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| Bankrate: Is Now a Good Time to Buy a House or Should I Wait?


Buy now, or wait? That’s the question prospective homeowners have been struggling to answer in today’s housing market. Home prices skyrocketed throughout the pandemic, and the Federal Reserve’s work to tame inflation has sent mortgage rates soaring, too.

The combination has led many would-be buyers to pick the “wait” side of the equation. The volume of existing home sales was down more than 14 percent from October 2022 to October of this year, according to the National Association of Realtors. And, according to the Fannie Mae Home Purchase Sentiment Index released in early November, an overwhelming 85 percent of consumers believe it’s a bad time to buy a house.

However, after being at a constant disadvantage for the past few years, things have started to look better for buyers in many parts of the country. Days-on-market figures are way up, giving buyers more time to make an informed decision. Popular West Coast cities that had seen skyrocketing prices, like Seattle and San Francisco, saw double-digit year-over-year declines. And in the most recent National Housing Report from RE/MAX, one of the biggest real estate brokerages in the country, CEO Nick Bailey declared that “buyers are gaining a little more leverage.”

So, is it time to buy a home? Or is it better to wait on the sidelines, in the hopes that either prices or rates see a significant drop soon? And what if there’s a recession? Here are some key considerations to help determine the way forward.

Is now a good time to buy a house?

Mortgage rates are still high — they’ve backed off from the 8 percent highs hit in October, but they’re still well above 7 percent. And home prices are high as well: According to the latest Case-Shiller U.S. National Home Price NSA Index, they’ve now increased for seven straight months. Together, these factors might dissuade you from buying right now, and that’s understandable.

No matter which way the real estate market is leaning, though, buying now means you can start building equity immediately. It also means avoiding the potential for additional mortgage rate increases later: Rising rates can spell serious trouble for your monthly budget, and they also result in paying more in interest over the life of the loan.

“If a buyer finds a property they would like to call home, they should not delay,” says Stacey Froelich, a broker with Compass in New York City. “You cannot time the market, and a home should be a long-term investment.”

“When mortgage rates drop and more buyers come back into the market, home prices will rise,” Melissa Cohn, regional vice president of William Raveis Mortgage in Connecticut recently told her newsletter subscribers. “Remember, you ‘Marry the house and date the rate.’” To put it another way, you can always refinance later.

In general, if you can answer yes to these three questions, now is the time to buy.

  1. Do you have excellent credit? Anytime you’re borrowing money, start by checking your credit score. The best deals on mortgages will be available to those with high scores of 740 and above — in fact, the median credit score for mortgage borrowers in the third quarter of 2023 was 770, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. If you have demonstrated that you are a low-risk borrower with a history of on-time payments, you’ll be in line for the lowest mortgage rates a lender offers.
  2. Have you saved enough for a down payment? In addition to paying your bills on time, you should be sitting on a sizable chunk of change for a down payment. The more you can pay upfront, the less you’ll have to borrow (and so the less interest you’ll have to pay). Make sure you’ll have plenty left over, too: Lenders feel more comfortable loaning you money if you have additional cash reserves that can provide a cushion if something unexpected happens.
  3. Are you planning to stay in the home for a while? Beyond the purchase price, buying a home comes with closing costs that can run thousands more. So, to justify those one-time transaction costs, it’s wise to be reasonably certain that you won’t move again anytime soon — or that you’ll be financially stable enough to hold on to the property and rent it out. Selling a home very soon after buying can have serious tax implications.

Should I buy a house now or wait?

Ultimately, the decision of when to buy a home is up to you. Life goes on, whether the timing is perfect or not. If you’re anxious to become a homeowner, you’ve met the criteria above and you’re financially stable, go ahead and start house-hunting.

If you’re holding out for lower mortgage rates, a bit of patience might be in order. They have been volatile lately, topping 7 percent in mid-July, then retreating back down to 6.88 percent before hitting 8.01 percent in October. That’s more than a full percentage point swing in just a few months.

While 1 percent might not sound like much, it can make a big difference in how much house you can afford over the long run. For example, Bankrate’s mortgage calculator shows that if you buy a $350,000 home with a 20 percent down payment, the monthly payment for principal and interest on a 30-year loan with a 7 percent interest rate is $1,862. The same loan at 8 percent brings those monthly payments up to $2,054 — $192 higher every month. That’s more than $2,300 each year.

