Cities to Consider When Renting and Buying

low-housing-inventory

January is a natural time to take stock of your financial life, and to dream big dreams about 2018. Could this be the year you make the leap to homeownership? Or, will you make a big change and trade in your mortgage payment for a landlord?

In the complex calculus that’s required for the renting vs. buying decision, one variable stands out: Which is cheaper? If that seems like a hard question to answer, there’s a good reason: crunch the data from America’s largest cities, and you’ll learn it’s a perfectly split decision. According to an Urban Institute analysis, among 33 top metropolitan areas in the U.S., there are 17 places where buying is cheaper, and 16 where renting is cheaper. We’ll get to that list in a moment, but here’s a hint: renters in high-flying West coast cities might want to sit tight for a bit longer.

Renting vs Buying

Fewer life decisions carry more weight than the renting vs. buying dilemma. And that choice is getting harder. A generation ago, buying a home was seen as a rite of passage, a natural (and necessary) step towards adulthood. It was also a solid path to wealth. A $25,000 home purchased in 1970 was worth almost $100,000 by 1990, and about $200,000 today, using national average appreciation. Plenty of baby boomers who bought average-priced homes as young adults find themselves living in a nice nest egg now.

All that changed when the housing bubble burst. Millions lost their homes to foreclosure. Millions more found themselves “under water,” meaning their homes worth less than their mortgage balance. At the height of the housing recession, 23 percent of mortgage holders — nearly 1 in 4 — were under water. They’d lost money on their investment. The myth that housing prices can only go up has been busted. Many of those bubble-era buyers wished they were renting.

While the housing market has slowly recovered, blind faith in housing gains has not. Homeownership rates hit a 50-year low in 2015, and first-time home buyers are now waiting a record 6 years to move from renting to buying. In fact, young adults looking to upgrade out of their 1-bedroom apartments are increasingly renting single-family homes rather than buying. Single-family rentals – either detached homes or townhomes – make up the fastest-growing segment of the housing market, according to the Urban Institute.

But renting is no picnic either. With all these new renters, markets are reacting accordingly, and costs are now skyrocketing at about four times the rate of inflation. In some places, rents are up much higher. Seattle saw an average of 6.3 percent rent increases last year.

Such volatility in housing and rental prices isn’t the only reason the renting vs. buying equation bas become more complicated. Thanks to structural changes in employment — led by the various form of the gig economy and the contingent workforce — flexibility is key for workers. Gone are the days where a worker could buy a house with a 30-year mortgage and count on a consistent commute for the next three decades. People change jobs much more frequently now. Millennials experience four job changes by age 32, according to a LinkedIn study; they’ll move 6 times by age 30, according to 538.com

While it’s possible to sell a condo or house and move, it’s much easier for a renter to relocate for that great opportunity on the other coast.

Income Driven Decisions 

For most people, however, it comes down to money. You might think renting is always cheaper than buying, but that’s incorrect. A long list of variables must be considered when running the numbers, like these: How long will you stay in the place? How much are property taxes? How much investment opportunity cost will you pay when putting a large down payment into a home? How much will you spend on house repairs or condo fees? How much might your landlord raise the rent?

The Urban Institute provides an interesting answer to these questions by comparing the percent of monthly income a buyer or renter would have to spend to own or rent an average home in cities around the country. To ease the comparison, the constants are pretty simple. The report assumes median income, then calculates how of that monthly paycheck would be eaten up by owning – including mortgage payments, interest, taxes, and insurance payments on a median-priced home – or by renting a median-priced 3-bedroom home.

Ordinarily, these costs have to move relatively in sync. When rents get too high, consumers are pushed into buying. The opposite is true, too — when homes/monthly mortgage payments are too high, people are nudged to rent. So these costs tend to move together, or at least like two balloons tied together by a string, floating up into the sky: One pulls ahead for a short while, then the other, and so on. After all, people have to live somewhere.

Cities Good for Renting

But in some cities, these rules don’t seem to apply at the moment, and either renting or buying has sprinted ahead. In those places, you might say the market is broken. The Urban Institute calls this the “rent gap.” In eight large cities in the US — all on the West Coast — the rent gap is higher than 4 percent, meaning it’s considerably cheaper to rent than buy. But on the other hand, there are six major cities spread throughout the East and the Midwest where buying is cheaper, using this monthly costs test. In between are 19 cities where rental and buying costs are basically running neck-and-neck.

The rent gap is most pronounced in places where housing prices have soared. San Francisco is the clear “winner” in the places where renting is cheaper than buying; there, the gap is more than 42 percent. San Jose comes in second at 19%. Seattle, San Diego, Sacramento, Los Angeles, and Portland round out the list of places where the gap is higher than 5 percent.

Cities Good for Home Buying

On the other side of the list — places where buying is cheaper than renting — begins with the winner, Miami.

It would be a stretch to call Miami a bargain, however. A median-priced home still consumes 32 percent of a median earner’s income, above the recommended 30 percent. Still, renting devours even more.

“Because Miami is the second-most-expensive city for rental housing, however, the median rent consumes 42 percent of the median income. So even at this high cost, homeownership is still the better bet,” the report says.

Detroit, Chicago, Philadelphia, Tampa, and Pittsburgh round out the list of places where the rent gap is 5% or more towards buying.

There are buying “bargains” in other cities, too. Cleveland, Cincinnati, Orlando, Houston, and San Antonio all enjoy rent gaps that are more than two percent.

What to Consider

This list comes loaded with caveats, however. The biggest one: Purchasing a home brings the potential of appreciation, and renting does not. That means buyers can “profit” over time and see the value of their investment rise. The longer the time living in the purchased home, the higher the odds that significant appreciation will occur. But don’t forget, transaction costs are significant. Not all those gains are “profit.” Closing costs when buying, and then later when selling, can easily eat up 10% of those gains. Then, there’s always the chance the value of the home will go down, re-creating the situation from the early part of this decade, when buyers lose money. And of course, there’s the variable every homeowner loves to hate, surprise repair costs. Renters generally don’t face that risk.

In the end, the renting vs. buying choice is intensely personal, and always depends on your family’s very specific situation. It’s unwise to ignore macro trends, however. Even if you live in a city where housing costs seem high, it’s worth considering a purchase if rental costs are soaring, too. On the other hand, don’t simply assuming that buying is better. That’s 20th Century logic which no longer applies to the U.S. housing market.

 

If you’re wondering if your credit it good enough to buy or rent, you can check your three credit reports for free once a year. To track your credit more regularly, Credit.com’s free Credit Report Card is an easy-to-understand breakdown of your credit report information that uses letter grades—plus you get two free credit scores updated each month.

You can also carry on the conversation on our social media platforms. Like and follow us on Facebook and leave us a tweet on Twitter.

 

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The post Cities to Consider When Renting and Buying appeared first on Credit.com.

The Ultimate Guide to Bitcoin

guide to bitcoin

It’s irresistible, and painful, to play the what-if regret game with investments. What if you bought Apple or Amazon stock back in 1997? What if you bought a condo in that tough city neighborhood ten years ago? What it mom didn’t throw out that full set of 1969 Topps baseball cards? Millennials didn’t invent FOMO; investors have struggled with the fear of missing out forever.

Those missed opportunities pale in comparison to what’s going on with Bitcoin, however. Price of a single bitcoin just passed $1,000 in February. It had climbed 15-fold by December, less than one year later. Travel back another few months, or years, and the windfall for early virtual currency buyers is almost unfathomable. Writer Kashmir Hill captured it well; four years ago, she lived all-Bitcoin week for a story, and found a restaurant where she could use the digital currency to buy her friends a sushi dinner. The price: 10 bitcoins. By the end of November, the coins she spent on the sushi would have been worth about $100,000. And now?

“That sushi dinner could have paid for an ivy league degree,” she lamented on Twitter. Now, that’s a regret.

How could a sushi dinner turn into a six-figure windfall? How can you buy a dinner with virtual “money” in the first place? And what should you be doing when it seems like the whole world has gone crazy for digital currencies?

We’ll try to answer those questions for you here.

Before we get started, however, it’s important to remember that the fear of missing out has driven people to make many bad choices in investing, and in life, (you should have stayed at that party and met your future wife, dummy!) for a very long time. So if you are tempted to dip your toe in this brave new world, it’s critical that you understand what you think you are missing out on.

Tom is a virtual currency investor who agreed to speak on condition of anonymity. (Bitcoin hackers are very aggressive and scour the Internet for targets, finding them when people brag about their holdings; so if you invest in Bitcoin, keep it to yourself.)

Tom got in early, but he’s suffering from investment regret, too.

“That would be because I sold the bulk of it way back when it was $4000, because I very wrongly thought the bubble could not go much higher,” he said. “Crypto right now is like the wild west … It really is.”

What is Bitcoin? A brief history

To start at the ending, Bitcoin took a big step away from the Wild West this week when a traditional market tied to the virtual currency allowed U.S. investors to make Bitcoin bets the old-fashioned way: through brokerage accounts. On Dec. 10, the Chicago Board of Exchange began the buying and selling of futures contracts on Bitcoin’s value. Investors don’t buy actual coins through these contracts; instead, they are making bets with each other about the future value of Bitcoin. Still, the event marked a remarkable step for an idea that was born from the musings of Internet radicals and almost killed by child pedophiles.

