Should Seniors Pay Off Their Mortgages?

photo by Andreas Lehner

TheStreet.com quoted me in Should Seniors Pay Off Their Mortgages? It opens,

Increasingly, seniors are going against the conventional retirement wisdom about mortgages which, always before, preached that a cornerstone of a good retirement was to enter it debt free. That meant without a mortgage.

And yet about one-third of homeowners 65 and older have a mortgage now. That’s up from 22% in 2001. Among seniors 75 and older, the rate jumped from 8.4% to 21.2%.

The appeal, of course, is that home mortgages are cheap; 30-year fixed-rate loans are going out under 3.7%, and 15-year fixed rates can be had for 3.1%.

That puts the question in sharp focus: is this good financial planning or is it reckless?

Understand: age discrimination is flatly illegal in home loans. But law does not dictate financial prudence and the question is: is it wiser to pay off a home mortgage if at all possible – which used to be the prevailing wisdom? That still brings a sense of relief, too. Tim Shanahan of Compass Securities Corporation in Braintree, Mass. said: “It’s a great feeling to have no debt and a significant accomplishment to be able to tear up the mortgage.”

True.

But is this still the smartest planning? As more seniors take on home mortgages, experts are re-opening the analysis.

“The short answer to the question is it depends,” said certified financial planner Kevin O’Brien of Peak Financial Services in Northborough, Mass. O’Brien is not being cute. So much of this is individual-centric.  O’Brien continued: “It depends on how strong the person’s cash flow is or not. It depends on how much liquid savings and investments they have after they might pay it off. It also depends on the balance they need to pay off in relation to their sources of cash flow, and liquid assets.”

Keep in mind, too: today’s retirement is not yesteryear’s. About one senior in four has told researchers he plans to work past 70 years of age. That means they have income. Also, at age 70, a person has every reason to claim Social Security – there are no benefits in delaying – so that means many 70+ year-olds now have two checks coming in, plus what retirement savings and pensions they have accrued.

That complexity is why Pedro Silva of Provo Financial Services in Shrewsbury, Mass offered nuanced advice: “We like to see clients go into retirement without mortgage debt. This monthly payment can be troublesome in retirement if people are using pre-tax money, such as IRAs, to pay monthly mortgage. That means that they pay tax on every dollar coming from these accounts and use the net amount to pay the mortgage.”

“If clients will carry a mortgage, then the low rates are a great opportunity to lock in a low payment,” Silva continued. “We encourage those folks who don’t foresee paying off their home in retirement, to stretch the payments as long as possible for as low a rate as possible.”

David Reiss, a professor at Brooklyn Law and a housing expert, offered what may be the key question: “I think the right question is – what would you do with your money if you did not pay off the mortgage? Would it sit in a savings account earning 0.01% interest — and taxable interest, at that? Paying off your mortgage could give you a guaranteed rate that is equal to your mortgage’s interest rate. So if you are paying 4.5% on your mortgage and you take money from your savings account that is not spoken for — like your emergency fund — you would do way better than the 0.01% you are getting in that savings account, even after taxes are taken into account.”

 

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Is The Mortgage Interest Deduction Inequitable?

photo by Elana Centor

I have certainly thought so, as do many other housing policy types. Daniel Hemel and Kyle Rozema have a more nuanced view in their paper, Inequality and the Mortgage Interest Deduction, that was recently posted to SSRN. The abstract reads,

The mortgage interest deduction is often criticized for contributing to after-tax income inequality. Yet the effects of the mortgage interest deduction on income inequality are more nuanced than the conventional wisdom would suggest. We show that the mortgage interest deduction causes high-income households (i.e., those in the top 10% and top 1%) to bear a larger share of the total tax burden than they would if the deduction were repealed. We further show that the effect of the mortgage interest deduction on income inequality is highly sensitive to the alternative scenario against which the deduction is evaluated. These findings demonstrate that claims about the distributional effects of the mortgage interest deduction depend critically on the counterfactual to which the status quo is compared. We extend our analysis to the deduction for state and local taxes and the charitable contribution deduction. We conclude that the appropriate counterfactual for distributional claims is dependent upon political context — and, in particular, on the feasible set of politically acceptable reforms up for consideration.

To make this a bit more concrete, the authors offer a simple hypothetical:

to show how a provision of the tax code can provide a disproportionate share of dollar benefits to the rich while also causing the rich to bear a larger share of total tax liabilities. Imagine a society with two households—a rich household with pre-tax income of $100, and a poor household with pre-tax income of $50. Further imagine that the rich household pays $12 in mortgage interest and the poor household pays $9 in mortgage interest. Say that the tax system is structured such that the tax rate on the first $50 of income is 20% and the tax rate on all income above the $50 threshold is 40%.

