How Much Home Can You Really Afford?

How Much Home Can You Really Afford?

When I tell my neighbors here in Cincinnati that I grew up in San Diego County I almost always get the same reaction.

“You’re from San Diego? Why did you move here?”

They are then further shocked when I follow with:

“Cincinnati is, by far, the best place I’ve ever lived.”

Want to know why?  While I love the fact that I could be out in the countryside horseback riding and then downtown at a food truck within 20 minutes time, that’s not the reason.  The depth of history, culture, architecture, and food story is similarly not the main reason.  The reason that tops them all is that there are fewer places where I can live this well for less.  Having this low cost of living empowers my life in countless ways.  For example, the low cost of real estate enables me to pay off the $70,000 mortgage I have on my (pretty rad) schoolhouse condo in just 15 years of time.  That will further liberate me from living with those costs for the remainder of my life thereafter.

Meanwhile, back in California…

It Costs How Much to Own a Home in California?

This weekend a friend of mine posted an article entitled “See how much income you’d need to buy a home in most California cities“.   In summation, the article states that the median sales price for homes in California is a whopping $393,000.  The article further states that a household would need to bring in $78,000 per year in order to afford such a home.  This assumes a 20% down payment, an interest rate of 4% on a 30-year mortgage, and annual property taxes and insurance equal to 1.2% of the home price. Here is the kicker.  This assumes that 29% of your annual gross income is spent on housing payments.

My first reaction was something along the lines of:
“In what brand of hell can a salary of $78,000 afford a $393,000 home?”
Let’s break that down.  How long, exactly, would it take a family making $78,000 per year to save $78,600 for a 20% downpayment in the first place?  Then, after deducting the 31% that the average person in the U.S. pays for taxes, the household has $4,485 in spending power every month.  Want to know what the monthly home payment on this $393,000 house would be?  $1,910.37.  That leaves our family $2,578.63 to cover every other expense in a state famous for an excruciatingly high cost of living.  I live in the Midwest, I don’t have children, and I don’t know how I would pull that off.  $2,500 is closing in on my emergency budget total, but I wouldn’t have the ability to even save for an emergency fund with that budget.  I wouldn’t have felt courageous enough to invest in student loans that ended up costing $60,000 (but then increased my income by 350%).  I would potentially feel tied to a job even if it didn’t suit me just so that I could pay the mortgage every month.  That is not a life I would want to live, and that’s why Cincinnati is my favorite place.  Living below your means offers you freedom.  Sinking 29% of your before tax income in mortgage payments takes that freedom away.

How Much Home Can You Really Afford?

Suffice it to say, I don’t believe that 29% of gross income is the right metric for home affordability.  I believe it should be quite a bit less.  Not everyone agrees with me.  In fact, Bloomberg Business believes that the percentage should be even more than 30%.  However, in my household we have a 15 year mortgage and condo fees.  If you include property taxes and our condo insurance, we ring in at 7.2% of our gross income or 13.3% of our after tax income.  I realize that not everyone lives in Cincinnati (or bought their home during the housing downturn when properties were mega cheap).  However, I can speak to how much living below my means liberates my lifestyle.

My best advice is to live as far below your means as possible.  The only way to get ahead is to consistently spend less than you make.  To do this you need to decrease your spending to the lowest point possible on every line item of your budget.   While I don’t believe in the whole “owning a home is the American dream” trap, I do believe that the quicker you can free yourself of having to pay rent or mortgage payments every month, the better that will be as well.  Owning your own home, and having no more remaining monthly housing payments ever, is the most powerful way to bring your income down so that you can afford to retire as early as possible.  That’s kind of the end goal to this whole financial game we are playing in first place, no?.  So, here is what I think when it comes to buying a home:

  • Pay at least a 10% downpayment.  Ideally you would pay a 20% downpayment, but we did not and we still lived to tell the tale.
  • Stick with a 15 year mortgage instead of a 30 year mortgage.  You will get a lower interest rate, and you will pay a whole lot less for the same exact house in the end.
  • Keep your monthly payments between 10-20% of your income after taxes.  That will afford you the ability to save for retirement, save yourself from uncertainty with an emergency fund, and live a life where your possessions do not possess you.

Now, let’s say you already have a mortgage, and you are wondering about whether you should pay it off early.  I’ve got something for you too!  Find out more in “’If’ and ‘How’ to Pay Your Mortgage Off Early“.

As always, tell me what you think below.

Melody grew up in poverty, and she was homeless throughout most of her childhood. Even after the hard work of getting out of poverty was accomplished, she still lived in fear of the next bad thing that could happen. She knew that, without the security of a safety net, one misstep would mean certain disaster. It was not until this safety net was established that she truly felt liberated and free from the anxiety of living in poverty once again. She is now motivated to share this sense of freedom with all women.


  1. John Lynn 3 years ago

    I so agree with you. The percentage they suggest is a recipe for financial ruin. That home will own your life if it costs that much of your income. Plus, I think your mortgage estimate is probably a touch low depending on the insurance, property tax, HOA fees, that are often required.

    It’s the scam of the mortgage industry in my opinion. When I went into them, I said, “I know you’ll approve me for more than I can afford. So, I don’t care what you’ll approve me for. I want to know how little of a mortgage I can get and still get a house for it that’s reasonable.” You have to optimize for what you can afford and not what they’ll approve you for.

  2. Chuck 2 years ago

    Felt so hopeless looking for answers to my quti.ionse..untsl now.

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *