Choosing a Down Payment Option on a House: Beyond the Numbers

Contributed by: Robert Ingram Robert Ingram


Whether you’re buying your first home, looking to downsize or are considering that ultimate dream house, you’re probably facing a couple of common questions. How much should I put down on the purchase?  How much should I finance through a mortgage?  A 20% down payment is typically recommended as a good starting point because amounts less than 20% will likely subject you to private mortgage insurance (PMI) in most conventional loan programs, which increases your mortgage payment.  However, as financial planners we’re often asked if it makes more sense to put down larger amounts and carry smaller mortgages, or to keep those extra funds and invest them.

Making a larger down payment

There are several benefits to increasing the amount you put down on your home purchase.  Having a smaller mortgage balance that you repay over time lowers your monthly payment.  This can provide more flexibility in and control over your monthly budget with smaller portions being committed to servicing debt. 

The smaller mortgage also means you will pay less interest on your loan.  For example, if you put an additional $25,000 down on your home purchase, you are borrowing $25,000 less and you save interest that you would be paying had you borrowed it.  This interest cost savings is like a return on the $25,000 that you are not borrowing.

There are, however, some important considerations when taking more of your assets and putting them towards the home purchase.

  • Those resources are no longer as accessible for your other needs or financial goals.  Is your cash reserve still intact in case of unexpected emergencies?  Would you still be on track to retire or to fund that college plan?  
  • Changes to your financial circumstances or in the economic environment could make it difficult to access the equity in your home through future borrowing.  Unfortunately, we saw this all too often during the financial crisis in 2008-2009 when many banks and lending institutions cut home equity lines of credit and drastically tightened their lending standards.
  • Having to fall back on other assets such as your qualified retirement plans or IRA accounts could result in additional taxes and/or early withdrawal penalties depending on your age and other circumstances.  Not only could this negate some of the cost savings from making the larger down payment, but it may also derail your retirement.

Smaller down payment and investing the difference

Choosing to make a smaller down payment and investing the additional dollars rather than adding them to the down payment can make sense financially if a key assumption holds true. This assumption is that your investment’s returns outperform the interest cost of your mortgage.  Consider a bank that pays depositors an interest rate (its borrowing cost) and then lends those funds to borrowers for a charged interest rate (its investment return).  If the bank pays 2% interest to depositors and earns 5% interest on the money it lends, its potential earnings exceed its costs, a profitable financial move.

A risk to this strategy of investing the additional funds in lieu of a larger down payment, however, is that earning the required investment return is not guaranteed.

When thinking about making the investment decision, there are some important points to consider.

  • What kind of investor are you?
    Investors should have the appropriate risk tolerance and willingness to invest in a portfolio of different asset categories that may provide the opportunity to earn their required rate of return long-term.  For very conservative investors it may be more difficult for their portfolios to outperform the mortgage interest costs. (It may be especially difficult if the mortgage interest rates are higher than historical averages)
  • Following your investment strategy also takes discipline over the long-term.
    It can be challenging to avoid some of the emotional buying and selling decisions that in hindsight can lead to under-performance, and to keep your investments invested.
  • How do you handle debt?
    If the mortgage without the larger down payment is not a burden to your cash flow and you have been successful in limiting other forms of consumer debt, this strategy may fit. If you are prone to getting overextended or have a large part of your budget allocated to paying off debt, reducing your potential mortgage debt may be the appropriate option.

As you can see, many factors can play into the down payment decision depending on your own unique circumstances and values.  As always, consult your planner when considering these financial moves.  We are here to look at the big picture to help you make confident decisions.

Robert Ingram is a Financial Planner at Center for Financial Planning, Inc.®

Any opinions are those of Bob Ingram and not necessarily those of Raymond James or RJFS. Information contained herein was received from sources believed to be reliable, but accuracy is not guaranteed. Information provided is general in nature, and is not a complete statement of all information necessary for making an investment decision, and is not a recommendation or a solicitation to buy or sell any security. Asset allocation and diversification do not ensure a profit or protect against a loss. Past performance is not indicative of future results. Investing always involves risk and you may incur a profit or loss. No investment strategy can guarantee success. Raymond James Financial Services does not provide advice on tax, legal or mortgage issues. These matters should be discussed with an appropriate professional.