Of course, it’s impossible to predict where rates will land by spring. But here are three instances in which it might make more sense to wait out the market until after this winter:

  1. If home values in your area are dropping: If you looked at the market last year and opted to wait, you probably made a wise move — in many areas, summer of 2022 was the pricing peak. Since then, some hot metro areas have seen significant drops in median sale prices. Take Austin, Texas, for example: The National Association of Realtors’ quarterly report for Q3 2023 shows that Austin home prices dropped by 10.3 percent year-over-year, after dropping nearly twice that much (19.1 percent) in Q2. These declines may not be done yet, so it could pay to be patient for a bit longer.
  2. If inventory in your area is increasing: When there are more properties on the market to choose from, buyers enjoy more bargaining power. Since many buyers have been sitting on the sidelines due to the interest rate environment, some areas have seen a jump in inventory. However, according to NAR data, the country overall had 3.6 months worth of housing supply in October — much too low to meet demand.
  3. If your personal finances could use some love: The biggest reason to wait is if your current financial situation is not ideal. For example, if you are expecting a sizable commission check or bonus, an inheritance or some other windfall that would make a big difference in your down payment, waiting until it arrives makes sense. And if your credit score is low, waiting is also smart. Take some time to improve your credit and pay down your debt so you can qualify for better loan terms.

Analyze your local market carefully

Deciding whether to buy a house now or wait depends a lot on where you want to call home. Regardless of national headlines, real estate is hyper-localized and can vary greatly from one market to another, even within the same state.

Consider this recent Redfin data from Texas’ Dallas–Fort Worth metro area: In Fort Worth, the median sale price of a home has decreased by 3.6 percent year-over-year and sat at $333,460 in October. In Dallas, just 30 or so miles away, the median was also decreasing but was a much higher $422,500. That’s a difference of nearly $100,000 within the same metro area. In today’s homebuying market, it’s more important than ever to find a real estate agent who really knows your local area — down to your specific neighborhood — and can help you successfully navigate its unique quirks.

What if there’s a recession?

The odds of a recession by September 2024 now stand at 46 percent, according to Bankrate’s most recent survey. And as you might imagine, recessions are a risky time to buy a home. If you lose your job, for example, a lender will be much less likely to approve your loan application.

Even if the recession doesn’t affect you directly, if your area is hard-hit, that could have a serious effect on the local real estate market. Fewer local people with the means to buy means a lower chance of homes selling, which could keep people from listing and decrease your options as a buyer.

With that said, there are some potential upsides to buying a home during a recession if you’re financially able to do so. Notably, there will be less competition, which could help you find a great property that you otherwise couldn’t and make a great investment in your future.

Next steps

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Trying to buy a house right now might feel overwhelming, but waiting too long can present challenges as well. Review your finances in detail, and think about how much you’re able to pay upfront as a down payment. Be sure to take the pulse of the town in which you’re hoping to live. Then, talk with an experienced local real estate agent to figure out whether you should buy now or wait until the market is a bit more friendly to your bank account.

FAQs

  • 2023 has been a volatile year for real estate. Mortgage rates reached 20-year highs, and many economic experts still believe we are heading for a recession. A high-interest-rate climate gives you less buying power, so buyers who opt to wait for lower rates may find themselves able to afford a higher-priced house, due to the lower mortgage payments. Ultimately, though, whether it’s a good year to buy depends on your personal circumstances. If you need to move now, then go for it: Shop around for the best deal possible, and remember, you can always refinance down the line if rates decrease.

  • Yes — lots of people buy a new house while selling their old one at the same time. However, it does create some additional challenges and stressors, especially if you’re showing your home while still living in it. It’s important to work with an expert real estate agent who can help you find the right buyer and the right listings to look at. You’ll also want to stay close with your loan officer, to make sure that the complexities of putting the proceeds from your sale toward your new down payment are as smooth as possible.

  • Probably not. While there is plenty of economic uncertainty swirling right now, most experts believe that the housing market will not crash. Home prices will decline in some areas from the record highs they hit throughout the pandemic, but it won’t be catastrophic — think of it as more of a soft landing.

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