What It Means to Be House Poor – and How to Avoid It

By: Steven Liambas
October 6, 2022

You’ve got your mortgage pre-approval, and you’re shopping the market for your perfect home. If you find one that’s priced too close to your limit, you run the risk of being house poor. Let’s look at what it is, what you can do to avoid it, and what to do if you are already house poor.

The Costs of Owning a Home

When you begin the process of looking for a home, you may think that the amount in your pre-approval letter and the house sale price are the only things that matter, but that’s not the case. There are several other costs associated with buying and maintaining a home that people often overlook:

Utilities – Your home needs water, electricity, and natural gas to run. You may also require utilities like internet and possibly city services like garbage pickup. Utilities are not factored into a mortgage payment, so you need to add them into your monthly budget or risk having your services turned off.

Property taxes – Sometimes property taxes are included in a mortgage payment, but sometimes they are not. If it is not included, you can visit the website for the property tax authority where you live and enter your home’s address to find out how much your property taxes will be every year.

Maintenance – It might not be tomorrow or the next day, but eventually, something will break in your home, and it will be up to you to repair or replace it. A new home likely won’t have this issue immediately, but if you live in an older home, it’s crucial that you maintain an emergency fund for the inevitable upkeep of the house.

The 32% Rule

Being house poor means that you spend a large portion of your income on your mortgage and other housing expenses, leaving little for other costs. Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation recommends spending no more than 32 per cent of your pre-tax income on housing expenses. To determine this number in your own circumstances, multiply your pay by 0.32. If you spend that amount or less on your home, then you should be in good shape. If you spend much more on housing, then you might be house poor.

Avoiding Being House Poor

Being house poor can happen for any number of reasons. It could be that you did not take the extra expenses into account. Or perhaps there was a significant drop in income, making for a tight budget. Here are a few tricks to avoid becoming house poor:

Make a larger down payment on the home. Not only will this give you more equity on your home, but it will make your mortgage payments smaller and save you thousands over the life of the mortgage.

Purchase a home that is less than your mortgage pre-approval amount. It may not be your dream home, but a smaller home will be more affordable. You can always upsize to a larger home when you’re financially ready.

Keep an emergency fund. You can never predict when something will break, or there might be a temporary or permanent income change. A dedicated emergency fund that is otherwise untouched could be the difference between living comfortably through a challenging time or being house poor.

What to Do If You Are Currently House Poor

If you have crunched the numbers and figured out that you are already house poor, don’t panic. There are actions you can take to alleviate some of the stress and perhaps get you out of the poor house.

Get a second job. This is not always a practical action, especially if there are children in the picture, but a second job could give you the funds you need to keep your home and your lifestyle at their current level. Even a few hours a week at a part-time job or engaging in the “gig economy” can make a difference.

Find a roommate. Charging rent can increase your income, plus a renter will often pay for part of the utilities. If you don’t want someone living in your home permanently, you could consider renting out a room on Airbnb.

Refinance or downsize. If all else fails, it might be time to consider moving into a smaller home that will work better within your budget.

Being house poor is a life circumstance that is stressful, and avoidable. Do your research to ensure that you can afford home ownership, and take the steps necessary to get out of the situation if you find yourself house poor.

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