Should I stay or should I go?
This well-known song by The Clash goes through my head as I obsessively pore over real estate listings. With three kids and a big dog in a 1,400 square foot house built in the 1920s, moving up is a big temptation. The thought of buying a bigger house is something entertained by many growing families. But with the housing downturn it’s harder for families who already own a house to trade up, especially if they bought in the past decade with a minimal down payment, or took out cash through a refinance.
Then again, with the Twin Cities median home price in June at $165,000 (that’s 30 percent lower than the median price of $236,850 at the peak five years ago), and mortgage rates still at historic lows, it is also a great time to buy. That’s especially true for families with no house to sell, good credit, and cash at the ready.
Dreaming about a new nest? Wonder if you can really afford it? Consider the following three points that convinced us to stay put for now.
Buying a house is a major money move
First there’s the down payment you need to save up. Then there’s the money for any repairs or renovations you’d like to do right when you move in. Don’t forget the cost of the movers and the new furniture you need to fill that fourth bedroom. And the thousands of dollars for closing costs. A recent study from Bankrate.com found that the average Minnesota homebuyer pays $4,206 at closing. That means Minnesota is the 17th most expensive state as far as closing costs go. Sure the seller can pay them, but that typically adds to the overall price you pay for your property.
It’s about more than the payment
Don’t listen to your mortgage banker. It’s likely you’ll qualify for far more than you can comfortably afford, even with the tighter lending standards that emerged during the housing crisis.
Fit your estimated mortgage payment into your budget and see how it feels. Can you realistically afford the new payment or will it be a stretch? Also look beyond the payment. How much will you ultimately pay to own your current home versus pay off a loan for a new house? Consider how your financial obligations will shift as your children age. If you move, will it be harder for you to contribute to a college savings account or fund retirement? Ask yourself what else you could do with the money that would go to a bigger monthly payment. Is an extra bedroom more important than an extra vacation with the kids?
Super-sized house, super-sized expenses
Higher taxes, higher insurance costs. Higher heating bills and other utilities. Trading your starter home for a bigger one typically means higher day-to-day living costs. Often families have to move further into the suburbs to afford a larger property, which means having to pay more in gas to commute to and from work. It also takes more time to care for a bigger house and a bigger lawn. Remember your time is a limited resource just like your money.
Bottom line: It’s fun to dream about owning a newer, bigger house in a better neighborhood. And for some families, making the move makes sense. But we’ve decided it’s not worth trading our long-term financial security for a little room. We’re sticking with our keep-expenses-low philosophy—for now. Low fixed expenses provide a safety net for life’s financial curveballs, and we all know there are plenty of curveballs these days. Plus I figure I’d step on LEGOs even if my house were twice as big.
Kara McGuire is a personal finance writer and a St. Paul mother
of three. Send comments, questions and story ideas to