How We Made Our Home Cash Flow Positive

Most of the time, I feel that the advice I write in this space comes in the telling of my personal story. I could have titled this article, “What You Need to Have a Cash Positive Home”, but decided to take a more narrative approach, since what worked for me may not work for others. Since starting my road to financial independence in 2017, we have acquired a property that has potential to be a source of income. While I hesitate to insinuate that real estate is a good “investment”, I do have to say that this particular one worked out for us, despite living in the Golden State (Orange County, no less). If you want to know how we got here, read on to hear about the process.

Our story begins in 2017, when I decided to pay off $575k+ in student debt, and suddenly realized that the beautiful live-work loft that we were renting was absolutely and horrific-ly expensive. Even though it fell within the average cost of an OC rental ($2,800 a month for a two bedroom, two bathroom, 1,500 sq. ft. live-work loft with a 2-car tandem parking garage), it became apparent that it could not support my goals. So I went down a rabbit-hole of considering my options.

First, we looked for cheaper rentals. We almost pulled the trigger on renting out a 500-square foot apartment in Huntington Beach for $1,900, but voted against it because it had no garage, was farther from work, and would have likely caused marital issues due to cramped quarters. As much as I loved Mike, we were still growing accustomed to being around each other 24/7. Little did we know a pandemic was written in our futures. Either way, we nixed the idea of moving into a tiny box, although now, I think I could handle it.

Next, I wrote to our current landlord to ask her to reduce the rent. We had a great relationship with our landlord and she was so grateful to our on-time rent payments and our care for her home, that she did reduce the rent from $2,800 a month to $2,600 a month (a savings of $2,400 per year). Okay, so now we were getting somewhere.

Then, I thought of renting out the bottom floor (which had its own entrance, bathroom, and floor). The living space was on the second floor and the bedroom was on the third floor. I told people around me that I was thinking of renting it out and luckily, my brother’s newly graduated girlfriend happened to find a job in Orange County. At the time, my brother was living in my parent’s two bedroom home and she was living with her sister in San Diego, where her internship was located. Her new job in OC meant that she needed a new home, and apartments, like I said, would have likely cost her anywhere from $1,800-$2,400 monthly.

So, we offered her a place to live, for a mere $700 per month. Liiiiiiiiiike, a really nice place to live for any new college grad. Lucky for us, she said YES! That cut down our living expenses to $1,900 per month, the same number we would have had to pay for that tiny room by the beach. By house-hacking, we saved $900 per month, which saved us $10,800 per year. This brought down our yearly cost of rent from $33,600 to $22,800 – quite an amazing feat.

But still!

It killed me to know that $22,800 of our hard-earned, post-tax dollars was going into someone else’s pocket, without increasing our wealth. So I became obsessed with buying a live-work loft of our own. I must have searched Zillow for an entire year straight. I was so in love with our current one and our location, but when one was listed on the market, I couldn’t stomach the $650,000 price tag. It was for 1,500 sq. ft., one bedroom, one bath, and a downstairs office. It was street facing which brought up it’s property value, but after stalking Zillow for a year, I felt that the right price for that loft was about $100,000 cheaper.

The most important thing about the home searching process is this:

We knew what we wanted. A turn-key live-work loft that allowed us to keep Kirsten and that is fairly new for a fair price that will not wipe out our bank accounts. We wanted one in between Los Angeles and South OC, and we wanted a property that can become a rental, a business storefront, or our home. Essentially, I wanted options. Our lives were open-ended at the time, so we wanted our housing situation to be, too. We decided to put the smallest down payment we can (about 5% of the asking price) so that we can get in on the market sooner.

(PS: The loan we did was a traditional loan which included a PMI for only putting 5% down. We also looked into a physicians loan which allowed 5% down without PMI. However, the physician’s loan increased the interest rate, and when we ran the numbers, one ends up paying more for the physician loan over the course of 30 years than a traditional loan. As far as putting more than 5%, we just did not have the cash at hand especially since we were making $6,500/mo payments to my loans. So we decided to put in the least we could, and this kept us from being house broke. We had extra cash to cover the fees and still keep a nice chunk for an emergency fund!)

We were sitting at Bruxie’s waiting for our chicken and waffles, disappointed at deciding to let go our “dream” loft, but also proud of not allowing emotion to make our home purchase decision for us. It was then that I saw it for the first time listed on Zillow. A loft in the heart of downtown Santa Ana, maybe about 2.5 miles from where we currently lived. It was listed at $499,900 and had the same number of bedrooms, bathrooms, square footage, and parking spaces as the loft we lived in. Also, it was street-facing. The seller was under contract previously, but for some reason, the contract fell through and he decreased the asking price by about $15k. This gave us a clue: He was motivated to sell. He listed it only a few hours before our seeing it, and the next day, we had done a walk-through and placed an offer.

Some might call this an emotional decision but that it was not. We just happened to know what we wanted and did not want. We happened to know the current market. We also happened to know a stellar agent who was a friend of a friend’s, and we happened to know the person who lived next door to the loft we bought. We have done the research, the thinking, and the networking – and everything just kind of fell into place, which is great if you’re a believer in fate.

So we bought the house with a 5% down at 4.6% interest rate (which happened to be more than 2% less than my loan interest rate!) and our monthly mortgage, (plus PMI, plus HOA, plus property tax) was about $3,300 a month. We kept our roomie on for $700 a month and gave her a garage spot for the inconvenience of moving her butt to downtown, so this made our portion of the payment $2,600 – the price we were at before we started house hacking. This was at the end of 2018.

