Are Your Tax-Deductions Going Away?

Last week, we discussed the current tax reform proposal in Washington and discussed how it would reduce incentives for homeowners two ways: by increasing the standard deduction and by eliminating the deduction for state and local taxes, including the deduction for property taxes. Recall that itemized deductions only are a benefit if they exceed the amount of the standard deduction, currently $6,350 single or $12,700 married.

While the legislation has yet to be finalized, it appears increasingly likely that we are on the eve of the most significant tax changes in 30 years. The proposals are slated to take effect in 2018, which means that if they are approved, there is still several weeks in 2017 to make use of the old rules.

For many Americans, your taxes will be lower under the current proposal. The biggest tax cuts, however, would go to corporations, with a proposed reduction from 35% to a maximum of 20%. That’s the proposal, but the final version may be different. The advice below is based on the current GOP plan; we would not advocate taking any steps until the reforms are in their final version and passed.

1. Itemized Deductions. The proposal would increase the standard deduction from $6,350 (single) and $12,700 (married) to $12,000 and $24,000. As a result, it is believed that instead of 33%, the number of taxpayers who itemize will fall to only 10%. If you have itemized deductions below $12,000/$24,000, you will no longer receive any benefit from those expenses in 2018.

  • Consider accelerating any tax deductions into 2017, such as property taxes, charitable donations, or unreimbursed employee expenses.
  • Itemized deductions for casualty losses, gambling losses/expenses, and medical expenses will be repealed.
  • Many miscellaneous deductions will disappear, including: tax preparation fees, moving for work (over 50 miles), and unreimbursed employee expenses.
  • Investment advisory fees, such as those I charge to clients, will still be tax deductible. However, these miscellaneous deductions only count when they exceed 2% of AGI, which will be more difficult to achieve with so many other deductions disappearing.
  • The $7,500 tax credit for the purchase of a plug-in electric vehicle will be abolished. If you were thinking of buying a Chevy Bolt or Nissan Leaf, better do so now! If you are on the wait list for a Tesla Model 3, you probably will not receive one before the credit disappears. Read more: “Is Your Car Eligible for a $7,500 Tax Credit?”

2. Real Estate. The Senate version we discussed last week had completely eliminated the deduction for property taxes and state/local taxed paid. Luckily, this has been softened to a cap of $10,000 for property taxes.

  • If your property taxes exceed $10,000, you might want to pay those taxes in December as part of your 2017 tax year. If you pay in January 2018, you would not receive the full deduction.
  • The proposal also caps the mortgage interest deduction to $500,000, and for your primary residence only. This is a substantial reduction. Currently, you can deduct interest on a mortgage up to $1 million, and you can also deduct mortgage interest on a second home, including, in some cases, an RV or yacht.
  • Many owners of second homes will likely try to treat these as investment properties, if they are willing to rent them out. As a rental, you can deduct taxes and other costs as a business expense. See my article: “Can You Afford a Second Home?”

3. Tax Brackets. The proposal reduces the tax brackets to four levels: 12%, 25%, 35%, and 39.6% (the current top bracket remains). These brackets are shifted to slightly higher income levels, so many taxpayers will be in a lower bracket than today or pay less tax. Those in the top bracket, 39.6%, who also make over $1 million, will have their income in the 12% range boosted to the 39.6% level. So don’t think this proposal is excessively generous to high earners – many will see higher taxes.

The Alternative Minimum Tax (AMT) will be abolished, so if you have any Minimum Tax Credit carryforwards, those credits will be released. The 3.8% Medicare Surtax will unfortunately remain in place, even though Trump has previously promised to repeal it. Capital Gains rates will remain at 0%, 15%, and 20% depending on your tax bracket, and curiously, these rates will be tied to the old income levels, and not to the new tax brackets.

If passed, the tax reform bill will substantially change how we deduct expenses from our taxes. Those with simple returns may find that their tax bill is lower, but for many investors with more complicated tax situations, the proposed changes may require that you rethink how you approach your taxes.

We will keep you posted of how this unfolds and will especially be looking for potential ways it may impact our financial plans. It has often been said that the definition of a “loophole” is a tax benefit that someone else gets. Unfortunately, simplifying the tax code and closing these deductions is bound to upset many people who will see their favorite tax benefits reduced or removed entirely.

Home Tax Deductions: Overrated and Getting Worse

If you ask virtually anyone about the benefits of home ownership, you will probably hear the phrase “great tax deductions” within 20 seconds. However, the reality is that for many taxpayers, owning real estate is not much of a tax deduction at all. And under the Trump-proposed tax reform bill currently in Congress, the actual tax benefits homeowners achieve will shrink vastly.

