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Should I buy a house now, or wait?

Real estate agent greeting couple at house
Noel Hendrickson/Getty Images
Real estate agent greeting couple at house
Noel Hendrickson/Getty Images

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Buy now, or wait? That’s the question prospective homeowners are struggling to answer in today’s hot housing market. Many would-be buyers have been leaning toward the “wait” side of that equation. In fact, approximately 75 percent of consumers believe that right now is a bad time to buy a home, according to Fannie Mae’s Home Purchase Sentiment Index, a monthly survey gauging consumer thoughts on the real estate market.

There’s no question that it is currently a seller’s market. But buying now may still turn out to be a wise decision in the long run. Deciding which option is best for you comes down to finances. Here are some key considerations to help you decide on the best approach.

Should I buy a house now?

If you buy now, you can start building equity immediately. That’s true no matter which way the real estate market is leaning at the time. A key point for today’s market, though, is that buying now means avoiding additional mortgage-rate increases later.

“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. A year from now, even if prices come down slightly, mortgage rates will most likely be significantly higher. In the end, that will cost a buyer more monthly if they are financing.”

Rising rates can spell serious trouble for your monthly budget. Consider this math from Heather Brown, an agent with RE/MAX Austin Skyline in Texas. “Based on a $450,000 loan amount, the difference between a 4 percent rate and a  5 percent rate is about a 13 percent higher payment,” she says. “Not only that, but the amount of interest paid during the life of the loan is higher too, so the payoff is in effect higher.”

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 reviewing your credit report and your credit score. The best deals on mortgages will be available to those with credit scores of 740 and above. 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 that a lender offers.

2. Have you saved enough for a down payment?

In addition to paying your bills on time, have you managed to save a fair amount of money, too? If you are sitting on a sizable portion of cash that can make a big dent in your down payment, now is a good time to buy. Make sure that you’ll have plenty left over, though. Lenders feel more comfortable loaning you money if you have additional cash reserves that provide a cushion if something unexpected happens.

3. Are you planning to stay in the home for a while?

In addition to the purchase price, buying a home comes with closing costs that can run between 2 and 6 percent of the property’s price. So, to justify the 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.

Should I wait for prices to come down to buy a home?

If you want to become a homeowner but are waiting for prices to cool off, here’s the challenge: Housing prices don’t tend to decrease (with the notable exception of the housing bubble of 2008). However, the good news is that housing prices also cannot skyrocket forever. Here are two instances in which it might make more sense to wait out the market:

1. If inventory in your area is on the rise

If there is no shortage of homes for sale in the market where you’re looking, waiting may save you some money. “It is likely that prices will level off or slightly decrease now that interest rates are rising,” Froelich says.

But waiting can be a losing game in places where housing is severely limited. “However, that’s only if inventory increases,” Froelich continues. “Inventory is at an all-time low, and without an increase in supply, it is hard to see how prices will decrease.”

Brown agrees: “We just don’t have enough houses. Buyers on tight budgets who wait will eventually be priced out of the Austin market.”

2. If your personal finances are less than stellar

The biggest reason to wait is if your current financial situation is not ideal. For example, if you are expecting a sizable commission check, 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 needs some love, waiting is also smart. Take some time to pay off your credit cards and improve your credit so you qualify for better loan terms.

Examine your local market carefully

Deciding whether you should buy a house now or wait ultimately comes down to where you want to call home. Regardless of national headlines, real estate is hyper-localized and can vary greatly from one market to another.

Consider this data from Redfin: In Naperville, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago, the median sale price of a home has increased a relatively modest 8.2 percent in the past year, and the typical home sits on the market for 42 days. But in Lakewood, Colorado, a suburb of Denver, home prices have increased a staggering 29.1 percent in the past year, and the typical home sits on the market for just four days.

Work with an expert agent

In today’s market, it’s more important than ever to find a real estate agent who can help navigate the process. “The right broker will be privy to what inventory might be coming to market or a particular situation with a seller or building,” says Rachel Glazer, a broker with Compass in New York City, says.

Bottom line

Trying to buy a house in a seller’s market might feel overwhelming, but waiting too long can present challenges as well. Review your finances in detail, and 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 if you should buy now or hang tight until the market is a bit more friendly to your bank account.

Written by
David McMillin
Contributing writer
David McMillin is a contributing writer for Bankrate and covers topics like credit cards, mortgages, banking, taxes and travel. David's goal is to help readers figure out how to save more and stress less.
Edited by
Senior real estate editor