When to DIY and When to Hire a Contractor

When to DIY and When to Hire a Contractor

Whether you’re preparing your home to sell, or you’ve just moved into your home and want to tackle some of the changes you have in mind to make it your own … knowing which items to do your self and which need a professional licensed contractor can save you from costly mistakes.

If you are really handy, tacking projects in your home may be right up your alley. If you spend lot of time watching home-makeover reruns on cable and envision creating a fabulous transformation all on your own … remember that there are always professionals (designers, craftsmen, tradesmen and carpenters) watching over (and correcting) the process. Doing-it-yourself (DIY) when the stakes are high (such as when selling your home, rewiring electrical or knocking out a wall) might give you a bigger headache than you want.

Here’s a basic list of what you might tackle yourself and which items definitely need that experienced touch.

  • Is it doable? Painting walls, resurfacing or refinishing cabinets, hanging drapery rods, even changing light fixtures is easily doable if you have basic skills. If you’re looking at scraping that popcorn off your ceiling, however, you need to check with your local building authorities to see if yours might have asbestos. Homes built before the laws changed in the mid-70s may or may not have asbestos ceilings that require special (and often expensive) removal.
  • Is it safe? You may have the skills to change light fixtures, but if they are located in the peak of a vaulted ceiling over an open staircase and require artful scaffolding to reach … you might need a professional with the correct equipment. If you do tackle a project, be sure to have all required safety gear including goggles, gloves and the like.
  • Is it prudent? Many plumbing tasks—changing out a faucet, for example—are perfect options for a budding DIY-er. Moving pipes in the walls, installing shower pans and other projects that could cost you plenty if they created a leak inside your walls, might just end up being the proverbial Money Pit. When you hire a skilled contractor to do the work, make certain he is licensed, bonded and insured. That way, if a leak forms later and your tub falls through the floor, you’re covered. A seasoned professional should handle concrete work of any type since the chance for something to go wrong is quite high, but if you want to tile your bathroom floor … take it on.
  • Exterior changes, such as roofing, new windows, skylights or siding, require a contractor that knows the requirements to make your home watertight and energy efficient. Removing a large tree can be dangerous unless you’re a skilled arborist, since falling limbs (or a falling tree) can cost you repairs to your own home or vehicles, your neighbor’s fence, utility lines or even injury from using unfamiliar tools such as a chain saw.

Be prepared

Before you start a DIY project for the first time, check with your local big box stores to see if they offer classes. The tools, glues, mortars and other materials your grandpa or dad used may have changed over the years, so be sure to ask professionals about drying times, set speed, the need to use undercoats or primers and anything else you can think of before you start.

When making changes before a home sale, check with your real estate professional too … some changes may be unnecessary and others could actually lower the price buyers are willing to pay for your home.

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Making a Move to a New Home with Kids

Making a Move to a New Home with KidsAmidst the excitement of moving to a new home is a lot of stress for families with younger children. Often they don’t understand what is happening. That can make them feel powerless and afraid. Here are some ideas for turning those stressors into an adventure for your little ones.

Involve children in decisions

House-hunting with children is neither practical nor advisable since you cannot expect a home to be childproofed. You can, however, sit down with your children and ask them what would be most important in a new home. Do they love the outdoors … a big yard is in order, or a home near a great park, or both! If a tree-house is on their radar, be on the lookout for a great backyard tree and a neighborhood that allows for tree-houses. Do you want a pool? A pool with a safety fence can narrow down your choices for you. What about a big playroom, game room or media room? Separate bedrooms for each child?

Bring your family’s wish list with you to your very first meeting with your real estate professional. She needs to know exactly what you’re looking for, and what your kids are looking for, so that she can find you the perfect new home. Once you’ve narrowed down your choices, show your kids pictures of the houses that fit their criteria.

Plan their new room

Even before you nail down the house choice, children can trek with you to home stores to look at paint chips. Letting your child choose his new room’s color can heighten the excitement of the move.

If you plan to include new bedding, a theme or other enhancements to the room, start a scrapbook or Pinterest board for each child to add their favorite ideas.

Packing together

Of course your child won’t be involved in the bulk of the packing, but seeing all of their familiar things shut away in boxes can be scary. Give each child a box to pack his treasured items, favorite books or special toys. Have him color or draw on the outside of the box so that he knows which one is his. If practical, bring those boxes in the car with you as you travel to your new home.