The two main tax benefits of being a homeowner are the mortgage interest deduction and the property tax deduction. These are claimed under “itemized deductions”, which also include charitable donations, medical expenses (exceeding 7.5% or 10% of income), and miscellaneous deductions such as unreimbursed employee expenses.

You have your choice of taking whichever is higher: the standard deduction or your itemized deductions (Schedule A). The standard deduction for 2017 is $6,350 (single) or $12,700 (married filing jointly). So, the first thing to realize about home tax deductions is that you only are getting a benefit if they exceed $6,350/$12,700.

If you are married and your mortgage interest, property tax, and other deductions only total $11,000, you will take the standard deduction. All those house expenses did not get you a penny of additional tax benefits. If your itemized deductions total $13,000, you would take the itemized deductions, but are only getting a benefit of $300 – the amount by which you exceeded the standard deduction.

The greatest proportion of tax benefits for homeowners go to those with very expensive homes and large mortgages. People with more modest homes may be getting little or no benefit relative to the standard deduction. But wealthy taxpayers can have their itemized deductions reduced by up to 80% under the Pease Restrictions. So, I have also seen high earning families who don’t get to count their home expenses either, and have to take the Standard Deduction!

The proposal in Congress today via President Trump would make two significant changes to tax deductions for homeowners:

1. The bill would almost double the standard deduction from $6,350 (single) and $12,700 (married) today to $12,000 and $24,000. This would reduce taxes and eliminate the need for itemized deductions for many American families. If you are married and your current itemized deductions are under $24,000, you would no longer be getting a deduction for those expenses.

2. Trump also proposes eliminating the deduction for State and Local Taxes (the so-called SALT deductions), which includes property taxes. Removing the SALT deduction from Schedule A would be devastating for high tax states like California, New York, Connecticut, and New Jersey. But it would also harm many homeowners right here in Texas, where our property taxes can be a significant expense.

While the increase in the standard deduction would offset the loss of SALT deductions for many Americans, it is still an elimination of a key benefit of being a homeowner. The current tax reform bill has narrowly passed in the House of Representatives and will be taken up by the Senate after November 6, where it requires only a simple majority to pass under budget reconciliation rules.

The fact is that real estate tax deductions were already overstated when you recognize that you only benefit when you exceed the Standard Deduction. The first $12,700 in itemized deductions achieve no reduction in taxes whatsoever. Now, if Congress acts to increase the Standard Deduction and to eliminate the ability to deduct property taxes, most people will not be getting any tax break from being a homeowner.

Depending on your situation, your overall tax bill may still go down. The current proposal will simplify the tax brackets to just three levels: 12%, 25%, and 35%. Your taxes may also go down because of the increase in the Standard Deduction, provided the Standard Deduction is higher than your Schedule A.

Tax policy has a profound influence on public behavior. If you know that you are not getting any additional tax benefit from being a homeowner, you may prefer to rent. If you are retired and see your income taxes go up, you may decide to sell your home and downsize to save money. This change in policy may have the unintended consequence of hurting home values, too, because it certainly make being a homeowner less appealing.

Tracking Your Home Improvements

When you eventually sell your home, it may be helpful to have a record of your home improvement expenses. Because people often own their homes for decades, this is an area where a lot of records and receipts are lost. Here is what you need to know.

At the time of a home sale, the difference between your purchase price and your sale price is a taxable capital gain. Luckily for most people, there is a significant capital gains exclusion from the IRS: $250,000 (single) or $500,000 (married), for your primary residence. If your gain falls below this amount, you will not owe any taxes. In order to qualify, the property must have been your primary residence for at least two of the previous five years, and you must not have taken this exclusion for another property for two years.

If you make a capital improvement (described below), that expense increases your cost basis in the home. But because of the large exclusion ($250,000 or $500,000), many people don’t even bother to keep track of their home improvement expenses. That may be a mistake. Here are a number of scenarios which could be a problem:

  • If you get divorced or your spouse passes away, your exclusion will decrease from $500,000 to $250,000.
  • If you make another property your primary residence for four years, you will lose the tax exclusion on the previous property.
  • If you own your property for the next 30 years, it is possible your capital gain ends up being higher than the $250/$500k limits. These amounts are not indexed for inflation.
  • Congress could reduce this tax break, although it would be very unpopular to do so. They are not likely to change the definition of cost basis and capital gains.