During the pandemic in 2020, we refinanced in the summer, reducing our interest rate from 4.6% to $3.5%, and our monthly payment from $3,300 to $3,000. We even gave our roommate a $100 discount, reducing her rent to $600 a month, for being such a stellar, long-term roommate. Unfortunately, our living situation with her is coming to an end this year, so we decided in January of 2021 to refinance a second time.

This second refinance (5 months after our first) reduced our rate even further from 3.5% to 2.85%! It also reduced our monthly payment down to $2,700 (HOA, property tax, and mortgage insurance included). With our roommate still on board until July/August, we are paying $2,100 for a roof over our heads. Unfortunately, she will leave at the end of summer, and we will have to face a few rental options. However, since we treat her (and charge her) like family, the rental price of that downstairs room will likely increase to a going rate of $1k/month. At that price, our housing cost will go down to $1,700 a month – not bad for OC and more than $1k cheaper than where we originally started.

The refinance put us at a fantastic place to be since our unit has a rental value of about $2,800 – $3,000 per month back when we originally bought it. However, just recently, lofts that were built over the pandemic down the street are now being leased. These 500-800 square foot lofts go for $2,800-$3,000 / month. The proximity to our place will, we hope, drive the value of our unit above $3,000/month as a rental. Either way, it is safe to say that our place is now cash flow positive shall we decide to move on from here after “things return back to normal.”

Both our jobs are taking us south, so if remote work doesn’t remain a thing, we may rent this space out and get a second property. Shall we choose to stay, we can continue to house-hack and rent the bottom floor as either an office space for a WFH parent that needs their “work away from home”, or as a bedroom for someone we know. This will lower our living expense to under $2k/month.

In the meantime, the value of the property is estimated to be at $550k according to our appraisal, and $565k according to Redfin. We are earning equity and when we move on, will also earn rental income on top of that.

The following are the tips that worked for us when buying a property:

  • Know your market. I stalked Zillow for a year for a very particular type of home in a small area.
  • Know your numbers. Don’t accept loans at face value – actually map out the dollar amount over time.
  • Know your must-haves and cant-live-without. For Mike, that was a garage. For me, it was natural light.
  • Know an emotional decision when you feel one. This is why we did not buy the loft “of our dreams”.
  • Know your financial limits. I knew I had my student debt to worry about. I also knew I wanted an emergency fund and to not be house-broke.
  • Know your future goals. I knew this wasn’t going to be our forever home. Our lives are so open-ended, there was no pressure to buy a home that we would live in forever.
  • Don’t ascribe to the “dream home” and all that HGTV stuff.
  • Take Renovations Slowly or not at all.
  • Don’t just buy a home and forget. Continually re-evaluate and find ways to save. That’s why we thought of refinancing.
  • Be open to non-traditional ways of living. House hacking and living with a roommate is the best decision we ever made.
  • Be creative in your solutions. Not only did we house hack, but I also built a bakery out of my kitchen. I operated my own bakery for a year. My house also acts as my WFH blog space, my ROVER dog-sitting space, and now, it is my husband and roommate’s work-office. It is more than a home or a rental property – it is where we work and earn a living, too.

I know this narrative is extremely personal and number heavy, but I also hope it’s been of help.

Thanks for reading along.

Photo by Philipp Berndt on Unsplash

Why A Kitchen Reno Is Not Happening Any Time Soon

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Sometimes, this space is as much for my readers as it is for me – a place where I can store letters to myself or record the reasoning behind this experimental project which I call life. Today, it serves as the latter, although my readers may find the value in it too; A kind note to myself as to why a kitchen renovation is not in the cards in our near future, and why that is perfectly okay.

I toyed with the idea of re-doing our kitchen in December, after visiting a few friends who underwent just that. Their pretty white cabinets and shining appliances made an impression on me and had me stumbling down a rabbit hole of quartz countertops and custom-made wooden doors. In my musings, I mulled over all the flaws of our tiny kitchen space – the creaking faucet that is sure to break any minute now, the super thin metal sink banged up from carelessness, the water-logged floorboards caused by a leak every time we ran the dishwasher left undiagnosed until three plumbers later, the oven that clicks without a fan in the rear, the plastic microwave with its sticky hooded vents, the peeling panels stickered onto the laminated cabinet doors and the crusty chipboard slowly giving up underneath these fake countertops – all the things that my dream kitchen did not have.

My consideration even went so far as physically going to Ikea, planning a kitchen with a consultant, getting quotes from the third party counter-top company and the installation crew, and coming up with a game plan to ensue renovation at a moment’s notice. As usual, my husband gave me pause and we agreed to dog-ear the project and revisit at a later month.

During which, all the things I love about the kitchen re-surfaced. I had already written another note to myself about How to Fall In Love with a Kitchen but forgot it in the midst of celebrating all the newness of our friend’s “new” home. Which goes to show that sometimes, we need reminders of our love, such as that which I hold for my own space.

