How to buy a vacation home

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For those who are able, buying a second home is suddenly more appealing, as remote working has become the norm in the pandemic. Why not work from the place where you like to vacation — the place where you really want to live?

“Stay at home orders and social distancing have put a new value on the extra space,” explains realtor.com Chief Economist Danielle Hale. “We’re seeing this in the luxury market as well, which could mean there is renewed interest from high-end buyers to find a second home that is within driving distance from their primary residence.”

Whether you’re considering buying a vacation home now or in the future, here are the steps to take.

How to buy a vacation home

As with any home purchase, buying in a new area requires serious thought and preparation.

Step 1: Determine what you can afford

Before you can purchase a second home, it’s important to understand the costs you might face.

If there’s a mortgage, then there are expenses for principal, interest, taxes and insurance (PITI). However, the very nature of a second home can mean other costs, as well. If you’re 150 miles from the property, for example, who will look after it? Who will check the property in the event of a storm? Will somebody stop by regularly to check for theft or vandalism?

If you’re thinking of buying property by the beach or in a forested area, look into the availability and cost of insurance before you buy. You can’t get or keep a mortgage without required insurance coverage, so make sure it’s both available and at an affordable price.

Costs of owning a vacation home

In addition to your monthly mortgage payment, there are other expenses associated with vacation property ownership, whether you fund them yourself or offset costs with rental income. These expenses generally include:

  • Maintenance and repairs
  • Management and vacancies (if you rent)
  • Furniture and housewares

Tax implications of buying a vacation home

The 2017 tax reform radically changed real estate taxes. In theory, mortgage interest and property taxes remain generally deductible for both primary residences and second homes — but in practice, many people take the standard deduction instead of itemizing mortgage interest and property taxes. Without such deductions, the economics of ownership have changed.

To offset costs, vacation property owners may want to consider short-term overnight rentals through platforms such as Airbnb, FlipKey or HomeToGo, as well as in-season rentals through a local real estate broker.

According to the IRS: “If you rent a dwelling unit to others that you also use as a residence, limitations may apply to the rental expenses you can deduct. You’re considered to use a dwelling unit as a residence if you use it for personal purposes during the tax year for more than the greater of: 1. 14 days, or 2. 10% of the total days you rent it to others at a fair rental price.”

Translation: There are circumstances where rental money is not taxed; in fact, it need not be reported. Speak with a tax professional for details.

Step 2: Seek out a local lender

It’s best to look for a mortgage lender who specializes in second homes in the area where the property is located. The lender will have ready sources of financing and understand the required rules and specifics of the place you’re buying in.

How you finance, for example, depends on where your vacation property is located. For lenders, a second home carries more risk than a primary residence — in the case of a downturn, borrowers are most likely to continue making payments on their primary residence. To offset that risk, buying a second home typically requires more money upfront and the financial capacity to afford two homes, and comes with higher interest rates.

Matters become even more complicated if the property is to be rented. Once rent is in the picture, lenders wonder whether they’re financing a second home or investment property. The difference is important because it’s easier to qualify for second home financing.

Another complicating factor arises when the property has unrelated individuals buying together — the lender wants to be sure that the property will not be devalued by squabbles among owners. The best approach is to have an agreement in writing, created by an attorney, that shows how the property is to be owned and operated.

The list of complications goes on, but the important point is this: An experienced lender with localized knowledge will be your best resource when looking to buy a vacation home.

Step 3: Decide how to finance your vacation home

Once you find a lender, consider your financing options. You may be considering paying the down payment through savings, a cash-out refinance from your primary residence or a home equity line of credit (HELOC). Savings are the best option because you won’t tack on additional debt.

While lenders can be liberal in some ways when financing a primary residence, vacation homes are different. FHA and VA financing are out — they’re only intended for primary residences — but conventional financing is available. Freddie Mac defines a second home as:

  • It must be occupied by the borrower for some portion of the year.
  • It must be a one-unit dwelling.
  • The borrower must have exclusive control over the property.
  • The second home cannot be a timeshare.
  • It must be suitable for year-round occupancy.
  • The property cannot be subject to any agreements that give a management firm control over the occupancy of the property.
  • Rental income cannot be used to qualify the borrower.

Vacation home loan requirements

  • Debt-to-income ratio – For a primary residence, borrowers can sometimes finance with a 50 percent debt-to-income ratio, or DTI. For a vacation property, think closer to 43 percent, or maybe a touch higher.
  • Credit score – With an FHA loan, you can buy a primary residence if your credit score is 500 and you have a 10 percent down payment. For a vacation property, for which FHA loans aren’t available, figure that you’ll need a credit score of at least 640.
  • Down payment – Generally, you can buy a primary residence with as little as 3 percent down. With a vacation home, you’ll need at least 10 percent.
  • Reserves – In some cases, you can buy a primary residence with little or no reserves. For a vacation home, you’ll likely need reserves equal to two to six monthly mortgage payments.

Be sure to check vacation home mortgage requirements with different lenders — the financial stress created by the pandemic has caused many lenders to tighten their approval requirements. 

Step 5: Compare vacation home mortgage rates

Vacation home mortgage rates are typically higher than financing for a primary residence — about 0.5 percent to 1 percent extra. Be sure to search around to find the best rates and terms.

Step 6: Work with a local Realtor

Buying real estate in a new area — or even one you’ve vacationed in for many years — requires expert guidance, so be sure to work with an experienced local real estate professional. They will know not only what properties are available, but why you might prefer one to another, and any local regulations or restrictions.

Bottom line

If considering buying a vacation home, think about how you will use it, how often, and whether or not you will rent it. One of the best ways to get started is to live in a short-term rental in the area. See if you really like the location. Consider schools, shopping, and medical care as required. What are the pluses and minuses? Speak with local real estate brokers and visit open houses. The more you know, the better your chance to get the vacation home of your dreams.

Featured image by gmnicholas of Getty Images.

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