Give everyone a break

According to child psychologists, the stress of moving (including during the planning stages and once you’ve arrived at your new home) affects children’s sleep pattern, behavior, appetite, toilet training habits and anxiety levels. They may cling more, or be more aggressive. They may wake up during the night more often or even revert to thumb-sucking and bedwetting. A change in time zones, and the unfamiliar new surroundings can disrupt sleep as well.

You may be frazzled and so might they … so give everyone some extra grace.

Say goodbye

If your move takes you to a new city or state, take the time to visit all of your children’s haunts. The park they play in, or their preschool, the homes of their favorite friends, even their place of worship should be on the list. Give them an opportunity to tell everyone and every place “goodbye,” take photos to add to a memory book.

Be organized

Of course, being organized is the key to a sane moving experience for people of any age, but it is especially true when children are involved. Mark ALL of your boxes. If you have a tablet or computer, create a numbering system and list all of the contents of each box. When you have an urgent need for those special toys to calm a restless toddler or keep a child busy, knowing where to find them can ease your own anxiety.

Most of all, let the move be as fun and exciting as possible for everyone.

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Don't Think of Your Home as an Investment…What?

Don't Think of Your Home as an Investment

Isn’t that sacrilegious or something?

Despite evidence to the contrary, new homebuyers continue to believe that buying a home is the same type of investment as stocks, bonds, CDs and their 401K. If the housing boom taught us anything, it is that the purchase of the house you plan to live in should not be your sole asset toward retirement. Nor should it be.

Here’s why:

Over long periods of time, the return on investment for the home you live in is nearly zero compared to stocks and other types of investments. That is because the combination of taxes, inflation, insurance, interest and the cost of repairs and upgrades absorbs most of the increase in the home’s value. At the same time, that huge downpayment you plunked down isn’t earning interest and the other costs to purchase the home are tied up in the “investment.” This is especially true when you own the home for seven years or less. In fact, many Americans continue to believe that the value of their home will increase faster than inflation, but according to economists, history does not bear that out.

So why buy a home?

Ahhhh! The real reason to buy a home is because you want to live in it and make it your own. You want to raise your family there, become part of a community and establish your presence. Once the mortgage payments end, you’ll have a less expensive place to live in your retirement years and something to pass on to the next generation. In fact, here are the top reasons to buy a home:

  • Homeowners feel more secure in their own property. They have control over costs such as the mortgage and insurance so that they can budget. Rents rise, often without warning, making them difficult to plan for year over year.
  • For the same monthly dollar amount, typically a home has more square footage and often more usable property (patio, yard, garage) over a rented space.
  • Owning means that you can change the paint whenever you like. You can update, upgrade, renew, refurbish and modernize as your family grows.
  • Pride of ownership. Not only does it feel great, property lived in by its owners tends to show better than property lived in by renters. Owners more often view the home as an extension of themselves, investing in maintenance, upgrades and refurbishing. Owners anchor a neighborhood and ownership expresses their core values.
  • Tax considerations. This on is a bit two-sided because your tax savings are tied to your interest payments, not your principle payments. None-the-less, if your overall payment (principle, interest, mortgage insurance and taxes) is the same as your rent would be, the tax savings would increase your cash flow.
  • Forced savings. With the monthly principle amount going toward building equity, making mortgage payments forces the buyer to “save” the equity amount. Of course, the savings only become usable upon sale of the home, so the usefulness of this forced form of accumulation means holding the home long enough to “redeem” the savings upon sale of the home.

Should you buy a home?

Yes. Absolutely. But…only when it’s right for you and your circumstances. And only if you truly understand its value, both now and in your future. Our professionals can help you understand how homeownership can benefit you and your family.

When a house is an investment

Investment property is property that has the potential to increase your cash flow. These types of property include commercial properties and rentals (both multi-family and single-family homes). If you’re interested in pursuing investment property, we can help you with that too.

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Easy Update: Chalky Painted Kitchen Cabinets

Chalky Painted Kitchen CabinetsIf you’re hesitant to purchase an older home because you don’t love the kitchen or bathroom cabinets and the idea of having to sand all of that wood makes you cringe, fear not … chalk paint to the rescue.