How it was my own bakery for a year of my life, how I know exactly the way my breads will turn out in this faithful oven of mine, how the light hits the fake-wood and adds a soft glow to my mornings and late afternoons, how the countertops never cause me worry and allow me to thoughtlessly spill sauce that would certainly stain marble and leave hot pans unattended which would certainly burn wood, how the kitchen fridge holds enough food for the three of us, how my dishwasher keeps my hands from drying out in the winter time, how we eat breakfast and prep meals around the free wooden island that came with the house and those fold-up-Ikea chairs, how there is just enough room to store all our belongings, how a cabinet in particular holds the exact dimensions needed for my beloved KitchenAid Mixer, how there is a very specific counterspace wide enough to house our espresso machine and coffee grinder, and how it brings me so much joy to stare at my kitchen from the couch, thanking my lucky stars that we get to call this abode our home.

With all of this recognition for our kitchen’s enoughness comes the flaws of doing a renovation. Redoing a kitchen would definitely put us behind on our loan repayment journey, which serves as our number one priority and biggest goal. Redoing a kitchen would take away time from our daily lives, as well as erase my bakery’s memories. Redoing a kitchen will unlikely bring us lasting happiness, as I continue to spill sauce on new countertops and drop things in a new sink while relearning the workings of a new oven. Lastly and most importantly, redoing a kitchen is not exactly what we are about.

In an effort to practice gratitude for what we already have, to live freely from working 9-5, and to live purposefully and to the fullest, I have decided after much consideration not to tackle the kitchen renovation. And while Instagram will feed me mementos as to why renovation is a must, I will be baking away in this darn kitchen, grateful for it supporting all my culinary endeavors, forgiving my experimental failures, and hosting my favorite people while learning and relearning the beauty in the aging of things and the growing of ourselves.

Other reminders and related posts:

Property Ownership: Refinancing a Home

With the extra time on our hands these past few weeks, we’ve had time to mull through our current finances and see where improvements can be made. We are generally good at frugality (see how you can stretch frugal muscles here), we have mastered a budget (and I’ve written a free course walking you through the process here), and have been very good at paying back out student loans so far. However, this does not mean there aren’t places where we can improve.

Since Mike has been without a job since February and since the dental offices have been open only a few days a week, our income has undoubtedly diminished over the last few months. With the lowering interest rates of mortgages, we decided, perhaps now is the time to refinance our home.

Refinance Can Save $$$

We purchased our home in 2018 and was given a locked rate of 4.875% at the time. After shopping around, we found rates offered to us today to be as low as 3.625%. I was alerted by the drop in interest rates by a colleague who was refinancing her home, and another who was in the process of closing on his first house purchase. The latter also informed me that he knew of someone who has refinanced their home twice in the last two years.

At first I was skeptical as to the efficiency of refinancing a home. Of course, there are closing costs to consider, and is that offset by the monthly savings due to a lower interest rate? After running some numbers, we have decided that yes, it is worthwhile.

We were able to rope in our closing costs into the total cost of the loan which made the appraisal fee our only up-front cost. After calculating using the new loan amount (with the closing cost added in), we found our monthly payment reduced by $500+ a month. Multiplied over the course of 30 years, this saves us $180,000, assuming we do not pay off the home early.

How to Refinance

The process was fairly easy, since we were sticking with the same mortgage company and they already had our mortgage details. We simply filled out an application form and Docu-signed necessary documents. You may need to provide additional documents such as proof of income in the form of paystubs, which you’re lender will specifically ask for.

Of course, you can always shop around with other lenders. I would recommend asking for referrals from friends and family members until you find one you like. The closing costs can always be negotiated, and you can shop for some services on your own which may end up being cheaper than going with the lender’s recommended vendors. Do not be afraid to ask which services you are allowed to shop for. We did shop around and entertained two other lenders, however, all three options gave us a similar interest rate. Since we already like our current lender and we try to do all things in simple ways (simple does matter), we decided to stick with our current one.

Potential Problems

Of course, with the ever-changing landscape of COVID-19, you may run into a myriad of potential problems such as, but not limited to:

  • Delayed processing due to an influx of multiple home-owners also trying to reduce their monthly payments.
  • Volatile interest rates which are daily changing due to multiple people not being able to make their home payments, people losing their homes, and alternatively, people trying to buy homes at the low rate.
  • Delayed services such as appraisals due to social distancing and stay-at-home protocols currently in place.
  • Reduced income, depending on whether work-at-home is an available option for you, which can then affect your ability to refinance at all. If possible, keep your job so that you can prove that you have a solid income that can support the refinance.
  • Increasing debts as the jobless try to stay afloat. My advice is to try to keep debts at a minimum so that credit scores are not greatly affected by this recession to come.

Despite these potential problems, I would still prompt you to pursue refinancing your home. There will likely be a recession post COVID-19 and house prices may not stay at their current rates. In fact, we may see something similar to 2008 when house prices drop drastically and when that’s the case, refinance would be a difficult thing to swing. I would refinance while the value of your home can still be appraised highly, and while you can get in on these low interest rates.

Property Ownership: Taking Renovations Nice and Slow

Buying a home comes with so many strings attached to your emotions, and its got you moving in all sorts of directions. One of which is this desire to create your fantasy dream home, RIGHT AWAY. In this post, I am going to avoid digging into the recesses of our social upbringings to address how we are shaped to want such a thing (*cough* HGTV *cough*) for the sake of time, which I am admittedly currently short on amidst all the property fixes, the packing, the moving and student loan tackling. Rather, what I am going to say is this: Take renovations nice and slow.

