First-time home buyer's guide: money management.

Author:Webb, Michelle
Position:25th Anniversary of the B.E. 100s - Cover Story

IF YOU'RE THINKING OF BUYING YOUR first home, now's the time. Housing starts are up. Interest rates are near 20-year lows. And to top it all off, bankers and insurance executives say they're working harder to do more business with minorities and in minority neighborhoods.

Still, statistics show that African Americans and other minorities have a hard time landing that first home. Don't despair. If you've decided it's the time to buy, here are the basics you'll need to work around the obstacles and get the house you deserve.

You'll be glad to know that housing is much more affordable today. The median price of a home is lower now than it was in 1989--and even lower than in 1979, when adjusted for inflation. As a percentage of after-tax median income, homes cost, on average, 33% less than in 1982. Interest rates are also favorable, thereby keeping your mortgage burden reasonably in check.

That combination of factors has benefited African Americans. According to the latest data from the U.S. Census Bureau, African Americans have a home ownership rate of 42%. And data compiled by the Federal Housing Authority (FHA) indicate African Americans account for about 50% of new home buyers, with the largest growth among single or newly divorced black women.

It's that kind of environment that got Rhonda and Brian Alexander of Brooklyn, New York, looking for a place of their own immediately after getting married. But like many first-time homeowners, the couple found that shopping for the perfect nest was only the beginning of their worries. "Many times we reached a point where we thought we'd hit the home stretch, only to find out a whole new process was just beginning," says Brian. Long before you get to closing, Rhonda adds, you realize that "it's hard work, work that takes dedication and persistence, but a process that is well worth it."


Every smart first move coward homeownership begins not with a trip to the real estate agent but with a hard look at your finances. How much can you afford to pay? Have you been paying your bills on time? Are you carrying large credit card balances? Are you struggling to make car payments? Have you seen a copy of your credit report lately? And if you're married, does your partner's credit history directly affect yours?

More than likely you'll have to apply for some sort of financing from a lending institution. Banks and mortgage lenders will scrutinize every facet of your expenses to judge just how much of a mortgage you can handle. And the statistic they'll use--the infamous debt-ratio--amounts to a monthly ratio of what you owe on outstanding bills in addition to the debt you will incur through your new home, divided by your gross monthly income.

According to home mortgage specialist Gary Clark, most lenders aim for a 28/36 debt ratio. Translated, that means not more than 28% of your gross monthly income should be devoted to housing costs, and that all your other monthly expenses should total no more than 36% of your monthly income.

Ed Dudley Jr., found out the hard way just what the debt-ratio game could do to home-buying dreams. With his sights set on a three-bedroom home in Dayton, Ohio, Dudley found his ratio wrecked due to his car loan and high credit card balances. Even after paying off his car note, Dudley discovered that banks still shied away since his expenses totaled more than 36% of his monthly income. It...

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