$30,000. That’s the minimum you should have saved to buy a $150,000 home – and that just covers your 20% down payment! That’s a lot of money. Saving for a down payment on a home can take a long time. The last thing you want to happen is to see your savings drained by a stupid mistake. Putting your savings in the wrong investment option can destroy your dreams of home ownership. Here’s what you need to know so you don’t take on too much risk.
How Long Do You Have?
When it comes to choosing an investment option, you need to consider your time horizon – how long you have until you need the money. This is true of any financial goal. The longer you have, the more risk you can afford to take (and the higher your return might be). Once you know your time horizon, you can start considering your investment options.
Cash – Time Horizon: 0 – 5 Days
Think cash is king? Not when it comes to savings options. Cash may seem like the safest option, but you’ll lose money to inflation. The only reason you should have your down payment in cash is because you need it within a week. Though I wouldn’t walk into a closing with that much cash! A checking account is the equivalent of cash because it usually yields no interest, so just take a check instead.
High-Yield Online Savings Accounts – Time Horizon: 5 Days – 2 Years
I skipped regular savings accounts because the interest they offer is pitiful compared to high-yield online savings accounts (like ING Direct). High-yield savings accounts offer a decent short-term interest rate and are backed by FDIC insurance. This means they’re risk free up to the insurance limits. If you have less than two years until you need the money, this could be your best option.
Certificates of Deposit (CDs) – Time Horizon: 2 Years – 5 Years
CDs are a good option if you have a longer time horizon because they’ll let you lock in a fixed rate for a specific number of years. There are three problems here though. First, there is often a minimum purchase amount for CDs – usually $1,000. Since you can’t add on to a CD you already own, you’ll have to buy a new one every time you have the money.
Second, CDs can take some managing if you don’t keep them all at the same bank. If you’re chasing the highest rates, you’ll probably have to utilize several different banks. This means having several accounts in different places – and that’s not necessarily a good thing.
And third, putting your money in a CD means it is locked up. You generally can’t get to it early without penalties. This is why I recommend using a high-yield online savings account if you’ve got less than two years. You can pull your money out of there at any time with no penalty.
If CDs don’t sound like something you’d want to try, I’d recommend looking at short-term government bond mutual funds. Vanguard offers VSGBX and VFISX which both have an investment minimum of $3,000. However, you can make additional investments of only $100 (or $50 if you use automatic deposits) after that point. You can avoid the $20 service fee by signing up for electronic delivery of your statements and other documents. These funds are quite stable and low risk while generally offering slightly higher rates than CDs.
Intermediate-Term Bond Funds – Time Horizon: 5 Years – 10 Years
Intermediate-term bond mutual funds offer slightly higher returns than the other options but with slightly more risk. You should only consider them if you have five to ten years until you’ll be buying your home. Again, Vanguard is a good choice here. The same minimums apply, but you’ll want to look at funds with the ticker symbols VIPSX, VBIIX, VFITX, VFICX, or VBMFX. You won’t get stellar returns with these options, but they’ll pay you more than enough to beat the other choices and keep up with inflation.
Conservative Stock/Bond Portfolio – Time Horizon: 10 Years – 20 Years
If you have a good long time until you’ll be buying a house, consider looking at a conservative mix of stocks and bonds for your savings. A good target would be 20-30% in stocks and 70-80% in bonds. A mix like this will give you a reasonable chance of outperforming other options for your savings, but your longer time horizon will decrease the risk of losing money. If you need help figuring out how you should allocate your investments, check out my free portfolio allocation calculator.
Moderate Stock/Bond Portfolio – Time Horizon: 20 Years +
Finally, if you’re not planning to buy a home for at least twenty years or more, you might consider using a moderate mix of stocks and bonds. In this case, somewhere between 40-60% in stocks and 40-60% in bonds would be a reasonable choice. Again, the long time horizon will help ensure you minimize your chances of losing money, but the more aggressive investment choices will give you the chance of higher profits. See the above link to my free calculator if you’d like to see what a sample portfolio would look like.
What savings options would you use and why? What advice would you give to those who are saving for a house? Share your thoughts in the comments below!