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Think your home is a nest egg? Think again

Do you think your house is your retirement nest egg? Think again, say some financial advisers. Many, if not most, homeowners do expect to retire “on the house” according to the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College.
/ Source: Reuters

Do you think your house is your retirement nest egg? Think again, say some financial advisers.

Many, if not most, homeowners do expect to retire “on the house” according to the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College.

But at the same time they are reducing their own equity by borrowing against their homes for other expenses. They may be counting on inflated home values that could fall by the time they are ready to sell and move. They may be counting on a resource they never really want to sell.

In other words, they may not be being very realistic.

“We all say people will sell their house and that’s how they are going to live,” says Bev Moore of MainStay Investments, a division of New York Life Investment Management. ”But the bubble might be in the process of bursting.”

Only 11 percent of older people who are already retired actually expect to live off of their home’s value, she says.

“Baby boomers have to stop going to Home Depot and start doing more planning and saving,” Moore said.

Home value is not worth nothing, of course. And some advisers unscrupulously push clients into selling real estate and buying stocks, bonds and mutual funds just because they are more profitable for the adviser.

There are good reasons, however, not to pin too much of your future on the value of your house. And, it’s hard to know exactly how much your house can and will contribute to your comfortable retirement.

Here are some points for homeowners to consider.

What if housing goes bust? Most homeowners will be able to sell their homes for more than they owe on them, but not everybody is safe.

Those at the biggest risk are the ones who stretched loans to the max to buy inflated homes, those who are using home-equity lines of credit for non-housing expenses, and those paying off equity slowly, or not at all, with interest-only mortgages.

Also at risk are folks who own homes in single-industry towns. When a plant closes or oil prices collapse (hey, it happened in the ’80s), lots of people leave town at once and they may not be able to sell for enough money to pay off their mortgages.

If you recognize yourself as being vulnerable to a home price rout, be aggressive about paying down your loans and building equity in your home.

Are you diversified?
If all of your hopes and funds are in your home, the answer is certainly no. Make sure you feed a 401(k) or IRA or other investment account, and put money into some assets — like stocks — that don’t correlate much with real estate.

Are you sure you will want to move? It’s becoming common for retirees who head for Florida or Arizona to “bounce back” home, reports Bob Carlson, a Richmond, Virginia, financial planner and editor of Retirement Watch newsletter.

Many boomers say they want to stay in big homes so their kids can come visit, says Moore. Others say they’ll downsize, but imagine “downsizing” to luxury townhouse communities with granite countertops and high-end recreational facilities. They won’t save much money with moves like that!

Will you be able to afford to stay in your home? Increases in property taxes and heating costs could make even a paid-off home unaffordable in the long haul. If you want to retire in place, you might have to save even more money in retirement accounts than you would if you were willing to move.

But remember that every plan doesn’t have to be put in place on the first day of retirement. You can retire in place for 10 years or so, and then sell your home in your 70s for a second phase of retirement life.

Will your mortgage be paid off? It was smart to lock in the low, low mortgage rates of recent years, but it’s still an iffy proposition to move into retirement with mortgage payments.

Here’s why: You may have to withdraw money from a 401(k) or IRA to make mortgage payments, and that counts as taxable income. That, in turn, can push your income up to levels that will make higher amounts of your Social Security benefits taxable. And that can make those mortgage payments pricey.

On the other hand, if you can invest money that earns 9 percent a year while you slowly pay off a 5 percent mortgage, that can make more sense than prepaying the loan. The only way to figure out what’s best for you? Do the math, or find a good adviser or CPA who can do it for you.

Have you thought creatively? There are ways to use your home equity without moving, if you want to retire in place. You can take in boarders, sell your home to your kids, take out a reverse mortgage, or use it to run a part time home-based business.

Owning a house should not be your only ticket to retirement, but it will buy you some flexibility, some financial freedom and those comforts of home.