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: 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: 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: How to track down an old retirement account

Dear Liz: I worked for a company during the late 1990s. When I left, I had a 401(k) worth approximately $10,000. I recently found an old 401(k) statement and called the plan administrator. I was told my company’s accounts had been transferred to another plan administrator in 2008. I called the new administrator and was told they also could not find my 401(k) using my Social Security number. How do I proceed? What are my options?

Answer: Get ready to make a lot more phone calls.

There’s no central repository for missing 401(k) funds — at least not yet. The Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp., which safeguards traditional pensions, has proposed rules that would allow it to hold orphaned 401(k) money from plans that have closed. That wouldn’t start until 2018. Another proposal, by Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.), would direct the IRS to set up an online database so workers could find pension and 401(k) benefits from open or closed plans, but Congress has yet to take action on that.

If your balance was less than $5,000 — which is possible, given the big market drop in 2008-2009 — your employer could have approved a forced IRA transfer and the money could be sitting with a financial services firm that accepts small accounts. If the plan was closed and your employer couldn’t find you, the money could have been transferred to an IRA, a bank account or a state escheat office. You can check state escheat offices at Unclaimed.org, but searching for an IRA or bank account may require help.

If your employer still exists, call to find out if anyone knows what happened to your money. If the company is out of business, you may be able to get free help tracking down your money from the U.S. Department of Labor (at askebsa.dol.gov or (866) 444-3272) or from the Pension Rights Center, a nonprofit pension counseling center (pensionrights.org/find-help). Another place to check is the National Registry of Unclaimed Retirement Benefits, a subsidiary of a private company, called PenChecks, that processes retirement checks, at www.unclaimedretirementbenefits.com.

One more wrinkle: Your employer or a plan administrator could insist you cashed in your account at some point. You may be able to prove otherwise if you’ve kept old tax returns, since those typically would show any distributions.

Your experience shows why it’s important not to lose track of old retirement accounts. Your current employer may allow you to transfer old accounts into its plan, or you can roll the money into an IRA. Either way, it’s much better to keep on top of your retirement money than to try to find it years later.

Q&A: Don’t bequeath trouble to your descendants

Dear Liz: I have two grown children, neither of whom owns a home, and three grandchildren. I would very much like to keep my house in the family for all to use, if and when needed. It is not large, and it would be somewhat difficult for two families to live here at the same time. I have a trust that splits everything between the two children. I also have handwritten a note and had it notarized explaining I would like the house kept in the family and not sold or mortgaged. Can you advise me?

Answer: Please think long and hard before you try to restrict what the next generation does with a bequest, particularly when it’s real estate. Is your desire to keep the house in the family worth causing rifts in that family?

It would be hard for two families to share even a large home. You could be setting up epic battles, not only over who gets to live there but how much is spent to maintain, repair and update the home. It’s difficult enough for married couples to own property together; siblings are almost certain to disagree about how much to spend and the differences may be even greater if only one family is actually using the house.

If your house is sold, on the other hand, it could provide nice down payments for each family to buy its own home. Alternatively, one family could get a mortgage to buy out the other and live in the house. Or the home could be mortgaged to provide two down payments and then rented out. Your notarized note wouldn’t prevent your children from doing any of these things, but it may cause them unnecessary guilt and disagreements about honoring those wishes.

Q&A: Sheltering home profits

Dear Liz: I understand that the profit realized on the sale of a home is not subject to tax, as long as that money is reinvested in another home. What if the couple divorces before or after the sale? If they split the profit from the sale and one or both put those funds into another house as single buyers, is each exempt from the tax? Does the fact that both are in their 70s have any effect on this matter?

Answer: Your information about home sale profits is about 20 years out of date. In 1997, Congress changed the law that once allowed people 55 and older to roll up to $125,000 of home sale profits into another home tax-free. That was a one-time tax break.

Now you can shelter up to $250,000 per person in home sale profits before owing any tax, and you can use the tax break repeatedly. You have to live in the home for at least two of the previous five years to qualify for the exemption.

Divorce can change your tax situation dramatically, and you don’t want to make decisions based on obsolete information. Please consult a tax professional to make sure you understand all of the implications of your split.

