With a recent price softening in some markets, the 32-year-old Chicagoan thinks it may be a great time to jump into a condo.
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And buying a home seems like a popular move for people moving into their 30s: More than half (56 percent) of people 30 to 34 were homeowners in 2006, a big jump from the rate of 42 percent among people in their late 20s, Census Bureau figures show.
"I want to buy a home and will need to buy a car," Francis wrote in a letter to Your Money requesting a Money Makeover. "And I want to continue saving for retirement."
It's a common dilemma for first-time home buyers: Being able to save and pay for the home without sacrificing vital retirement savings. So, can this disciplined saver have her new home--and still have something left to eat, too?
The answer is yes, but not right away, said Karen Altfest, a veteran financial planner who agreed to help Francis make some key money decisions for the future. Altfest is vice president of L.J. Altfest & Co., Inc. in New York, president of the New York chapter of the Financial Planning Association and a frequent speaker on the topic of women and money.
"Sarah has really good habits and is way ahead of most of her peers," Altfest said. "She's in a good position to achieve her goals, with no debt and a good savings rate."
Based on projections for 2007 income of about $86,000 from two nurse practitioner jobs, Francis is on track to save more than $28,000 this year, including about $10,000 for retirement, Altfest said.
But Francis would like to put 20 percent down on a new home--she's looking in the $200,000 to $250,000 range--and she'll likely need to show a lender she has three months' worth of mortgage payments in the bank, Altfest said.
Add in the associated moving costs and you have a case for waiting about 18 months to stash away more savings before buying the home, Altfest said.
The planner also recommended delaying the purchase of a new car until 2009, even though Francis wanted to replace her 2001 Honda Accord a little sooner.
Even by waiting, Francis still may have to take out a car loan, Altfest said, a move she is resisting.
"I'd rather just keep this car longer," she said, adding that she doesn't want to get back into debt, like she was during college. "I was in over my head as a college student until my brother sat me down and told me I was living way above my means. Since then I've become more aware of where my money's going."
Altfest hopes that attitude prevails once Francis starts shopping seriously for a home. Many clients start looking and quickly ramp up what they're willing to pay, the planner said. And Francis' price range already represents almost three years of gross income, where advisers traditionally like to see costs more in the range of two years' gross income.
And while Altfest did discover Francis is spending a bit more that she actually realized, her spending today is well under control, at $57,758 including all taxes.
"Her spending is not unreasonable. She's saving a lot, working hard and is entitled to go out to dinner and a movie now and then. But it was a good reality check to see exactly how much she's spending,'' said Altfest.
Once the home purchase is made, the planner urged Francis to max out her 401(k) plan at work, putting away roughly $15,000 a year. That would be an increase from the close to 9 percent she's putting away currently from her main nursing job (she also has a part-time job) into the plan. She also is funding a Roth individual retirement account.
The home purchase may also mean enough in the way of mortgage interest deductions that Francis could adjust her withholding for taxes at work to boost take-home pay, she said.