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By Andrea Agostini and Gabriel Rodriguez
Updated: September 22, 2021 10:54 AM ET | Originally published: June 9, 2021

Debt-to-income (DTI) ratio compares how much you earn to your total monthly debt payments. Understanding your DTI is crucial if you are thinking about buying a home or refinancing a mortgage. Crunch the numbers with Money’s DTI ratio calculator and find out if you’re ready to apply for a home loan.

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Debt to income ratio

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What is Debt to income?

Simply put, it is the percentage of your income that you use to pay your debts. When you're looking to buy a home, most banks are looking for a debt to income ratio of 40% of less.

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What Is Debt-to-Income Ratio?

The debt-to-income (DTI) ratio is a key financial metric that lets lenders know how much of a borrower’s gross monthly income goes into paying off their current debt. Gross monthly income refers to the sum total of your monthly earnings before taxes and deductions. A low DTI indicates that the consumer is a low-risk borrower while a high one is taken to mean that the person is at a higher risk of defaulting on their debts.

How To Calculate Debt-To-Income Ratio?

To calculate your debt-to-income ratio, first add up your monthly bills, such as rent or mortgage, student loan payments, car payments, minimum credit card payments, and other regular payments. Then, divide the total by your gross monthly income. This includes wages, salaries, freelance income, overtime pay, commissions, tips and other allowances, etc.

What is included in debt-to-income ratio?

Your DTI ratio should include all revolving and installment debts — car loans, personal loans, student loans, mortgage loans, credit card debt, and any other debt that shows up on a credit report. Certain financial obligations like child support and alimony should also be included.

Monthly expenses like health insurance premiums, transportation costs, 401k or IRA contributions, and bills for utilities and services (electricity, water, gas, internet, and cable, etc.) are generally not included. However, if you have long-overdue bills for these types of accounts, they might eventually be passed on to a collection agency. The debt may be included in the calculation if that is the case.

There are two types of DTI ratios that lenders look at when considering a mortgage application: front-end and back-end.

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Front-end ratio

The front-end-DTI ratio, also called the housing ratio, only looks at how much of an applicant’s gross income is spent on housing costs, including principal, interest, taxes, and insurance.

Back-end ratio

The back-end-DTI ratio considers what portion of your income is needed to cover your monthly debt obligations, including future mortgage payments and housing expenses. This is the number most lenders focus on, as it gives a broad picture of an applicant’s monthly spending and the relationship between income and overall debt.

A general rule would be to work towards a back-end ratio of 36% or lower, with a front-end ratio that does not exceed 28%. Mortgage expenses should not take up more than 28% of your income.

When to include your spouse’s debt

Including your spouse’s debt depends on whether you’ll be applying for the mortgage jointly or as an individual. Certain states operate under community property rules. These rules establish that both spouses are under equal obligation to repay debts incurred during the marriage, so it is not an option to exclude a spouse’s debt from the DTI ratio.

States where community property rules apply are:

  • Arizona
  • California
  • Idaho
  • Louisiana
  • Nevada
  • New Mexico
  • Texas
  • Washington
  • Wisconsin

In the rest of the country (including Alaska, which allows couples to opt out of community property rules) common-law rules apply. Couples are not legally obligated to equally share all debt acquired while married. This means they can apply for a loan as individuals and the spouse’s income and debt will bear no influence in the lender’s evaluation.

How Does Your DTI Ratio Affect You?

Your debt-to-income ratio mainly affects the type of home-related loans you are able to take out. Lenders factor DTI, among other things, into mortgage loans, mortgage refinancing, and home equity products. You can calculate these using our free mortgage calculator.

DTI ratio and mortgage loans

DTI ratio directly factors into whether a mortgage lender will approve your loan or not. When buying your first home, your DTI is calculated with the estimated payments, taxes, and fees from the purchase. Depending on your credit score, savings, and down payment, lenders may accept higher ratios.

Lender limits can vary considerably, depending on the type of loan and overall financial profile of a prospective applicant, but there are guidelines in place that can serve as a frame of reference. Since the Federal National Mortgage Association (commonly known as Fannie Mae) raised their DTI limit in 2007, the maximum limit for most lenders will not exceed 50%.

Prospective borrowers should strive for a DTI of at least 43%, or the maximum allowed to access Qualified Mortgage loans. These loans comply with federal guidelines that were created to prevent high-risk transactions between lenders and borrowers.

For some examples of what this looks like in real life, let’s look at some lenders:

  • Quicken Loans sets their DTI limit at 50% for most of their loans, making an exception for VA loans, for which the DTI ratio limit can go up to 60%. Consider one of the best VA loans if you are considering this type of mortgage.
  • Veterans United recommends a DTI of 41% or lower, with mortgage debt included in the DTI calculation. Higher ratios may still be allowed, but borrowers with a DTI of 41% or higher will need to compensate by having a residual income that exceeds Veterans United’s guidelines by at least 20%.
  • Better Mortgage offers loans to candidates with a DTI ratio as high as 47%
  • Rocket Mortgage sets the limit at 50%

Loans guaranteed by the Federal Government have their own set of limits, as well:

  • USDA loans set their limit at 29% for front-end-ratio and 41% for back-end-ratio, but allow each lender to approve candidates with higher percentages if there are compensating factors (such as supplemental income, generous savings, or strong credit history) that vouch for the applicant’s ability to repay.
  • FHA loan limits can go up to 50%, but it depends a lot on the strength of other compensating factors, too. A low credit score can mean that your DTI ratio cannot exceed 45% in order to qualify, while a higher credit score will typically allow greater flexibility.

