I’m Retiring … How About My Mortgage? by Bob Lowry

I’m Retiring … How About My Mortgage? by Bob Lowry

Whether to pay off a mortgage before or just after retirement is a topic I have addressed before. But, it is such a major decision, I get at least one email every few weeks asking my advice. No wonder. With nearly 30% of all those 65+ having monthly mortgage payments, it is important to make the best choice for you.

As I write this, the picture is anything but clear. Plans for a tax cut are bouncing around the halls of Congress. As of now, mortgage interest deductions would be protected. But, an increase in the standard deduction and a change in personal deductions might be coupled with the loss of real estate tax deductions, making house ownership potentially more expensive for some.

So, for purposes of this post, let’s stick with how things are right now. After the dust settles in Washington and there is clarity (?) I might do a followup to adjust to the new reality.

Retirement brings its own unique set of concerns and decisions. Near the top of many lists is a decision about housing. Is it best to pay off the mortgage before retirement, or is that extra money better off being invested? If I pay off the house won’t I lose a major tax deduction? But, what if I have a major health expense and can’t pay the mortgage..could I end up retired and homeless?

Good questions with no clear cut answers. But, they are worth asking and taking a look at some of the ramifications. As an obvious disclaimer, I am not a tax expert or a financial guru, so what I offer is opinion and some basic thoughts from my own research. Please think through your own situation carefully, consult a trusted adviser, and proceed with caution.

If you do a Google search about retirement and mortgages the majority of the sites and articles that rise to the top suggest paying off your home loan before retirement. They do admit that many people can’t do that, but it should be a goal.

 The reasons most often cited to pay off your mortgage:

1. Peace of mind. Even without a monthly payment you still have real estate taxes, HOA fees, maintenance, repairs and upgrades. But, if you delay fixing a leaking toilet for two months you won’t risk losing your home. That big monthly Must Pay bill is gone.

2. Home equity is available. I strongly suggest this source of cash be used only for major repairs and upgrades to your property or something like a large medical expense. Home equity is not a piggy bank so you can take a 12 day cruise to Hawaii or buy a new truck. Too many people got stuck when they spent their home equity only to find the worth of the house dropped below the size of the loan during the 2008-10 recession. But, with home equity lines of credit at  low interest rates you may save thousands in interest over more conventional loans.

3. You have more freedom to relocate or resize. Get in trouble with your mortgage and someone else might tell you when to move. Have no mortgage and you can decide when to downsize, move closer to the kids….or stay put.

4. You have a large source of retirement money available. If you move to a smaller home or condo or even rent an apartment, any profits after the house sale and purchase are yours (up to a very generous level set by the Federal government). Though expensive and sometimes risky, reverse mortgages can provide a steady income from the equity you have in your residence too. This tactic requires an expert to prevent a serious mistake, however.

On the other side of the argument, these points are made:

1. Don’t pull  money from other investments to pay off a cheap mortgage. Even losing the tax deduction of a mortgage may not be enough to make up for better performing investments. If you take a chunk of your retirement funds to pay off a mortgage the money left will not produce as much income or growth.

2. Tying up too much of your net worth in an illiquid asset. You own a $300,000 home free and clear. But, depending on the market conditions it might take you 6-9 months or more to be able to sell the house and see any net profits. If you need quick cash a house is not the place to find it (except through a home equity loan which comes with its own risks).

3. If you have other high interest debts, like credit cards or auto loans, pay those off firstto reduce the amount you are losing each month in high interest charges. Only after those debts are satisfied should you consider retiring your home’s mortgage.

Another consideration lies in what your plans are about an eventual move. I know that at some point Betty and I  want to move into a continuing care community (CCC). The “buy-in” will be somewhere around $250,000. If we own a home or condo and need to move rather quickly into the CCC because of health issues, our buy-in money will be unavailable until we sell. That may be too late. We are willing to take that risk for now, but will probably move into such a community sooner rather than later.

Again, I will remind you I am not a financial planner or expert. I have bumbled along pretty well for the past several decades, but there is always more to learn and consider. If you are a financial planner, investment guide, or CPA I welcome your input (as long as you aren’t trying to sell something!).

All that said, you have thoughts, concerns, questions, and insight that will help of of us, expert or no. Please add your comments to this important subject. Since a home is generally the biggest expense for most of us in our lifetime, knowing what to do with that resource is vital.

By Bob Lowry

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