughout the jurisdiction and is not a special assessment.

Other tax deductions

Watch for opportunities to take deductions for these common real estate investment expenses:

  • Mortgage interest
  • Legal fees related to your investment properties or business
  • Mileage
  • Business use of your home (the home office deduction)
  • Advertising fees

Employees (but if they are working on capital improvements or renovations, you have to amortize their labor costs as part of your capital investment, rather than as a current year expense.)

Related:

from Zillow Porchlight https://www.zillow.com/blog/tax-on-investment-property-230671/

10 Things You Need to Do When Buying A Home

A home is often the biggest financial investment you’ll make in your lifetime. In fact, a recent Zillow analysis reports that the typical American homeowner has 40% of their wealth tied up in their home.

Several years ago, I wrote a complete guide to financial planning on one index card, which went viral and later became a book: “The Index Card: Why Personal Finance Doesn’t Have to Be Complicated” (co-written with Helaine Olen).

Now, following up on my original index card, I’ve written a guide on buying a house. Below is the housing index card – a handy resource to print and take with you as you look at houses or think about buying one – plus some additional advice as you contemplate making the big decision.

Photo by Harold Pollack.

1. Buy for the long run

A home is a significant investment, not to mention a linchpin of stability. According to the Zillow Group Consumer Housing Trends Report 2017, the majority of Americans who sold their homes last year had lived in their home for at least a decade before selling.

Some are even staying for the long haul. Almost half (46%) of all homeowners are like me – living in the first home we ever purchased. In short: Buy a home you want to live in for at least five years – one equipped (or ready to be equipped) with the features and space you need, both now and in the future.

2. Buy to improve your life, not speculate with money

Your home is more than a financial investment; it’s where you sleep, eat, host friends, raise your children – it’s where your life happens.

The housing market is too unpredictable to buy a (primary) home purely because you think it will net a big short-term financial return. You will most likely be living in this home for several years, regardless of how it appreciates, so your first priority should be finding a home that will meet your needs and help you build the life you want.

3. Focus on what’s important to you

Today’s housing market is short on inventory, with 10% fewer homes on the market in November 2017 than November 2016.

So, focus on finding a home you can afford that meets your needs – but don’t get distracted by shiny features that might break your budget. Nice-to-have features often drive up the price tag for things you don’t particularly value once the initial enjoyment wears off.

Make a list of your basic needs, both for your desired home and for your desired neighborhood. Stick to finding a home that meets these needs, without buying extra stuff that adds up.

4. Set a budget and stick to it

It’s important to set a budget early – ideally before you even start looking at homes. In today’s market, especially in the more competitive markets, it’s incredibly easy to go over budget – 29% of buyers who purchased last year did.

The most common culprit? Location. Zillow’s data indicates that urban buyers are significantly more likely to go over budget (42%) than suburban (25%) or rural (20%) buyers.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with that. Local schools matter, and psychologists tell us that a short commute improves your life. But be realistic about your local market and about yourself. Know what you’re willing to compromise on – be it less square footage, home repairs or a different neighborhood.

5. Aim for a 20% down payment

If you can afford it, a 20% down payment is ideal for three reasons:

  • Buyers who don’t put a full 20% down pay a premium, most commonly in the form of private mortgage insurance (PMI). This is less financially punishing than it used to be, given today’s low mortgage rates. A monthly mortgage payment (with PMI) may be lower than a monthly rental payment in many markets – but still.
  • Buyers who put more down upfront typically make fewer offers and buy faster than those who put less down. Zillow research found that buyers with higher down payments make 1.9 offers on average, compared to 2.4 offers for buyers with lower down payments (after controlling for market conditions).
  • A higher down payment reduces your financial risk. You don’t want to owe more money than your house is worth if local markets dip when you need to sell.

6. Keep a six-month strategic reserve

While a down payment is a significant expense, it’s also important to build up a strategic reserve and keep it separate from your normal bank account.

This reserve should cover six months of living expenses in case you get sick, face an unexpected expense or lose your job. A strategic reserve will not only save you from financial hardship in an emergency but also provide peace of mind.

When we accumulated a strategic reserve, my wife and I finally felt ready to build for our future. Without it, we were living from paycheck to paycheck, anxiously managing our cash flow rather than saving or budgeting.

7. Get pre-approved, and stick with a fixed-rate mortgage

The pre-approval process requires organizing all your paperwork; documenting your income, debt and credit; and understanding all the loan options available to you. It’s a bit of a pain, but it saves time later. Getting pre-approved also shows sellers that you’re a reliable buyer with a strong financial footing. Most importantly, it helps you understand what you can afford.

There are a variety of mortgage types, and it’s important to evaluate all of them to see which is best for your family and financial situation. Those boring 30- and 15-year mortgages offer big advantages.