What constitutes a Capital Improvement which would increase your cost basis? In general, the improvement must be permanent (lasting more than one year), attached to the property (not removable or decorative), and add to the value, use, or function of the property. Maintenance and repairs are generally not capital improvements unless they prolong your home’s useful life. The IRS provides the following specific examples of expenses that are Capital Improvements:

  • Additions, such as a new bathroom, bedroom, deck, garage, porch, or patio.
  • Permanent outdoor improvements, including paved driveways, fences, retaining walls, landscaping, or a swimming pool.
  • Exterior features, such as new windows, doors, siding, or a roof.
  • Insulation for your attic, walls, floors, or plumbing.
  • Home systems, including heat/central air, wiring, sprinkler, or alarm systems.
  • Plumbing upgrades such as septic systems, hot water heaters, filtration systems, etc.
  • Interior improvements, including built-in appliances, flooring, carpet, kitchen remodeling, or a new fireplace.

While there are many expenses which count as improvements, repairs and upkeep do not. Painting, replacing broken fixtures, patching a roof, or fixing plumbing leaks are not improvements. Also, if you install something and later remove it, that expense may not be counted. For example, if you install new carpet and then later replace the carpet with wood floors, you cannot include the carpet expense in your cost basis.

For full information on calculating your gain or loss on a home, see IRS Publication 523. While most homeowners are focused on mitigating taxable gains, I should add that if your capital improvements are significant enough to make your home sale into a loss, that loss would be a valuable tax benefit as it could offset other income. Here’s an example:

Purchase Price: $240,000
Capital Improvements: $37,400
Cost Basis: $277,400

Sale Price: $279,000
Minus 6% Realtor Commission: -$16,740
Closing Costs: -$1,250
Net Proceeds: $261,010

LOSS = $16,390

If you just looked at your purchase price and sales price, you might think that you would have a small gain (under the exclusion amount), and there was no need to keep track of your improvements. However, in this example, you do indeed end up with a loss, which would be valuable to your taxes. As a reminder: capital losses can offset any capital gains. Additionally, you can use $3,000 a year of losses to offset ordinary income. Unused capital losses carry forward into future years indefinitely, until they are used up.

Unlike other receipts, which you only need to keep for seven years, you do need to keep records of your capital improvements for as long as you own the home, and then seven years after you file your tax return after the sale. Even if you think you are going to be under the $500,000 tax exclusion, I’d highly recommend you keep track of these capital improvements which increase your cost basis.

Can You Afford a Second Home?

When asked to describe their idea of living The Good Life, many investors tell me that they have a special place – a lake, mountain, beach, or city – that is near and dear to their heart. Their dream is to have a get away, not at retirement, but now to spend with their families and build the memories that will last a lifetime. If you find yourself constantly dreaming about that perfect Florida beach or the stillness of a snow-capped Colorado peak, it won’t be long before you find yourself Googling home prices in your favorite vacation town and thinking about the possibilities.

Having a second home is a wonderful thing, when done properly. It can also be stressful, time-consuming, and an enormous financial drain which can impact your financial stability and even your solvency. When the financial crisis hit, buyers of vacation properties disappeared, leaving cash-strapped owners in a tragic process of liquidating properties at enormous losses.

Today, prices have recovered and in many areas are back to fresh highs. Not only have bargains largely disappeared, prices have been driven up in popular locations by foreign investors who want to get money out of their own country and into the stability of US dollars. For many international investors, it is easier to buy US real estate than it would be to open a brokerage account in the US.

If you are contemplating buying a second home, be smart and make sure your decisions are based on a thorough and comprehensive examination of the financial details involved. For our financial planning process, that would mean adding in the realistic costs of a second home into our software and examining the results. Would the drain of a second home crowd out other cash flow goals such as retirement? Would you have to delay retirement by several years to keep your retirement success above 80 or 90 percent?

I own a second home, and have spoken with dozens of clients about their experiences over the years. Here’s my advice if you’re thinking of taking the plunge:

1) A second home is not an investment. It’s great if your Uncle made millions off the property he bought in Beaver Creek in 1976, but this is 2016. Very few people make money off their vacation properties, and even fewer actually consider their total costs of interest, taxes, insurance, upkeep, and utilities, when making a profit calculation. In other words, buying a condo for $400,000 and selling it for $450,000 five years later means you probably lost money. A 6% real estate commission would immediately reduce your proceeds from $450,000 to $423,000. Take out your other costs and you almost certainly have a negative return, even if you have a capital gain for tax purposes.

When we want something, our mind will go to great lengths to rationalize why it is a good idea. I once had a client bring me a spreadsheet showing the value of a condo in Hawaii increasing by 9% a year for the next 40 years. Why? Because he said it was a fact that condos in Hawaii increase by 9% every year.