You haven’t heard of chalk paint? Well, here’s the scoop:

The original “chalk paint” (a trademarked name of the paint developed by Annie Sloan) allowed furniture restorers to create the shabby chic look on reclaimed painted furniture. The paint leaves a chalky finish (hence the name) until application of a wax finish and buffing.

With the development of specialty chalk paint mixtures, chalk paint allows for refinishing cabinets without sanding or priming. In fact, the technique used with chalk paint simply calls for brushing the paint on a clean surface, with a high quality chalk paintbrush, then finishing with a specialty wax to set the paint and add a glow to the cabinets.

Devotees of the process swear by it. To try the process with the original Annie Sloan Chalk Paint (ASCP), you’ll find step by step instructions in blog posts like this one and even on YouTube. Various finishes from weathered and distressed to smooth require simple variations to the basic process.

The most common negative heard about ASCP is the cost. At nearly $40 for a quart of paint, critics say they achieve the same look for less using other brands and even their own mixtures.

Other similar brands include CeCe Caldwell’s paints. These non-toxic, natural mineral paint products offer an eco-friendly alternative to other paint finishes. Being health-friendly makes these paints safe to use around children or family members with respiratory problems.

Websters offers a chalky paint powder to add to any brand of latex paint. They offer a variety of video tutorials to achieve different techniques, accents, layering options and even a process for painting on metal. Big-box DIY stores offer paints that give a chalky finish and are much less expensive than the designer brands, although professional furniture refinishers claim a variety of success levels with these. Two of these include Valspar Chalky Paint (available at Lowes) and Americana Décor (from The Home Depot).

Very brave Do-It-Yourself-ers may choose to create their own chalky paint recipes using latex paint mixed with plaster of Paris (powdered gypsum) and/or calcium carbonate or sanded grout. You’ll find many different recipes, so only go this route if you have time to try different options before you tear your kitchen apart.

If you’re planning to sell your home and worry that your outdated kitchen might hinder a sale, the chalk paint methods provide a smooth finish and instant update to any kitchen.

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What a Credit Score Really Means

What a Credit Score Really MeansAs one of the least understood numbers homebuyers deal with, their credit score confuses many would-be buyers. So, what does your credit score really mean?

Firstly, understand that a credit score is not a credit score is not a credit score. Not only can your score change from scoring company to scoring company, within a single credit bureau your score for auto insurance or to buy a television, for example, may differ from your score to get a home mortgage or a car loan.

The three main credit bureaus, Experian, TransUnion and Equifax, offer the FICO score for consumers. FICO stands for Fair Isaac Corporation and a FICO score means a number determined using the calculating software provided by Fair Isaac. Your FICO score is the one lenders look at to determine if you’re credit worthy for a home loan. Using a snapshot of your current outstanding debt, open credit and a variety of other factors, FICO computes a number between 300 and 850 that comprises your score. Typically, the higher the score, the lower the risk.

When your score differs between the three credit-reporting agencies, the variances stem from the specific information reported to that company. So, at one company your score could be 685 and at another it might report as 725. Some lenders take an average of the three scores while others use just one to determine when to offer you credit.

Factors that impact on credit scores include your credit card utilization, payment history for bills where companies report, derogatory marks (accounts that may be in collection, bankruptcies, judgments and liens), the age of your credit history, the total number of credit accounts you have open and the number of credit inquiries you have. Of these, credit card utilization, payment history and derogatory marks have the highest impact on your score. The age of your credit history has a lower impact on your score, and your total accounts and credit inquiries impact the score to a lesser degree.

Some items impacting on credit scores are in your control while others may not be. For example, your open credit card utilization reflects a single moment that the card issuer reported to the bureaus. So, if charged a large transaction, but paid it off the end of the month, your credit score could reflect either the high usage or the paid off percentage depending on what time of the month it was reported.

On-time payments typically report at the same time each month. Making certain that you pay bills on time helps keep your score higher. Just one or two late payments make a significant dent in your score. Setting up automatic payments from the bill-pay option on your bank account takes away some of the risk of a lower score if you’re busy or forgetful.

