By Kathy Kristof
WHEN I TOLD MY 19-YEAR-OLD SON that I’d decided to sell the house he’d grown up in, his usual tough-guy act evaporated. He and three friends sat in my kitchen and wiped away tears. If the near-acre of land on which our two-story home sat had been easier to maintain—or if there were kids still living in any of the four bedrooms—I might have had a change of heart then and there. Instead, I took a deep breath and asked them to trust me.
Clearly, downsizing from my empty nest to a smaller, more affordable home was a smart financial decision. But it was also a very tough one emotionally. “People might know intellectually that their home is a financial asset, but they think of it in emotional terms—as the place where they raised their kids, where they want to grow old,” says Gao-Wen Shao, director of Retirement Solutions at Merrill Lynch. Still, Shao adds, ignoring an asset that may be worth hundreds of thousands of dollars would be a mistake. “It’s critical that you examine all the financial resources you can bring to bear when figuring out a plan for pursuing your goals,” agrees Lorna Sabbia, head of Retirement & Personal Wealth Solutions at Bank of America Merrill Lynch.
So what role should your home play in your overall financial picture? And how can you take advantage of the home equity you’ve built up?
“Your home might end up being the biggest asset on your balance sheet.”—Matthew Diczok, Head of Fixed Income Strategy, Global Wealth and Investment Management, Merrill Lynch Wealth Management and U.S. Trust
Is Home Ownership a Good Investment?
Thanks to the equity I’d built up, I ended up with a nice profit when I sold my home, but not everyone is so lucky. How much equity you have in your home is largely dependent on how long you’ve owned it, how large your initial down payment was and how high home prices are in your area at any given time.
Home appreciation is robust right now, but it tends to track the rate of inflation over time, says Michelle Meyer, head of U.S. Economics at BofA Merrill Lynch Global Research. In fact, over the long term, the typical home only appreciates 3% to 4% per year, according to the Federal Housing Finance Agency.1 Stocks and bonds have traditionally returned considerably more, agrees Matthew Diczok, head of Fixed Income Strategy, Global Wealth and Investment Management, Merrill Lynch Wealth Management and U.S. Trust. But here’s the thing: Few of us invest 20% or 30% of our gross income in the stock market every month.2 The typical homeowner usually dedicates that much to his or her mortgage payment, and over the years those steady payments can really add up. It’s like enforced savings.
Living in Your Biggest Asset
“Your home might end up being the biggest asset on your balance sheet,” says Diczok. For half of all 35- to 54-year-old couples, for example, home equity represents 51% or more of total net worth, according to U.S. Census Bureau data.3 “That’s why it’s critical to look at how your home’s value fits in with your other investments,” he adds.
From an investing standpoint, that can mean a number of things. “Some people,” says Diczok, “may feel comfortable taking on a little more risk in the way they approach the markets, knowing that they have a portion of their net worth invested in a relatively stable asset—their home.” Others may see an advantage in being able to draw on their home equity to cover emergency expenses, rather than selling off shares in their portfolio. That way they don’t miss out on any potential market growth. If the expense is large, however, taking out a home equity loan or line of credit could put your home at risk—if you can’t pay off the loan you could lose your house.
“There are three main ways to tap your home’s value while you’re still living there. The best choice for you will depend on interest rates and what you need the money for.”—David Steckel, Head of Mortgage Product Strategy, Global Wealth and Investment Management
3 Ways to Tap Your Home Equity
You don’t have to sell your home, as I did, to put your equity to work for you, of course. There are three main ways to tap your home’s value while you’re still living there, says David Steckel, head of Mortgage Product Strategy, Global Wealth and Investment Management. They are: a home equity line of credit, better known as a HELOC; a home equity loan (sometimes referred to as a HELOAN); and a cash-out refinance. “The best choice for you will depend on interest rates and what you need the money for.”