First off, Congratulations! You have a new home! Have you even  taken the time to celebrate that? We are trained to seek more, more, more, that few of us take the time to be grateful for what we have. I know I am much the same. It isn’t long after I’ve accomplished something that the following words are out of my mouth: “Okay, what next?” How about stopping, taking a breath, and seeking the NOW? As cliche as it sounds, take time to smell the roses.

Now, if you’re like most people, you likely had to take out a mortgage for your newfound space. Which also means you likely spent a good chunk of change for the down payment. Dare I say that for a number of people, the down payment makes up a majority of your life savings, especially if you are young and just out of college like me. I can attest. We took 100% of our emergency fund, and spent it ALL to make a 5% down payment on a $499,900 home in Orange County, CA. While you judge us however way you wish in the way we spent that money, we are now starting from where we were two years ago, when I graduated with $575,000+ in student debt while owing my then boyfriend, now husband, an additional $20,000. Except we have paid down $100,000 towards that debt and we now have a home. I have faith that we will be just fine.

If you could get over the judgement, here is what I have to say. The focus is not to renovate the space into a dream home. It’s to build your life around something that makes you ultimately happy. Comforts of an emergency fund included, digging yourself further into financial debt is not. Rebuilding our emergency fund is where a majority of our focus will be for now. So what if the counters are cheaply made of wood, and have minor signs of water damage? So what if the sink does not properly fit into the counter-tops and caulk was used to seal it up? Never mind that the cabinets have multiple holes in them from the handlebars that were there previous to the current ones. Or that the bathroom stall has glue stuck to the walls. Yes I want a brand new couch to replace the hand-me-down that I received from my college roommate in dental school. But I’ve lived with it for five years, and looking back and seeing what I’ve done with my life says maybe it’s worth sitting on that couch a few years more.

I can tell you that most buyers, myself included, can find unlimited furniture upgrades, faulty appliances, and remodeling projects, all of which will quickly deplete the incomes of even the rich and famous. In the voice of Admiral Ackbar, “It’s a trap!” These temptations will prevent the most frugal among us from saving their hard-earned incomes. Some even rack up high interest credit card consumer debt! Feeling a squeeze in the budget is normal, but you have control over that constriction. I would recommend taking a very lean approach to your budget, and take renovations nice and slow. Personally, my goal is to go ham with the student loan debt while rebuilding that emergency fund (substitute your important financial goal here). I assure you that you will be able to transform your place into something beautiful, in time. Meanwhile, be glad that you have a comfortable place to sleep, a functioning stove, a roof over your head – all things that many people around the world can only dream about.

If you are at the point where you want to take on renovations, you may be asking, where to start? Surely, not with the cosmetics. We are fixing only those that require most attention. For example, the bathroom in our roommates space only emits hot showers. And while hot showers are nice, we do need to add cold water for fine tuning. Additionally, the fridge that’s included with the space has no water filter. So we’ve installed a water filter under the sink, to avoid plastic bottles. Lastly, we spent our entire weekend taking off the shelving and wooden floorboards that the previous owner left behind. With that comes wall spaces that needed patching and re-painting. There was a closet door on the first floor which they’ve cut a hole into, so we bought a piece of wood and cut it to create a new door. I then painted it to match the rest of the house. A majority of the work we did on our own, with the help of a cousin and uncle. Someone quoted us $500 to remove the floorboards, so we did it for free instead. Alas, here is the “nice” part to the “nice and slow”. Doing the work ourselves saved us a lot of money, taught us a few things about property maintenance, and strengthened us as a team.





Meanwhile … we have started the re-financing process!!

Property Ownership: 5 Things to Avoid During Mortgage Application (Travel Hacking Included!)

We are extremely open about how we are able to travel on a tight budget. Our dream to explore Earth is not to be deterred by things such as massive student loans. I have already outlined how we travel hack our way to achieving our adventurous dreams. As much as we love travel hacking, we needed to put a complete stop on our strategies, at least for the time being. While we have proven to ourselves that travel hacking does not negatively affect our credit scores in the long run (how to understand your credit score, here), we also are very aware that it will affect our mortgage application short-term! Travel hacking violates a lot on the “Don’t list” of Mortgage lenders, so in order to understand why we should put travel hacking to a halt, let’s review what NOT to do when applying for a mortgage loan.

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1. Don’t allow tardy payments.

Missing a payment (or worse, adding judgements to a credit report) can surely tank any chances you have of getting a mortgage loan approved. It may seem as if a small missed payment won’t matter much, but your score can lower by more than 100 points if a 30-day late payment occurs on any type of credit account! After spending all this time being reliable and building up good credit, the last thing you want to do is give the lenders any indication that you are a risky borrower.

Be very wary of what you owe. Even missed payments for medical bills or court judgements can weasel their way, uninvited, and interrupt, delay, or all together annihilate the entire mortgage lending process. Even utility bills, parking tickets and library fines can cause damage. I would simply be hyper-aware about all payments that need to be made.

2. Don’t have revolving credit.

As I mentioned in my post, Understanding and Improving Credit Scores, the second most important factor in determining your credit score is how much you owe. Therefore, it is important to avoid revolving credit as much as possible and to pay off all credit cards in full. I mean, you should be doing that anyway, but now isn’t the time to slip. I know that during the entire mortgage process, you are likely thinking of so many other things, however, you want to make sure your credit report is at the forefront of your mind. You can lose as much as 45 points on your overall score just by maxing out one low-limit credit card!

