Q&A: Deploying a windfall wisely

Dear Liz: I recently received a $38,000 windfall. I have a student loan balance of $37,000. I want to buy a home, but I can’t decide if I should have a large down payment and continue paying down student loans slowly, or make a balloon payment on my student loans and put down a smaller amount on the home. The mortgage rate would be around 4% while the student loans are at 6.55%. The price of homes in my area is at least $250,000 for a two-bedroom house (which my income supports). I want to make a smart decision.

Answer: At first glance, the answer may seem obvious: Pay down the higher-rate debt. But a deeper look reveals that the second option may be the better course.

Student loan interest is deductible, so your effective interest rate on those loans may be less than 5%. If they’re federal student loans, they have all kinds of consumer protections as well. If you lose your job, for example, you have access to deferral and forbearance as well as income-sensitive repayment plans. In most cases, you don’t need to be in a rush to pay off this tax-advantaged, relatively low-rate debt.

A home purchase may be more time sensitive. Interest rates are already up from their recent lows and may go higher. If you can afford to buy a home and plan to stay put for several years, then you probably shouldn’t delay.

A 10% down payment should be sufficient to get a good loan. You’ll have to pay private mortgage insurance, since you can’t put 20% down, but PMI typically drops off after you’ve built enough equity. You usually can request that PMI be dropped once you’ve paid the mortgage down to 80% of the home’s original value. At 78%, the lender may be required to remove PMI. (Note that these rules apply to conventional mortgages and don’t apply to the mortgage insurance that comes with FHA loans.)

You can use the remaining cash to pay down your student loans, but do so only if you already have a healthy emergency fund. It’s smart to set aside at least 1% of the value of your home each year to cover repairs and maintenance, plus you’ll want at least three months’ worth of mortgage payments in the bank. Even better would be enough cash to cover all your expenses for three months.

Thursday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: 7 ways to lower your cable bill. Also in the news: The rate of mortgage approvals in each state, 5 steps for tracking your monthly expenses, and a beginner’s guide to filling out a W-4.

7 Ways to Lower Your Cable Bill
Cutting the cord.

The Rate of Mortgage Approvals in Each State
Where does your state rank?

5 Steps for Tracking Your Monthly Expenses
Keeping a detailed record.

A Beginner’s Guide to Filling out Your W-4
Taking it one step at a time.

Q&A: 30-year versus 15-year mortgage

Dear Liz: Regarding the 57-year-old woman who wanted to refinance to a 15-year mortgage, why didn’t you present the benefits of keeping the low interest and low payments available on a 30-year loan and investing the difference? In 30 years the house would be paid off, but there would also be a pot of cash available if the difference were invested in a diverse portfolio. Too many people make the emotional decision that a paid-off house is necessary in retirement, then they end up having no cash when they might need it.

Answer: You’re right that when cash is tight, keeping a mortgage can make sense. Given her teacher’s pension, other savings and desire to pay off the home faster, the 15-year loan is a reasonable option. The faster payoff schedule also means that she can turn around and tap more of the equity in the unlikely event she needs a reverse mortgage later in life.

Monday’s need-to-know money news

crop380w_istock_000009258023xsmall-dbet-ball-and-chainToday’s top story: Mortgage application forms will look different next year. Also in the news: 5 times you shouldn’t use a credit card, why you should say no to 72-84 month auto loans, and why you need to stop being delusional about debt.

It’s Coming: The First Change to Mortgage Application Forms in 20 Years
An easier to understand application is on the way.

5 Times You Shouldn’t Use a Credit Card
High interest rates could leave you in a debt spiral.

5 Reasons to Say No to 72- and 84-Month Auto Loans
Long term loans set you up for years of negative equity.

Don’t be debt delusional: Quit buying stuff you can’t afford!
Time for a reality check.

