Home Mortgage Rates Are Low: Should I Buy?

This past week, mortgage rates hit a new record low, bottoming out at a 3.79% average for a 30 year loan. A fifteen year mortgage is now at 3.04%. This is compared to rates that were 4.64% and 3.82% a year ago, respectively.

To put that in perspective, if you have a $200,000 home loan, your monthly mortgage payment for a thirty year loan would be $930.78, and on a 15 year loan, you’d only be paying $1,385.01.

That’s pretty low. For many people, these rates would be lower than what you might expect to pay on a similar rental.

When Sarah and I bought our home, interest rates were falling pretty quickly. We got a rate that was under 6% on a thirty year mortgage and were thrilled with how low it was. Today, we could have received a mortgage with the same monthly payments but for an amount tens of thousands of dollars higher. The pendulum really has shifted in favor of the buyer.

These low home mortgage rates bring about a big question: how low do rates have to be before it’s a good idea to get a mortgage, even if you don’t have a 20% down payment?

This is really a tricky question to answer, because much of the answer has to do with one’s personal ideas about money. There is no good way to “run the numbers” over the long term, because the true answer to this question relies on the future of the housing market in the particular area where you’re buying the house, as well as things like the homeowner’s desire and ability to keep their house in good shape.

Given that we can’t know such things, my perspective is that you should buy when your total monthly cost for owning the home is less than the total monthly cost of renting. Right now, the interest rates are making the home ownership cost quite low.

For example, let’s say you’re looking at buying a townhouse that’s similar to the apartment you’re renting with your spouse. You’re currently renting for $1,200 a month and you pay, say, $25 a month in renters insurance.

If you buy a $200,000 home with nothing down, you’ll be paying $930 a month in mortgage payments, another $80 or so a month in PMI, another $80 a month in homeowners insurance, and another (say) $200 a month in property taxes. That adds up to $1,290, which means it’s a solid deal, but not a great one.

Now, if you buy a $150,000 home with nothing down, your total goes down to somewhere around $970 a month, which makes it a better deal.

In other words, if the total cost of your rental is more than the total cost of home ownership, then you should own. If it’s really close, I lean slightly toward renting, simply because there are usually extra costs in home ownership, such as home repairs and the like. You can no longer just call a landlord.

Right now, the pendulum is about as far toward home ownership as can be, but it’s still not all the way there for everyone. If you’re in an inexpensive apartment and don’t have a down payment saved up, you’re better off staying put.

What about the pendulum swinging back the other way in the future? The possibility of something becoming more expensive in the future is not a good reason to put yourself in a financially risky position today, particularly if your financial position isn’t strong enough for home ownership. If you don’t have a lot of money to spare, leave the risky investments to others and play it safe.

Trent Hamm
Trent Hamm
Founder of The Simple Dollar

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 after developing innovative financial strategies to get out of debt. Since then, he’s written three books (published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press), contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.

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