Personal finance Q&A: Is couple saving enough to buy a decent house?

Money Talk
Using credit cards lightly but regularly, and paying off balances each month, should improve credit scores

Dear Liz: My wife and I are young (25 and 22). We owe no one money and have built up an emergency fund with six months of expenses. We both contribute enough to our 401(k)s to get the maximum match, and I contribute the maximum to my company's stock purchase plan. Currently we are saving $2,500 to $3,000 a month for a future home purchase. My question is will we be able to buy a decent house without getting a mortgage in three to four years at this rate? Is this something we should do? Or should we have a large down payment and pay the mortgage off quickly? We both have below average credit and mostly use cash for everything.

Answer: Since you two are so good at saving, you presumably can do the math required to determine how much you'll have in three or four years. So what you're asking is whether home prices will accelerate so fast in your area that what may seem like enough to buy a decent house now won't actually buy one in the future.

The answer is: Nobody knows for sure.

The best approach is to keep your options open — and that means you'll need to work on improving those credit scores. A year or two of using credit cards lightly but regularly, and paying off your balances in full each month, should help pull up your numbers. You could speed up the rehabilitation process by getting an installment loan such as a car loan or personal loan. Managing different types of credit responsibly is typically good for your scores.

If you wind up getting a mortgage, you may decide to pay it off quickly, or you may have better things to do with that money such as boosting your retirement accounts or saving for college educations.

Avoid taking on mortgage just for tax deduction

Dear Liz: My wife and I are both 66 and in good health. Currently we have about $1.2 million in IRAs. We're receiving about $80,000 a year from a pension and $110,000 in salary. We have been aggressive about reducing any lingering debt. So we think we are in good shape for me to retire within the next year or so. If we decide to stay in our home rather than move, we will need to make some significant repairs and improvements. We were thinking of taking out a $200,000 mortgage to pay off our last remaining debt ($50,000 on a home equity line of credit) and fund the renovations. This would give us a better tax deduction and not incur the high taxes we would pay by making an IRA withdrawal. Our grown children have expressed no interest in the home after we die, so it probably would be put up for sale at that time. Does this seem like a reasonable approach if we choose to go that route? Anything we haven't considered?

Answer: Considering the tax implications of financial moves is smart, but you shouldn't make decisions solely on that basis. You especially shouldn't take on mortgage debt just for the tax deduction. The tax benefit is limited to your bracket, so for every dollar in mortgage interest you pay you would get at best a federal tax benefit worth 39.6 cents. State income tax deductions might boost that amount, but you'd still be paying out more than you get back in tax benefits. You also would be locking yourself into debt payments at a time in life when most people prefer the flexibility of being debt-free.

If you're comfortable having a mortgage in retirement, though, you might want to consider a reverse mortgage. Although once considered expensive loans of last resort for people who were running out of money in retirement, changes in the federal reverse mortgage program caused financial planners to reassess the no-payment loans as a potential wealth management tool. The idea is that homeowners could tap the reverse mortgage for funds, especially in bad markets, instead of depleting their retirement accounts.

Reverse mortgages are complex, though. The upfront and ongoing costs can be significant. Because you don't make payments on the money you borrow, your debt grows over time and reduces the amount your heirs might get once the home is sold. You'd be smart to find a savvy, fee-only financial advisor to assess your situation and walk you through your options.

Questions may be sent to Liz Weston, 3940 Laurel Canyon, No. 238, Studio City, CA 91604, or by using the "Contact" form at asklizweston.com. Distributed by No More Red Inc.

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