Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

To buy or not to buy

Single mom wonders whether to jump into housing market or stick with renting

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Jane sees the price for a modest home these days and she cringes.

A single mom in her late 30s with a disabled teenage child, she has been pondering buying her first home for a few years, but the prices just keep going up and up.

So she wavers between buying and waiting.

"I've had a few friends tell me 'Just do it and bite the bullet,' but I've had other friends tell me 'No! Just wait until you're comfortable.'"

Earning about $34,000 a year, with an additional annual bonus between $8,000 and $10,000, Jane says she often feels as though she's living until the next payday, frequently running monthly credit card balances.

When she gets the bonus, she pays off the cards and other debts and begins the same process over again.

Still, she does set aside money for her daughter and has already saved about $5,800 in a Registered Disability Savings Plan (RDSP), receiving the government grant that matches $3 for every $1 she contributes.

She also has about $39,000 in an employee share purchase program she is considering using as a down payment on a home.

"But my girlfriend the other day told me that wouldn't be a good idea because, for one, if I take the whole amount I'm never going to get the return on the money that I will with the company stocks," she says.

While Jane remains hopeful she can eventually buy a home, she says she sometimes wonders if it's an impossible dream.

"To be perfectly honest, should I be realistically even looking at buying a house?"

Christi Posner, an accredited financial counsellor with the Credit Counselling Society, says it's a good thing Jane is reluctant to jump into the housing market.

"It's one of the biggest financial commitments anyone can make," says Posner with the non-profit agency that helps Canadians balance their budgets and get out of debt.

Whether Jane can afford to own a home or not boils down to her free cash flow -- the money left over after all other expenses are paid every month.

And at the moment, Jane doesn't have enough financial wiggle room to buy and own a home without putting herself and her daughter at risk of sinking deep into debt.

With the child tax benefit, Jane's monthly income is about $2,425, already about $375 short of her expenses, including debt payments.

Jane says she also receives child support that should be about $500 a month, but she doesn't include it in her budget figures because she doesn't always get it from her child's father.

"I would strongly encourage Jane to seek the assistance of the Government of Manitoba's Maintenance Enforcement Program to ensure the well-being of her daughter," Posner says. "This will help to increase her household income to $2,925 per month and help cover her daughter's expenses while allowing Jane to live within her means consistently."

In the meantime, Jane has to start budgeting, with the aim of reducing spending so she can find extra money to pay off her credit card debt, presently about $2,700.

"She should pay debts first, because there is no sense trying to save money for a down payment if she is paying a lot of interest on other debt."

Obviously, child support will help a lot in becoming debt-free. With the full $500 extra a month, she could allocate $417 a month to her debts and out of the red in 17 months.

Then, she can consider the feasibility of owning a home.

But Posner says even if Jane was debt-free tomorrow, she likely couldn't afford a home at this stage.

The main issue is not whether she can come up with a down payment and qualify for a mortgage. She probably could do both.

"The real issue will be maintaining a home and a mortgage payment on a monthly basis for the next 25 years," Posner says. "With home ownership comes increased costs for utilities, property taxes, home insurance, regular maintenance and repairs."

While the employee stock plan would serve as a decent down payment on a home worth about $190,000, Jane would quickly find herself in debt because she'd be in the hole about $600 a month. This deficit will likely get worse when her child turns 18 because she will lose the child tax benefit.

Even if she could find a home for about $160,000, she would still find she has about a $300-a-month shortfall.

Posner says before she can buy a home, Jane needs to balance her budget, get out of debt and increase her income. Because she has the opportunity to be promoted at work, she also should consider upgrading her education to improve her chances.

"Her employer may even fund additional training courses that would help her earn a promotion sooner," Posner says. "She could also explore taking on a second job if she has her heart set on owning a home."

Yet it may be that after taking a look at her overall financial picture, one that includes retirement, Jane might decide it's not worth the trouble.

"I'm sure Jane doesn't want to be obligated to work well into her retirement years, if she's physically or mentally able to do so," Posner says. "Therefore, I do not recommend that she use her retirement savings (the company shares) for a down payment."

Jane is best off focusing on securing consistent child support first, while creating a spending plan that allows her to pay off debt, balance her budget and save for emergencies and retirement.

"By taking these steps first, Jane will not only manage through this transition time successfully, she will position herself positively with lots of opportunities for her future," she says. "Home ownership may not be in Jane's best interest right now, but at each new stage in Jane's life, I encourage her to reassess and explore the possibilities."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 10, 2013 B11

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