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DTI ratio and mortgage refinance

Creditors will also consider your DTI ratio when applying for a mortgage refinance. As with mortgage loans, a higher DTI will make it much harder to get approved for refinancing your home loan. Check our refinance calculator to determine if refinancing your mortgage is the right choice for you.

  • For cash-out refinance, Chase recommends that consumers have a DTI of 40% or lower.
  • Rocket Mortgage states that most lenders prefer consumers which have a DTI of 50% or lower when applying for mortgage refinance.

DTI ratio and home equity

DTI ratio affects how much of your home equity you can access. In addition to loan-to-value and combined loan-to-value ratios, lenders will consider your DTI when you apply for a home equity loan or line of credit.

Home equity loans have more stringent requirements than mortgages. Borrowers must have a 43% DTI or lower to qualify, in most cases, and some lenders may even require DTIs as low as 36%. Here are some examples:

  • Because of the stricter requirements for home equity loans, Quicken Loans recommends that potential borrowers maintain a DTI of 43% or lower.
  • Veteran’s United does not impose a maximum DTI ratio for Veterans and military members. However, those with a DTI above 41% may encounter additional financial scrutiny.
  • Rocket Mortgage will not offer home equity loans to anyone with a DTI higher than 43%.

DTI ratio and credit scores

Your DTI never directly affects your credit score or credit report. Credit-reporting agencies may know your income but they don’t include it in their calculations. Your creditworthiness is still factored into your home loan application. However, borrowers with a high DTI ratio may have a high credit utilization ratio — which accounts for 30 percent of your credit score. Lowering your credit utilization ratio will help boost your credit score and lower your DTI ratio because you are paying down more debt.

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How Can You Lower Your DTI Ratio?

There are several strategies to lower your DTI. The goal is not only to reduce overall debt but also how much you’ll pay on a monthly basis.

  1. Start a monthly budget to get a better overview of your spending habits and see where it’s possible to limit spending. If a pen and paper aren’t for you, there are secure budgeting apps that can streamline this process.
  2. Pay off your loans ahead of schedule. Alternatively, extend the duration of your loans to lower your monthly payments.
  3. Target debt with a high ‘bill-to-balance’ ratio to reduce your DTI the most for the least amount of cash paid. Experts also recommend paying off your auto loan before applying for a mortgage.
  4. Refinance or consolidate your debt and use balance transfers to lower the interest rate on your loans. If refinancing, We recommend that you choose one of the best mortgage refinance companies of the year.
  5. Boost your income with a source of side income, such as renting out a spare room or delivering food.
  6. Negotiate a higher salary, if possible, to improve DTI by raising your income.
  7. Look into loan forgiveness for federal loans, especially for student loans.
  8. Add a co-borrower with a lower DTI to your loan application — but make sure that their credit score doesn’t work against you.

How COVID-19 Has Affected the Mortgage Market

The Federal Reserve regulates interest rates in response to economic activity. It had been slowly lowering interest rates since 2019 until the outbreak of COVID-19 forced the central bank to move at a more drastic pace, in an attempt to offset the economic impact of the pandemic.

This has represented a big boost to the housing market, with many homeowners taking advantage of the low interest rates to refinance their mortgages. Meanwhile, potential homebuyers are motivated to shop for offers they would not have been able to afford before. Nobody can time the market, but these rates have been projected to remain in place until at least 2023, as part of an effort to re-strengthen the economy.

Mortgage rates remain near historic lows in 2021, which continues to help new buyers break into the market. However, they have been on an upwards trend since the beginning of the year, as predicted by economists.

Monthly house prices have also increased to an average annual rate of 10 percent, further above their already high levels relative to housing rents before the COVID-19 pandemic.

Debt to Income Ratio FAQ

Why is the DTI ratio important?

Lenders use DTI ratios to determine whether someone is financially secure enough to manage monthly loan payments. A high DTI ratio is seen as riskier for default. A low DTI ratio indicates that the borrower will be able to make payments even with a hit to their income.

What’s a good debt-to-income ratio?

While a good DTI ratio should fall between 36% to 43% — the lower, the better. A DTI higher than 43% is seen as a sign of financial stress. While it does not disqualify the borrower, it will make it more difficult to get a good loan offer.

What should your DTI be to buy a house?

A good DTI to get approved for a mortgage is 36% or lower. Mortgage lenders want potential clients to be using roughly a third of their income to pay off debt. Additionally, no more than 28% of that debt should be going towards servicing your mortgage.

Is rent included in the debt-to-income ratio?

Rent is not included in debt-to-income calculations for purposes of a mortgage loan. Lenders expect you to move out of the house you are renting, so they use the anticipated mortgage payment, property taxes, and homeowners insurance, as well as mortgage insurance and homeowners association (HOA) dues, to determine your DTI ratio. They will usually verify that you consistently paid rent on time, though.

Should I include my spouse’s debt?

In states where you have the option to do so, this depends on how beneficial it is for you. Having two incomes available means that you could qualify for larger loans. Combined debt and income could give a lower, stronger DTI ratio.

Applying as a couple would be ideal in such a case. However, if a couple’s combined credit score and debt-to-income ratio severely affect the prospects of qualifying for a good mortgage, it might be better to apply as an individual.