You can’t always control the impact from the average age of open credit lines, especially if you’re young, so, once you open a credit line and pay it off, closing the account may not be in your best interest. Consider keeping your oldest line of credit open, even if you don’t use it.

Beware of hard credit inquiries. Every time you apply for an auto loan, a student loan, a business loan, personal loan, credit card or mortgage a hard inquiry point adds to your score. Multiple hard inquires indicate to creditors that you’re desperate for credit. If you’re planning to purchase a home, avoid buying a car on credit or opening credit cards in the several months or even the whole year ahead of applying for a home loan.

While you do not have the right to a free credit score, the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) requires that each credit reporting company—Equifax, TransUnion  or Experian—provide a free copy of your credit report once every 12 months, upon your request. Since your credit report does not contain your score, you may not know exactly what might hinder you from getting credit, but it offers you the opportunity to correct errors and to request a review of items you do not believe are yours.

On the other hand, you can pay to receive actual credit scores through a variety of providers. Some programs offer free scores (although not necessarily the FICO score) and allow you to track your progress over time with charts, graphs and suggestions for improving your score.

If you need to improve your score to be pre-approved for a mortgage, start now. Don’t wait.

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Need an Air Conditioner But Don't Have Ducts?

Need an Air Conditioner But Don't Have Ducts?

As scorching or humid summer days approach, you may be second-guessing the purchase of that vintage or historic home you’ve had your eye on. In fact, in many places homes as new as 15 to 20 years may not have air conditioning. If your home doesn’t have ductwork and is missing the attic, basement or crawlspace to add it, what can you do?

In know, I know … visions of unsightly window air conditioners dance in your head and the though of giving up a window makes you wince. Be encouraged … other options exist to see you through the hottest days.

Ductless air conditioners

Used extensively in Europe and Asia, and often seen in hotels in the United States, a mini-split or ductless air conditioner mounts one unit on the inside wall and one unit on the outside wall. The inside unit blows cool air into the room and houses any climate controls and the outer unit that brings in the air and expels the “condensate” or moisture through a drain. Between the two systems run refrigerant lines, the power source and the tubing.

Mini-split systems work great for retrofitting an older home, or for adding air conditioning to a room addition not connected to the main ductwork. In fact, installation typically requires just a three-inch hole for the conduit to pass through. While often the two units mount back to back, if necessary, situating the outdoor unit as far as 50 feet away offers more flexibility. In fact, cooling rooms on the front of your home, but situating the condenser unit I a less conspicuous location allows for installation even in highly regulated neighborhoods.

While the systems themselves cost much more than a window unit—often $1500 to $2000 per 12,000 BTU/hour cooling capacity—energy savings could increase because there is less loss than a typical duct system and less air leakage than a window system. One additional advantage comes from the minimal exposure to pests through the small entry point into the wall.

Portable Air Conditioners

A portable air conditioner is a unit that houses the blower and condenser in a single unit. They expel warm air through a small vent duct placed in an exterior window. Some portable units have two ducts … one to bring in fresh air and one to expel warm air and moisture. Additionally, many have condensation trays similar to dehumidifiers that need emptying on a regular basis.

Some portable units make quite a bit of noise, and others weigh up to 85 lbs., so “portability” may be subjective.

Other options

If your climate’s hot or humid the whole summer, you’ll want to invest in some form of air conditioning, but in more moderate climates with just a couple weeks of hot days, consider cooling with more traditional methods like ceiling fans, tower fans or even better, a whole house fan. A whole house mounts in the ceiling at the home’s highest point … such as above the top of the stairwell landing … pulls air from windows through the house and vents into the attic. Ranging from $200 to $800, a whole house, high capacity fan runs more quietly and efficiently at lower speeds. Even at hotter temperatures, the moving air evaporates perspiration from the skin, allowing inhabitants to feel cooler.

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What Matters Most? Why Location Trumps Everything!

Home Location

Take a lesson from that old real estate adage “location, location, location.” Many seasoned homeowners will tell you that the size of your home and the amount of space you have—including extra living rooms, game rooms, or even acreage — becomes far less important to you in short order if the location is wrong.