The birth of cryptocurrencies

In the Internet’s early days, no one was really sure how people like Jeff Bezos would make money. To be specific, no one was sure how sites like Amazon would be able to collect money. Credit cards seemed like a risky way to transmit “cash” across the Web — anti-fraud systems were essentially unheard of — so there was a race to create a new kind of cash that could be sent digitally. “Currencies” with names like DigiCash, backed by MIT’s Nicholas Negroponte, and E-gold sprouted up to fill the void. Eventually, eGold would swell to 3.5 million users worldwide.

Virtual currencies offered the added digital-age benefit of making international transactions easier and far cheaper, as they can be used to circumvent transfer fees imposed by of traditional banking systems..

The philosophical origins of virtual currency predate these digital currencies, however, to a group of hackers with a libertarian vibe generally referred to as cypherpunks. They dreamed of creating a money system that was entirely beyond the reach of governments. They blamed much of the world’s ills — inflation, poverty, concentration of wealth — on the power governments can exert by controlling national currencies.

By combining the secrecy of cryptography with a currency, cypherpunks imagined a world of free, anonymous money flows that drained traditional governments of their source of power.

Early hits and misses

Early supporters like Rik Willard, founder of Agentic Group — a consortium of firms that advocates use of blockchain technologies — have always had lofty goals for cryptocurrencies.

“To me, Bitcoin is a globally distributed proof-of-concept for a new understanding and subsequent reconfiguration of intrinsic value creation,” he says. “Like any radical technology before it, digital value will begin to shape us in unimaginable ways, with the end goal, hopefully, of more financial inclusion and an end to enforced scarcity and unnecessary poverty.”

Creating new currencies is tricky work, however, largely because criminals often flock to platforms that seem to be beyond the reach of law enforcement and traditional institutions. E-Gold ultimately collapsed, and its founder jailed, after a 2007 indictment on money laundering charges.

“The E-Gold payment system has been a preferred means of payment for child pornography distributors, identity thieves, online scammers, and other criminals around the world to launder their illegal income anonymously,” the Department of Justice said.

The age of Bitcoin

But the dream of a currency not issued by governments wasn’t dead. About a year later, in August 2008, someone registered the domain name Bitcoin.org. Two months later, a paper attributed to “Satoshi Nakamoto” was posted to a cryptography mailing titled Bitcoin: A Peer-to-Peer Electronic Cash System, laying out the concepts for a new kind of virtual money. By January 2009, the first Bitcoin network came online.

What was different about Bitcoin?

When traditional currency is used for transactions, third parties are always involved. Cash changes hands, but a government provides that cash and promises it has a certain value. When money is electronically wired, banks add or subtract the money from balance sheets. More important, they supply “trust” that enables parties to believe they are getting what they deserve out of a transaction. Outside of old-fashioned bartering, there was no way to conduct business without invoking a third party institution to provide trust.

Bitcoin changes this model by allowing peer-to-peer transactions that don’t require outside blessing and verification. Instead, all transactions are published online, in a completely transparent format as a shared ledger, so they are verified — not by a bank or a government — but by the network itself. No trust required. Blocks of data are continually added to a chain providing an audit trail that confirms every transaction. Ever. That’s the blockchain.

The decentralized nature of the blockchain is key. Whenever there’s a discrepancy — say, someone tries to add inaccurate information — the many nodes on the network arm-wrestle over which data is correct and builds consensus. Then, the data is replicated across the network.

This decentralized-by-design feature means there isn’t one central authority which could be manipulated for fraud purposes, or by a government or corporation seeking control. It also means it’s virtually impossible to fake a blockchain transaction once it’s approved, or to remove one. This is sometimes called distributed “trustless” consensus. In anarchy, security.

The comeback cryptocurrency

Bitcoin’s timing was impeccable. The cryptocurrency’s radical libertarian (anarchist?) ideology found plenty of bedfellows in the early stages. The global financial crisis that began in 2008 stoked the flames of bank skepticism and helped create a population ready to consider dramatic alternatives. In 2011, Bitcoin immediately became popular with Occupy Wall Streeters, who used it to accept donations and run some operations.

But it was still a bumpy ride. While Bitcoin transactions are very public, the parties in the transaction can remain anonymous. They use a cryptographic key to access their money, hence the term cryptocurrency.

So Bitcoin predictably attracted the same crowd as eGold. In 2013, Bitcoin faced an existential threat when U.S. federal authorities cracked down on a criminal haunt called Silk Road, a popular site used to buy and sell illicit drugs. Bitcoin was the currency of choice for Silk Road criminals, and authorities seemed ready for another E-gold-like crackdown. The FBI seized 174,000 Bitcoins when it shut down Silk Road, leading many to fear that users would abandon the cryptocurrency.

While Bitcoin’s value fell briefly by about one-quarter after Silk Road’s closure, it quickly recovered (to $125…feel that pang of regret again?), and transactions kept flowing. Meanwhile, rather than marginalize Bitcoin, governments around the world slowly started to legitimize it.

Ironically, a decision in 2013 by the U.S. Treasury Department’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network to require Bitcoin exchanges to register as money-service businesses — like payday lenders and other non-bank financial institutions — probably helped Bitcoin along. It was seen as tacit admission by the U.S. that it could not afford to drive Bitcoin overseas and cede the development of cryptocurrencies to places like Asia.

Since then, numerous factors have contributed to the meteoric rise in Bitcoin’s value. Chief among them: copycats, called alt coins.

There’s hundreds of cryptocurrencies now, all trying to cash in on the Bitcoin craze through their own Initial Coin Offerings. When these occur, buyers leap in, usually investing with Bitcoins. Later, they often convert the new coins into Bitcoins.

All that activity pushes up the demand for Bitcoins. Other reasons are critical, too. Many startups are encouraging investments in Bitcoin. The echo chamber of financial media keeps focus on fantastic returns early investors are getting, whipping up the FOMO, which in turn leads to more investment, which whips up the price.

And finally, perhaps the biggest reason: Everyone from taxi driver to baristas to grandparents are now talking about Bitcoin. Cryptocurrencies aren’t just for early adopters any more; now they have attracted what Wall Street calls “retail investors.”

That means there’s a lot of more money from a lot more people kicking the tires on a Bitcoin investment. More buyers and more money mean higher prices.

How to buy and sell Bitcoin

value of bitcoin

So, how do you get in on this?

There are two ways to obtain Bitcoins; you can buy them, or you can “make” them, through a process called mining.

New Bitcoins are created, it would seem, out of thin air as a “reward” when computers compete to do the nuts and bolts work of confirming blockchain transactions. Anyone can mine —investor Tom, mentioned above, mines for alt coins using a network in his garage — but as time goes by, the processing power required to mine continues to swell.

Enormous server farms around the world are now devoted to “winning” Bitcoins, using copious amounts of electricity as they do it.

So most people obtain coins by buying them, usually on a Bitcoin exchange, where traditional currency, like dollars, can be traded for cryptocurrency.

The largest bitcoin broker is called Coinbase, which says it now has 13 million accounts — more than stock brokerage Charles Schwab. Coinbase works like an exchange for beginners, but it’s really a front-end for an exchange called GDAX, or Global Digital Asset Exchange, formerly called Coinbase Exchange.

To buy Bitcoin from Coinbase or another broker or exchange, you’ll have to download software called a cryptocurrency wallet. The wallet will be used to store the cryptographic keys that are needed to unlock virtual currency value. Coinbase, like other brokers and exchanges, also supports some alt coins, like Ethereum and Litecoin.

People invest in alt coins because they are much cheaper, and theoretically offer a chance at greater investment returns, though they can also be more risky. Not all coins, or all exchanges, are supported by all wallets.

Selling coins simply requires reversing the process. Bitcoin holders use a broker or exchange to move transfer virtual currency back into traditional currency, like dollars. That money is then transferred back to a traditional bank account.

Can you buy Bitcoins with a credit card?

Yes. But only through a wallet application and an exchange.

To keep things simple, a new user who wanted to get started on cryptocurrency can download wallet software from Coinbase, link a traditional bank account (such as a checking account or a credit card) to the Coinbase account, and begin buying bitcoins almost immediately. There’s a fee associated with each transaction (at Coinbase, it’s 3.99% for credit or debit card transactions).

No one gets rich on Coinbase in a week or two. New investors can only buy tiny fractions of Bitcoins — credit and debit card depositors are limited to $150 during the first week, for example.

But note,Buyers can’t sell right away. They have to wait a week; that can be frustrating if the value of a coin investment rises quickly, as it has recently. Coinbase users can increase their buy/sell limits through a variety of steps, including identity verification and creating a history of transactions. The throttled on-boarding process helps prevent fraud.

Bitcoins can also be purchased and sold using ATMs that are scattered around the world. They aren’t very practical, however. Transaction fees are high, and there are only a few thousand machines. They’re more of a novelty.

Spending Bitcoin

Spending bitcoin is no picnic. Many journalists have imitated Hill’s “live life for a week on Bitcoin” project; they usually come away frustrated. Yes, Bitcoin acceptance has slowly increased.

BitPay.com claims 100,000 merchants worldwide accept it. Earlier this year, Starbucks announced support for Bitcoin through its mobile app and integration with a wallet called uPayYou. Plenty of familiar online services, like Overstock.com and Expedia, take Bitcoin, too.

