Are you buying a house or lottery ticket?

The same week legendary investor Warren Buffett put his California vacation house on the market, a friend told me her widowed mother had sold the family home in Cleveland.

Buffett bought his Laguna Beach place in 1971 for $150,000 and is asking $11 million. My friend’s parents bought their home for $24,500 in 1965 and just sold it for $104,000. Put another way: If Buffett gets his asking price, his house will have appreciated at an annual rate of 9.79 percent. The Cleveland house eked out a 2.82 percent annual return.

Neither buyer could have predicted what their homes would be worth now. One could score a healthy return, while the other didn’t even keep up with inflation. (If she had, her home would have been worth about $190,000.) In my latest for the Associated Press, how purchasing a home could be a gamble.

Q&A: The old magazine scam is alive and well. Here’s how to fight back

Dear Liz: I got scammed by a magazine company a year ago. I thought the call was about two magazines I wanted to stop as I was moving. The woman talked fast and took me through the steps with my bank card (which was stupid of me, I now know) as if she was helping and at the end she said, “Oh, those are not our magazines.” Two weeks later I was receiving about eight magazines I do not want. I changed my bank card so the withdrawals would stop, but I get so many collection calls. I hang up and block that number, but then I get more. My bank manager said consumers don’t have to pay for what they don’t want. I have told the collectors that, but they still send bills for $1,200 for three years of magazines.

Answer: Don’t expect collectors for scam artists to help you out. Amy Nofziger, regional director for the AARP Foundation, recommends you contact your state’s attorney general to file a complaint.

“Magazine subscriptions like this are still a huge complaint and the AGs need to know about it, so they [can] file enforcement against the company if needed,” Nofziger said.

You must follow certain procedures to request that the debt collection agency stop contacting you. The AG’s office may be able to help or there may be a separate collection agency board you need to contact. The Federal Trade Commission also has guidance at www.consumer.ftc.gov/articles/0149-debt-collection.

You also can call and speak to a trained volunteer at the AARP Fraud Watch Network who can help you through the steps. Its number is (877) 908-3360 and you can learn more at www.aarp.org/FraudWatchNetwork.

Q&A: Annuities and fees

Dear Liz: I must object to a point you made in a recent column. You wrote: “…Also, annuities often have high fees, so you’d need to shop carefully and understand how the surrender charges work.” To write “…annuities often have high fees” is misleading, because there are annuities that don’t have fees, such as fixed annuities and indexed annuities. Coupling that phrase about fees with the admonition “you’d need to shop carefully and understand how the surrender charges work” is also a disservice to the public. Of course, an investor has to understand surrender charges! Just like if they try to end a bank CD too soon, there’s a penalty, or if they try to get out of a real estate deal incorrectly, or if they commit some other kind of breach of contract. That doesn’t mean that annuities are bad investments, especially when their principal is guaranteed, and no fees to pay.

Answer: Thanks for bringing up two areas of confusion that are actually linked.

All investments have costs. Many, including mutual funds and variable annuities, explicitly state their fees. With fixed and indexed annuities, the cost isn’t disclosed. Instead, it’s built into the interest rate spread — the difference between what the insurer earns on your money and what it pays into your account, said financial planner Michael Kitces, partner and director of financial planning research at Pinnacle Advisory Group in Columbia, Md.

“In other words, if the annuity company pays 2.5% on its annuity, it likely earned closer to 3% or 3.5% in the first place,” Kitces said. The insurer keeps the remainder to recover commissions paid to the insurance agent and the annuity’s own profit margins, he said.

Indexed annuities are a little more complicated. These promise investors they will get a certain portion of the return earned by some market benchmark while protecting them from market losses. The insurers use the spread to cover their overhead costs, profits and commissions. But instead of paying the remaining yield into your account, insurers use the money to purchase options that provide the promised participation rate in the index, said Kitces, who writes the Nerd’s Eye View blog at kitces.com.

Either way, surrender charges encourage people to stay invested long enough for the insurance company to get back enough money from the interest rate spread to cover the cost of commissions. If people need their money during the first few years, the surrender charge they pay is designed to make up the difference between what the insurer paid out and what it has received from the yield spread. Surrender charges are typically around 7% to 9% and may persist for seven or more years, although the penalty declines over time.

You’ve heard that “there’s no such thing as a free lunch.” Investors need to understand that they’re paying a price for their investments, even if they can’t see the money directly coming out of their pockets. Costs are a drag on investor returns and how big their portfolios can grow. That’s why it’s important to minimize those costs. When insurers don’t disclose the costs, it’s hard to know how much you’re giving up compared to what you could earn from another investment.

Q&A: Deploying a windfall wisely

Dear Liz: I recently received a $38,000 windfall. I have a student loan balance of $37,000. I want to buy a home, but I can’t decide if I should have a large down payment and continue paying down student loans slowly, or make a balloon payment on my student loans and put down a smaller amount on the home. The mortgage rate would be around 4% while the student loans are at 6.55%. The price of homes in my area is at least $250,000 for a two-bedroom house (which my income supports). I want to make a smart decision.