Sometimes, travel hackers have that push to hit minimum spend within a certain time period, but they do so unwisely by spending more on their credit card than they can pay back by the end of the month, thus creating revolving credit. Live below your means, an advice that should be heeded at all times, independent of a mortgage application.

3. Don’t open any new credit cards! (Travel hackers, I am talking to you!)

Here is where travel hackers need to beware. You want to be approved for the mortgage but you also want to snag a credit card offer that’s pretty much handing you 80,000 points FREE. Your fingers are itching to pull the trigger and sending in that online application with just one click more. Don’t do it!

Unless, off course, your okay with risking mortgage approval. But if you are applying for a mortgage in the first place, I am assuming it’s because you don’t have the money to buy your house in cash. AKA, there is no alternative. Other sign-up bonuses will be there in the near future. The mortgage lender may not.

Here’s the thing: Mike and I have not seen our credit scores go down since we started travel hacking in November 2017. Within 6 months, we had opened 5 credit cards between us, and our credit scores have actually increased. They say that your credit score may go down 5 points with each credit card inquiry. If you have a really good credit score (800+), then I would consider your argument that one additional card will not reduce your score to a low enough point that a lender would deny you a mortgage loan. However, I like think we are better off safe than sorry. A recent inquiry will indicate to the lender that you may be a high risk candidate for a loan, let alone multiple recent inquiries. And if I am being honest, every time you do a credit pull, it will give you the top reasons why your score is the way it is. Me and Mike’s top reasons? “Recent Credit Card Inquiries”. Then again, our scores were around the 800’s. You may take that with a grain of salt, a dash of pepper, or however way you want to, but we chose not to open cards during this 45 day period.

The day after you close on the house, feel free to apply for whatever card you want. Just make sure not to max it out on home improvement stuff! (More on that, later.)

4. Don’t close unused accounts. (This too, applies to travel hacking.)

Many people believe in the fallacy that closing accounts will improve their credit score. Some believe in an even worse falsehood, and that is, closing credit accounts will wipe off bad credit history from their credit report. Sadly, no and nope.

The truth is that closing accounts can lower your credit score. Why? Because your credit history makes up a large part of your score. If you close an account that’s been open for ten years, that maybe you haven’t kept active in a long time, that will cut your credit history. Additionally, they will always consider the credit utilization percentage, which is the amount of credit being used versus the amount available. When it comes to closing cards, apply the same practice as with opening cards: wait until after escrow closes!

As far as travel hacking is concerned, there comes a time when credit cards need to be closed to avoid the annual fee. Mike and I were lucky in that we were not even close to any of our one year anniversaries for our credit cards. If you are planning to apply for a mortgage, it would be absolutely wise to plan ahead.

5. Don’t use this time to dispute anything in your credit report.

Which isn’t to say, don’t try to fix any inaccuracies with your score. Right away, if you see an accuracy, the best action to take is to notify your potential lender of the mistake. Current rules dictate that a single dispute under investigation by the credit bureau is enough reason to delay or nix the loan, in order to avoid consumers trying to improve their loan last minute by disputing negative (and possibly, accurate) information.


Property Ownership: Understanding and Improving Credit Scores

It would be nice to buy a home entirely with cash. The transaction would be simple, and there’s only one dotted line to sign. Unfortunately, for many in California, this just isn’t feasible … at least, not any time soon. We debated waiting to buy a home until we can pay for it in cash (mostly because of the fact that I get sweaty palms every time I think about loans) but the trade-off was too great. Waiting to buy a home for cash would have taken us more than fifteen years, since we had to focus on paying down $500,000 student loans as well, which is equivalent in price to our most recent home purchase. That would be fifteen years of paying for monthly rent, which could be equivalent to fifteen years of paying down the mortgage. I ended up wiping the sweaty palms on my jeans, taking a deep breath, and choosing the latter. Meaning, I had to take on a new loan, at the exact same price as my student debt. *Deep breathIf it wasn’t for my husband, I am not sure I could cope with the thought. Reassuring hugs and “we-got-this” fist bumps go a long way.

While I can ignore the nervous sweat and the anxious breathing, there is one thing a buyer applying for a mortgage cannot ignore: their credit score. Credit scores can be supplied by different companies, the most commonly used being FICO, which stands for Fair Isaac Corporation. Each score is calculated by an elusive mathematical equation that evaluates many types of information with the patterns in hundreds of thousands of past credit reports. Simply put, they are trying to evaluate the risk that comes with loaning you money.

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Things to note: 

There are several categories that the FICO score considers, including your payment history, the amount you currently owe, the length of your credit history, any new credits you acquired, the types of credit in use, and the number of credit queries. Here are a few things to note, and then we will go in dept into each category.

  • A FICO score requires that at least one account has been open for six months of more, and at least one account has been updated in the last six months.
  • Although a score can quickly be lowered, it takes time to improve your score. If you are planning to buy a home, and your score is lower than 750, I would recommend starting to improve your credit score NOW. There is no quick fix to improving credit. In fact, quick-fix attempts may backfire. The best thing you can do is to manage your credit responsibly over a long period of time.
  • A score considers all categories mentioned above, not just one.
  • Everyone’s score is calculated a little differently. One category may have more emphasis when determining my score whereas another category may weigh more heavily in calculating someone else’s. It’s impossible to say how important each category is, because it differs from person to person, depending on the overall picture. Therefore, it is important to work on each of the categories. With that being said, the general rule for a majority of people is that the categories are listed in the order of importance, with the payment history usually being the most important and the number of new queries being least important.