There are plenty of pain points along the way, however. If you thought waiting for chip-enabled credit card transactions was annoying, wait until you get held up making a Bitcoin-based purchase. Bitcoin transactions must be confirmed and added to the Blockchain, which can take several minutes, or even hours.

Risk & Rewards

There’s an bigger challenge with larger transactions. Bitcoin is so volatile that it’s risky to use for large purchases.

“Shark Tank” star Kevin O’Leary recently told CNBC that when he recently tried to settle a $200,000 international Bitcoin transaction, the other party insisted he buy insurance to guarantee the value of the Bitcoins wouldn’t fall. The risk outweighed any savings that might have been earned by avoiding bank fees or currency conversion fees.

Bitcoin comes with an even greater risk, however: It comes with virtually no consumer protections. If Bitcoins are lost or stolen, they are gone forever.

Tom says he mined 100 Bitcoins fairly early on, but his hard drive crashed, so they are simply gone. Coin thieves are also hard at work hacking wallets, which don’t necessarily come with built-in security.

Writing in Medium, Cody Brown tells the painful story of looking on helplessly while a criminal took control of his cell phone, opened his wallet, and drained $8,000 worth of Bitcoins. Users are so concerned that some have taken to purchasing physical “hardware” wallets they can essentially hide at home.

Worst of all, exchanges themselves have proven to be unreliable. The Japan-based Mt. Gox exchange, once the world’s largest, closed in 2014 after $450 million worth of Bitcoin were lost or stolen. Dozens of smaller security incidents at exchanges are chronicled at the website Blockchain Graveyard.

To security expert Harri Hursti of Nordic Innovation Labs, this fragility is cryptocurrency’s Achilles’’ heel.

“The one key feature of conventional financial systems is that pretty much any erroneous transactions or illegal actions can be unwound and reversed,” he says. “In a blockchain economy, your monetary value can disappear in a cloud of bits with a typo — not to mention intentional crime.”

Is Bitcoin an investment or a currency — or both?

Because there’s still a lot of friction involved in spending Bitcoin — certainly more than many other methods, from debit cards to Apple Pay — Bitcoin is a poor currency at the moment. It’s most practical use as a currency is probably in third-world countries and places where the existing currency is already volatile and Bitcoin provides an immediate benefit.

Outside of these extreme environments, there’s plenty of debate about Bitcoin’s long-term potential as a currency. Brian Armstrong, founder of Coinbase, says that Bitcoin is largely an investment at the moment.

“Bitcoin is 80% people buying and selling as an investment and 20% usage. I think in five years those numbers could be inverted,” he wrote last year.

That split isn’t necessarily a bad thing. As an investment, Bitcoin also serves as a store of value, the same purpose traditional gold serves for people who think their government’s policies will lead to dramatic inflation. You could also think of Bitcoin as the digital-age version of hiding money in a mattress.

Should I invest in Bitcoin?

It goes without saying that consumers shouldn’t invest money in Bitcoin that they can’t afford to lose, or that they’ll need for something in the next couple of years. Whether or not you can stomach that risk is a question only you can answer for yourself.

As a high volatility investment, impacted by hundreds of factors that create a calculus beyond the capacity of individual investors to compute, it really isn’t much different from gambling.

A long list of investing titans, beginning with Warren Buffett, have warned consumers not to throw money at Bitcoin. Remember, fear of missing out can make you do dumb things.

One reason not to avoid investing in Bitcoin: Because you think it has no intrinsic value, it’s not worth anything in the real world, or any those similar arguments. All currencies have this problem. Why is a hundred dollar bill worth $100? Because Uncle Sam says so. If you recycled that piece of paper, you’d get a tiny fraction of that. So dollars have no intrinsic value, either. All currencies — including hard currency, like gold — are ultimately some form of group delusion.

It’s not the intrinsic value that matters; it’s the depth of the “delusion.” As long as people have faith a currency is valuable, it is.

Now, you might not trust the Bitcoin mania, or the exchanges, or your own hard drive, and those would all be sensible reasons to stay away — for now. But people like Willard believe virtual money, in some form, is inevitable.

“Whether Bitcoin, as a brand, lives or dies is ultimately inconsequential. The fact is that natively digital currencies are here to stay and a multiplicity of new digital value possibilities is inevitable,” says Willard.

There is wide consensus that the blockchain technology underlying Bitcoin is of real and lasting value. As with so many gold rushes before, the only group nearly guaranteed to make money are — not people digging for gold — but companies selling the shovels to the diggers. While the metaphor is inexact, that’s partly why Tom isn’t buying cryptocoins, but rather mining for them.

The way he looks at it, even if the coins he mines fall to zero value, he still hasn’t lost everything. He still has his servers in his garage.

“I can, as an example, build and sell gaming machines on top of them, and potentially recoup my entire investment if things went sideways,” he says.

In other words, if his cryptocurrency investment fails, there’s always video games.

The post The Ultimate Guide to Bitcoin appeared first on MagnifyMoney.

How the Recession Has Changed American Spending

Perhaps you, too, have fallen victim to one of these money traps.

If you feel like there’s nothing left at the end of the month, you aren’t alone. A recent Pew study found that 46% of Americans spend more than they make every month. Nearly half!

So where’s all the extra money going?

Are We Overspending on Luxuries?

You’ve probably heard that many Americans get themselves into financial trouble because they spend too much money eating out or buying clothes. Like many popular anecdotal observations, there’s a grain of truth to it—many people complain about money but still wear the latest fashions. But does that belief hold up to scrutiny?

Fortunately, we can test this claim. The US Census Bureau continuously compiles something called the Consumer Expenditure Survey by asking a representative sample of Americans for detailed spending information. The Bureau of Labor Statistics then releases this data once each year. This survey enables consumers to compare spending over time and really see where money is going.

What Do Americans Spend Money On?

The survey for 2016 was released recently, and here’s what the numbers say: average household spending totaled $57,311 in 2016, a tidy 2.4% increase from 2015. But we can’t argue that Americans are living it up. On average, each household spent only $6,602 on entertainment, food away from home, and clothing in 2016. That’s about one-third of what we spent on housing last year, which was $18,886.

Transportation and health care were the other budget killers. The average American spent $9,049 on cars (buying them and taking care of them) and $4,612 on health care ($3,160 on health insurance premiums).

What about Housing Costs?

Housing costs continue to rise fast. Just two years ago, they were $17,798 per year on average. They’ve gone up almost $1,000 since then, or nearly 7%. Meanwhile, spending on clothes and transportation were both down in the past year—and gas spending was down sharply, thanks to lower oil prices.

“The data does show [that] housing is growing as a percent of total spending,” said Steve Henderson, a supervisory economist in the Office of Prices and Living Conditions at the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

In fact, 33% of family spending now goes toward housing. For years, both banks and government agencies warned against families spending more than 30% of their budget on housing. Now, that’s become normal—another reason US households are on edge about the future.

What Does the Typical Monthly Budget Look Like?

Here’s the typical monthly budget for US households. How does your budget compare?

Housing: 33% ($18,886)
Transportation: 16% ($9,049)
Food: 13% ($7,203)
Pensions and insurance: 11% ($6,831)
Health care: 8% ($4,612)
Other: 7% ($3,933)
Entertainment: 5% ($2,913)
Apparel and services: 3% ($1,803)

(Calculations based on BLS data. Does not equal 100 because of rounding).

How Do These Numbers Compare with Those of the Past?

In general, expenses like food and clothing are way down, while housing eats up far more of the family budget than before. There’s a fascinating chart at howmuch.net that shows these effects over a 75-year span, based on data collected by the Census Bureau.

For example, in 1961, Americans spent an average of $4,157 on clothing in today’s dollars. That’s down to $1,803 now. Americans spent nearly $10,000 on food in 1961. That’s $7,203 now. On the other hand, housing costs were about $12,000 in 1961, and they are almost $19,000 now, a 50% rise in inflation-adjusted costs. But it gets even worse when we consider what goes into housing costs.

What Counts as a Housing Expense?

When calculating housing costs for homeowners, only mortgage interest, taxes, insurance, and repairs are included by the BLS. However, the amount of a mortgage payment that is applied to mortgage principal is not. That’s because it’s not technically considered an expenditure, says Henderson. It’s considered an acquisition of an asset—in this case, equity in the home.

While this is accurate in the long term, families certainly don’t feel that asset at the end of the month. On a month-to-month basis, principal payments are still expenditures for the family and still impact the family budget. Also, as we discovered during the collapse of the last housing bubble, when you put money into housing, you are definitely not guaranteed to get it back.

How Much Do American Households Eat Out?

There are some other interesting short-term trends in the survey data. The most obvious is this: as the recession slowly loosens its grip, American consumers are starting to eat out more. Consumer spending on food away from home jumped 8% last year and another 5% this year, while food at home inched up only 1% both years.

The rise in health care costs during the past six years is rather stunning, too. In 2011, the Consumer Expenditure Survey pegged healthcare spending at $3,313. In 2016, though, it went up to $4,612. That’s a 39% increase in only half a decade. For comparison, during that same span, spending on entertainment went up only 13%. Over the same stretch, overall spending was up 15%. Apparently, movies are out and health care premiums are in.

So What Does This All Mean?

These findings show that the US economy is now driven by consumer spending, which accounts for about two-thirds of all economic activity—but even as incomes and spending pick up a little, that money isn’t going to food or entertainment. It’s getting sucked up by healthcare and housing. And that’s a big reason the post-recession economic recovery seems to be moving along at a snail’s pace.

