Q&A: Homeowners association fees

Dear Liz: I am a single woman 10 to 15 years away from retirement. My town home will be paid off next month. Does it make better financial sense to sell my town home to avoid significant monthly homeowners association fees and invest in a single-family home?

Answer: It depends. Many single-family homes, particularly in newer developments, also have sizable HOA fees. Even when that’s not the case, you can face significantly higher repair and maintenance costs with a single-family home compared to a town home.

You also need to factor in the costs of selling your home and moving. Real estate commissions can eat up 5% to 7% of the value of your home, and moving expenses can add thousands of dollars to your costs.

Now would be an excellent time to consult a fee-only financial planner who can review your plans for retirement and discuss your alternatives.

Mistakes you make in the years immediately before and after retirement can be particularly devastating, so make sure you have an objective second opinion.

Q&A: Capital gains taxes

Dear Liz: My wife owns a house that was separate property before our marriage. She has since fallen ill and needs round-the-clock care. I am selling the house to support this and will net about $250,000 at close. Will we have to pay capital gains taxes, or can I claim a one-time exemption, based upon this not being community property?

Answer: If your wife lived in the property as her principal residence for at least two of the five years prior to the sale, the profit would qualify for the capital gains exemption of up to $250,000 per owner.

People who have to sell their principal homes before they meet the two-year residency requirement may qualify for a partial exclusion if the sale was triggered by special circumstances such as a change in health or employment or “unforeseen circumstances.” You’ll want to talk to a tax pro about whether your wife’s situation qualifies.

Even if the gain is taxable, she may not owe tax on the entire amount netted from the sale. When figuring home sale profit, her basis in the home — essentially, what she paid for it, plus any qualifying improvements — is subtracted from what she nets from the sale.

There’s another way to avoid paying taxes on home sale gains, and that’s to hold on to the property until your wife’s death. At that point, the home would get a “step up” in tax basis to the current market value. An inheritor who sold the home at that market value wouldn’t owe any tax, said Mark Luscombe, principal analyst for Wolters Kluwer Tax & Accounting U.S.

Q&A: Investment property

Dear Liz: Eight years ago, we bought a fixer-upper in an up-and-coming neighborhood. Now it’s mostly fixed up, and property values have soared. We would like to borrow against the equity to buy a beach house we could use and also rent out. This would be a long-term investment. We already own one rental property that is turning a small profit. Managing it allows me to bring in much-needed extra income while staying home with my children. I want to increase that income with a beach house we can also enjoy. Is this a smart use of home equity?

Answer: It may be. You’ve got some experience as a landlord, so you understand what’s involved in maintaining and repairing a rental property and dealing with tenants. A property that’s split between personal use and rental is somewhat different, since you won’t be able to deduct all the expenses as you could with a full-time rental. The expenses have to be divided proportionately, and you can’t deduct rental expenses in excess of the rental income you get. IRS Publication 527, Residential Rental Property, offers more details, or you can talk to a tax pro (which you should have, given that landlords can face some complicated tax situations).

Your first task is to ensure the beach house is in an area that allows short-term rentals on the scale you’re anticipating. Not all communities do. Some don’t allow “vacation rentals” at all, while others limit the amount of time that the property can be rented. Those that allow short-term use may require annual licenses and assess taxes or fees on the rentals, which are costs you’ll want to factor in before you buy.

Your next step, if your goal is to generate income, is to find a property that is “cash flow positive” from the start, with expected rents more than covering expected costs. Obviously, though, you can’t predict everything, which is why it’s essential to have a fat emergency fund for unexpected repairs or greater-than-anticipated vacancies.

Another smart move would be to lock in your interest rate if you don’t expect to pay back what you borrowed against your house within a few years. That means a home equity loan with fixed rates rather than a line of credit with variable rates. You put your home at risk when you borrow against it, so be conservative and lock in predictable payments.

Q&A: Renovations with high returns

Dear Liz: What renovation projects reap the most return when selling? Replacing windows and carpeting is what I had in mind.

Answer: Remodeling magazine’s latest Cost vs. Value report puts window replacement near the top of renovation projects that pay off, but none of the projects the survey tracked recouped more than they cost.

In 2014, a homeowner could expect to recoup about 79% of the cost of window replacements, assuming the home was sold soon after the improvement. Major kitchen remodels offered a 74% return on a mid-range project that cost about $55,000, or 64% of a high-end project that cost about $110,000. The amount you can expect to recoup usually declines over time as the improvements start to get dated or suffer wear and tear.

The survey doesn’t track projects that are typically considered more maintenance than improvement, such as replacing carpeting or painting. Those projects may, however, get a home sold faster if done just before the house is put up for sale.