I’m not saying a second home is a bad idea, but it’s best to not start with rose-colored glasses thinking that it will be a killer investment. Instead, examine the costs of a second home and calculate if you can afford this expense as part of your lifestyle. If, after many years of enjoyment, you were to turn an actual profit, consider yourself fortunate to have had such good luck.

2) If you are only going to be there two weeks a year, you will probably be better off staying at a hotel or rental rather than buying a property. This is not only likely to be the less expensive route, it also frees you from the mental and emotional drain of having a second home. Besides paying more bills, you have the difficulty and hassle of maintaining a property that is hundreds or thousands of miles away.

Don’t worry, there are management companies to look after your property, right? Yes, for a cost. Thinking that you can effortlessly rent out your vacation property when you are not there and it will pay for itself? While you may be able to offset your management fees and some other expenses, I have yet to meet anyone who actually pays their whole mortgage through renting. Instead, many drop out of the rental process altogether, citing time, added stress, damages, and wear and tear on their property, with minimal rent to show for it.

You should budget 1-2% of the purchase price per year to spend on repairs and maintenance. Some years you will spend less, but in other years, you may need to replace a roof, furnace, or other major item. Is your emergency fund big enough to cover two homes? There will be days when having two homes feels like you are trying to prove Murphy’s Law – if something can go wrong, it will!

If you want to save yourself the headache of getting that 11 pm call in December that the hot water heater is out, don’t be an absentee owner. Just take vacations. If after five years at the same beach, you decide you’d rather go to Europe next summer, you can change your plans and not feel like you are obligated to go to your second home year after year. In fact, behavioral finance suggests that you may have more memories and find more fulfillment from taking 10 different vacations rather than going to the same place for 10 summers in a row.

3) On taxes and finances, a few points to consider:

  • You can deduct mortgage interest and property taxes on a second home. These are itemized deductions.
  • Only your primary residence is eligible for a capital gains exclusion of $250,000 ($500,000 if married). For a second home, keep records of any capital improvements which would increase your cost basis. If you have a very large potential capital gain, you can receive the primary residence capital gains exclusion by making the property your primary residence for two years. As long as a property was your primary residence for two of the past five years, you are eligible. Keep capital gains records until seven years after the sale.
  • You can rent out a primary or second home for 14 days a year tax-free. You don’t even have to report this income!
  • If you use the property personally for more than 14 days or more than 10% of the total rental days per year, it is considered a personal residence and you can only deduct rental expenses up to the amount of rental income.
  • If your personal use of the property is less than 14 days AND less than 10% of the total rental days, the property is considered a rental property (a business), and not a second home. You can deduct losses and may depreciate the property. Note that days you spend full-time on repairs and maintenance (but not improvements) are not considered personal use days, even if the rest of your family is enjoying recreation that day.
  • If you let others stay for free, or below fair rental price, or give away days (even to a charity auction), those are considered personal use days.
  • Before you rent, make sure your insurance covers renting. Talk with owners of similar properties if you want a realistic idea of how many days of your property might be rented each season. Do your homework before you buy.
  • In Texas, primary residences are creditor protected, 1 acre in town or 100 acres rural, with no limit on value. These are doubled for married couples. Second homes are not creditor protected. Which mortgage should you pay off first? Probably your primary residence.

Link: IRS Publication 527, Residential Rental Property Including Rental of Vacation Homes.

If all this makes your head hurt, you may be happier keeping your life simple and just enjoying your vacations without owning a second home. You cannot ask your accountant to sort this all out at the end of the year if you haven’t kept complete records of use/rental days and expenses.

4) When it comes to affordability, don’t let a mortgage broker tell you how much you can afford. They calculate the maximum the bank is willing to lend you; they don’t care about your other priorities like contributing to your 401(k) or paying for your kid’s college. If you want to know what you can afford and still accomplish your other goals, you need to do a financial plan. That’s where I can help.

5) Not surprisingly, the vast majority of people I have met who purchased a timeshare have been frustrated and regretted the decision. Similarly, friends who purchase property together often find things become less than cordial when disagreements arise over use, expenses, or maintenance.

Link: HGTV Top 10 Things to Know About Buying a Second Home

Avoiding Capital Gains in Real Estate

I’ve gotten a number of questions about Capital Gains and Real Estate recently, so I thought it was time for a post. While many home sellers do not have to pay any tax on the sale of their home, for others, capital gains taxes can be significant, even hundreds of thousands of dollars. Here are five ways to reduce capital gains when you sell real estate.

