Dear Liz: Eight years ago, we bought a fixer-upper in an up-and-coming neighborhood. Now it's mostly fixed up, and property values have soared. We would like to borrow against the equity to buy a beach house we could use and also rent out. This would be a long-term investment. We already own one rental property that is turning a small profit. Managing it allows me to bring in much-needed extra income while staying home with my children. I want to increase that income with a beach house we can also enjoy. Is this a smart use of home equity?
Answer: It may be. You've got some experience as a landlord, so you understand what's involved in maintaining and repairing a rental property and dealing with tenants. A property that's split between personal use and rental is somewhat different, since you won't be able to deduct all the expenses as you could with a full-time rental. The expenses have to be divided proportionately, and you can't deduct rental expenses in excess of the rental income you get. IRS Publication 527, Residential Rental Property, offers more details, or you can talk to a tax pro (which you should have, given that landlords can face some complicated tax situations).
Your first task is to ensure the beach house is in an area that allows short-term rentals on the scale you're anticipating. Not all communities do. Some don't allow "vacation rentals" at all, while others limit the amount of time that the property can be rented. Those that allow short-term use may require annual licenses and assess taxes or fees on the rentals, which are costs you'll want to factor in before you buy.
Your next step, if your goal is to generate income, is to find a property that is "cash flow positive" from the start, with expected rents more than covering expected costs. Obviously, though, you can't predict everything, which is why it's essential to have a fat emergency fund for unexpected repairs or greater-than-anticipated vacancies.
Another smart move would be to lock in your interest rate if you don't expect to pay back what you borrowed against your house within a few years. That means a home equity loan with fixed rates rather than a line of credit with variable rates. You put your home at risk when you borrow against it, so be conservative and lock in predictable payments.
A tax benefit unknown to many filers
Dear Liz: You told a reader that "contributions to a Roth are never deductible." This statement is a common misconception and is not correct. You can get a tax credit for Roth IRA contributions as long as you fall under the income limits and itemize on your taxes. The credit phases out at $30,000 for singles and $60,000 for married couples.
Answer: A credit is different from a deduction, but thank you for pointing out a tax benefit that many people don't know exists.
This non-refundable credit, sometimes called a Saver's Credit, can slice up to $1,000 per person off the tax bill of eligible taxpayers. The credit is available to people 18 and older who aren't students or claimed as a dependent on someone else's return. The lowest income taxpayers — those with adjusted gross incomes under $36,000 for marrieds filing jointly or $18,000 for singles in 2014 — can get a tax credit of 50% of up to $2,000 per person ($4,000 for married couples) contributed to retirement plans. Those plans can include traditional or Roth IRAs, 401(k)s or 403(b)s, 457(b)s and SIMPLE IRAs, among others. The credit drops to 20% and then 10% before phasing out. The average amount saved isn't spectacular: The IRS said credits averaged $205 for joint filers in 2012 and $127 for single filers, but every bit helps.
One of the problems with this tax break, besides so few people knowing about it, is that many low-income people don't owe income taxes, so they have nothing to offset with this credit. Another issue is that taxpayers need to file a 1040 or 1040A and use Form 8880 to claim it. Low-income taxpayers often use the 1040EZ form, which doesn't allow them to claim the credit or alert them that it exists.