So the next time someone suggests Americans are struggling because they waste money on frivolous things, ask them about the Census Bureau data.

“I can’t say whether people are wasting money on clothing or entertainment,” Henderson says. “But housing gobbles up the biggest share, and . . . it squeezes out money you have for other things.”

What Can You Do?

Households in the US continue to face challenges. If housing and health care costs keep rising like this, US consumers may be in for some economic trouble in the future. If you’re concerned about our current trajectory, there are a few things you can do—including spending wisely, getting out of debt or avoiding debt, setting aside some savings each month, and keeping an eye on your credit. You can check your credit report for free at Credit.com.

Image: shapecharge

The post How the Recession Has Changed American Spending appeared first on Credit.com.

Renting Is Overtaking the Housing Market—Here’s Why

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Single-family rentals—either detached homes or townhomes—are developing faster than any other portion of the housing market. These rentals outpace both single-family home purchases and apartment-style living, according to the Urban Institute.

“Almost all the housing demand in recent years has been filled by rental units,” says Sara Strochak, a research assistant with the Urban Institute. She also states that single-family rentals have gone up 30% within the last three years.

This change is unique to newer generations. But when did rentals become so popular? And why are people more inclined to rent than to buy? Below, we’ll further discuss the rise in rentals and how it affects the housing market.

When Did the Rise in Single-Family Rentals Start?

The housing bubble collapse and the recession that followed shattered the decades-old tenet of American wisdom that you can’t go wrong buying a home. Most of the housing market fallout from the Great Recession has finally receded—foreclosures and underwater mortgages are back to traditional levels and housing values have recovered in most places. But one thing hasn’t recovered: Americans’ unquestioned desire to own a home.

Today, single-family rental homes and townhomes make up 35% of the country’s 44 million rental units, compared to 31% in 2006.

Who Is Leading This Trend?

Millennials are leading the way to single-family rentals, and myriad factors contribute to this trend. Many young adults aren’t in a hurry to lay down roots, whether they’re prone to traveling or simply aren’t ready to commit to one area or one home. Student loans and stagnant incomes can also make it harder to save up for a down payment. And it’s inevitable that young people who came of age during the housing bubble would be reluctant to take a leap of faith and commit to a 30-year mortgage.

“While the age distribution of the US population suggests most millennials are reaching the age of household formation and demand for single-family homes, much of this demand is likely to be channeled into the rental market,” says Strochak.

Are Only Millennials Affected?

However, it’s not just young people. Americans over 55 have also grown more interested in renting. According to RENTCafé, the number of renters aged over 55 has grown by a whopping 28% between 2009 and 2015. Many of them want to rent homes instead of apartments. From 2010 to 2016, single-family rental households in the US increased by nearly 2 million—1.26 million of those renters were 34 to 65 years old, while just under a half million were 65 or older, according to a RENTCafé Census data analysis provided by Adrian Rosenberg. In places like Miami, Houston, and Minneapolis, more than two-thirds of new single-family renters were over 65.

What Led to This Trend?

When did home renting become so popular? The trend began with large firms buying up cheap homes during the recession and turning them into cash-generating rentals—often rented by families who’d lost their own homes or who could no longer qualify for mortgages. Institutional investors, which are organizations like banks, hedge funds, and mutual funds, gobbled up millions of single-family homes that fell into foreclosure. In Phoenix, for example, the total of single-family homes occupied by homeowners—instead of renters—dropped by 30,000 from 2007 to 2010. Two-thirds of those homes were bought by institutional investors, the Urban Institute says.

But as prices have recovered, that business model no longer works. Instead, small-time landlords now dominate the market, explains Strochak. Investors who have fewer than 10 units own 87% of all single-family rentals, while investors who have only one rental unit own 45%.

How Does This Change the Home-Building Market?

Bbig players continue to push the trend, some deploying a new build-to-rent model. Housing firms are actively building single-family homes intending to rent them rather than sell, says ATTOM Data Solutions, a firm that analyzes housing market data.

“I can buy lots in areas that I can’t sell homes, but I can rent,” real estate agent Adam Whitmire told ATTOM in a recent report. “The local economy may not have enough income or enough credit to buy but there is enough income to rent.”

While big-time rental firms are backing off in some larger cities, the single-family rental investment play is picking up in smaller markets around the country in places like Dayton or Chattanooga, according to ATTOM.

How Does Renting Affect Local Neighborhoods?

The movement to more single-family rentals is a mixed bag, says Daren Blomquist, senior vice president at ATTOM. On the one hand, the professionalization of the single-family rental industry is good for both families and neighborhoods, as there could be more standardized levels of maintenance and management services.

But there will likely be “unintended consequences as the nature of some neighborhoods change,” Blomquist warns. Renters might not be as invested in communities as owners.

“For example, people who want to own a home may no longer be as active in the typical suburban white picket fence neighborhood as properties in those neighborhoods become more prominently rentals,” he says. “That may push those homebuyers back into more urban, walkable environments, or it might push them further out to more rural areas.”

Should You Rent a Home Instead of Buying?

Renting a home instead of buying can be a sensible choice for those looking to break out of apartment life. It can even serve as a good halfway step toward owning, to make sure single-family home life is really for you before you commit to a mortgage.

The main attraction to renting is obvious: buyers don’t need a large down payment to move in. While plenty of mortgage programs give would-be buyers a break on the traditional 20% down mortgage model, skyrocketing prices in urban areas like Seattle or Washington DC mean that even 5% can be a prohibitive down payment requirement. So renting might make sense if you are ready to live in a house.

What Should You Know Before Renting a Single-Family Home?

While all rental transactions are similar, there are a few things you should consider before moving to a home rental. If you’re moving from an apartment, utilities will probably be considerably more expensive—after all, you’ll be heating and cooling an entire home much of the year. There’s also quite a few more maintenance requirements, particularly if there’s a yard. Ensure your lease has clear terms regarding who pays for upkeep of the property. Gardening might seem appetizing if you are sick of your apartment, but it can be a year-round job, so make certain you’re ready for the extra work. If you want to paint the walls or make other changes, know that you will need permission in writing.

Additionally, because you will inevitably have more possessions than in an apartment, it’s more important than ever to get renter’s insurance—your landlord’s policy likely won’t cover damage to or theft of your property. You should also consider liability insurance, in case you’re found responsible for any kind of accident at the property that causes personal or property damage.

If you’re moving to a single-family rental for more space or for monetary reasons, remember to adjust your budget to accommodate the new utility and rental costs. For resources on how to stay financially fit, check out Credit.com’s Personal Finance Learning Center.

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Where Are Millennials Moving? The Answer May Surprise You

Young Couple Moving In To New Home Together

It’s no secret that young people are getting married and starting families later in life than their parents did. It is, however, a bit of a secret where they are choosing to settle down.

Big cities and their big employers have always attracted young workers, and that’s still true. But a combination of factors—sky-high home prices chief among them—have sent millennials across the country looking for alternatives. Unlikely places like Ohio and North Dakota have benefitted.

The Millennial Effect on the Market

Older millennials (aged 25 to 34) make up 13.6% of the US population but 30% of the current population of existing-home buyers, according to Realtor.com. Where they move matters to the real estate market.

Ellie Mae, a mortgage data firm, has a Millennial Tracker that highlights which towns have high percentages of mortgages closed by millennials. That data, in turn, can help future homebuyers and real estate professionals alike identify new, accessible housing markets.

Top 11 Cities for Millennial Home Buyers

In six US cities, millennials actually make up more than half of home buyers. Some of these places are so small they aren’t even served by an interstate highway. Here are the top 11 cities that millennials are moving to, according to Ellie Mae.

  1. Athens, Ohio: 59%

A little more than an hour away from Columbus, Athens is home to Ohio University—which helps explain why it’s among the most millennial-dense counties in the state.

  1. Aberdeen, South Dakota: 56%

Aberdeen is a three-hour drive away from the nearest large cities: Sioux Falls to the south and Fargo to the north. Aberdeen is home to Northern State University, and Ag Processing just opened a new soybean plant there.

  1. Williston, North Dakota: 55%

Williston’s population grew from 12,000 in 2007 to over 30,000 today, but unemployment there is well below the national average, and the household median income is more than $83,000. North Dakota boom towns are threatened by stubbornly low oil prices, however, which reduces demand for shale oil.

  1. Lima, Ohio: 55%

Lima hosts both the University of Northwest Ohio and an Ohio State University branch. The town brags that it’s a good place for large commercial development (it attracted 10 such projects in 2015), ranking sixth among small metropolitan areas, according to Site Selection magazine.

  1. Dickinson, North Dakota: 54%

Dickinson was actually the poster child for North Dakota’s oil boom and bust. As one example of the area’s frenetic rise, Dunn County, just north of Dickinson, saw its road construction budget jump from $1.5 million to $25 million in three years. Single family housing construction permits jumped 330% in one year.

  1. Odessa, Texas: 51%

Odessa, Texas, is also an oil town, located in the oil-rich West Texas Permian Basin. The oil bust hurt Odessa, too: it lost 12,200 jobs or about 15% of its employment when oil prices fell. More recently, though, the run-up in prices added 53,000 jobs and the economy is in recovery.