Tax Comparison of 15 and 30 Year Mortgages

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I received a tremendous response from readers about last week’s article comparing 15 and 30 year mortgages (read it here). A number of readers astutely asked how the mortgage interest tax deduction would impact the decision of choosing between the 15 and 30 year note. Here is your answer!

For our example, we are looking at buying a $250,000 home, putting 20% down and assuming a mortgage of $200,000. At today’s interest rates, we’d be choosing between a 15 year mortgage at 3.00% or a 30-year at 3.75%. Here are the monthly payments, not including insurance or property taxes.

15 Year Mortgage @ 3.00% 30 Year Mortgage @ 3.75%
payment $1381.16 payment $926.23
difference = $454.93

Over the full term of the mortgages, you will pay the following amounts of principal and interest:

15 Year Mortgage @ 3.00% 30 Year Mortgage @ 3.75%
principal $200,000.00 principal $200,000.00
interest $48,609.39 interest $133,443.23
total payments $248,609.39 total payments $333,443.23

You will pay a significantly higher amount of interest over the life of a 30 year mortgage. The interest payment of $133,443.23 increases your total payments by 67% over the amount you have borrowed. And that’s at today’s rock bottom mortgage rates! I should point out that above 5.325%, the interest portion on a 30 year mortgage exceeds the original principal. In other words, the interest would double your cost from $200,000 to $400,000.

You can deduct the mortgage interest expense from your taxes, but the amount of the benefit you will receive depends on your marginal federal income tax rate. Here is the value of the tax benefit for six tax brackets.

15 Year Mortgage @ 3.00% 30 Year Mortgage @ 3.75%
interest $48,609.39 interest $133,443.23
15%: $7,291.41 15%: $20,016.48
25%: $12,152.35 25%: $33,360.81
28%: $13,610.63 28%: $37,364.10
33%: $16,041.10 33%: $44,036.27
35%: $17,013.29 35%: $46,705.13
39.6% $19.249.32 39.6%: $52,843.52

Obviously, the 30 year mortgage provides much higher tax deductions, although they are spread over twice as long as the 15 year mortgage. If we subtract the tax savings from the total payments of the mortgage, we end up with the following costs per tax bracket.

Total Cost, after the tax savings
15 Year Mortgage @ 3.00% 30 Year Mortgage @ 3.75%
15%: $241,317.98 15%: $313,426.75
25%: $236,457.04 25%: $300,082.42
28%: $234,998.76 28%: $296,079.13
33%: $232,568.29 33%: $289,406.96
35%: $231,596.10 35%: $286,738.10
39.6%: $229,360.07 39.6%: $280,599.71

It should not be a surprise that even though the 30-year mortgage provides higher tax deductions, that it is still more expensive than a 15-year mortgage, even when we consider it on an after-tax basis.

For most Americans, the actual tax benefit they will receive is much, much less than described above. That’s because in order to deduct mortgage interest, taxpayers have to itemize their tax return and forgo the standard deduction. As a reminder, itemized deductions also include state and local taxes, casualty, theft, and gambling losses, health expenses over 10% of AGI, and charitable contributions.

For 2015, the standard deduction is $6,300 for single taxpayers and $12,600 for married couples filing jointly. So, if you are a married couple and your itemized deductions total $13,000, you’re actually only receiving $400 more in deductions than if you had no mortgage at all and claimed the standard deduction. And of course, if your itemized deductions fall below $12,600, you would take the standard deduction and you would not be getting any tax savings from the mortgage whatsoever.

While the mortgage interest deduction is very popular with the public, economists dislike the policy because it is a regressive tax benefit. It largely helps those with a big mortgage and a high income. For many middle class taxpayers, the tax benefits of mortgage interest is a red herring. With our example of 3.75% on a $200,000 mortgage, even in the first year, the interest is only $7,437. That’s well under the standard deduction of $12,600 for a married couple, and the interest expense will drop in each subsequent year.

Compare that to someone who takes out a $1 million mortgage: their first year interest deduction would be $37,186 on a 30 year note. Simply looking at the amount of the mortgage interest will not determine how much tax savings you will actually reap, without looking at your other deductions, and comparing these amounts to the standard deduction.

Even if you are one of those high earners with a substantial mortgage, you have another problem: your itemized deductions can be reduced under the so-called “Pease limitations”. These limitations were reintroduced in 2013. For 2015, itemized deductions are phased out for tax payers making over $258,250 (single) or $309,900 (married).

