April 26, 2016 in Student Loans

It’s no secret that student loans hurt many young adults’ chances at homeownership.

But some are fortunate enough to demolish their debt, grab hold of those house keys and realize a piece of the American dream.

Loans stand in the way of saving

Not every 2015 college graduate had student loan debt. But for the graduates who did have student loans, the average outstanding debt was more than $35,000, according to an analysis of government data.

The mounting debt is a barrier for those who want to transition from renting to owning a home but can’t because repaying the loans takes priority over saving enough for a down payment.

Still, there are some borrowers who have freed themselves from the heavy responsibility of student debt by repaying their balances faster than most are financially able to. Here are a few of their stories.

Snowballing her way to debt-free living

Alicia Brown, 31, and her husband, Josh, already own their Florida home, but won’t be trading up to another until her remaining student loan balance is paid off.

“I just don’t want to have any debt before we buy our (next) house,” Brown says.

She graduated with about $13,000 in student loan debt and has been using the “snowball” method to reduce her debt load.

Snowballing is the process of ranking your debt obligations from smallest to largest and paying the minimum on all except the one with the lowest balance. Once that’s paid off, you apply the payments from the first debt to the second smallest debt, along with the second debt’s minimum payment. The idea is to continue rolling the previous payment amounts from debts you’ve paid off into your larger debts until you’re essentially debt-free.

Brown’s debt payoff target date is February 2017. “We only have about $3,000 left,” she says.

‘It’s almost like going on a diet’

Brown advises fellow student loan borrowers to tackle their debt by 1st addressing the smaller obligations through the snowball method.

“Just having (the smallest debt) paid off, whatever it is, can be so motivating because now you have 1 less bill,” she says.

It’s similar to dieting, she says. Once you start seeing the results of eating healthy, your taste buds change and you don’t crave junk foods as much.

“Your whole mentality changes about everything.”

Getting help from a HELOC

The desire to start a family was the main motivation for 36-year-old Brad Sherman and his wife, Abby, to get rid of their $130,000 student debt burden. He inherited his wife’s loans from grad school when they tied the knot.

“We did talk about the student loan debt, so it was not a surprise when we got married,” says Sherman, who welcomed his 2nd child in early April.

The Maryland couple paid down about half of the debt before buying their home in 2010 and took a different approach to take care of the rest: building up enough equity to take out a home equity line of credit, or HELOC.

“The interest rate on that was much lower than the student debt itself, so it enabled us to pay it back at a lower interest rate than was once offered to my wife,” Sherman says.

The debt was paid off at the end of 2015.

“It was quite an accomplishment,” he says. “We’re very proud that we could do it.”

Sacrifices are necessary

Don’t let student loan debt get in the way of your other financial goals, Sherman says. “It shouldn’t stop you from planning for your retirement or buying your 1st home.”

Paying it off at a faster pace is possible if you stick to a budget and commit at least a portion of any windfalls toward paying down the balance.

“We sacrificed vacations and other big purchases to make sure that the debt was paid,” he says.

A lump sum made him loan-less

Michigan resident Brad Pettiford, 28, bought his 1st house in October after repaying his $20,000 student loan balance.

“I wanted to get one more payment out of the way,” Pettiford says, adding that he believed repaying his debt would make him a more attractive mortgage applicant.

He worked during high school and college, stashing away a portion of his earnings throughout. He made regular loan payments after graduating but eventually paid a lump sum when it became apparent that he and his wife, Jami, would buy a home.

“It felt like an amazing weight was lifted off my shoulders when I was able to pay it off,” he says.

Pettiford suggests taking on side hustles, as long as your schedule allows, to more quickly pay down debt.

“Not only is it valuable to earn extra money, but it’s also important to save the money that you do have,” he says.

What if you can’t repay your loans quickly?

Shedding your student loan debt is an admirable financial goal, but you don’t have to reach it before becoming a homeowner, says Evan McDonough, loan officer at Family Mortgage in Jupiter, Florida.

“What we’re concerned with is not so much the balance; we’re concerned with the payment,” McDonough says.

Lenders focus on debt-to-income ratio, says Mark Kantrowitz, publisher and vice president of strategy at financial aid website Cappex.com.

Debt-to-income ratio

Percentage of monthly income that is spent on debt payments, including mortgages, student loans, auto loans, minimum credit card payments and child support.

Debt payments / income

For example: Jessie and Pat together earn $10,000 a month. Their total debt payments are $3,800 a month. Their debt-to-income ratio is 38 percent.

$3,800 / $10,000 = 0.38

Managing your debt

Most lenders like to see borrowers with debt-to-income ratios of 36% or less, so focus on lowering the amount paid on your student debt every month.

“The only way to come in under those thresholds is to either increase your income or reduce your monthly loan payment,” Kantrowitz says.

An option is to change your student loan repayment plan — if you have federal loans — to an extended repayment plan. This plan stretches out the repayment term by up to 25 years and comes with a lower monthly payment. You will pay more interest over time, however.

Kantrowitz offers this caveat: “If you are struggling to repay your student loans, probably the last thing you need is to pile on more debt in the form of a mortgage.”

On the other hand, if you’re in an otherwise financially sound position to buy a home, don’t let your loan balance deter you.

“It’s a very small factor in a bigger puzzle,” McDonough says.

As always, consult a qualified mortgage lender to review your financial profile and discuss your options.