How to save for a house while renting

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For many renters, saving up for a down payment on a home is a challenge. For some, it’s hard enough just paying rent.

According to Apartment Guide, the average one-bedroom rent is $1,617 — just a few dollars more compared to last year, but enough to prevent progress on the savings front. Meanwhile, the median existing-home price rose roughly 15 percent from September 2019 to September 2020, the National Association of Realtors reports.

Homeownership “has always been the American Dream, but it kind of feels out of reach for a lot of people,” explains Jennifer Fraser, director of stakeholder engagement and contact center operations for GreenPath Financial Wellness, headquartered in Farmington Hills, Michigan.

That doesn’t mean you should despair. There are still ways to save money or get assistance for a down payment — and with mortgage rates so low, now may be a great time to explore these strategies.

How much down payment do you need?

Your first step is to determine how much house you can afford, which will help you estimate how much you need for a down payment. You can use Bankrate’s affordability calculator to help you figure out a realistic budget.

Your down payment depends on the kind of loan you’re seeking and where you’re looking to buy. Many mortgages come with a 3 percent down payment minimum, so you may be able to save up over a shorter timeframe.

Consider whether you want to avoid the additional cost of private mortgage insurance — if so, you’ll need to put down 20 percent. Here are the down payment requirements for different types of mortgages.

If you’re not sure which mortgage is right for you, talking to a loan officer can help you narrow down your options, says Juan Carlos Cruz, founder of Britewater Financial Group in Brooklyn, New York.

How to save for a house while renting

1. Open a down payment savings account

Once you have a down payment amount in mind, open a savings account to “help you keep track of how much you’re saving and your progress,” Cruz says. Otherwise, you might be tempted to dip into your down payment fund to pay for recurring, or even unnecessary, expenses.

Keep in mind the type of account you’re putting your money in. Many online banks offer higher interest rates on savings accounts than brick-and-mortar banks do, so your savings may have more opportunity to grow with an online account.

To start building your savings, have a portion of your pay automatically deposited into the account, or set up an automatic transfer from your checking to your savings account, recommends Michele Hammond, a senior home lending adviser with Chase in New York City.

You can also use an app to “round up purchases to the nearest dollar and put the change into a linked savings account, so you can save without it being a heavy burden,” Hammond says.

If you recently got a pay raise, tax refund, work bonus or cash gift, stash it in your savings account, Fraser says. This can be a smart way to boost your savings from the outset.

2. Look at where you can cut back

It’s also important to examine your discretionary spending and see what you can make cuts, such as Netflix and cable bills or morning lattes, says Miriam Mitchell, senior vice president of lending at Addition Financial Credit Union in Lake Mary, Florida.

It’s likely “you can find a lot of savings in there to build a down payment fund,” Mitchell says.

Consider shopping for cheaper auto insurance or a less expensive cell phone plan, as well. You may find you’re able to cut costs on these seemingly “fixed” bills, and can put the difference toward savings.

Take a look at your debt, too. If you have a balance on a high interest rate credit card, consider doing a balance transfer, Mitchell says. Many cards offer zero-percent interest on balance transfers for a set period of time, such as 12 or 18 months, although they typically charge a fee between 3 percent and 5 percent of the amount transferred.

Given the pandemic, it may be a good idea to talk to your card issuer or other lenders you’ve borrowed from, adds Cruz. They might be willing to reduce your interest rate on your credit cards or student loans, for instance.

3. Go outside of your day job

If you don’t have much wiggle room in your budget as a renter, you can try bolstering your savings by earning more money. Check out gig economy jobs that are in demand, such as delivering for GrubHub or DoorDash, Mitchell suggests.

Look into what you own that you can sell, too.

“Everybody’s selling stuff on local websites,” Fraser says. “Little side hustles are a fabulous way to bring in a little bit of extra cash.”

4. Make bigger changes

If you’re eager to save up for a home, and fast, you may want to take more sweeping measures. You might consider getting a roommate, for example, to help split the rent and other expenses, or even moving into a smaller, less expensive rental altogether.

If a move is out of the question, you can try renegotiating your lease with your landlord. This can work well if you’ve been a great tenant or can guarantee you’ll be in the rental for a longer period of time. In some larger cities, rents are actually decreasing, according to Apartment Guide, so your landlord may be more willing to negotiate now if it means they can lock you in as a tenant.

5. Apply for assistance programs

Many mortgage lenders have first-time homebuyer loans and programs that can help cover a portion of your down payment. Such programs might require you to occupy your home for a certain period of time or else you’ll have to repay the money, Cruz notes.

Others, such as grants, may require you to complete a homebuyer education course before receiving the help.

Your field of work might be in your favor, too. Some programs provide assistance to homebuyers in certain occupations, such as teachers or first responders. According to Fraser, “a lot of lenders are looking to reach out to underserved and diverse communities to improve opportunities for homeownership.” If you’re in one of these roles, there may be assistance available specifically for you.

Fraser recommends checking out DownPaymentResource.com, which can help you find assistance programs in your area.

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