Money Talks, So Should You

Jessica Dickler: Personal finance and the challenges of buying a home

Jessica Dickler
by Jessica Dickler, Dimespring Contributor  (@jdickler)

Yes, I’ve bounced a check.

But generally speaking, I've always been careful with money and loved a good deal, so writing about personal finance was a natural fit. I have also had the opportunity to practice what I preach: During a decade of working at CNNMoney, SmartMoney and The Wall Street Journal, I got married, had children and just recently bought a house -- all wonderful milestones but also huge financial responsibilities.

Ironically though, it's only after leaving my post as a full-time personal finance writer, that I am facing my greatest financial challenges, including making a monthly mortgage payment, the big move from the city to the suburbs, finding (and affording) schools for my children, deciding how to manage child care and the greatest hurdle of balancing work and family.

This column is in many ways about my own experiences, but also about the financial struggles all families face trying to get by. Going forward, I hope to learn and help others, maybe with a few missteps, but hopefully more successes, how to keep most money matters together.

All along, I welcome your comments, questions and feedback. We want to hear from you about your experiences too. Please chime in in the comments section below and follow @jdickler and @Dimespring on Twitter. We will do our best to respond to and address what you have to say.

The first big challenge: Buying a house

Like many potential home buyers, a slow economic recovery left us wary about making such a big purchase. But with the interest rate on a 30-year, fixed-rate mortgage at a record low, according to Freddie Mac, and housing prices down over 30 percent since peaking in 2006, experts say it’s a good time to bite the bullet and buy a house – something my husband and I had been considering for years.

“It’s probably as good a time as we’ve ever seen” said Pat Newport, an analyst for IHS Global Insight. “Mortgage rates are so low and if you adjust for inflation, home prices are as low as they’ve been in 10 years.

But while getting approved for a mortgage was relatively easy, actually obtaining one was a different story. In the aftermath of the housing crisis, mortgage lenders are particularly skittish about signing off on a loan, leaving most would-be homeowners out in the cold.

"Overall credit is tight,” Newport explained. “If you are not willing to endure the paperwork, you are not going to get a loan."

For us that meant documenting all of our assets and liabilities, responding to our bank’s requests for additional information quickly and calling them repeatedly to check on the status of our loan.

According to the Department of Housing, home buyers should all have the following information on hand in order to expedite the cumbersome mortgage process:

• Your social security number
• Keep checking and savings account statements for six months
• Evidence of any other assets like bonds or stocks
• A recent paycheck stub
• A list of all credit card accounts
• List account numbers and balances due on outstanding loans
• Copies of your income tax statements for the last two years
• Name and address of someone who can verify employment

Although we finally managed to close on a house in May, that was just the beginning. With the bulk of our disposable income now going to a monthly mortgage payment and property taxes, what’s left over must cover food, education, medical care and everything else.

In the weeks ahead I will tackle handling those primary expenses, how to make a budget and ways to cut costs. Hopefully, I’ll save us some money, keep my sanity and even enjoy the process.