With that, let’s get right into it!

Payment History

A good payment history shows the lenders that you will be reliable in paying back the loan. Your score will take into account:

  • Payment history on many types of accounts, including credit cards, installment loans, and finance-company accounts.
  • Public record and collection items, including bankruptcies, suits, wage attachments, liens, and judgements. Bankruptcies stay on your credit report for 7-10 years. A foreclosure, short sale, or deed in lieu of a foreclosure lower your score by about the same amount. These are considered serious delinquencies, so don’t expect to get a new mortgage loan with favorable terms for 5-7 years.
  • Details on late payments: Your score considers how late payments were, how much was owed, how recently they occurred and how many there are. For example, a 60 day late payment is not as damaging as a 90 day late payment. However, a 60 day late payment made one month ago affects your score more than a 90 day late payment made five years ago.
  • How many accounts show no late payments, which will help increase your credit score.

How to improve your score:

  • Pay your bills on time.
  • If you’ve missed payment, get current and stay current.
  • If you are having a difficult time making ends meet, get help. May I suggest a financial planner?

The Amount You Owe

Using credit accounts does not mean that you’ll be a bad borrower. However, using many credit accounts and owing a great deal in each one indicates to the lender that a person may be overextended and is more likely to make some payments late or not at all. Your score will take into account:

  •  The amount owed on all accounts and on different types of accounts.  The total balance on your last statement is generally the amount that is shown on the report. The score will also consider what types of accounts are being used.
  • How many accounts have balances. A large number can indicate overextension.
  • How much of the total credit line is revolving credit, meaning carrying a debt balance month to month. Those who are closer to maxing out on many credit cards may hold greater risk.
  • How much of the installment loan accounts is still owed compared with the original amount. Car payments are a great example. Even if you’ve been paying the monthly dues on a $10k car loan, if the majority has been going to interest, then you may still owe 80% of the car loan when you apply for a mortgage. Paying down installment loans at a quicker rate obviously looks good.

How to improve your score:

  • Keep balances low on all credit cards.
  • Pay off debt as close to 100% as you can.
  • Don’t close unused credit cards as a short-term strategy to raise your score. It won’t work, and it may even lower your score! Long established accounts show that you have a long history, which is good in the eyes of a lender.
  • Don’t open new credit card accounts that you don’t need. I am talking to you travel hackers out there. Put it on pause.

The Length of Credit History

In general, a longer credit history looks good to lenders. I remember when Mike was trying to apply for a car loan. He had no credit history, and had difficulty getting it. It blows my mind that being financially responsible and not having credit history is considered a bad thing by lenders. What a backwards world we live in. Unfortunately, when it comes to borrowing money, a credit history is considered a good thing. Your score will take a look at:

  • How long credit accounts have been established  – the longer “the better”. Also, the more diverse types of credits you’ve been managing, the more responsible you seem.
  • How long it’s been since you used certain revolving credit. For example, an inactive credit-card is given less weight in your credit score than active ones.

How to improve your score:

  • Don’t open a lot of new credit cards. Remember that new accounts will lower your credit score, even if it is temporarily.

New Credit You’ve Acquired

Any credit less than a year old is considered “new”. The score will consider:

  • How many accounts you have. It will especially look at how many of those accounts are new.
  • How long it has been since the most recent account was opened. 
  • How many requests have been submitted for credits. Typically, inquiries remain on your credit report for two years, although FICO only considers inquiries from the last year.
  • The length of time since lenders made credit report inquiries. FICO will ignore inquiries that are more than a year old.
  • Whether your recent credit history is good following past payment problems. Off course, your score will be improved after getting current and staying current.

How to improve your score:

  • When you search for multiple loans, do them all within a certain time period. 

Types of Credit in Use

Usually, this category does not bear much weight in the score, however, it can if there is not much other information on which to base a score. This score looks at:

  • The different types of credit accounts you have. They look to see if you have a mix of credit cards, retail accounts, installment loans, finance company accounts and mortgage loans. Off course, this does not mean you should go out and get one of each!

How to improve your score.

  • You can open new credit cards but ONLY AS NEEDED. You don’t need one of every type. Plus you have to remember to manage them responsibly. Meaning, pay each credit card in full at the end of the month. Note that closing credit accounts does not erase them from your report.

Number of Credit Inquiries

Credit inquiries are defined as the requests that a lender makes for your credit score or report each time you try to apply for a new credit line. FICO takes this number into account. Here’s what you need to know:

  • Inquiries do not have a large effect on your score. Typically, this lowers the score by less than five points. That being said, there is a larger impact if you have a short credit history or if you have few accounts. Also, people with six inquiries or more on their credit reports are 8 times more likely to declare bankruptcy, something worth considering.
  • Many inquiries are not counted at all. The following are not counted, although they may appear on your credit report: orders made by you from a credit reporting agency, lender requests for your score in order to make you a pre-approved credit offer, and requests from employers.
  • The score looks for rate shopping. This is why I mentioned before that shopping around for a mortgage or an autoloan should be done at the same time. Multiple potential lenders may pull your credit report, even though you are only looking for one loan. The score counts multiple inquiries in a 45-day period as one single inquiry. Also, the score ignores all inquiries made in the 30 days prior to the scoring.