Bottom line: If your mortgage is modest, your interest deduction may not be more than your standard deduction. And if you are a high earner, you are likely to have your deductions reduced. All of which means that the tax benefit of real estate is being highly overvalued by most calculations. There is a substantial floor and ceiling on the mortgage interest deduction and it provides no benefit for taxpayers who are below or above those thresholds.

Ceiling: Pease limits on tax payers making over $258,250 (single) or $309,900 (married).
Middle: receive a tax benefit between these two levels.
Floor: no benefit on deductions below the standard deduction of $6,300 (single) or $12,600 (married).

The 15 Year Mortgage: Myth and Reality

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Everyone seems to be talking about Real Estate again. This month, I sat with three friends, and remarkably, all three were looking at moving and buying a new house. Real Estate is hot right now in Dallas, and almost everywhere else, too. The losses from 2009 have been erased and prices are making new highs. Even if you aren’t looking to move, chances are good that your property tax assessment has moved up significantly in the past two years.

Major corporate offices are being built in North Dallas, bringing tens of thousands of jobs to the area. And those relatively well-paid corporate employees are going to want to live in close commuting distance to work. Home owners have equity in their property, and interest rates, which have remained low, are expected to start creeping up. Many feel like right now is the perfect time to move up to their dream house. It has been a seller’s market, with many houses being sold quickly and often meeting or exceeding asking prices.

Anyone who has read this blog or my book, knows that I recommend home buyers consider a 15 year rather than a 30 year mortgage. Let’s go through those numbers in detail and consider the myths and reality of your mortgage decision.

For our example, let’s assume you are buying a $250,000 house and putting 20%, or $50,000, down. You will finance $200,000 through a mortgage.

At an average current rate of 3%, your monthly payment on a 15 year mortgage (not including taxes or insurance) is $1381.16. The 30 year mortgage will cost you approximately 3.75%, but your monthly payment will be only $926.23.

15 Year Mortgage @ 3.00% 30 Year Mortgage @ 3.75%
payment $1381.16 payment $926.23
difference = $454.93

A lot of people will look at the 30 year mortgage and will say that it “saves” them $454.93 a month. Let’s break that down. On the 15 year mortgage, your first payment consists of $500 interest and $881.16 in principal. On the 30 year note, the first payment includes $625 in interest while only $301.23 is applied towards interest. Most of your payment on the 15 year note is going towards principal, building your equity, where as most of the 30 year payment goes towards interest. So, even though the 15 year note costs $454.93 more, in the first month, it applies $579.93 more towards your principal.

15 Year Mortgage 30 Year Mortgage
payment $1381.16 payment $926.23
principal $881.16 principal $301.23
difference = $579.93

After making 10 years of payments, your remaining balance on the 15 year note would be $76,864.99 and you will have paid $42,604.59 in total interest. On the 30 year, $200,000 mortgage, your balance after 10 years is still $156,223.55, and you will have paid $67,371.29 in total interest. At this point, the person who chose the 15 year note has paid off most of their loan and has the end in sight.

15 Year Mortgage @ 10 years 30 Year Mortgage @ 10 years
Balance $76,864.99 Balance $156,223.55
Interest Paid $42,604.59 Interest Paid $67,371.29

Assuming your home value increases a modest 1% a year, here’s a look at how your home equity would compare after 10 years under both mortgages.

15 Year Mortgage @ 10 years 30 Year Mortgage @ 10 years
Home Value $276,156 Home Value $276,156
Balance $76,865 Balance $156,224
Equity $199,291 Equity $119,932
Difference = $79,359

The nearly $80,000 difference in equity after 10 years shows how the 15 year mortgage is a really another way of “forced savings”. You would have equity to buy another house if you should want or need to move. Or if you’d like to retire, a 15 year mortgage may enable you to have no house payment when you reach retirement age.

So far this is pretty simple. But you may be wondering, what if I were to choose the 30 year mortgage and invest the difference of $454.93 per month? If you did this for 10 years, and earned 7%, you would have an investment account with $78,740. That’s almost the same as the difference in equity in the chart above.

Let’s take this further and assume that you invest the $454.93 for the full 30 years. How would this compare to paying the 15 year mortgage and then investing $1381.16 for the following 15 years?

15 Year Mortgage 30 Year Mortgage
Pay mortgage for 15 years, then invest $1381.16

for the next 15 years, at 7%

Invest the difference of $454.93 for 30 years, at 7%
Investment Value $437,760 Investment Value $554,959

This shows that choosing the 30 year mortgage and investing the difference versus a 15 year mortgage could generate a better outcome over 30 years. So then why would I suggest that home buyers choose the 15 year product instead? Here are two reasons:

1) If you go to a bank, mortgage broker, or realtor and say that you can afford a $1381 per month payment, they are not likely to help you decide between a 15 or 30 year mortgage. Rather, they will assume you will choose the 30 year note and then tell you how much house you can “afford”.