The biggest is locking in your mortgage rate. In short: A 30-year fixed mortgage has a specific fixed rate of interest that doesn’t change for 30 years. A 15-year fixed mortgage does the same.

These typically have lower rates but higher monthly payments, since you must pay it off in half the time. Conventional fixed-rate mortgages help you manage your household budgeting because you know precisely how much you’ll be paying every month for many years. They’re simple to understand, and current rates are low.

One final advantage is that they don’t tempt you with a low initial payment to buy more house than you can afford.

8. Comparison shop to get the best mortgage

Though a home is the biggest purchase many of us will ever make, most home buyers don’t shop around for a mortgage (52% consider only a single lender).

I certainly didn’t. This did save me some annoying calls and hassle, but it cost me $40 or $50 every month, for years. The difference of half a percentage point in your mortgage rate can add up to thousands of dollars over the lifetime of the loan. It’s important to evaluate all the available options to make sure you’re going with the lender who meets your needs – not just the first one you contact.

The three most important factors are that the lender offers a loan program that caters to their specific needs (76%), has the most competitive rates (74%) and has a history of closing on time (63%).

9. Spend no more than a third of your after-tax income

It’s better to regret spending too little on your home than spending too much. One-third of your after-tax income is a manageable amount. This isn’t always possible if you live in a place like San Francisco or New York, but it’s still a good yardstick for where to be.

10. Be willing to walk away

Buying a home is a time-consuming, stressful but ultimately rewarding endeavor – if you end up closing on a home that meets your needs. But it’s important to manage your expectations in case you don’t immediately find a home you can afford with the features you need.

Always be prepared to walk away if the sellers don’t accept your offer, the home doesn’t pass a rigorous inspection or the timing isn’t right. Hold fast to your list of must-haves, stick to what you can afford and don’t overreach or settle.

It’s no tragedy to miss out on any particular house. Remember that you’re playing the long game. You want to be happy 10 years from now.

Related:

Originally published January 2018.

from Zillow Porchlight https://www.zillow.com/blog/10-things-must-do-buying-a-home-224314/

3 Reasons to Live in a New Home Before Renovating

In today’s market, many buyers forego fixer-uppers for move-in ready homes. As a result, significant opportunities abound in prime locations as homes that need work linger on the market.

In competitive markets, savvy consumers gravitate toward these homes that nobody else wants. Why? They can customize the home to their requirements and build equity along the way.

That said, I often recommend that buyers live in a new home for a while before undertaking any major remodeling or pricey home improvements. I’m not talking about lighting or plumbing repairs necessary to make the house habitable. Rather, I’m referring to discretionary remodeling, expansions and other improvement projects.

Here are three good reasons to at least consider holding off on the big home improvement projects until you’ve had some time to settle in.

1. Living in the home can change your mind

You may have grand visions for what you’d like to do to a home, based on its condition and your priorities at the time you buy it. But until you’re actually living there, it’s difficult to know exactly how you’ll use the house, what will work for you and what won’t.

Ultimately, it’s this day-to-day experience that will inform your home improvement decisions, instead of early notions of how you want your everyday experience to be.

2. After buying a home, you deserve a break

Buying a home is a massive project, an enormous change in your life and a shock to the system – if not your finances. I’ve seen buyers jump through hoops, spending months on end looking for a home. In some situations, it becomes a part-time job.

A home renovation can be yet another big and stressful project, what with all the decisions to make and contractors to deal with.

My recommendation: Take a break from the stress of buying your new home.

3. You need time to plan

Any renovation, no matter how small, should be designed with care. That means speaking to multiple architects, contractors or designers to get their take on your ideas and options – a time-consuming process.

An hour with a well-qualified contractor can uncover opportunities where you least expected them. For instance, even though it may be an added cost now, moving the laundry machines from the garage to the top floor during a larger renovation may save you time and money down the road.

Conversely, hiring architects and contractors while under the constraints of an escrow period is likely to cause problems for you later.

Some buyers want to jump into renovations because they don’t want to live in a construction zone or pay rent and a mortgage at the same time. While this may make some economic sense upfront, it can still cause costly problems later.

Often, buyers who said they don’t want a home that requires any work end up buying a home that needs at least some. It’s the natural evolution of the buying process. Rarely does someone end up buying the home they started off thinking they wanted.

While you should be open to doing work on a home, don’t feel stressed about getting it all done at once. Live as-is for six months to a year. Take the home for a test drive and see how it runs. You may be surprised at how your perspective and priorities change once you settle in.

Find out which home renovations DIYers most regretted tackling themselves.

Related:

Note: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or position of Zillow.
Originally published August 2016.

from Zillow Porchlight https://www.zillow.com/blog/live-in-home-before-renovating-64719/