Q&A: Terminating private mortgage insurance

Dear Liz: I bought my first home about a year ago. Because I had very little money for the down payment, I have to pay private mortgage insurance, which is a whopping $385 each month. My burning question about this is: How can I get rid of it? There must be a way to pay the loan quicker or pay more each month or something to make it go away.

Answer: Mortgage insurance protects the lender in case you default on your loan. Since loans with small down payments have a higher risk of default, mortgage insurance is typically required until your balance falls to 80% of the original value of your home. At that point, you can request in writing that the mortgage insurance be canceled. If you don’t make the request, the lender is still typically required to terminate PMI when your balance reaches 78% of the home’s original value.

To speed that day, you can pay down your principal, but do it the right way. Call your mortgage servicer and ask how to be sure the extra money you submit is reducing your mortgage balance. Otherwise, your extra money may just be applied to the next month’s payment, which won’t help reduce your balance much.

Q&A: The tax implications of downsizing

Dear Liz: My mother just turned 75 and wants to downsize from her four-bedroom house. My father passed away six years ago. She owns her home outright, and at the time of my father’s death the value of the house was estimated at $1.2 million. Right now she has enough income from retirement accounts and investments to live comfortably. She could even buy another smaller property if need be. As the executor of her estate, I’m trying to help her decide what to do with the house. She could let another family member live in it who couldn’t pay rent but could help with upkeep; she could rent it out for market value; or she could sell. We see advantages and disadvantages with all three options. What do you think?

Answer: If she hasn’t already, your mother needs to hire a good estate-planning attorney who can help her evaluate her options. Consulting a fee-only financial planner and a tax pro may be a good idea, as well.

If she sells, your mother could face a sizable capital gains tax depending on where she lives. Federal law allows a certain amount of capital gains on the sale of a primary residence — $250,000 per person — to be excluded from income, but after that, capital gains taxes apply.

The gain would be the difference between the home sale proceeds and your mother’s tax basis in the home. At least half of the home received a “step up” in basis to the then-current market value when your father died. If your mom lives in a community property state, such as California, both halves of the property would have received this step up at his death. Any increase in value since then would be subject to capital gains tax (minus, again, the $250,000 federal exclusion).

There’s another tax issue to consider. If she dies owning this house, her heirs would get a tax basis equal to the property’s value at her death. In other words, regardless of the state where she lives, none of the house’s appreciation during her lifetime would be taxable.

The tax issues alone shouldn’t dictate what your mother does. But she should be aware of them to make an informed decision about what to do next.

Q&A: Transferring property from a deceased relative

Dear Liz: My mother passed away unexpectedly in late 2008. She had a mortgage, and the house was under her name only. She didn’t leave a will. My family is still paying the loan, and the company does not know my mother passed away. We don’t have a lot of money and we need advice on how to get the house under my sister’s name (she has good credit). We need to get the loan modified since the monthly payment is almost $1,000 and only about $70 goes toward the principal.

Answer: Your mother may not have created a will, but your state has laws that determine what was supposed to happen after her death. Lying to the mortgage lender is not one of the legal options.

Federal law allows mortgages to be transferred to heirs. (Without a will, those heirs usually would include a surviving spouse and the dead person’s children.) Transfers because of death typically are exempt from the due-on-sale or acceleration clauses that otherwise would allow the lender to demand full payment.

To get the mortgage transferred, however, you usually need to have started the probate process.

At this point, you should consult a mortgage broker about the likelihood of getting a refinance or a loan modification. If the home is deeply underwater, it may not be possible or worth the effort. If foreclosure is likely, it would be better not to transfer the mortgage as the heirs’ credit would suffer significant damage.
If your plan is feasible, however, then you’ll need to consult a probate attorney. You may not have a lot of money, but you need to pool what you have to hire someone who can dig you out of this mess.

Q&A: The effects of a property sale on Social Security

Dear Liz: I sold a rental property this year and will have a long-term capital gain of about $100,000. My normal income usually puts me in the 10% tax bracket and my Social Security is not taxed because my total income is under $25,000. I pay $104 per month for Medicare. Will the sale of the rental property count as income and make my Social Security benefits taxable? Will I suddenly be deemed “rich” enough to pay more in Medicare payments? If so, will the Medicare payments go back to normal because I will have total earnings under $25,000 after 2014? I am 66, single and by no means rich.

Answer: This windfall will affect your Social Security taxes and your Medicare premiums, but the changes aren’t permanent.

The capital gain will be included in the calculation that determines whether and how much of your Social Security checks will be taxed, said Mark Luscombe, principal analyst for CCH Tax & Accounting North America. That will likely cause up to 85% of your Social Security benefit in 2014 to be taxable.