Instead of looking at the $250,000 house in our example, you could afford a $370,000 house with a 30 year note. And you will not be investing the $454 per month difference as in the theoretical example. With the more expensive house comes more expensive costs, including taxes, insurance, utilities, and maintenance.

People who become wealthy look at their housing as a cost, not as an investment. While you can afford a more expensive house under a 30 year mortgage, that doesn’t mean that it is in your best interest to do so, if you have other financial goals such as retirement.

It is vitally important to remember that there is a conflict of interest throughout most the real estate industry. People who are paid commissions have an incentive to put you in the most expensive house and mortgage that the bank will allow them to sell. They do not get paid to help you retire, save in your 401(k), or send your kids to college. It’s remarkable to me that six years after the sub-prime crisis that there has been so little change to the fundamental conflicts of interest in the real estate industry.

2) I don’t know very many people who actually have the discipline to invest the $454.93 a month they would “save” with a 30 year mortgage. More likely, they will increase their other discretionary spending (cars, vacations, furnishings, etc.) that accompany “keeping up with the Joneses” in a nice neighborhood.

The only way someone would be able to make it work would be automate the process and establish a recurring monthly deposit of $454 into a mutual fund or IRA. By the way, the 30 year example above only showed a good outcome because I assumed the investment was made into stocks and earn 7% for 30 years. If you put that money in cash and only earn 3%, the 15 year mortgage produces the superior outcome. The 30 year mortgage only produces a better outcome if you can greatly exceed the cost of borrowing (3.75% in our example). Here’s what it looks like if returns are only 3% over 30 years:

15 Year Mortgage 30 Year Mortgage
Pay mortgage for 15 years, then invest $1381.16

for the next 15 years, at 3%

Invest the difference of $454.93 for 30 years, at 3%
Investment Value $313,486 Investment Value $265,105

My fear of the 30 year mortgage is that it is not used by consumers or real estate professionals to maximize saving and growth investing. If it was, it would be a good tool for increasing your net worth. Rather it is used to maximize the amount of home you can purchase today.

For professions where career income is expected to rise only at the rate of inflation (such as teachers and musicians), your income is not going to increase fast enough to enable future saving when you take on a jumbo-sized mortgage. The result is that all your disposable income will go towards the house, with very little towards retirement, saving, or investment.

If today’s real estate market has you excited, be careful. It’s great that your home value has shot up 20% or more in the past couple of years. That makes it a great time to downsize, but actually an expensive time to buy a bigger house. We are lucky in Dallas that Real Estate prices have remained affordable; in many cities on the coasts, home buyers have no choice but to use the 30 year mortgage because prices are so high. If you start with the 15 year mortgage in mind when you are considering how much house you can afford, it can help you increase your net worth faster.

Should You Invest in Real Estate?

modern house

Almost everyone has wondered at sometime: should we invest in real estate? Perhaps it sounds appealing compared to the intangibility and lack of control in the stock market. However, for 90% of the people I meet, I think the answer is a definite no. I’m going to tell you why, and for the 10% of you who might still want to invest in real estate, I’m going to tell you how.

First, let’s get this on the table. Most financial advisors make their living from recommending or managing stocks and bonds, so yes, we have a conflict of interest. Unlike many advisors though, I have some first hand knowledge of real estate. Growing up, my parents purchased, managed, and sold 10 apartments, which in retrospect, was no small feat on teachers’ salaries. The proceeds from selling one property (which contained four apartments) comprised their entire contribution to my college education.  It didn’t cover everything (the rest came from student loans, work study, and graduate assistantships), but I know that real estate investing does work and can be a wealth generator. I’m not fundamentally opposed to the idea of real estate investing for the right person who does it wisely.

During my childhood, we spent many weekends mowing lawns, doing maintenance, and interviewing prospective tenants. We cleaned, painted, did plumbing work, and whatever else was needed. The first thing that any potential investor needs to understand is that real estate is not a passive investment; it is a business which makes demands on your time, resources, and patience. Being a landlord is not about bricks and mortar, it’s a people business. Your job is to find, manage, and retain good tenants. Inevitably, you will still encounter the Tenant from Hell who doesn’t pay the rent, steals, vandalizes, and then moves out in the middle of the night owing you thousands. It can be frustrating, time consuming, and at times incredibly stressful.