So there you have it! Trying to understand your credit score can be overwhelming. Score determination is muddled by the fact that each individual’s scores bear different weights for different categories. The most important thing to remember is that you want to prove that you have little risk for defaulting on a loan. So pay back debt, stay current, be responsible, and do this over the course of a long time period. And the best day to start is today.

Good luck!

Property Ownership: It’s Not About Finding Your Dream Home

I think back to just a few weeks ago when we were considering buying a loft in our neighborhood and we had come across an over-priced turkey. I think, in our minds, we saw a loft we have been dreaming of, but in our hearts, we knew there was something wrong with the big picture. The main problem was that the price the seller was asking for did not match the perceived value that we had of the loft. Luckily, signs of an uncooperative seller really pushed us away and his personality became an additional factor that made us hesitate for a moment. That moment was enough.

I remember how it happened very vividly. It was a pivotal moment in our house buying venture. We had exactly three days to respond to the seller’s counter-offer … if you could call it that. We received it on a Friday and Mike and I decided to go do something we hardly do, which was to dine out. We went down the street to a chicken and waffle stand called Bruxies to talk about the pros and cons. We both were dancing around the question of, “Do we let this go or do we just bite the bullet and sacrifice a huge expense in order to get this space?” Deep down, we both knew that it wasn’t worth the cost. But we were fearful, too. Of missing out on an opportunity. Of missing out on this imagined dream.

It turns out that all of this was a blessing in disguise. As we were sitting there that summer evening, waiting for our trays of fried food to be delivered to us, I remember casually turning on my phone and searching Zillow. It was a thing I’ve done the last year and a half or so, and I’ve probably memorized nearly every listing on the market. I just liked to see what was out there, out of curiosity. On that particular day, we were primed to buy a place. On that particular day, we were determined not to be duped of our money. On that particular day, we were in a specific headspace or state of emotions. On that particular day, a loft was added to the listings.

It was actually the first property that showed up on my feed, which meant that it was the most recent addition. Or, well, re-addition I should say. I knew exactly where the loft was located, and I knew what it was listed for before. There was a $20,000 price reduction. The loft was selling for under $500,000, which, if you live outside of California and New York, you probably would not understand how great of a deal this was. My obsessive habit of scrolling through Zillow has paid off! I knew right away that those lofts were selling for a bit more than the listing price. I showed Mike, and in an instant, I think we both knew the answer. Though we didn’t say it out loud, there was a hint of a spark, maybe from some neurons firing in our brains or a shooting star over our heads or whatever, that told us this could be the one.

After that moment, we couldn’t stay close-minded anymore about the property we were going to buy when we realized there were better opportunities. The main reason why we wanted the loft in our current neighborhood was because we had already lived here. We were comfortable, we knew the pros and cons. We knew the floor plans and the neighbors. We knew the HOA people and the surrounding businesses. But it does not mean that it was the best option. The minute you get comfortable, you start to close off doors to other opportunities. Practicing the art of purposefully seeking discomfort in life, it makes sense that we went with this other loft. We had texted our real estate agent and within minutes , we had an appointment to view the other loft the next day. The loft that we ended up getting. By refusing to entertain the grossly priced loft in our immediate neighborhood, we found a loft that checked off a lot more.

  • Location: The loft we found was in the heart of downtown. Originally, we were hesitant to even consider these lofts because of the location. But once we opened up to the idea, the location ended up being its best feature. We initially feared being located in the heart of downtown, where there would be potential noise from concerts on weekends, or busy sidewalks and traffic during the day. But once we got over that, we realized that this location had more pros than we thought. Walk outside and there are many restaurants, bars, and coffee shops to go to. We would be one block away from the farmer’s market, three blocks away from one of my work offices, and within a few blocks from the courthouse, the library, the post office, and many other governmental offices.  It is one block from Main Street and located on 3rd Street, so that if and when we do decide to open our own business downstairs, we would get decent foot traffic. But best of all, the loft we ended up with was next door to one of our close friends! As in, we share a wall. As in, the exact friend whose housewarming party we went to three years ago and whose loft inspired us to live in a loft of our own.
  • Style: The style we were looking for was a live/work loft. I would admit that it doesn’t look nearly as industrial as the one we currently live in, but it definitely has the vibe of something more than just a traditional home. Vaulted ceilings, large windows, cement floors, metal railing, and exposed vents. We can always add additional industrial touches at a later date.
  • Price: The asking price for this loft was incredibly cheaper. As I calculated in the previous post How to Decide if Property Ownership is a Good Financial Decision for You, the equivalent of our current monthly rent would be a property that is less than $520,000. The loft we bought was actually originally listed at $520,000! But after a previous potential buyer changed their mind, the seller lowered the costs down to $499,000. That weekend, we placed an offer for their asking price, which is $150,000 cheaper than if we went with that fake seller. Since I have been studying the market for over a year, I knew right away when this came on the listings that the price was fair. Our appraisal came back at $505,000, so we were very happy with the one we chose.
  • Commercially Zoned Space: The loft is already commercially zoned for business! Just thinking ahead to our future dream of starting a business that’s our own gives me the shivers.
  • No Immediate Renovations Needed: Unlike the first loft we were considering, the bottom floor in this loft is already partitioned with it’s own full bathroom. Which allows our roomie to stay with us. Plus, the loft requires no immediate renovations. The inspection report came back with minor tweaks, but we can move in once escrow closes and assume our day to day without a hitch.