Your Medicare premiums are also likely to rise based on your higher modified adjusted gross income, said Jay Nawrocki, senior healthcare law analyst for Wolters Kluwer Law & Business. The income used to determine Medicare premiums is the modified adjusted gross income from two years earlier, so your premiums shouldn’t increase until 2016. If your income reverts to normal in 2015, your premiums should also revert to normal in 2017, Nawrocki said.

The exact amount you’ll pay can’t be predicted, but people with modified adjusted gross incomes under $85,000 paid $104.90 per month in 2014. Those with MAGI of $85,000 to $107,000 paid $146.90, while those with MAGI of $107,000 to $160,000 paid $209.80. If your income for 2014 puts you in that last group, you should count on your premiums roughly doubling in 2016.
There is some good news. You’ll qualify for the 0% capital gains rate on the portion of the gain that makes up the difference between your income and the top of the 15% tax bracket (which is $36,900 in 2014 for a single person). If your income is $24,000, for example, then $12,900 of your capital gain wouldn’t be taxed by the federal government. The remaining $87,100 would be subject to the 15% federal capital gains rate. You may owe state and local taxes as well, so consult a tax pro.

Q&A: When elderly parents are in financial trouble

Dear Liz: My in-laws just informed us that they have gone through their retirement fund and soon won’t be able to pay their mortgage. They borrowed against the house they’ve lived in for 30 years and currently owe $325,000. They are devastated, so I am trying to figure out the best way for them to stay in their house in their final years, as they are both 73. They have about $300,000 in equity but do not want to sell. They are willing to sell the house to my wife and me at their current balance. We would make the payments and they remain in the house. When they pass, the house would be ours. They looked into a reverse mortgage but this would cover only the payments, not taxes, insurance or maintenance. What is the best way to do this? Do I get a loan and purchase outright? Do I contact their bank and see if I can assume their loan? Do they quit-claim the home to my wife and me? My wife and I can afford to do this, but we want to make the right financial decision.

Answer: Before you do anything, please consult a tax professional and an attorney with experience in estate and elder law.

It’s unlikely the lender will allow you to assume the loan, so you probably would need to set this up as a sale of the home with you and your wife obtaining a new mortgage.
But their plan to sell the house to you at a below-market value could create gift tax issues and could delay their eligibility for Medicaid, should they need help paying for nursing home care.

There are other risks to your in-laws. Your creditors could come after the home if you lose a lawsuit, for example. You could sell the home without their consent, and you would have a claim on the property if you and your wife split up.

Then there are the risks to you. You say you can afford to make the payments (and presumably pay the taxes, insurance and maintenance as well), but what happens if you lose a job or suffer another financial setback?

All of you need to understand the risks involved, and your alternatives, before proceeding.

A sale of the home or a reverse mortgage may well prove to be a better choice. A reverse mortgage wouldn’t completely eliminate their home costs, but would substantially lower them — whoever winds up paying the bill.

Q&A: How to escape a timeshare

Dear Liz: How do I walk away from a timeshare? It’s paid off but we have yearly maintenance fees that are now $3,600 each year. This will be prohibitive in retirement, and it’s quite a burden now. The developer won’t let us give it back, and we can’t sell it because the resale companies are sharks that demand money upfront. Can they ruin our credit if we stop paying? Is there any way to protect ourselves?

Answer: If you stop paying your annual maintenance fees, your account can be turned over to a collection agency. That will trash your credit, and you could be sued.

Many people who buy timeshares don’t realize they’re making a lifetime commitment, said Brian Rogers, owner and operator of Timeshare Users Group. Even after any loans to buy the timeshare are paid off, owners owe maintenance fees on the property. Maintenance fees typically rise over time and may be supplemented by special assessments to repair or upgrade resorts as they age.

The good news is that you may be able to get out from under these fees by selling your timeshare, and you don’t have to use a resale company that charges an upfront fee. In fact, you shouldn’t, since those arrangements are frequently scams, Rogers said.

The amount you’re paying indicates that you own a timeshare at an upscale resort. (The average maintenance fee is closer to $800 a year, Rogers said.) If that’s the case, your timeshare may have some value, even if it’s only a tiny fraction of what you paid. Owners at less desirable resorts often find they can sell their timeshares for only $1, and may have to pay others to take the timeshares off their hands.

You can list your timeshare for sale at no or low cost on EBay, Craigslist, RedWeek or Timeshare Users Group, among other sites. To get some idea of what it’s worth, enter the name of the resort into EBay’s search engine and click on the “completed sales” box on the lower left side of the page. Timeshare Users Group and RedWeek offer additional advice on selling timeshares.

You also could consider renting out your timeshare, using those same sites. Many owners discover they can offset or even completely cover their maintenance fees through such rentals, Rogers said.