Answer: At first glance, the answer may seem obvious: Pay down the higher-rate debt. But a deeper look reveals that the second option may be the better course.

Student loan interest is deductible, so your effective interest rate on those loans may be less than 5%. If they’re federal student loans, they have all kinds of consumer protections as well. If you lose your job, for example, you have access to deferral and forbearance as well as income-sensitive repayment plans. In most cases, you don’t need to be in a rush to pay off this tax-advantaged, relatively low-rate debt.

A home purchase may be more time sensitive. Interest rates are already up from their recent lows and may go higher. If you can afford to buy a home and plan to stay put for several years, then you probably shouldn’t delay.

A 10% down payment should be sufficient to get a good loan. You’ll have to pay private mortgage insurance, since you can’t put 20% down, but PMI typically drops off after you’ve built enough equity. You usually can request that PMI be dropped once you’ve paid the mortgage down to 80% of the home’s original value. At 78%, the lender may be required to remove PMI. (Note that these rules apply to conventional mortgages and don’t apply to the mortgage insurance that comes with FHA loans.)

You can use the remaining cash to pay down your student loans, but do so only if you already have a healthy emergency fund. It’s smart to set aside at least 1% of the value of your home each year to cover repairs and maintenance, plus you’ll want at least three months’ worth of mortgage payments in the bank. Even better would be enough cash to cover all your expenses for three months.

Q&A: Getting cash to pay medical bills

Dear Liz: I am 63 and retired from my full-time job last year since I have bad health. I work part time now and have tons of medical bills because of stage one cancer. I need additional cash. Is there some way I can get an advance using my pension check as collateral? In addition, is there any way to get an advance from those insurance people who pay people who may die in less than five years? I can’t say when I’m going to kick the bucket but any suggestions you may have that will allow me to get some immediate financial assistance will be greatly appreciated.

Answer: Let’s reinforce what you just said: You don’t know when you’re going to die. A stage one cancer diagnosis is far from an immediate death sentence. You could live for decades, so the mistakes you make now could haunt you for a long time.

Yes, there are some companies that will give you a lump sum in exchange for the next five to 10 years of your pension payments. You should avoid them like the plague. The effective interest rates they charge can be astronomical and you’ll probably be much worse off. If you’re having a hard time making ends meet now, losing a source of income won’t help.

Even if you were going to die soon, no one would hand you money just because of that fact. Those “insurance people” are actually investors who buy cash-value life insurance policies, often from the terminally ill. If you had such a policy, you might be able to sell it for an amount somewhere between the surrender value (what you’d get from the insurer by cashing it in now) and the face value (the dollar amount for which you’re insured). These transactions are called life insurance settlements. If you did have such a policy, though, you probably would be better off just borrowing the amount you need from its cash value.

Consider consulting an experienced bankruptcy attorney if you have more bills than you can pay. Medical bills, along with credit card balances and other consumer debt, can be erased in a Chapter 7 bankruptcy filing. Once the debt is gone, you can start rebuilding your finances for what may be a longer life than you expect.

Q&A: The give and take of federal gift tax rules

Dear Liz: We are planning to build an addition to our home so that my mom can move in with us and will take out a loan to pay for it. Let’s say that we put down $50,000 and take out a loan for the remaining cost of $150,000. After the addition is built, my mom will sell her house and with the proceeds she will give us $200,000 to pay for the cost of the addition. Is this considered a gift? Or is it considered payment for a place to live (i.e. she gets something in return), and therefore it is not a gift?

Answer: What do you want it to be?

If you want it to be a gift, then it certainly can be. If your mother wanted to give you the money all at once, she would need to file a gift tax return because the amount exceeds the $14,000 per recipient annual exclusion. But she wouldn’t need to pay gift tax until the amount she gives away in excess of the annual exclusion reaches a certain limit (which is $5.49 million in 2017).

Gifts in excess of the annual exclusion also affect how much of a wealthy person’s estate can pass tax-free to heirs. If your mother is worth more than about $5 million, she should consult an estate planning attorney before making any gifts.

If she doesn’t want to bother with a gift tax return, she could give you and your spouse $14,000 each, or $28,000, per year until she’s given the $200,000.

If you or your mother prefer to make payments over time and treat the money as rent, you would need to declare the income. You could write off certain rent-related expenses, such as a portion of insurance premiums and repairs, that wouldn’t be deductible otherwise, plus you’d get another tax break from depreciating the portion of the property that’s considered a rental.

But that could trigger a big tax bill when you sell the home, so make sure you run this plan past a tax pro who can help you weigh the costs and benefits.

Q&A: Frequent flier cards

Dear Liz: I have an airline credit card but I find it really hard to use the frequent flier miles I get. The “free” flights have gotten more expensive (they take more miles) and harder to find. I’m getting sick of paying an annual fee for nothing. Would I be better off with a cash-back card?

