5 On Your Side

How much mortgage can you actually afford?

Posted August 2

— When it comes to mortgages, your bank gives you one number -- but does your budget meet it? Luckily, there's a way to figure out how much house you can actually afford.

According to a recent Bankrate report, 80 percent of homeowners say their mortgage payments make it difficult to save money, and homeowners with children said they definitely have a hard time juggling competing financial priorities.

Homes in a certain price range are going fast, but how do you know if the house you fall in love with is the right one? Buyers usually want to get in their home, unpack and make it their own, but it's important to make sure you can afford the house before signing all those papers.

First-time homebuyers Chiara Norbitz and Mike Grubiak had two goals when figuring out their price range -- spend less than what they'd been paying in rent and make sure they had enough leftover to cover other expenses and then some.

“We tried to break it into a pie where we were at least saving a certain amount of money every month," said Norbitz. Their bank pre-approved them for one number, but experts at Consumer Reports say that number can be deceiving. Lenders look at how much they think you can pay them each month, not what you can actually pay.

"[The number lenders give you] doesn't guarantee you can make those payments and still save for retirement, still save for college and still manage to go on a vacation every year," said Lauren Lyons Cole, a money editor at Consumer Reports.

Deciding how much mortgage you can afford is personal, officials say. A good rule of thumb is to cap your housing costs at 25 percent of your take-home pay, which should leave a little wiggle room in case of emergencies.

“You need to have money in case the air conditioner breaks or you need to replace the roof," said Cole. "Owning a home is very cost intensive, so keeping your mortgage payments as low as possible will help you afford everything else that goes with it.”

In the end, Grubiak and his wife found a home they loved for less than the bank was willing to loan them. Now, they can save for other things. “We really want to have a nest egg right now for vacations, emergencies and, eventually down the road, having our first child," said Grubiak.

If you're having trouble calculating a number you can live with, Consumer Reports editors suggest consulting a financial planner or a third party you trust to help you find the right fit.

For more advice, check out Consumer Reports' mortgage guide.

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  • Andy Hairston Aug 3, 12:19 p.m.
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    Do NOT assume that your bank's preapproval number is right for you. They preapproved us for almost double what we felt we could pay. Create a budget, estimating what you are willing to spend on housing expenses. Remember that some things covered in rent are separate expenses for a house, like trash pickup or water bills.