With a cash-out refinance, you get a new loan, ideally at a lower rate, to pay off your existing mortgage, plus some additional money from your home equity, which you might use to cover a home renovation project, or to help you manage any number of other current expenses. Cashing out your home equity is an option you might want to consider if you have a first mortgage on which you’re paying a higher interest rate than is currently available. Keep in mind, though, says Steckel, that your new loan balance will be higher than your current loan, leaving you with a larger mortgage, typically a higher monthly payment (depending on available interest rates) and the potential to pay more interest over the life of the loan.
What if your current mortgage rate is already low? Then you may want to consider tapping into home equity through a home equity loan or a line of credit, Steckel says. The difference between the two? Home equity loans are for a fixed amount and are often made at fixed rates of interest. Home equity lines of credit give you access to a set amount of credit, but you don’t have to use it all or all at the same time. You can tap that credit—and pay it off—as you need it during the “draw period,” or the term of the loan. Home equity lines of credit are often made at variable rates of interest, though you can find fixed-rate options.
A home equity loan may make the most sense for a fixed expense—say college tuition that you might want to pay off over a number of years—while a home equity line of credit is generally used for recurring items, like home renovations, which may require frequent and varied withdrawal amounts.
One thing you should never consider using your home equity for, notes Steckel, is investing. Stocks, bonds and mutual funds fluctuate in value, and you wouldn’t want to risk losing your home if the return on your investments is not sufficient to cover a new mortgage, loan or line of credit. If the value of your investments were to decrease, you might need to sell them to protect your home and limit further losses.
When the Tuition Bill Comes Due…
Stephen Stabile, a New York City-based Merrill Lynch Financial Advisor, recalls how he once helped a client finance his daughter’s $50,000 annual college tab with a home equity line of credit, or HELOC. The client had originally planned to pay the tuition by selling stocks, but this would have subjected him to capital gains taxes and forced him to reduce his stock holdings at a time when the market was appreciating rapidly.
“The home is a hidden asset. Not actively using your equity before or during retirement can be a mistake.”—Steven Sass, Economist with the Center for Retirement Research
Because the client intended to sell his $2 million home and downsize once his daughter graduated, the long-term impact of rising interest rates on the cost of a variable rate HELOC was not likely to be a significant consideration at that point in time. And the interest on the line of credit, which was secured by the client’s primary residence, turned out to be partially tax deductible as well. (Consult your tax advisor about the deductibility of interest).
“In the end, all of the pieces fit together perfectly,” says Stabile. “Of course, another solution may be more appropriate for a different family,” he adds. “There are no one-size-fits-all answers in financial planning.”
A Secret Weapon in Retirement
“The home is a hidden asset that you don’t see because you don’t get an account statement. But not actively using your equity before or during retirement can be a mistake,” says Steven Sass, an economist with the Center for Retirement Research (CRR) in Boston.
Home equity could help you fund renovations to make your home a more comfortable place to live as you age, or to pay for future medical expenses.
The Hidden Benefits of Downsizing
Many retirees decide to downsize in retirement, and doing so comes with potential added benefits—you can cut many home-related expenses. CRR found that empty-nesters were spending 30% of their income on property taxes, insurance, maintenance and utilities.4
The question for downsizers then becomes what to do with all the unleashed capital. There’s no single right answer, says Steckel. You and your advisor can look at all the options to help figure out what might work best for what you want to achieve.
In my case, I ended up finding a smaller house, with a smaller yard, but with lots of adult-friendly amenities. My misty-eyed son and his friends dried their tears quickly when they realized that my form of downsizing involved buying a house that came with a swimming pool and a pool table.
In fact, it’s all worked out so well that I’m thinking of tapping my home equity and downsizing yet again—when I stop working. Next time I’ll use the funds to subsidize my yen for travel.
Kathy Kristof is an award-winning personal finance and investing journalist who writes frequently for a variety of major publications. She is the author of Investing 101 and Taming the Tuition Tiger. Find more of her reporting at KathyKristof.com.
3 Questions to Ask Your Advisor
- Am I better off paying for my child’s college by selling stock or with a home equity line of credit?
- What are the risks of using my equity to cover an emergency expense?
- Should I consider downsizing to reduce my expenses in retirement?
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