You’ll never get a call in the middle of the night from your mutual fund because the hot water heater blew up. So trying to compare a real estate business to a passive investment program is apples and oranges. Don’t expect real estate to be easy, regardless of what “reality” program you saw on HGTV. For most people, you are already stretched too thin juggling your career, family, and other interests to want to tackle being a direct investor in real estate. It can detract from your quality of life, and there’s no guarantee of success.

As a stock investor, you can own the whole market with an index ETF and be very diversified. You can buy the same stocks as Warren Buffet, if you want, and get the same return. A person with $10,000 in a fund will receive the same return as someone with $10 million. Fund investing is liquid, requires no effort, and is very democratic, if you will. Real estate, on the other hand, is completely idiosyncratic. Every deal is different. Your neighbor might do well, and you could do poorly. A house in one city might appreciate significantly, but might depreciate in another city. Thinking that you have control over real estate, because it is a tangible item, is an illusion. Buying a house in 2005 could have created a substantial loss, while buying the same house in 2010 may have created a large gain. You have no control over the underlying economic factors which drive real estate prices, just like we have no control over the factors which drive stocks and bonds.

In the last downturn, I know several smart, hard-working people who went into personal bankruptcy because of their real estate investing. It can be risky. If you still want to own real estate, I suggest having it be only a portion of your portfolio, and keep your retirement accounts invested in stocks and bonds. Here are seven tips to keep your investment safe:

1) Get rich slow. Forget about flipping houses. Buy residential properties to rent and plan to hold them for years or decades. Make sure you are investing and not speculating. Buy a house that has good ratio of rent compared to its costs. A $100,000 house that generates $1000 a month in rent is obviously better than a $200,000 house that rents for $1600. The property is an investment, and not for your personal taste, so it does not have to be a luxury home. Wealthy people are not your target tenants. Look for clean, well-maintained properties with access to good schools.

2) Focus on building equity. Use your tenant’s money to pay down the mortgage – that’s how you create wealth in real estate. Get a short note (15 or 20 years) rather than a long mortgage, an interest-only loan, or balloon. Each year, your equity in the property will increase and the amount of interest you pay will decrease. Eventually, you can sell the house for a large gain, or you will pay off the note and then you can bank the rent each month. Don’t make it your goal to have high cash flow from the property for your own income. Invest that cash flow into the equity. And whatever you do, don’t quit your job thinking you will live off your real estate investing – that’s often a disastrous idea. Inflation (rising home prices) should be the icing on the cake; your primary objective is to build equity by paying down debt.

3) Do it yourself. Profit margins are razor thin in real estate. After you pay property taxes, insurance, the mortgage, and maintenance, there is almost nothing leftover. If you plan to hire a handyman every time you need to change a light bulb, you can easily slip into a negative cash flow situation. You have to save money where ever you can, so be prepared to be hands-on. No one will care more about your property than you. Don’t be a long-distance landlord; aim to buy properties within a 10-mile radius of your home. If the idea of sweat equity is a turn-off, real estate is probably not for you.

4) Use leverage wisely. If you have $100,000 to invest in real estate, you could pay cash for one $100,000 house. Or, you could make $20,000 down payments on five houses. Owning five houses will give you better diversification and a much better long-term return because of the leverage. It really is smarter to use the bank’s money for real estate, especially with today’s low interest rates.

5) Keep a strong cash reserve. You will have unexpected expenses, and they can be large. Real estate investors must have a sizable cash position and cannot be living from month to month. Budget for maintenance and vacancy. Will you be okay if you have to spend $10,000 on a new roof or HVAC system? Can you survive if the property is vacant two or four months a year? Know the occupancy rates and market rent rates in your area.

6) Be super organized. Everything needs to be in writing, including applications and lease agreements. Check references for prospective tenants. Keep all receipts and work with a good accountant to track your deductions, depreciation, cost basis, and other tax benefits. This is a business, not a hobby. Treat it seriously.

7) Appreciate your good tenants. They make your life easy, take care of your property, and keep your account in the black. Do nice things for your good tenants and make them want to stay. Their money is building your wealth.

As for me, I spent enough time with apartments to know I’d rather stick with stocks and bonds. It’s a better fit for my schedule and I know myself well enough to know that my efforts are better directed elsewhere. And over the previous 30 years, the nominal return of residential real estate was 4.38% versus 11.09% for large cap stocks. When we include taxes, inflation, and expenses, single family homes returned only 0.80% over those 30 years, compared to 5.97% for large cap stocks. So real estate is often not the home run that people believe it will be.

If you’re thinking about real estate investing, let’s get together and discuss what it entails before you get started.