Dear Liz: I’m 60. Should I take a $50,000 distribution from my 401(k) to pay down my $146,000 parent Plus college loan and then try to refinance the balance with a private lender at a lower interest rate? I have $364,000 in my 401(k). I’m paying 8% interest on the parent Plus loan and planning to retire at age 66 years and 10 months, my full retirement age for Social Security.
Answer: Are you sure you can afford to retire?
You would still have a massive amount of education debt even after paying it down, plus a smaller nest egg. Unless you have a substantial amount of savings outside your 401(k) or another source of income besides Social Security, you could run a substantial risk of running short of money even if you can persuade a private lender to refinance your debt.
That may not be the best option, in any case. Federal loans have more consumer protections, including deferral and forbearance options and income-contingent repayment plans that could lower your payments.
Refinancing with a private lender might make the most sense if you can transfer this debt to the child or children who benefited from the education. Several private lenders offer this option if the kids have good credit and decent incomes.
In any case, you’d be smart to consult a fee-only financial planner who can review the specifics of your finances and offer advice.
Loans, taxes and home sales
Dear Liz: You recently answered a question about determining home sale profits for a widow. My question is how you calculate taxes when there’s a loan in the mix. For instance, when I bought my home, I took out a mortgage. Subsequently, I took out a second mortgage to pay for a pool and landscaping. I also refinanced several times, but never took a mortgage with cash out. Please advise me how to calculate my cost basis given these loans. Of course, you can broaden your response to include other loan scenarios and how they play into cost basis.
Answer: This will be a short answer, because they don’t. What you owe the mortgage lender(s) is typically irrelevant for calculating your capital gain.
Capital gains on house sale
Dear Liz: I am one of those seniors who purchased their house in the 1970s. I would like to move but I'm reluctant because of the huge capital gain tax that I would have to pay. The exemption amount has not been raised since 1997 when it was enacted. In comparison, the estate tax exemption has risen from $600,000 in 1997 to more than $11 million currently. Wouldn't raising the capital gain exemption stimulate the real estate market as more people would put their homes on the market and give more first-time buyers a chance at homeownership?
Answer: Perhaps, but you shouldn’t let tax law be the sole determinant of what you do or don’t do. Minimizing taxes can be a factor in your decisions but shouldn’t be the only one.
Also, keep in mind that the median home price in the U.S. is currently $226,300, according to real estate site Zillow. Most homeowners haven’t seen and probably won’t see enough appreciation to use a single $250,000 exemption, let alone the $500,000 available to couples.
So you may have a problem, but it’s an enviable problem. Even if you pay taxes at top rates, you’ll still have a substantial sum left over. And you may be able to spread out the tax bill using an installment agreement, in which the buyer pays you over time. You’ll want a tax pro’s help if you go that route, but you should consult one in any case to make sure you’re taking advantage of every other legal opportunity to reduce what you owe.