Answer: Good cash-back rewards cards typically offer rebates of 1% to 2% on most purchases, and some have rotating categories that offer rebates of 5% to 6%. If you’re not an elite frequent flier or trying to amass miles for a special trip, then putting most of your spending on a cash-back card can make sense.

Think twice about closing that airline card, though. It likely offers some perks worth keeping, such as free checked bags and priority boarding. If you take one or two flights a year, the card may pay for itself.

Q&A: Investing during retirement

Dear Liz: I’ll be retiring shortly. After 30 years of public service, I’m fortunate to have a generous pension. I’ll be paying off all my debts upon retirement, including my mortgage. I have a deferred compensation account that I will leave untouched until I’m required to take disbursements at 70 1/2 (15 years from now). Until then I will have disposable income but no significant tax deductions. Short of investing on my own in a brokerage account (and perhaps incurring capital gains taxes), are there any other investment vehicles that perhaps would be tax friendlier?

Answer: A variable annuity could provide tax deferral, but any gains you take out would be subject to income tax rates, which are typically higher than capital gains rates. (Annuities held within IRAs are subject to required minimum distributions starting after age 70 1/2. Those held outside of retirement funds will be annuitized, or paid out, starting at the date specified in the annuity contract.) Also, annuities often have high fees, so you’d need to shop carefully and understand how the surrender charges work.

Many advisors would recommend investing on your own instead and holding those investments at least a year to qualify for lower capital gains rates. This approach is particularly good for any funds you may want to leave your heirs, since assets in a brokerage account would get a “step up” in tax basis that could eliminate capital gains taxes for those heirs. Annuities don’t receive that step-up in basis.

You also shouldn’t assume that waiting to take required minimum distributions is the most tax-effective strategy. The typical advice is to put off tapping retirement funds as long as possible, but some retirees find their required minimum distributions push them into higher tax brackets. You may be better off taking distributions earlier — just enough to “fill out” your current tax bracket, rather than pushing you into a higher one.

Q&A: The new reverse mortgage is safer but still expensive

Dear Liz: If you have never written about the new reverse mortgages, please consider it. I’m nearly 90 and this Home Equity Conversion Mortgage sounds too good to be true. Is it? I’ve talked to a broker and a direct lender and attended a two-hour seminar on the subject.

Answer: Reverse mortgages once deserved their bad reputation, but changes to the Federal Housing Administration’s HECM program in recent years have made them safer and less expensive. They’re still not a cheap way to borrow, though, because of significant upfront costs. Using a home equity loan or line of credit is often a better option if you can make the payments.

A reverse mortgage may be an option if you can’t make payments. These loans allow you to tap the equity in your home if you’re 62 or older. The amount you borrow plus interest compounds over time and is paid off when you die, sell or permanently move out. You can get the money as a lump sum, in a series of monthly checks or as a line of credit you can tap.

The older you get, the more you can receive from your home — but you can’t get the money all at once, as you could in the past. If you choose the lump sum option, you can only access 60% of your loan amount the first year. This restriction was put in place to keep you from blowing through your equity too fast.

While reverse mortgages have improved, some of the people touting them have not. Investment salespeople and scam artists sometimes try to push older people into reverse mortgages as a way to come up with cash to invest in their schemes.

You’re required to get counseling from someone approved by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to discuss how reverse mortgages work and how much one may cost you. In addition, consider hiring a fee-only financial planner to give you advice.

Q&A: More solutions for avoiding probate

Dear Liz: I’m wondering why, in your answer about whether to use a will or a living trust, you didn’t mention that probate can be avoided by using beneficiaries for assets such as mutual funds and brokerage accounts and now, in many states, homes. This seems quite relevant to the question and the gist of your answer.

Answer: Space limitations, and reader attention spans, prohibit exhaustive answers to many personal finance questions. Nowhere is that more true than in estate planning, which can get complicated quickly.

It’s hard to avoid probate entirely without a living trust. So-called transfer on death designations can indeed work for small estates, providing that the rest of the estate — the “tangible personal property” such as furniture and jewelry — is small enough to qualify for simplified probate proceedings. (In California, that limit is $150,000.)

Even with small estates, though, transfer on death designations aren’t necessarily the right solution for everyone. Beneficiary designations are easy to forget, for one thing, which can mean accounts going to the wrong people after life changes. In other words, your ex-wife or your mother may wind up with an account that should have gone to your spouse. People who choose to use transfer on death designations instead of a living trust need to remain vigilant about keeping those designations up to date.

They also need to explore other potential ramifications, especially if they’re taking a do-it-yourself approach. For example, if a beneficiary dies first, or simultaneously, the asset may wind up having to go through probate.

Also, as this column discussed a few months ago, real estate transfers in certain circumstances can cause the property to be reassessed, leading to much higher tax bills for heirs. That’s something an attorney would be able to explain to a client while preparing a will or living trust, but it’s something a DIYer might miss.