All of this to say that persistence and patience pays off. That fear of a new adventure should be stifled almost immediately. That comfort will lead you to over-priced turkeys and closed doors. That curiosity can lead to wonderful new paths. That sometimes, it’s not about what you plan for, what you prepare for, or what you dream of, but rather, what life gives you, and whether or not you choose to take it by the reigns and just go with the flow. That it is not about finding a dream home, but instead, finding a home that will get you to your dream life.

Property Ownership: The 45% Rule in Mortgage Lending + IBR’s Saving Grace

So I know that we WERE in the process of refinancing our student loans in the Spring, which we announced on zee blog prior to an Oregon trip. Now that we are returning to Oregon once again in a week, I wanted to say that we STILL have yet to finalize the refinancing. And no, we did not wuss out. Don’t fret, refinance is still in our near future plans. If anything, we manned up a bit more. How? It was at that time that we decided to tackle property ownership as well! So why did refinancing have to be put on hold?

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There were two moving parts that we were balancing at the same time. Firstly, we decided that we can tackle student debt quicker by refinancing to a lower rate than our current 6.7%. Secondly, we also agreed that a sure heck of a lot of money was going towards rent, and then disappearing into thin air. After much consideration, we decided that tackling property ownership was yet another financial challenge we wanted to pursue.

Here’s the catch. Both actions would affect the results of the other.

The 40% Rule and the 45% Rule in House Buying

The general rule with mortgages is that lenders will want to see that your property’s monthly mortgage payments do not exceed 40% of your monthly gross income. For example, if you’re monthly take home pay was $5,000 a month, then the monthly mortgage cannot exceed $2,000. Which is fine, because we chose a home that would be a close equivalent to what we were already paying for in rent, and it is nowhere near 40% of our monthly gross income.

The problem lies in the second general rule. General rule number two states that your monthly housing expense and monthly repayment of non-housing debts, can total up to, but generally be no more than, 45%. By non-housing debts, I mean car payments, credit card payments, and yes, student loans. Uh-oh! Do you remember when I told you that 100% of my income was going towards paying down student loans? How in the world were we able to get a mortgage loan with a rule like this? Well, IBR is our saving grace.

IBR is a Saving Grace

When you are under the IBR program and are applying for a mortgage, they consider only your minimum monthly payment, which is a small percentage of your income. This is regardless of whether you are funneling more than the minimal payment towards the loans in hopes to reach financial freedom faster, or not. So buying a property while under IBR is “easy”! Because no one assumes that you would be crazy enough to pay down your student loans, when you can wait for loan forgiveness instead.

If we had refinanced prior to getting a property, the monthly payment of the refinanced loan would be $5,500/month. When you add that towards the monthly mortgage payments, then we get very close to exceeding the 45% rule. Even though we would still fit the rule, the tightness in the budget does not allow enough breathing room for emergencies, or whatever life chooses to throw our way. We all know I need breathing room! And once you refinance, there is no turning back. IBR is lost for good. There goes your saving grace.

So refinancing would have likely swept away all hopes of property ownership in the upcoming few years. Which means more money spent on rent and not funneled towards building wealth. Now you can see why we had to put our refinance on hold. We do not wish to refinance until after we close escrow on a property. Refinancing student loans first would have put us much farther behind on our financial goal of owning property. But buying a home first does not put us much farther behind on our financial goal of paying down student debt.

Mortgage’s Effects on Refinancing

Unfortunately, there ARE effects of a mortgage on student loan refinancing. Owning a property can affect the refinanced loan rate of the student loan. Since the loan company will now see that we have a mortgage to pay on top of the student loans, they may apply a higher loan rate to our refinanced loan than the originally quoted 5.5%. But the chances of refinancing at a rate lower than 6.7% is still present! Now in our particular case, a student loan company may think that $500,000 in student debt is crazy. They may not trust in our ability to pay them back in ten years, on top of having a home. And we don’t blame them. It is a scary thought, after all, and they know nothing about our personalities or financial story. So if a loan DOES deny refinancing the full $500,000, here is what you do. Refinance part of your loan. For example, get $250,000 refinanced at a lower rate. That seems more doable to the refinancing company. Then pay only the minimum amount towards the refinanced loan, and funnel the rest into the loan at 6.7%. Why? You want to pay down the loan with the higher percentage first, since the interest rate will be charging you like crazy. Meanwhile, you’ve cut part of the interest that you would be paying under IBR. As the numbers dwindle, consider refinancing again in the future, this time the loan in its entirety. Since we still plan to keep up with our $6,500 payments per month towards student debt, a lowered interest rate will help us out, no matter what. If they do not approve the loan in its entirety, we take baby steps. Even if only a portion of the loan is refinanced, it still doesn’t deter us or set us back from our plan to be free from student debt in less than ten years!

In the end, our choices were this:

Refinance first, and have a very difficult time securing a mortgage.


Pursue property ownership first, and refinance at a slightly higher rate, but still at a lower rate than the current loan.

As you can see, we went with the latter.

And I am pleased to say that we are almost there! Once we’ve secured the property portion of our game plan, we ARE going to refinance. And I will share with you guys THAT process as well!