  1. Quincy, Illinois: 49%

Located directly across the Mississippi River from Mark Twain’s Hannibal, Missouri, Quincy has thrived thanks to smart planning dating back to the 1980s, when the city built a successful industrial park to attract employers. With its low unemployment and high graduation rates, Quincy made the Forbes list of top 15 small places to raise a family in 2010.

  1. El Paso, Texas: 49%

El Paso’s economy is boosted by a heavy presence of federal government employees. The US Citizenship and Immigration Services, the Drug Enforcement Agency, and the US Customs and Border Protection all have operations there, and Fort Bliss is nearby.

  1. Oshkosh-Neenah, Wisconsin: 49%

Many Americans know this town, about an hour from Green Bay, as the home of OshKosh B’gosh.  Military contracts also fuel the local economy. Oshkosh Defense, formerly Oshkosh Truck, builds specialty heavy rigs for government agencies, especially the military. The firm recently won a $6.7 billion contract to build a new Joint Light Tactical Vehicle for the US Army. Oshkosh is also home to the University of Wisconsin–Oshkosh, the third largest university in the state, with 14,000 students.

  1. Pottsville, Pennsylvania: 48%

An hour outside Harrisburg, Pottsville is home to Yuengling, now the largest locally owned brewery in America. Like many rural Pennsylvania towns, Pottsville is struggling and slowly losing population—it’s down from almost 17,000 in 1990 to just under 14,000 now, but with young buyers taking up residence here, that could change in the near future.

  1. Owensboro, Kentucky: 48%

Nestled along the banks of the Ohio River, Owensboro doesn’t have an interstate highway, but it is within a few hours’ drive of Louisville, Nashville, and St. Louis. The town counts US Bank among its largest employers—the firm’s national mortgaging service center is located there. A downtown makeover has also made this river city a nice place to live and work.

Why Millennials Are Moving

Understanding where millennials are buying homes is important both to the housing industry and to young people looking for alternatives to oppressive monthly mortgage payments.

“As millennials continue to enter the housing market, we are seeing great activity in the middle of the US, where inventory is generally more affordable than on the coasts,” says Joe Tyrrell, executive vice president of corporate strategy for Ellie Mae.

Tyrrell offered the example of top city for millennial homebuyers—Athens, Ohio. The the average home loan in Athens was nearly one-third the average home loan in Boston, Massachusetts.

Using the traditional 30%-of-income affordability standard, about one-third of households have unaffordable mortgage payments, according to a recent report from Harvard University. What’s more, the number of severely cost-burdened homeowners—those who spend 50% or more of their income on their mortgage—has skyrocketed from 1.1 million in 2001 to 7.6 million in 2015.

Numbers like that have young people considering homes in smaller places.

In Athens, Ohio, the average listed home price is $189,000, far less than the national median listing price of $259,000, according to Zillow.com. But home price isn’t the only factor. The ability to save up for a down payment matters, too.

“The main thing that jumps out to me is that those are all relatively affordable cities. Lower rents allow millennials to save for a down payment,” says Andrew Woo of ApartmentList.com. Indeed, according to Zillow, one-bedroom apartments in Athens cost $750 a month. “Generally, pricey urban areas such as San Francisco and New York have a large share of renters, as homeownership is out of reach for most, and many millennials plan to settle down and purchase a home in a different metro,” notes Woo.

Other Millennial Moving Lists

The Ellie Mae list reveals only cities where a high percentage of millennials are buyers—not necessarily places that are popular with younger adults. More mundane explanations, like demographics, play a role in statistics like this, too. The younger a population, the higher the percentage of millennial buyers.

There are plenty of other “where are millennials moving” lists. Different methodologies reach different results, but the overall narrative is the same.

The Urban Land Institute, calculating relative growth of the millennial population, said earlier this year  that Virginia Beach, Richmond, and Pittsburgh were among the hottest destinations for millennials. That list tells a similar story, however. Of traditional large coastal cities, only Boston cracked the top 10.

SmartAsset.com made its own list, too. New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco don’t crack the top 25. Fort Wayne, Indiana, and Cary, North Carolina, on the other hand, made the top 10.

ATTOM Data Solutions, using a different set of criteria, shared another list of places popular with young home buyers—cities where the highest percentage of FHA loans (and their low down payments) have closed. It’s also full of smaller towns in Texas, North Dakota, and Pennsylvania.

“Millennials are a massive generation, the largest now in fact, and they certainly don’t act in a monolithic manner,” said Daren Blomquist, vice president of ATTOM. “So when we see increases in home sales to millennials in places like Lima, Ohio, or Pottsville, Pennsylvania, what it doesn’t necessarily mean is that there is a broad migration of millennials to small towns. But what it does mean is that there are millennials who are willing to move to small towns, likely because they are finding jobs there and they are finding a much more affordable cost of living, particularly when it comes to housing.”

So wherever millennials are headed, one thing is certain: affordability is more important than ever.  Fortunately, tools like Credit.com’s Mortgage Calculator and Mortgage Marketplace can help make housing more affordable no matter the location. Check out our Mortgage Resource Center to learn more.

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US Credit Card Debt Sets New Record—But Is That a Problem?

Toy car and calculator on the table.

US consumers broke through quite a barrier earlier this year, when total credit card debt topped $1 trillion for the first time since the Great Recession. Then in June, total credit card debt reached $1.021 trillion, besting the previous record set back in April 2008, just as the Great Recession began.

There’s a natural impulse to see this as a bad sign: the last time credit card debt hit $1 trillion, things didn’t end so well. High revolving-debt levels can be an indication that consumers are struggling to make ends meet or that their incomes aren’t keeping up with expenses. It can also indicate that lenders are giving away credit too easily.

Or, it might mean that economic activity is increasing and consumers are optimistic about the future.

Underlying data suggest a bit of both. Read on to learn more about the good and bad, as well as where there may be reason for concern.

The Good: Responsible Consumers Are Building Credit

The credit card debt record isn’t a surprise to people who have been following the industry. In May, TransUnion revealed that access to credit cards had reached its highest level since 2005: a total of 171 million consumers had access to a card, the credit bureau said. Meanwhile, credit limits for the best credit card customers—those with particularly high (or super-prime) credit scores—have also risen quickly; the average total credit line for super-prime consumers rose from $29,176 in 2010 to $33,371 earlier this year. More cards and higher credit limits lead to more spending and more borrowing—and the new debt record.

“The card market went through a transformation after the recession as more lenders opened up access to subprime and near-prime consumers. The competition for super-prime consumers has become fierce, and we are seeing it manifest in higher total credit lines,” said Paul Siegfried, senior vice president and credit card business leader for TransUnion.

The American Bankers Association (ABA) released similar data in late July. It found that the number of new accounts had increased by 8.8% in Q1 compared with the same period the previous year.

“A stronger labor market continues to serve as a bright spot in the US economy, putting more Americans in a better position to establish and build credit,” according to Executive Director of ABA’s Card Policy Council Jess Sharp.

More consumers with access to more credit is generally a good thing. It’s hard to be a US consumer—to rent a car, to book a hotel, and so on—without access to credit cards.

But within these reports lurk some ominous signs.

The Bad: Subprime Card Holder Numbers Are Growing Fast

Subprime credit consumers are the fastest-growing segment of the credit card market, TransUnion found. There are now 2.3 million more subprime credit card holders than there were in early 2015. The growth rate for subprime card holders was 8.9%—much higher than the 2.6% rate of all other consumers. And the ABA found that the average size of initial credit lines being granted to new subprime borrowers was growing at a faster rate than all other categories.

In other words, the increase in card debt might be the result of this fast-growing subprime borrower market.

Credit card delinquency rates are also growing—from 1.50% in 2016’s first quarter to 1.69% in 2017’s first quarter. TransUnion attributes this to the increase in subprime card users but also notes that it wasn’t unexpected.

“The recent surge in subprime cards has contributed to an increase in the card delinquency rate at the start of the year, but from a pre-recession, historical perspective, we are still at low levels of delinquency,” Siegfried said.

That was little comfort to investors earlier this year, when both Discover and Capital One announced a surprise increase in defaults. Shares of both fell about 3% in one day on “here we go again” fears.

The Larger Context: Credit Debt Doesn’t Exist in a Vacuum

All this is happening with the backdrop of recent concerns about the suddenly slumping auto sales market. A huge increase in subprime car loans helped fuel record auto sales in the past several years, but rising delinquencies have contributed to an alarming slowdown in overall auto sales—and loose comparisons to the subprime mortgage bubble that fueled the Great Recession.

However, it’s far too early to suggest that subprime credit card lending is a sign of trouble, let alone big trouble. Credit card debt is easy to misinterpret because those numbers are meaningless without context. A consumer who charges $6,000 and pays that balance off each month is much better off than one who charges $1,500 and struggles to make minimum payments.

It’s important to remember that the majority of Americans don’t carry a credit card balance from month to month. The ABA says 28.8% of account holders pay their balance in full each month (the so-called “transactors” in the image below), and another 27.2% don’t use their cards at all. The remaining category is the one to watch: the “revolvers,” who carry a balance and often pay high rates. Currently, 44% of card holders carry a balance each month. Their ranks rose 0.3% in the most recently reported quarter, while the share of transactors fell by 0.3%.

So that’s a number to watch—much more important than average balances or total credit card debt. If more people can’t pay their whole credit card bill every month, there’s a real problem brewing. And while that group has increased slightly, it’s still below the recession peak.