Q&A: Getting a new mortgage after a foreclosure

Dear Liz: Is it true that we can’t refinance our home until seven years after a foreclosure? We lost a rental property six years ago. Our credit scores now are in the 740 range, and we are anxious to take advantage of lower rates since our mortgage rate is 5.75%. Other than the foreclosure, our credit is perfect.

Answer: As foreclosures surged, the agencies that buy most mortgages increased the amount of time troubled borrowers had to spend in the “penalty box” before being allowed another mortgage.

Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac still have a seven-year waiting period after foreclosures. But that has been shortened to three years when borrowers can prove “extenuating circumstances,” such as a prolonged job loss or big medical expenses. Waiting times for other negative events, such as bankruptcy or short sale, have been reduced to two years with extenuating circumstances. Otherwise, it’s four years.

There are other loan programs that are even more forgiving. For example, the FHA has a three-year waiting period that can be shortened to one year if borrowers participate in its “Back to Work” program, which requires they document a significant loss of household income, that their finances have fully recovered from the event and that they’ve completed housing counseling. The Veterans Administration, meanwhile, makes loans available one to two years after foreclosure.

Q&A: Factors to consider for refinancing into a 15-year mortgage

Dear Liz: I am considering refinancing my home from a 30-year mortgage to a 15-year loan and wondered if it would be a wise decision. I am 57, divorced and make a little over $100,000 a year as a high school teacher (and I plan to keep working until at least age 65). Other than a car loan, I have no debts and an excellent credit rating. I will receive a pretty decent teacher’s pension and I have about $150,000 in mutual funds in retirement accounts. I can afford the larger payment on a shorter loan. Do you think this would be a good move for me?

Answer: For most people, a 30-year mortgage is a good option. People can always make extra principal payments to pay down the loan faster, but the lower monthly payment is easier to handle if they face financial setbacks such as a job loss.

Your employment situation seems pretty stable, though, and you’re in good shape with a pension plus savings. If you can swing the payments, you’d be building equity much faster and while paying less interest. You’ll still have home debt into your 70s, which isn’t ideal, but it’s certainly better than having a mortgage in your 80s.

Wednesday’s need-to-know money news

homebuyerToday’s top story: Credit cards that allow you to set spending limits for authorized users. Also in the news: 8 keys to getting approved for a mortgage if you’re self-employed, how to tell if you’re getting a good car deal, and how to find the best mortgage rates and lenders online.

Which Credit Cards Allow You to Set a Spending Limit for Authorized Users?
Setting limits.

Self Employed? 8 Keys to Getting Approved for a Mortgage and Buying a Home
It’s not impossible.

How to Tell If You’re Getting a Good Car Deal
Deciphering the doubletalk.

How To Find The Best Mortgage Rates And Lenders Online
Navigating the online mortgage waters.

Friday’s need-to-know money news

Financial-PlanningToday’s top story: How to find the best mortgage rate online. Also in the news: How to set up your first 401(k), what happens if you work after signing up for Social Security, and why we value purchases more when we pay with cash.

How to Find the Best Mortgage Rates and Lenders Online
Comparison shopping.

Class of 2016, Here’s How to Set Up Your First 401(k)
Happy Graduation! Time to focus on retirement.

What Happens if You Work After Signing Up for Social Security?
What you can and cannot collect.

Why We Value Purchases More When We Pay With Cash
The psychology of spending.

Friday’s need-to-know money news

mortgage2Today’s top story: Why debt-to-income ratio matter when buying a house. Also in the news: Crucial insurance changed to make after divorce, how to manage your finances when you’re separated, and a bill in congress that would remove credit report strikes after four years.

Debt-to-Income Ratio Matters When You’re Buying a House
How to improve your DTI.

5 Crucial Insurance Changes After Divorce
Things to address immediately.

Managing Your Finances When You’re Separated
You may be apart, but your money is still together.

This Bill in Congress Would Remove Credit Report Strikes After Four Years
Significant changes could be ahead.