The Backwards (But Right!) Way to Finance Your First Home

Buy Right

Your first home is most likely the stepping stone for your next home, so you want to do it right and set yourself up financially to move up to your next home. In this 8-part series, How to Find the Perfect Home for You and Your Budget, you’ll learn how to find a home that is the right fit for your lifestyle, needs, and, most importantly, your budget. It takes you through every step and shows you how to avoid buyer’s remorse.

When it comes to getting a mortgage to buy your first home, many buyers decide on the price point of the house they want to buy before talking to a lender. 

They’ll say something like — “We are going to buy a home for $500,000” — and then they head out to open houses in that price range.

Do not start your home-buying experience this way!

If you go about financing your first home this way, you’ll not only have a miserable experience, but it also could cause you to buy the wrong house! 

Follow these Four Steps —

You’ll be all set and on the right path if you follow the four steps below. And keep reading since you don’t want to miss the BONUS section — with even more tips on getting the right mortgage for your budget.

  1. FIRST, decide what you want to pay PER MONTH before you talk to the lender.

This is the most important decision you’ll make when it comes to buying your first home. Everything else will fall into place once you make this decision. 

Decide this before you talk with any lenders, before you start searching for homes online, and before you start going to open houses.


The reason is twofold.

  • Most lenders will approve you for more than you want to spend.  Whatever you are approved to spend on a home is irrelevant.  Most people are approved to buy way more house than they actually want to spend. 

This often comes as a surprise since most people feel like they won’t be approved for enough. But that’s typically not the case; it’s the opposite! Most people are approved to spend way more than they want to shell out every month for a home.

That’s why you should start the conversation with your lender not by asking them what you are approved to buy but rather by telling them what you feel comfortable paying per month for your new home (inclusive of condo fees, if any, taxes and insurance). 

The lender can then work backward to determine the correlating sales price and tell you if you would be approved for that amount.

They will need one other piece of information from you to provide a price point, which we will discuss when discussing cash for your transaction (see #3 below).

  • If you plan to buy a condo or anything else with a monthly HOA fee, your correlating purchase price will differ since you need to include this amount. For example, the monthly payment for a $500,000 condo with a condo fee of $300 per month is going to be a completely different monthly payment than a house with no HOA fee.  The difference in purchase price may be as much as $50,000 or more—that’s a huge difference in purchase price you need to account for!!

2. Not sure how to determine an affordable monthly payment?

Conservative advice is to spend about 30 percent of your income on housing. In areas with high living costs like Honolulu, that number can creep up beyond 40 percent and still be okay. Ask yourself if what you want to spend per month is in that range. If it is, you are A-okay.

It would help if you also were looking at your monthly budget to compare future home expenses to your current rent expenses. That will help you determine an affordable mortgage payment. 

Again, focus on your monthly mortgage payment rather than fixating on one significant sales number or price range. It’s easier to comprehend since most of us already budget for monthly expenses and will help you consider any HOA fees, etc. 

3. Decide how much cash you want to spend on the transaction.

In addition to what you want to spend per month, you need to know how much cash you want to spend on your purchase. As we mentioned above, this is the second piece of information your lender needs to determine your price point.

You most likely will need cash for the down payment and closing costs unless you are approved for some first-time buyer programs.

Decide upfront how much cash you can put towards your home purchase. A loan from your 401k? Will it include a gift from family? 

Some things to keep in mind when you are thinking about how much cash you want to allocate to your home purchase:

  • Start with a dollar figure, not a percentage. You can work in percentages later when you have a sense of your purchase price.

You may be able to spend a little less cash to hit one of the points that lenders like to see. For example, if you have around 10% to put down, putting 12% down won’t change your interest rate or help anything from a loan standpoint. So you could save that extra 2% for moving expenses since it will do you more good as cash in hand than cash in your home.

  • Closing costs are going to run you between 2.5% and 3% of your home price. Be sure to set aside some of your cash for closing costs, not just for down payment. Your lender can help you with this.
  • Don’t worry so much about putting 20% down.  There is a very traditional mindset that says you must put 20% down in order to avoid mortgage insurance. Although that is accurate, these days there are many great loan programs, especially for first-time home buyers, that ease up on the private mortgage insurance (PMI) payments.

4. Now you’re ready with your two important figures!

You are all set to meet with a lender. You should now understand the two things that will help them determine your price range:

  1. What you want to pay per month.
  2.  How much cash you want to spend on your purchase. 

You can always make adjustments later and see how that will change the price point, but start with some figures you are comfortable with in terms of a monthly payment and cash for your purchase.

BONUS SECTION – More Information on Getting the Right Mortgage

When it comes to adjustments once you receive your price point from your lender, keep these tips in mind:

  1. Mortgage “Rules of Thumb”

These are additional guidelines that you can use to help determine your mortgage payments. Remember, you still want to have some cash leftover and not be wiped clean each month.