Ask yourself these questions:

  • How long is my commute to work? At first blush, the thrill of ownership may overshadow a long commute. Eventually, however, many commuters begin to feel that their families get to live in the home and they just visit for a few hours in the evening and on weekends. If being part of family life is important to you, look for something closer to your work, even if it’s a little smaller.
  • Is it near to my children’s schools? As children progress through school, the number of activities for them to be involved in increases dramatically. If the commute to their school for ball games, drama club, band practice and the like is too long, either you’ll spend all of your family life on the road or your children may miss out on things that could be important to them.
  • How far away is shopping? Living on rural property or in a newer housing development may seem like the perfect opportunity, but if you run short on milk for breakfast, is it an hour round trip to the nearest market? Or, if you choose an urban condo for its great walk score to restaurants and nightlife, do you have to have a vehicle to drive just to find groceries? The inconvenience of far-away shopping affects the enjoyment of your new home.
  • Do I enjoy activities in the nearest community? Whether urban, suburban or rural, your connection to your community affects your satisfaction and contentment with your location. If you prefer the theatre, but live in a community that only celebrates agriculture, your quality of life may suffer. Conversely, if you love the great outdoors, but your city only offers indoor activities, you may need to rethink the location of your home.

Other considerations:

Of course, one of the biggest reasons to consider location is the future sale of your home. No matter how lovely your home is, or how perfect in every other way, its location can make or break a future sale.

But, if you’re concerned about the environment, the location of your home can leave a larger or smaller carbon footprint. An EPA study points out that a home’s location relative to public transportation, energy sources and the actual housing type significantly affect energy consumption.

Before beginning your home search, take time to reflect on what is most important to you. Then, let your real estate professional in on the secret. He’ll narrow his search to those locations that fit your needs, wants and desires best.

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Does Size Really Matter?

Does Size Really Matter?

Now that you’re embarking on home ownership, you might wonder how large a space you actually need. After all, apartments tend to be a bit smaller than the average home and the siren song of extra space lures many a buyer into purchasing the biggest bang for their buck. While the size of houses increased during the early 2000s, the new home market shows a 15 percent decrease in square footage for the average home.

While some buyers yearn for more space, others have downsized … even while their children still live in the home. In fact, a trend toward very small homes has increased in popularity in recent years.

While no one can decide what’s exactly right for your situation, here are some things to consider:

How much space do you really need? vs. How much space do you want or can afford?

To answer this question, you’ll need to spend some time determining your family’s lifestyle:

  • How many people will live in the house? Brothers of a similar age can easily share a room, for example, but teens may do better in a separate space from their younger siblings. If grandparents share the home too, they may enjoy their own living area.
  • Do you often have out-of-town guests? If so, you’ll need sleeping room for guests, and even an extra bath.
  • Do you have lots of indoor hobbies? Sewing, crafting and woodworking in your living space can make day-to-day life difficult for the rest of the family. If you have indoor crafts, you’ll need a home with an extra room, a large garage, workshop, basement or attic.
  • Do you work from home? Both for tax purposes and for your own sanity, you may need an office with its own door. Being able to “leave work” is a boost for most home-based entrepreneurs, too.
  • Does a larger home require more maintenance? If more space just means more time cleaning, you might be happier in a smaller space, but if a smaller space means constant purging and organizing, a little more room to store your stuff can fill the bill.
  • Do you plan to keep the home into your empty nest or retirement years? If so, you may be willing to live with less space-per-person now so that you have a paid-off home that’s just the right size later.

Talk to your professional

Deciding how much space you want or need, and how you plan to use it is important before you begin to look. Your agent may show you a beautiful home that you become infatuated with, but that isn’t really right for your needs … but if she knows your needs and how you want to live, she’s more likely to show you the home that becomes your long-time love—no matter what size it is.

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How to Hack the Four C's of Home Staging

Four C's of Home Staging

As wedding season approaches, home sellers can take inspiration from smart diamond sellers to promote their gem of a home to bridal couples. Think like a jeweler to take on the four C’s of home staging on your own, and save a little more cash along the way.

Surveys show that home decorated in a neutral manner geared toward buyers tend to sell within 50 to 75% fewer days than those that have not been staged. In fact, according to two different studies, the average number of days on the market for a staged home is 42. On top of that, one survey even showed that staged homes sold for more than five to 10 percent above the original asking price. For an averaged-size mortgage, that could mean a savings in mortgage payments by the seller of over $2000 … enough to buy a new diamond ring!

