You are getting ready to buy a home. Your first home. Among the many important decisions to make, you must decide whether to choose a 15 year or a 30 year home loan. Information on this question is easy to find: if you search around a bit, you can find a number of articles that compare 15 year and 30 year home loans, suggest the pros and cons of each, and can help you think intelligently about which one might suit you best.
I have not, however, found one that deals specifically with the question of whether a 15 year or a 30 year home loan is best suited for someone buying their first home. First time home buyers have unique circumstances. Most important: first time home buyers usually expect to live in their home only 5-10 years, upgrading when they need more space and can afford a more expensive home. Talking this into account leads to some surprising conclusions.
A numerical example helps shed some light on this decision. Here are a few assumtions for this example:
You have savings of at least $60,000 that you could, if you choose, devote to a down payment on a home, and you intend to put 20% down on your home.
You have decided that you can afford home loan payments of up to $15,000 per year.
You can obtain a 30 year home loan at an interest rate of 5.0% or a 15 year mortgage at an interest rate of 4.5%.
Given those assumptions, here are two alternatives. Each alternative results in your making mortgage payments of roughly $1,250 per month:
30 Year Mortgage: Buy a home for $291,000, putting $58,000 down and taking a 30-year, $233,000 home loan.
15 Year Mortgage: Buy a home for $204,000, putting $41,000 down and taking a 15-year, $163,000 mortgage. (If you go with this option, you are able to keep an additional $17,000 in your savings account.)
Which option is better?
The 30 year home loan has a big advantage: you can buy a much more expensive home, almost 50% more expensive. Keep in mind that you are making equivalent mortgage payments with both options, so, at least while you are living in this home, you are not sacrificing your ability to spend in other areas or contribute to your savings goals.
In fact, while you are living in your home, you are actually benefiting from a larger tax deduction from the 30 year mortgage, even though the home loan payment is the same, because a higher proportion of the payments are categorized as interest payments.
So, if the 15 year mortgage is going to be preferable to the 30 year home loan, it would need to have some substantial long term benefits. These benefits should show up when you upgrade to your next home.
If the 30 Year is better in the short term, which is better in the long term?
Suppose you decide in to upgrade in five years. When we do the math, it turns out that it isn’t completely predictable which option puts you in a better position when you upgrade. Here are the three variables that matter:
The growth in home values over that five year period. The higher the growth rate, the better the 30 year does. Why? With a higher home value, the same growth rate produces greater absolute dollar growth. Ten percent growth increases the 30 year’s home value by $29,100 and the 15 year’s home value by $20,400, a difference of $8,700. Twenty percent growth increases the 30 year’s home value by $58,200 and the 15 year’s by $40,800, a difference of $17,400.
Your tax rate. The higher your tax rate, the better the 30 year does. Why? More of its payments are interest payments, which are tax deductible. The higher your tax rate, the more tax deductions help you. For someone in the 25% tax bracket, the difference is close to $1,000 per year in tax savings.
Your investment growth on the cash not spent on the down payment in the 15 Year option. The higher the rate of investment growth, the better the 15 year does. One caution: don’t assume equity returns on that investment. Five years is not enough time to invest in stocks. I think the fairest assumption is that you are able to invest the saved down payment at the same rate of return that your home values grow.
In most circumstances, 15 year does leave you with more equity to roll into your new home. It takes a housing growth rate if around 7% – far in excess of historical norms – for the 30 year to win. If home values grow at a more typical 3.5% rate, the 15 year will leave you with about $15,000 more to spend on your home upgrade.
If we run the numbers again for a home upgrade in ten years instead of five, the results don’t change materially. It still takes an unusually high 6% growth rate for the 30 year to break even. At the 3.5% rate, the 15 year wins by close to $25,000.
Is living in a more expensive first home worth reducing the amount of equity you will have to roll into your next home?
Here’s one way to decide: compare the amount you sacrifice in the future to the difference in the rental value of the two homes. The above calculations suggest that you sacrifice about $2,000 – $3,000 of second home value for each year you live in your first home. Compare this to the difference in rental value of the homes. Using the historical average rental rate of 5%, the $291,000 home would rent for about $14,500 per year, and the $204,000 home would rent for $10,200 per year.
The difference, $4,300 per year, is greater than the amount that choosing the 30 year is likely to cost you. On that basis, at least, it appears that the 30 year gives you a good deal for your money: you live in a better first home without having to spend a whole lot more order to live there.
But shouldn’t we defer present gratification for our future benefit?
Every rule has its exception. Consider this: moving multiple times over the course of your life reduces your net worth. The transaction costs involved in buying and selling a home (broker fees, legal fees, title fees, transfer taxes, moving costs, etc.) typically drain away 10% of the value of your home. The more times you move, the more times you subtract this amount from your total net worth.
Choosing a 30 year home loan may help you limit your number of moves because you’ll be more willing to remain in your first home longer. As your family grows or your children get older, the larger space is more likely to meet your needs. If choosing a 30 year increases the liklihood that you will only move once, it actually may increase present gratification AND provide future benefit.
Do you find this conclusion surprising? I confess that this is not the outcome I expected to reach when I began considering this question. The 15 year home loan represents many of the characteristics that are normally beneficial in managing your finances: a lower interest rate, reduced consumption, and automatic savings. Despite all those advantages, for most consumers it is the wrong choice for a first home. The traditional 30 year home loan makes more sense.
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