Perhaps the most positive finding from the ABA report is that outstanding credit card debt as a share of consumer disposable income isn’t climbing. In fact, it fell by a small fraction, to 5.3%. That’s a good indicator that consumers aren’t struggling to pay their credit card bills or increasing their plastic spending at a rate faster than their incomes are growing.

Protect Yourself from Whatever the Market May Hold

So the new record credit card debt is truly a mixed signal. With subprime lending and defaults up, auto loans in a bit of trouble, and some investors worried, this milestone is a good time to pause and evaluate whether America is once again heading down the road of too-easy credit followed by recession. But by itself, $1.02 trillion is just a number, and it might not indicate anything.

Either way, it’s a good idea to stay on top of your credit report—which you can check for free at Credit.com—to ensure you’re in a good place, regardless of what the coming years might bring.

Image: istock

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Sick of Overdraft Fees? There’s an App for That

Whether you’re building a top-notch gaming PC or itching for the latest smartphone, there are credit cards that can help tech nerds.

Remember when banks feared that new consumer protections would make it harder to charge overdraft fees? That those protections would imperil the financial industry and lead to the death of free checking accounts? Well, overdraft fees set something of a record in 2016, with banks collecting $33.3 billion last year—their highest level since 2009, according to a report by Moebs Services Inc.

So why are overdraft fees on the rise? Jonathan Morduch and Rachel Schneider, in their book “The Financial Diaries: How American Families Cope in a World of Uncertainty,” conclude that much of American financial suffering (and budgeting missteps) are the result of month-to-month cash-flow problems and income volatility.

Fortunately for anyone who has struggled with money management, there’s an app to help with that. In fact, there are several. Here’s a closer look at four cash-flow management apps—and what they can do to help you better manage your monthly money.

1. Dave Warns of Impending Overdrafts

One of the apps making the most noise right now goes by the name Dave. It launched with a bit of fanfare in April, thanks to an investment (and loud endorsement) from billionaire Mark Cuban. While Dave has a feature that works like a cash advance, its main purpose is to warn users before they make a purchase or pay a bill that sends their account into the negative, according to CEO Jason Wilk. The app links to consumers’ checking accounts and watches spending patterns and upcoming automatic payments, then tries to give seven days’ notice of a coming cash crunch.

“We don’t consider ourselves in the same market as other credit products,” Wilk wrote in an email. “First and foremost we are a product that alerts people about their upcoming bills and expenses so they have plenty of time to make a decision about their options. We consider this as much to be a smart budgeting app to avoid a negative balance.”

Consumers pay $1 a month for the app. Dave offers small cash advances (up to around $75, Wilk says) to cover what could have been an overdraft. Dave pays itself back as soon as the checking account has enough money in it. Right now, per-transaction fees are $3.50—the fee the firm pays the bank—and Dave asks only for a donation in the form of a tip. While some have raised concerns that the “tip” could end up being as expensive as payday loan interest, or that consumers who rely on Dave could end up stuck in a payday-loan-like cycle of repeat borrowing, Wilk argues that is unlikely.

“We don’t charge interest and we don’t run credit,” he noted. “We also don’t have a set payback period either, so our customers don’t get caught in a cycle of late fees or interest penalties.”

2. Propel Offers Easy Government Benefit Management

Other apps also try to help consumers understand their month-to-month spending habits. The Common Cents Lab at Duke University recently released a report on an experiment run using an app called Propel, which helps lower-income consumers manage their SNAP benefits. The researchers found that many consumers fall prey to what they call the “windfall” state of mind when a paycheck (or government assistance) arrives, leading them to overspend in the first few days after their money is deposited. By simply measuring out payments on a weekly—rather than a monthly—basis, Propel users stretched their food benefits an extra two days, the researchers said.

“For a family depending on SNAP to put food on the table, this can equal about six extra meals that month, just from this simple intervention,” Common Cents said in the report.

3. Float Provides Small Loans without Hard Credit Inquiries

Float, an app that launched in February of 2017, offers what feels like traditional payday loans—but with a twist. Instead of looking at credit scores, Float links to consumers’ checking accounts and examines spending habits to make lending decisions “without the negative effects of a hard credit inquiry,” the firm’s website says.

Users qualify for something like a small-dollar line of credit they can access with a simple text message like “get $100.” Most loans come with a 5% fee and must be paid back in less than a month. While it’s not the same as Dave’s tip-based fee system, that small transfer fee—and the similarly small late fee of $15—is much less than many payday loan companies charge.

According to Float’s website, the app is available only to residents of California and Utah at the moment.

4. Activehours Grants Easy Payday Insights and Advances

Like Dave, Activehours fronts the money for its users and asks only for tips. It links to hourly workers’ accounts and advances pay they’ve already earned but haven’t yet received in a paycheck. Employees from over 25,000 companies are using it, said spokesperson Kate Austin in an email. The app is designed to help cash-poor consumers get access to money they’ve earned more quickly. The only fee is a voluntary “tip.”

“We’re actually not a loan at all,” Austin said. “We believe people should be given access to the money they earn as they earn it. So, we created an app that lets people see how much they have in their bank account as well as what they’ve earned but haven’t yet been paid for,” she said. “Then, if they need access to their earnings, they can use the Activehours app to move it immediately to their checking account.” She stressed that users always have the option to pay nothing for the paycheck advance—certainly a better option than some payday advance products offered by banks and non-bank lenders.

Fighting the Ongoing Cash-Flow Problem

None of these apps solve the fundamental problem facing consumers who might be tempted to use them: not enough income to escape the “just make it to the end of the month” cycle. Any cash-infusion tool is just a stop-gap solution. It might work once or twice a year—and “The Financial Diaries” suggests some consumers could benefit from such occasional cash-crunch help—but payday borrowers often find they can’t repay their loans when payday arrives. Back in 2014, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau found that four out of five payday borrowers rolled their loans over at least once, and over one-fifth of the loans were renewed six times.

Users of any cash-flow stop-gap solution face the same issue: borrowing money just in time to make this month’s rent isn’t going to solve the problem of next month’s rent.

Consumers intrigued by the balance-monitoring features of apps like Dave might find similar tools offered directly by banks or by services like Mint.com. And while it may not be the long-term solution some may desperately need, anything that provides alternatives to triple-digit payday loans is probably a welcome addition to the marketplace.

Worried about Overdrafts? Do This Right Now

You can take more direct steps to avoid overdraft fees at your bank. Most banks allow you to link savings accounts or credit cards (from the same institution) to your checking account, which provides you with an extra layer of backup in the event of an overdraft. There is usually a fee to use it, but it’s far less than overdraft fees or bounced check fees.

Finally, make sure you opt out of your bank’s overdraft protection, a service that will cover transactions you don’t have the money for—at the cost of a $20+ fee. Even if you think you are opted-out, it’s worth double-checking. This prevents only certain kinds of overdrafts, such as withdrawing more cash at an ATM than is available in your balance. You can still “go negative” if you write a too-large check, for example, but reducing the ways you can accidentally overdraft (and get hit with hefty overdraft charges) is always a good idea.

If you’ve taken all of the above steps and are still having trouble managing income flow, it might be time to consider applying for a credit card. Before you settle on a card, though, it’s wise to check your credit report first—which you can do for free at Credit.com—so you can find a card that matches your credit rating.

Image: Peopleimages

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How to Get ‘Unstuck’ From Your Starter Home

Source: iStock

Andrew Cordell bought his first home at the worst possible time — 10 years ago, right before the housing bubble burst.

He’s not going to make that mistake again.

“We had immediate fear put in us as homeowners,” says Cordell, 40. “We know how dangerous this can be.”

So the small “starter home” he purchased in Kalamazoo, Michigan back in 2007 now feels just about the right size.

“When we bought, we figured we’d get another home in a few years,” he says. “But the more we settled, the more we thought, ‘Do we really need more space?’ We don’t actually need a large chest freezer or a large yard. Kalamazoo has a lot of parks.”

Apparently, plenty of homeowners feel the same way.

It’s a phenomenon some have called “stuck in their starter homes.” Bucking a decades-long trend, young homeowners aren’t looking to trade up — they’re looking to stay put. Or they are forced to.

According to the National Association of Realtors, “tenure in home” — the amount of time a homebuyer stays — has almost doubled during the past decade. From the 1980s right up until the recession, buyers stayed an average of about six years after buying a home. That’s jumped to 10 years now.

Expected Median in Tenure in Home
Source: 2017 National Association of Realtors® Home Buyer and Seller Generational Trends

 

Other numbers are just as dramatic. In 2001, there were 1.8 million repeat homebuyers, according to the Urban Institute. Last year, there were about half that number, even as the overall housing market recovered. Before the recession, there were generally far more repeat buyers than first-timers. That’s now reversed, with first-time buyers dwarfing repeaters, 1.4 million to 1 million.

This is no mere statistical curiosity. Trade-up buyers are critical to a smooth-functioning housing market, says Logan Mohtashami, a California-based loan officer and economics expert. When starter homeowners get gun-shy, home sales get stuck.

“Move-up buyers are especially important … because they typically provide homes to the market that are appropriate for first-time buyers,” he says. When first-timers stay put, the share of available lower-cost housing is squeezed, making life harder for those trying to make the jump from renting to buying.