  • You can afford 30% more in mortgage versus your current rent without changing your lifestyle. To figure this out, multiply your current rent by 1.33 to arrive at an affordable mortgage payment. For example, if you currently pay $1,500 per month in rent, you should be able to comfortably afford a $2,000 mortgage payment after factoring in the tax benefits of homeownership.
  • Every $10,000 change in your loan amount, whether that’s through increasing or decreasing your price point or increasing or decreasing your down payment will only change your monthly payment by about $50-$80 per month (depending on your purchase price, the lower the price, the lower the change in the monthly payment for every $10,000 change). Yep, that’s all! So, don’t worry as much about saving another year or two for an additional $10,000 to put down if you can swing an extra $50-80 per month instead. 
  • It’s not one-size-fits-all when it comes to mortgages, and working with a lender to go over the options available is important. Make sure you are looking at the entire loan picture — the program, the time period you are going to own the home, and the terms of the loan; and how all of that creates the best financial position for you. 

It would be best if you thought of the loan summary, and price points your lender gives you as rough drafts until you find an option that suits your specific finances and situation.

The loan your friend gets is not the one you should necessarily get. These days, when it comes to financing your first home, there are SO MANY loan options available that you need to focus on what’s best for your particular financial situation and goals.

  • Know your credit score since your score will also affect your mortgage interest rate. Your credit score is a major factor for lenders when determining your risk.  That means your score plays a big part in the type of loan you will be offered and its interest rate. The higher your score, the lower your rate.

Remember, a credit score has nothing to do with your income or investments. It’s based on how you’ve handled your credit card payments and other loan payments, like your car or student loan. It also considers if you’ve declared bankruptcy, have a tax lien, or you’re being sought by a collection agency.

  • Having a score of 680 and above means you’ll have more options, lower interest rate, less down payment requirements.
  • 620-660 is considered a fair score and lenders may work with you but may require more documentation to determine if they should take a risk and give you a loan.
  • Below 620 is considered a poor score and many lenders will deny your loan application completely. You may have access to only one or two loan options, such as a FHA loan or a subprime adjustable rate mortgage (ARM).

If you need to improve your rate, you may need to delay getting your home until higher.

2. See if you qualify for any first-time homebuyer assistance programs.

Many programs are for moderate-income buyers and offer down payment assistance and/or cover closing costs. This is “free” money and that means you might use less from your savings than you thought. 

3. Try to determine how long you plan to own this home. 

Consider your current and future finances and where you will be in 5 or more years. Several loan products may be better for you than a “go-to” 30-year fixed loan.

If you don’t plan on owning for more than 5 or 6 years, you might want to consider an adjustable-rate mortgage (ARM). Today’s versions are much more straightforward, conservative, and safer for homeowners than the ones in the past. These loans typically offer a substantially lower interest rate, saving you thousands of dollars while you live there.

4. Carefully consider options if you need to pay points to get a lower interest rate.

Your lender may tell you that your interest rate will be lower if you pay one point than if you pay zero points. And even lower if you pay 2 points. 

A point is equal to 1% of your mortgage amount (or $1,000 for every $100,000). So points are an “upfront payment of interest” at closing for usually 30-year fixed loans. Rather than pay it over the life of your loan, you can pay a large chunk when you get the loan. 

As a buyer, you will need to weigh the pros and cons in getting the lower rate and paying for points upfront. Since interest rates are low, you may not want to pay the points if you don’t plan to live in your home for more than 5 or 6 years. You’ll never recoup the costs of your upfront payment over the life of the loan, even if lower monthly payments may seem tempting. 

However, if you plan to live in your home for many years or interest rates go up, then the benefit of the lower rate will kick in and save you money in the long run.  

5. Keep an eye out for hidden fees or additional costs along the way.

  • Don’t be fooled by advertised rates! Behind that rate could be a long list of fees, points, or closing costs. Ask the lender to break down the fees and give you the total amount for closing the loan.
  • Avoid penalties for lock-in extensions. Some lenders will increase your interest rate slightly if you need to lock in your loan for 60 days or more. Make sure you know any requirements before signing any paperwork. It’s another reason to get all of your finances and paperwork in order before you apply for a loan.
  • Review fees for FHA loans. Don’t always assume a FHA loan will be cheaper or better. Not only do you pay an upfront premium for mortgage insurance (1.75% of the loan amount), but you’ll also pay a recurring annual cost of up to 1.35% of the outstanding loan amount (added to the monthly payment) for the life of the loan. Review the pros and cons of these loans carefully.
  • Mortgage disclosure forms have been simplified.  They do a much better job of disclosing a loan’s terms and cost to borrowers. Make sure you carefully review the Loan Estimate, given three business days after application, and the Closing Disclosure, given three business days before closing.

You’re off to a great start now that you know the best way to go about financing your first home. Now it’s time to show you how your budget, location, and criteria for a home come together as a “roadmap” in your search for the perfect home. Next week’s article, Putting It All Together, explains how these three factors are intertwined and will lead you to your new home!


I'm Tehane, a local realtor helping locals buy, sell, and stay local in Honolulu  Schedule a conversationand let's talk about your current situation and where you want to be. Then, let's create a plan to get you there.  Every journey begins with the first step! 



BHGRE Advantage Realty
4211 Waialae Avenue, Box 9050
Honolulu, HI. 96816


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I'm Tehane, a local realtor helping locals buy, sell, and stay local in Honolulu. Schedule a conversation, and let's talk about your current situation and where you want to be. Then, let's create a plan to get you there. Every journey begins with the first step!   

Let's connect 

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