Q&A: What to consider when deciding how to bequeath your home

Dear Liz: I’m at 74-year-old retired woman living in a completely paid-off condo in California. I hold title in my name only. I would like to add my partner of 20 years and my married adult daughter to my home title so they will not have to go through probate if something happens to me. What would be the easiest way to do that? Someone told me a quick deed to each person giving them a third of the condo. I want it as joint tenancy so the condo would just go to the survivors. My parents always held title with my brother and myself. Do you see a problem with this?

Answer: The “quick deed” to which you refer is probably a quitclaim deed, which would transfer your entire interest in the property to someone else and possibly create gift tax issues. That’s not what you want.

Another option is a revocable transfer on death deed. Like many other states, California now offers this option so that real estate can bypass probate. You would retain ownership of the condo until you die, when it would pass to the people you designate.

But please think carefully before bequeathing a home to two people, especially two who aren’t related or married. What if your daughter needs to sell the house to raise cash and your partner doesn’t want to move? What if your partner needs to remodel the home as she ages but your daughter refuses to share in the costs? Would one have the wherewithal to buy out the other?

Another way to avoid probate would be to create a revocable living trust that allows your partner to live in the home until her death, said Los Angeles real estate attorney Burton Mitchell. The property then could be transferred to your daughter. It may not be the right solution, especially if your partner and daughter have similar life expectancies, but it’s one of many you should explore with an experienced estate planning attorney.

Q&A: 30-year versus 15-year mortgage

Dear Liz: Regarding the 57-year-old woman who wanted to refinance to a 15-year mortgage, why didn’t you present the benefits of keeping the low interest and low payments available on a 30-year loan and investing the difference? In 30 years the house would be paid off, but there would also be a pot of cash available if the difference were invested in a diverse portfolio. Too many people make the emotional decision that a paid-off house is necessary in retirement, then they end up having no cash when they might need it.

Answer: You’re right that when cash is tight, keeping a mortgage can make sense. Given her teacher’s pension, other savings and desire to pay off the home faster, the 15-year loan is a reasonable option. The faster payoff schedule also means that she can turn around and tap more of the equity in the unlikely event she needs a reverse mortgage later in life.

Q&A: Removing a quit-claim house mortgage from your credit

Dear Liz: I recently divorced and quit-claimed my house over to my ex-wife. She has been making all the payments on time but the mortgage still shows up on my credit. Because of this, I can’t borrow as it is considered my indebtedness still. Do you know of anyway of having it expunged from my credit reports?

Answer: She will have to refinance the mortgage in her own name to get you off the loan. The contract you signed with the lender otherwise remains in force and isn’t affected by the divorce agreement.

It’s good that she’s making payments on time, since a single skipped payment could trash your credit scores.

It’s unfortunate your attorney didn’t advise you of the consequences of quit-claiming the property while remaining on the mortgage. It’s rarely a good idea to give up an asset while keeping the liability. A better approach is to separate your credit before the divorce is final. That means closing all joint accounts and transferring the debt to separate accounts in the name of the person who will be responsible for the payments. If your ex wasn’t able to get approved for a refinance, the house could have been sold so that you wouldn’t be on the hook indefinitely.

Q&A: How to get rid of home-equity loan headaches

Dear Liz: We have taken several withdrawals from our home equity line of credit. Now the balance is close to $100,000. It’s the interest-only type. We don’t know how to pay off this amount systematically. Can you help?

Answer: As you’ve discovered, it’s not a good idea to pledge your home as collateral when you don’t know how you’ll pay off the debt. Home equity lines of credit can be an inexpensive way to borrow initially, but the interest-only period doesn’t last forever and eventually your payments will get a lot more expensive.

Many homeowners who tapped their equity before the financial crisis are discovering this fact — and some risk losing their homes. The initial “draw” period where you pay only interest typically lasts 10 years. After that, you can’t make further withdrawals and you’re expected to pay both interest and principal over the next 20 years. Your payments may jump 50% or more, depending on prevailing interest rates.

A better way to use HELOCs is for short-term borrowing that’s paid off well before the draw period expires. If you can increase your current payments to do that, you should.

If you can’t make pay more than your minimum, though, you’ll need to explore other alternatives. You may be able to arrange a cash-out refinance that combines the HELOC balance with your current mortgage and gives you 30 years to pay it off. If not, you can make an appointment with a housing counselor (you can get referrals at www.hud.gov) to see what options may be available to you as a distressed borrower. If you can’t restructure the debt, a short sale or a deed-in-lieu of foreclosure may be a better option than letting the lender take your home.