If the tax system does not allow a deduction for mortgage interest, the rich household would pay a tax of $30 ($10 on the first $50 and $20 on the next $50), and the poor household would pay a tax of $10. Thus the government would collect a total of $40 in revenue; the rich household would bear 75% of the total tax burden ($30 divided by $40); and the poor household would bear the remaining 25%. If the tax system allows each household to deduct mortgage interest, the rich household would receive a benefit from the deduction of $4.80 ($12 times 40%), and the poor household would receive a benefit from the deduction of $1.80 ($9 times 20%). The benefit of the MID in dollar terms is clearly greater for the rich household than for the poor household. In percentage terms, the rich household received 72.7% of total MID benefits, while the poor household received 27.3% of total MID benefits. And yet the rich household now bears 75.45% of the total tax burden ($25.20 divided by $33.40), as compared to 75.0% before, while the poor household now bears 24.55% of the total tax burden ($8.20 divided by $33.40), as compared to 25.0% before. (Government revenue decreases from $40 without the MID to $33.40 with the MID.) (8, footnote omitted)

The authors conclude that their analysis “simultaneously confirms and challenges widespread beliefs regarding the effect of tax expenditures on inequality. The mortgage interest deduction does indeed appear to be inequality-increasing relative to a counterfactual in which the deduction is repealed and revenues are reallocated to all households on a equal basis; when the mortgage interest deduction is evaluated against other counterfactuals, however, the distributional effects are more nuanced.” (40)

Where does this leave us? It reminds us that we should be careful about promoting simple policy proposals without taking into account the likely context in which they might be implemented.

Buy-To-Rent Investing

"Foreclosedhome" by User:Brendel

James Mills, Raven Molloy and Rebecca Zarutskie have posted Large-Scale Buy-to-Rent Investors in the Single-Family Housing Market: The Emergence of a New Asset Class? to SSRN. The abstract reads,

In 2012, several large firms began purchasing single-family homes with the stated intention of creating large portfolios of rental property. We present the first systematic evidence on how this new investor activity differs from that of other investors in the housing market. Many aspects of buy-to-rent investor behavior are consistent with holding property for rent rather than reselling quickly. Additionally, the large size of these investors imparts a few important advantages. In the short run, this investment activity appears to have supported house prices in the areas where it is concentrated. The longer-run impacts remain to be seen.

I had been very skeptical of this asset class when it first appeared, thinking that the housing crisis presented a one-time opportunity for investors to profit from this type of investment. The conventional wisdom had been that it was too hard to manage so many units scattered over so much territory. The authors identify reasons to think that that conventional wisdom is now outdated:

To the extent that technological improvements, economies of scale, and lower financing costs have substantially reduced the operating costs of buy-to-rent investors relative to smaller investors, large portfolios of single-family rental property may become a permanent feature of the real estate market. As such, the events of the past three years may signal the emergence of a new class of real estate asset. A similar transformation occurred in the market for multifamily structures in the 1990s, when large firms began to purchase multifamily property and created portfolios of professionally-managed multifamily units that were traded on public stock exchanges as REITs. (32-33)

Nonetheless, the authors are cautious (rightfully so, as far as I am concerned) in their predictions: “only time will tell whether the recent purchases of large-scale buy-to-rent investors reflect the emergence of a new asset class or whether the business model will fail to be viable over the longer-term.” (33, footnote omitted)

Myths About Money

Chase.com quoted me in 5 Myths About Your Money. It opens,

There’s no shortage of money advice out there, but each person’s financial situation is unique. So there are times when conventional wisdom can be just plain unhelpful.

With that in mind, here are five money myths that experts say deserve to be reconsidered.

Myth #1: Your Home Is Primarily an Investment

A house can be an excellent investment, but David Reiss, professor of law and research director of the Center for Urban Business Entrepreneurship at Brooklyn Law School in New York, cautions against thinking of it only that way.

After all, he says, the housing market can be hard to predict, so it’s better to make decisions based on your own needs. You’re not just owning the house; you’re living in it.

“Make decisions about buying, remodeling, and refinancing your home because it makes sense for you and your family,” says Reiss. “If you make decisions based upon your guesses about the future and about what other people will do, there is a good chance that you will end up frustrated.”

Should you upgrade that bathroom? Is it solely an investment decision? Or is there also value in improving your quality of life?