Color:

By far the easiest home staging hack, repaint the interior with warm neutral color. Lighter shades of grays, sand tones, creams, café-au-lait, and similar colors. Be sure to take into account the amount of natural light the room receives, giving darker rooms a lighter coat and brightening up ceilings.

Lighten up window coverings too. In fact, removing dark heavy drapes allows additional light into the rooms and gives your home a fresher, more youthful appeal. This is true of shower curtains too, so opt to change out your dark ones for clear curtains that give the bath a more open appearance.

Cut:

Some buyers have difficulty picturing themselves in someone else’s home with someone else’s furniture, décor, dishes or clothing.

Depersonalize and declutter your space. Cut out family photos, very personal décor, sports trophies, children’s school art and other indications of your own family life. If you’re living in the home, take time to remove excess clothing from closets, and remove seasonal supplies and holiday decorations from storage spaces. In fact, consider renting a storage space for your extras.

Clarity:

Clean, clean, clean!

Windows should be clear and sparkling. Deep clean all carpets. Bleach or brighten grout in kitchens and baths. Buff up the wood floors. Make those appliances shine. Clean out light fixtures and replace blown-out bulbs. In fact, change out old incandescent light bulbs for newer compact fluorescents. Change out broken switch-cover and outlet plates. Shine those brass doorknobs and bath fixtures.

Remove items that define a space by gender or age.

Clear away any junk from the garage and the outside of your home. Trim landscaping and clean out gutters and clear weeds from flowerbeds.

Carat [Weight]:

When staging your home, size matters. Choose furniture pieces that compliment the architectural pieces in your house or showcase a room’s features and remove the rest. As we live in a home, we tend to bring in more and more furnishings that, while useful to us, can fill up the open spaces. When selling your home, remove all the extra furniture pieces (book cases, small side tables, etc.) and leave the ones that define the function of the space.

Lastly, give your home a romantic touch by adding candles or flowers to an open house.

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Home Loans Especially for College Grads

Home Loans for College GradsWith outstanding student loan debt topping $1.2 trillion, and more than 40 million borrowers carrying student loan debt, the age of first-time homebuyers is edging upwards. Among millennials, homeownership is down from 43 percent a decade ago to just 36 percent today. Even though rates on mortgages are relatively low, the overall debt-to-income ratio of potential homebuyers in their 20s and 30s is relatively high.

Graduating from college or getting that advanced degree can propel your career, but student loans hanging over your head might make buying that first home more difficult. According to a 2012 study, qualifying for low-downpayment loans—or any loans—for those with higher debt loads due to student loans can be particularly unattainable. But newer options are coming available for successful college graduates that might open up doors for potential homebuyers.

USDA Loans

A specialty loan type geared toward rural housing, the USDA Home Loan Underwriters consider a college degree to be a “compensating factor” when evaluating applications for home loans. They have special ways of calculating student loans that are in deferment or are in an income-based repayment (IBR) status depending on the documentation of your arrangements, so keeping great records on your student loans is really important.

FHA Loans

When calculating the debt-to-income ratio for FHA loans, the Federal Housing Administration calculates loans that are deferred beyond 12 months differently than loans that may require payments to begin sooner. Again, the FHA lender requires supporting evidence regarding your loan’s deferment status. If you are a co-signer on a student loan, your lender’s standards may differ, too.

How can you qualify?

Data from top lenders shows that about an equal number of loans to millennials with student debt are funded as are denied. That means that other factors regarding student loan debt affect approval during underwriting. According to some analyses, a difference in monthly student loan payment amounts of $500 versus $300 can derail a loan, as can a few points one way or the other on a credit score.

Check out new loan products

Standard loan underwriting by Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae may continue to slow home mortgages to graduates with student loans, but some lenders are creating options for graduates in good standing.

Requiring as little as ten percent down, a SoFi mortgage has flexible debt-to-income requirements in its underwriting process for graduates with education debt. While not yet available in all state, these loan products are available in twenty-three states and the District of Columbia. Expansion to other states is in the works.

These mortgages do not require private mortgage insurance (PMI) or loan origination fees, saving new millennial homeowners a little more in the monthly outgo, too. According to their website, loans tend to close in as few as 21 days due to their streamlined underwriting process.

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