Getting unstuck from your starter home

There are plenty of potential causes for this stuck-in-a-starter-home phenomenon — including the fear Cordell describes, families having fewer children, fast-rising prices, and flat incomes. But Mohtashami says the main cause is a hangover from the housing bubble that has left first-time buyers with very little “selling equity.”

Buyers need at least 28 to 33 percent equity to trade into a larger home, and often closer to 40 percent, he says. Those who bought in the previous cycle might have seen their home values recover, but many purchased with low down payment loans, leaving them still equity poor.

That wasn’t such a problem before the recession, as lenders were happy to give more aggressive loans to trade-up buyers. Not any more.

“In the previous cycle you had exotic loans to help demand. Now you don’t. [That’s why] tenure in home is at an all-time high,” Mohtashami says. “Even families having kids aren’t moving up as much.”

Fast-rising housing prices don’t help the trade-up cause either. While homeowners would seem to benefit from increases in selling price, those are washed away by higher purchase prices, unless the seller plans to move to a cheaper market.

“You’re always trying to catch up to a higher priced home,” Mohtashami says.

Cassandra Evers, a mortgage broker in Michigan, says she’s seen the phenomenon, too.

“It’s not for lack of want. It seems to be the inability to afford the cost of the new home,” she says. “It’s not the interest rate that’s the problem, obviously because those are at historic lows and artificially low. It’s because to buy a ‘bigger and better house,’ that house costs significantly more than their current home. The cost of housing has skyrocketed.”

U.S. Homebuyers and Student Loan Debt (by Age)
Source: 2017 National Association of Realtors® Home Buyer and Seller Generational Trends

There’s also the very practical problem of timing. In a fast-rising market, where every home sale is competitive, it’s easy to lose the game of musical chairs that’s played when a family must sell their home before they can buy a new one.

“Folks are concerned about selling their current house in one day and being unable to find a suitable replacement fast enough,” Evers says.

Cordell, who lives with his wife and eight-year-old son, says the family considered a move a few years ago and briefly looked around. But they quickly concluded that staying put was the right choice.

“We looked at some homes and we thought, ‘I guess we could afford that. But we don’t want to be house broke’,” he says. “We don’t want to take on so much debt that ‘What else are we able to do?’ What if one of us loses our job? I guess you could say we have a Depression-era sensibility. … Who would want to get upside down on one of these things?”

The Urban Institute says this stuck-in-starter-home problem shows a few signs of abating recently. Repeat buyers were stuck around 800,000 from 2013 to 2014. Last year, the number pierced 1 million. But that’s still far below the 1.5 million range that held consistently through the past decade.

There are other signs that relief might be on the way, too. ATTOM Data Solutions recently released a report saying that 1 in 4 mortgage-holders in the U.S. are now equity rich — values have risen enough that owners hold at least 50 percent equity, well above Mohtashami’s guideline. Some 1.6 million homeowners are newly equity rich, compared to this time last year, and 5 million more than in 2013, ATTOM said.

“An increasing number of U.S. homeowners are amassing impressive stockpiles of home equity wealth,” says Daren Blomquist, senior vice president at ATTOM Data Solutions.

So perhaps pent-up repeat homebuying demand might re-emerge. Evers isn’t so sure, however.

“Most folks I talked with are no longer interested in being house poor and maxing out their debt to income ratios. They seem to be staying put and shoving money into their retirement accounts,” Evers says.

The Cordells are content where they are in Kalamazoo and plan to stay long term. If anything would make them move, it’s not growing home equity but a growing family.

“If we ended up with a second (kid), I suppose we’d have to look,” Cordell mused. “But we have no plans for that.”

4 Signs You’re Ready to Trade Up Your Home

  • YOU’VE GOT PLENTY OF EQUITY: Your home’s value has risen enough that you safely have at least 28 percent equity and, preferably, more like 35 to 40 percent.
  • YOU’RE EARNING MORE: Your monthly take-home income has risen since you bought your first home by about as much as your monthly payments (mortgage, interest, insurance, taxes, condo fees, etc.) would rise in a new home.
  • YOU STAND TO MAKE A HEALTHY PROFIT: You are confident that if you sell your home, you’d walk away from closing with at least 30 percent of the price for your new home — or you can top up your seller profits to that level with cash you’ve saved for a new down payment. That would let you make a standard 20 percent down payment and have some left over for surprise repairs and moving costs that will come with the new place. Remember, transaction costs often surprise buyers and sellers, so be sure to build them into your calculations.
  • YOU CAN HANDLE THE RISK: You have the stomach for the game of musical chairs that comes with selling then buying a home in rapid succession. Also, if you are in a hot market, you have extra cash to outbid others or a place for your family to stay in case there’s a time gap between selling and buying.



The post How to Get ‘Unstuck’ From Your Starter Home appeared first on MagnifyMoney.

How to Get ‘Unstuck’ From Your Starter Home

Source: iStock

Andrew Cordell bought his first home at the worst possible time — 10 years ago, right before the housing bubble burst.

He’s not going to make that mistake again.

“We had immediate fear put in us as homeowners,” says Cordell, 40. “We know how dangerous this can be.”

So the small “starter home” he purchased in Kalamazoo, Michigan back in 2007 now feels just about the right size.

“When we bought, we figured we’d get another home in a few years,” he says. “But the more we settled, the more we thought, ‘Do we really need more space?’ We don’t actually need a large chest freezer or a large yard. Kalamazoo has a lot of parks.”

Apparently, plenty of homeowners feel the same way.

It’s a phenomenon some have called “stuck in their starter homes.” Bucking a decades-long trend, young homeowners aren’t looking to trade up — they’re looking to stay put. Or they are forced to.

According to the National Association of Realtors, “tenure in home” — the amount of time a homebuyer stays — has almost doubled during the past decade. From the 1980s right up until the recession, buyers stayed an average of about six years after buying a home. That’s jumped to 10 years now.

Median Tenure in Home by Age
Source: 2017 National Association of Realtors® Home Buyer and Seller Generational Trends

 

Other numbers are just as dramatic. In 2001, there were 1.8 million repeat homebuyers, according to the Urban Institute. Last year, there were about half that number, even as the overall housing market recovered. Before the recession, there were generally far more repeat buyers than first-timers. That’s now reversed, with first-time buyers dwarfing repeaters, 1.4 million to 1 million.

This is no mere statistical curiosity. Trade-up buyers are critical to a smooth-functioning housing market, says Logan Mohtashami, a California-based loan officer and economics expert. When starter homeowners get gun-shy, home sales get stuck.

“Move-up buyers are especially important … because they typically provide homes to the market that are appropriate for first-time buyers,” he says. When first-timers stay put, the share of available lower-cost housing is squeezed, making life harder for those trying to make the jump from renting to buying.

Getting unstuck from your starter home

There are plenty of potential causes for this stuck-in-a-starter-home phenomenon — including the fear Cordell describes, families having fewer children, fast-rising prices, and flat incomes. But Mohtashami says the main cause is a hangover from the housing bubble that has left first-time buyers with very little “selling equity.”

Buyers need at least 28 to 33 percent equity to trade into a larger home, and often closer to 40 percent, he says. Those who bought in the previous cycle might have seen their home values recover, but many purchased with low down payment loans, leaving them still equity poor.

That wasn’t such a problem before the recession, as lenders were happy to give more aggressive loans to trade-up buyers. Not any more.

“In the previous cycle you had exotic loans to help demand. Now you don’t. [That’s why] tenure in home is at an all-time high,” Mohtashami says. “Even families having kids aren’t moving up as much.”

Fast-rising housing prices don’t help the trade-up cause either. While homeowners would seem to benefit from increases in selling price, those are washed away by higher purchase prices, unless the seller plans to move to a cheaper market.

“You’re always trying to catch up to a higher priced home,” Mohtashami says.

Cassandra Evers, a mortgage broker in Michigan, says she’s seen the phenomenon, too.

“It’s not for lack of want. It seems to be the inability to afford the cost of the new home,” she says. “It’s not the interest rate that’s the problem, obviously because those are at historic lows and artificially low. It’s because to buy a ‘bigger and better house,’ that house costs significantly more than their current home. The cost of housing has skyrocketed.”

U.S. Homebuyers and Student Loan Debt (by Age)
Source: 2017 National Association of Realtors® Home Buyer and Seller Generational Trends

There’s also the very practical problem of timing. In a fast-rising market, where every home sale is competitive, it’s easy to lose the game of musical chairs that’s played when a family must sell their home before they can buy a new one.

“Folks are concerned about selling their current house in one day and being unable to find a suitable replacement fast enough,” Evers says.

Cordell, who lives with his wife and eight-year-old son, says the family considered a move a few years ago and briefly looked around. But they quickly concluded that staying put was the right choice.

“We looked at some homes and we thought, ‘I guess we could afford that. But we don’t want to be house broke’,” he says. “We don’t want to take on so much debt that ‘What else are we able to do?’ What if one of us loses our job? I guess you could say we have a Depression-era sensibility. … Who would want to get upside down on one of these things?”

The Urban Institute says this stuck-in-starter-home problem shows a few signs of abating recently. Repeat buyers were stuck around 800,000 from 2013 to 2014. Last year, the number pierced 1 million. But that’s still far below the 1.5 million range that held consistently through the past decade.

