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By Aly J. Yale
November 10, 2020
Courtesy of Mike and Emily Vietti

Saving enough for a down payment has long been a hurdle for hopeful homebuyers. Even at the low end — just 3% of a home’s sale price — buyers are looking at nearly $10,000 on a median-priced house. To put down 20% — and avoid the costs of private mortgage insurance — buyers would need $65,000.

With numbers like these, it’s no wonder more than a quarter of first-time buyers say saving for their down payment is the most difficult part of the homebuying process. Nearly a third get money from a friend or relative to make it happen.

A recent report from Zillow shows it would take the typical homebuyer five full months of pre-tax income to afford a 20% down payment in Pittsburgh. In high-cost markets like San Francisco, it’d take over 17 months.

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If that sounds crazy, it is — but the pandemic may actually be making things a little easier.

How the pandemic has helped some homebuyers

To be sure, many Americans have lost their jobs or wages due to the virus. For those people saving — and often even paying the bills — has become a challenge. But for those with steady employment, the city lockdowns and flexible remote work options have made it possible to rack up savings faster than ever. Add in stimulus checks and student loan deferrals and homeownership is suddenly in reach.

Just ask Sara Bernier. Since the pandemic began, the Las Vegas-based accountant has been able to save up a whopping $50,000 — about half her annual salary — to put toward her upcoming home purchase. How’d she do it exactly? Bernier says it was largely reduced spending that got her there.

“With more and more time spent indoors to avoid COVID-19, it became easier to pinch pennies,” Bernier says. “I cut down on eating out, entertainment and general costs that used to add up quickly in the past.”

Starting with her daily Starbucks purchases ($6), she also cut one expense per week until she was “down to nothing more than groceries and bills.” She even gave up driving in favor of biking — the hardest task so far due to the 50-minute round trip when she does need to get to her office.

Ultimately, Bernier’s efforts worked. She’s currently on the hunt for a home in the Vegas suburbs, where homes run between $300,000 to $350,000.

“It would have taken me at least two to three years to save this much without the pandemic,” Bernier says. “I guess it’s a glass-half-full way of looking at this during these uncertain times.”

Mike and Emily Vietti took a similar path. Prior to the pandemic, they’d had only “casual” discussions about buying a home, but record-low mortgage rates plus the $15,000 in pandemic savings they racked up inspired them to hit the pavement. The pair closed on their five-bed, 3.5-bath home in Kansas City just last week.

“Interest rates kept plummeting, so that encouraged us to try and figure out a way to buy a house sooner versus later,” Mike says.

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Like Bernier, the pandemic allowed the Viettis to cut back significantly on expenses. They both stopped their daily, one-hour commutes, there were no movies or restaurant dinners out, and Mike was able to make the last payment on his undergraduate loans. Altogether, it saved the couple about $2,000 per month.

“In our case, the pandemic drastically led to reduced expenditures on a monthly basis,” Mike says. “Those savings made it possible for us to buy a home much sooner than we originally anticipated — at a minimum, probably at least six months earlier than our initial plan.”

Myles and Tricia Daniel also used the pandemic slowdown to buy a home — this time an investment property. According to Myles, the couple’s stimulus checks, plus putting their student loan payments on pause under the CARES Act, allowed them to save up more than $15,000 this year. They plan to flip the Greenville, S.C., property and use the profits to pay off their remaining student debt — around $35,000 — later this month.

Savings all around

Among people whose jobs have been unaffected by the pandemic, Bernier, Vietti and Daniel’s stories are actually pretty common. While not everyone puts their savings toward a down payment, some are using their pandemic days to achieve other financial goals.

There’s Bryan Pattman, who paid off his car loan to the tune of $10,000, and Kevin Huhn, who was able to close out $9,000 in credit card debt. Carissa Swanger, a 33-year-old pharmacist from Seattle, was able to make the final payment on her student loans and stow away an extra $60,000 for a home purchase down the line. Swanger says paying off her loan helped, as did cutting back on travel and entertainment spending and setting up a reward-earning savings account with SoFi.

Zach Sasser, a 20-year-old marketer from Dallas, saved up $7,000 to buy a new truck. “While the pandemic has presented a lot of struggle for everyone, I have been having my best financial months recently by planning ahead and sticking to my budget,” Sasser says.

According to the Bureau of Economic Analysis, the average American is now saving about 14% of their take-home pay — nearly double the savings rate seen this time last year. In the early days of the pandemic, the savings rate had reached as high as 33.6%.

How to save more

Joelle Spear, a certified financial planner with Canby Financial Advisors, says the uptick in savings isn’t surprising, especially given how the pandemic has changed American spending patterns.

“Families aren’t spending money the same way during COVID,” Spear says. “Vacations, experiences and many sporting activities for all family members are on hold. People aren’t commuting either, so gas consumption is down, along with gas prices.”

That last note is big. Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that transportation was the second-biggest household expenditure for Americans last year (behind only housing). The average household spent more than $10,700 on gas and other transportation costs.

Another big expense? That’d be food away from the house — with around $3,500 spent per household each year.

“Food represents 10 to 15% of the American budget,” Spear says. “Food spending is down — no coffee trips, eating out at work for lunch every day and dining out is significantly down. For all these reasons, the steady income earners are finding themselves in a situation where their spending is down by thousands per month.”

But Spear says using these savings to cover big expenses isn’t the only move consumers should consider. If you have debts to your name, paying those off — or at least down — might save you more in interest in the long run.

Having a flush emergency fund is important, too — particularly with today’s uncertain economy. Spear recommends having at least six months of expenses stowed away just in case.

“Until there is a vaccine, how people are living will remain the same for the most part,” Spear says. “It’s great to find the silver lining in terrible situations. For many families who are fortunate to remain working throughout COVID, their lifestyles have shifted. Taking advantage of this shift to get ahead with financial goals is making smart money decisions.”

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More from Money:

The Home Buyer’s Dilemma: As Mortgage Rates Fall, House Prices Soar out of Reach

The Overlooked Reason It’s so Hard to Buy a Home in 2020

Don’t Have 20% for a Down Payment? Here’s How to Buy a Home With Less

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Our mission is to help people at any stage of life make smart financial decisions through research, reporting, reviews, recommendations, and tools.

Earning your trust is essential to our success, and we believe transparency is critical to creating that trust. To that end, you should know that many or all of the companies featured here are partners who advertise with us.

Our content is free because our partners pay us a referral fee if you click on links or call any of the phone numbers on our site. If you choose to interact with the content on our site, we will likely receive compensation. If you don't, we will not be compensated. Ultimately the choice is yours.

Opinions are our own and our editors and staff writers are instructed to maintain editorial integrity, but compensation along with in-depth research will determine where, how, and in what order they appear on the page.

To find out more about our editorial process and how we make money, click here.

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