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What to consider when deciding whether to buy or rent a home

A man with a cane walks through a North Hollywood neighborhood.
People are often advised to rent first when they move to a new area, so they can get a better idea of the advantages and disadvantages of various neighborhoods.
(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

Dear Liz: I’m just turning 70 and am on my own for the first time in my life. In the last three years I took care of both my 100-year-old mother and my husband as their health failed. My daughter and son-in-law live in Colorado and are going to have a baby, and I plan on moving there in the near future.

I had originally planned to move into a senior living apartment complex. Then my children said I should buy a condo for the freedom, privacy and potential investment. They found a condo building under construction with units I could afford, plus a mortgage company willing to take me on and help with the down payment.

I’m torn about what to do. Because of both bad luck and bad decisions, currently I have only about $18,000 in savings. Between my pension and Social Security I make about $47,000 a year.

Do I invest in the condo and use up a good chunk of my savings? It’s on the second floor (the steps aren’t very steep, fortunately) and I’m strong and in good shape, but I’m also 70 and things can go south quickly. But, as the kids have said, I could live there for 10 years and make a good profit from the sale.

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Or do I move into the senior living apartment and keep my savings but face regular increases in rent (thus “throwing my money away”)? The senior complex has amenities and activities and elevators but lots of people around all the time (thus sacrificing some privacy). Having a place of my own would be so wonderful, but I need to be smart about this decision.

Answer: Younger people often don’t understand about stairs. No, they’re not a big deal now, but even a few steps can become a huge barrier if you have mobility issues — and those issues become more likely the older you get. Having an elevator or a unit on the ground floor, preferably with a zero-step entry, is a good insurance policy against the vicissitudes of aging.

Besides, you aren’t necessarily throwing money away when you rent. You’re buying freedom. You don’t have to worry about paying for repairs and other unpredictable costs, and you can move more easily if your circumstances change. People are often advised to rent first when they move to a new area, just so they can get a better idea of the advantages and disadvantages of various neighborhoods before they commit. Renting also could give you a chance to build up your reserves so that if you do decide to buy, you won’t be quite so
house poor.

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Having more people around isn’t necessarily a bad thing, either. You’re newly widowed, and moving to an area where you presumably don’t know many people. The senior complex could make it a lot easier to make friends. A good social network is essential to staying mentally and physically healthy as we age.

A look at property title

Dear Liz: You’ve mentioned that in community property states, a couple’s primary residence gets a full step-up in tax basis when one spouse dies. Does this require that the title to the property specify that it is community property? My husband and I purchased our home about 6 weeks before we were married, so we hold title as joint tenants with rights of survivorship. Should we get the title changed?

Answer: The answer is probably yes, said Mark Luscombe, principal analyst for Wolters Kluwer.

The title to your home does not have to specify that it is community property for it to be treated as community property, Luscome said. If you live in a community property state and are married, the property you acquire and the income you earn during the marriage are generally considered community property regardless of how you hold title. However, property acquired before the marriage would not generally be treated as community property, he said.

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Each way of holding title has its advantages. Joint tenancy with right of survivorship avoids probate and offers protection from creditors. Community property offers the tax advantage you mentioned: The whole property gets a new basis for tax purposes at the first spouse’s death. That means all the appreciation that occurred before the first death is never taxed. In non-community property states, only the deceased partner’s half gets that new value. Community property states include Arizona, California, Idaho, Louisiana, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas, Washington, and Wisconsin. Alaska is an “opt-in” community property state.

Some community property states offer the best of both worlds by allowing real estate to be titled as community property with right of survivorship. Those states include Alaska, Arizona, California, Idaho, Nevada and Wisconsin, according to self-help site Nolo.

Liz Weston, Certified Financial Planner, is a personal finance columnist for NerdWallet. Questions may be sent to her at 3940 Laurel Canyon, No. 238, Studio City, CA 91604, or by using the “Contact” form at asklizweston.com.


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