There are other signs that relief might be on the way, too. ATTOM Data Solutions recently released a report saying that 1 in 4 mortgage-holders in the U.S. are now equity rich — values have risen enough that owners hold at least 50 percent equity, well above Mohtashami’s guideline. Some 1.6 million homeowners are newly equity rich, compared to this time last year, and 5 million more than in 2013, ATTOM said.

“An increasing number of U.S. homeowners are amassing impressive stockpiles of home equity wealth,” says Daren Blomquist, senior vice president at ATTOM Data Solutions.

So perhaps pent-up repeat homebuying demand might re-emerge. Evers isn’t so sure, however.

“Most folks I talked with are no longer interested in being house poor and maxing out their debt to income ratios. They seem to be staying put and shoving money into their retirement accounts,” Evers says.

The Cordells are content where they are in Kalamazoo and plan to stay long term. If anything would make them move, it’s not growing home equity but a growing family.

“If we ended up with a second (kid), I suppose we’d have to look,” Cordell mused. “But we have no plans for that.”

4 Signs You’re Ready to Trade Up Your Home

  • YOU’VE GOT PLENTY OF EQUITY: Your home’s value has risen enough that you safely have at least 28 percent equity and, preferably, more like 35 to 40 percent.
  • YOU’RE EARNING MORE: Your monthly take-home income has risen since you bought your first home by about as much as your monthly payments (mortgage, interest, insurance, taxes, condo fees, etc.) would rise in a new home.
  • YOU STAND TO MAKE A HEALTHY PROFIT: You are confident that if you sell your home, you’d walk away from closing with at least 30 percent of the price for your new home — or you can top up your seller profits to that level with cash you’ve saved for a new down payment. That would let you make a standard 20 percent down payment and have some left over for surprise repairs and moving costs that will come with the new place. Remember, transaction costs often surprise buyers and sellers, so be sure to build them into your calculations.
  • YOU CAN HANDLE THE RISK: You have the stomach for the game of musical chairs that comes with selling then buying a home in rapid succession. Also, if you are in a hot market, you have extra cash to outbid others or a place for your family to stay in case there’s a time gap between selling and buying.



The post How to Get ‘Unstuck’ From Your Starter Home appeared first on MagnifyMoney.

7 Surprising Facts about Food Prices

Cash-back credit cards can help earn money back when you spend at the grocery store.

Many people believe that Americans waste a bunch of money eating out — that avocado toast and lattes are budget wreckers, for example — and that’s sort of true. In 2014, an important line was crossed — for the first time since the government tracked this sort of thing, families spent more eating out than eating at home.  But when you really look into the numbers about the way Americans spend money on food, a far more complex picture emerges.  Like many other typical household purchases — such as refrigerators or clothes — many food items are actually much cheaper than they were a generation ago. And overall, food isn’t nearly the budget-busting line item it used to be.  In fact, according to government statistics, U.S. families are spending much LESS overall on food than they did a generation or two ago. Food now eats up about half as much of the family budget than it once did.

Even that fact is a good news/bad news story, however, according to Annemarie Kuhns, a food economist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture.  Part of the reason food consumers less of household spending is because housing costs and health care consumes so much more.

“It really depends on the food you are purchasing,” Kuhns said. “Processed food is less expensive, but fresh fruits and vegetables are much more expensive.”

To get a better picture of what’s really going on with your budget, here are 9 surprising facts about food spending. As you read them, remember, it’s always easy to find an anecdote or two that confirms a belief you might have — most of us have a friend who complains about not being able to afford a home, but does indeed indulge in avocado toast regularly. That’s just an anecdote, however, a narrow view of things.  To really understand the issue, you have to look at the broader picture.  Most of the data below comes from the Consumer Price Index maintained by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, which follows food prices by pricing a representative market basket of goods periodically.

1.) Yes, food is generally getting more expensive

First off, you aren’t crazy. Your grocery bill keeps getting bigger — and the cost of food is rising faster than most things. From 2012-2016, food prices rose 6.1%, but the overall consumer price index rose only 4.5%.  NOTE:  That’s bad, but it’s less than the 9.5 percent rise in housing costs and 11.7 percent increase in medical care costs.   This is a long-term trend, too. The USDA says grocery store prices are up 4.5% faster than economy-wide prices during the past 30 years.

2.) Food is cheaper this year, though (Eggs are a HUGE bargain)

Last year, for the first time in nearly 50 years, so-called “food-at-home” prices dropped. The USDA says retail food fell 1.3 percent. Some items fell far more. The price of eggs, for example, dropped almost 20 percent in a year, thanks to lingering impacts of the avian flu. That’s good news for you, but bad news for grocery stores, and we’ve seen plenty of them punished on Wall Street as a result. Kroger, the nation’s largest supermarket chain, said in March that its same-store sales had fallen 0.7% during the end of 2016.

3.) Yes, we are eating out a lot more

Economists call eating out “food away from home” — as opposed to food-at-home — and it’s true that Americans are spending more while eating out than ever.  This has something to do with the state of the economy: During the 2007-2009 recession, food away from home share fell, for example.

Don’t be so quick to judge this consumer behavior, however. It’s true that many Americans don’t take the time to cook any more, but rising restaurant prices are partly to blame, also. Higher food-away-from-home prices mean more overall spending, whether or not people spend more nights at restaurants. And there’s some indication American’s love affair with certain kinds of restaurants has ended.  Back in 2014 — the same year Americans eating at home fell into second place in the BLS data – NPD Group said the average American dined at a restaurant 74 times annually, the lowest reading in more than 30 years.

Continued trouble at fast-casual chains seems to confirm that finding. Restaurant analyst TDn2K says that overall, restaurant same-store sales have now fallen for five straight quarters, and traffic fell more than 3% in the first quarter of this year, compared to the prior year.

4.) No, food isn’t the budget killer you might think

Overall, food consumes a lot less of a family’s earnings than it did back in the 1960s, or even the 1980s. Between 1960 and 2007, the share of disposable personal income spent on total food by Americans, on average, fell from 17.5 to 9.6 percent, driven by a declining share of income spent on food at home.

This seems hard to believe, but it’s true, says Kuhns.

“You have to think of it in terms of relative vs nominal terms,” she said.  “It’s one of those things were prices go up each year, but so does income.”

The share of income spent on total food began to flatten in 2000, however — partly because food prices began to rise, and partly because incomes have stagnated.

In the end, if you are still convinced that Americans eating out too much is the cause of many personal finance problems, consider this: The Agriculture Department says that in 2014, Americans spent 4.3 percent of their disposable personal incomes on food away from home. That’s not a budget buster.

5.) Food is a budget killer for the poor, however

The richer you are, the less you care about the price of food, for obvious reasons — but more critically, the less your monthly budget is subject to shocks from rising food prices.

In 2015, middle-income households spent 12.4 percent of their income on food, while families in the lowest one-fifth of income spent fully one-third of their money on food. That’s a stunning gap, and makes poorer families very sensitive to sudden increases in the price of essentials like milk or bread.

6.) We sound a bit like whiners

One might conclude that those who complain about rising food prices in the past decade or so have forgotten history. Even in a bad, recent year (2008), food rose about 6%. Back in the 1970s, double-digit increases were typical.  In 1973, food prices rose 16.4%, and then in 1974, another 14.9 percent. Those increases were blamed on food commodity and energy price shocks, and the larger economy saw shocking inflation, too.

7.) Historically, eggs are now the best bargain — Butter is cheaper, too

It can be hard to compare the price of items across the decades, but there are ways. For example, a look at a 1971 Sears catalog shows a basic refrigerator cost $399, or about $2,450 in today’s dollars. That would buy you a heck of a refrigerator today.

Another useful method is to compare the increase in costs over time, which the BLS does.  A fascinating chart compares the cost of items back in 1913 vs 2013.  Butter was once the most expensive item in a consumer’s grocery sack. Now, coffee, steak, and many other items are more expensive.  The price of potatoes has climbed 39-fold since 1913, but the price of eggs is up only 5-fold during the same span. Bread costs 25 times more; sugar costs 12 times more; coffee 20 times more, but rice only 8 times more.

If you’re looking for a more recent comparison, NPR crunched other BLS data comparing 1982 and 2012 (all in 2012 dollar) and found that most meats are much cheaper than they used to be (steak is down 30%!); but some vegetables are more expensive (peppers up 34%!).

How much do Americans spend on food anyway?

That’s not an easy question to answer, as circumstances vary so widely, but the USDA tries. A family of four with two children under 5 spent between $571 and $1,116 on food-at-home each month during 2015, the agency says. That same family with older kids spends between $657 and $1,305, proving it’s best to keep your kids from growing up.

On the other hand, a single male between 19-50 spends between $172 and $346 monthly.  That doesn’t include eating out, of course.

Don’t be so hard on food.

Finally, Kuhns stresses that inflation data on food is a very tricky calculation and government statistics can’t capture all the factors that really make up “price.”  When calculating inflation for items like computers, economists factor in that buyers get more for their money today than they did in the past — today’s PCs are far more powerful.  Those adjustments aren’t made for food, she noted, even though today’s supermarket shoppers get a lot more than they used to.

“When you go into a grocery store aisle, it’s nothing like 1985,” she said. “We have bagged lettuce. Imported vegetables.  We have access to a lot more fruits and vegetables,” she said. “In the 80s, most stuff was local and you could only get what was in season. Now you can get whatever you want any time of the year.”

Image: franckreporter 

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