Q&A: Reverse mortgages have gotten safer and cheaper but aren’t for everyone

Dear Liz: I have been making interest-only payments on a home equity line of credit but starting in January the payments will increase to include principle. I would like to do a cash-out refinance of my first mortgage (I owe about $190,000) to pay off the HELOC (on which I owe $140,000).

My home is worth about $600,000, but my debt-to-income ratio is very high, and I’ve been told I won’t be approved.

I have never been late on my mortgage or credit cards, on which I owe about $30,000. I am working very hard on paying off my debt but my income is low, $25,000 a year.
I am 72, a widow and find it hard to land a good paying job like I used to have. I have to settle for what I can get.

My son and his family live with me and pay $900 rent and half of utilities but those payments are not reflected on my taxes.

The advice I am getting so far is to get a reverse mortgage for about a year, to not take any money from it and instead pay down my credit, then after a year try to refinance again. What are your thoughts on reverse mortgages?

Answer: Reverse mortgages have gotten safer and less expensive but they aren’t a good short-term solution for anyone. All mortgages have costs, and it makes little sense to pay to set up a reverse mortgage if you plan to get rid of it a few months later.

Reverse mortgages, for those who don’t know, allow borrowers 62 or over to tap their home equity to get a lump sum, a series of monthly checks or a line of credit. Borrowers don’t have to make payments on these loans, but any debt incurred on a reverse mortgage grows over time and must be paid off when the borrower sells, moves out or dies.

The most common reverse mortgage is the Home Equity Conversion Mortgage, which is insured by the federal government. The HECM loan typically includes upfront and annual mortgage insurance premiums, third party charges, origination fees, interest and servicing fees.

The amount you can borrow is based on your age, prevailing interest rates and the value of your home (the maximum home value considered is $636,150). You’ll find a calculator at www.reversemortgage.org/About/Reverse-Mortgage-Calculator that can help you estimate what you can borrow and the costs.

Normally, people can’t access more than 60% of the borrowed amount in the first year. That’s to prevent them from running through all their equity in a short time. The exception is when the money’s being used to pay off existing loans. You probably would be able to borrow just enough to pay off your current mortgages, but the upfront mortgage insurance premium you would owe would be high: 2.5%, rather than the usual 0.5%.

Another complication is the fact that you have family living with you. You’d need to think through what would happen if you died, had to sell or moved into a nursing home, because that could leave your son and his family homeless if they weren’t able to pay off the mortgage.

A final concern is the fact that you’ve been living beyond your means for quite a while, as shown by the amount of debt you have. Eliminating mortgage payments could help you pay off your remaining debt, but that’s only if you keep your expenses in line with your current income — not what you were able to spend when you had a good job. There’s also no telling how much longer you’ll be able to continue working, which would mean getting by on even less.

Consider meeting with both a nonprofit credit counselor and a bankruptcy attorney to understand your options. You can get referrals from the National Foundation for Credit Counseling (www.nfcc.org) and the National Assn. of Consumer Bankruptcy Attorneys (www.nacba.org), respectively.

Q&A: How cosigning a mortgage loan can bring big risks

Dear Liz: I’ve been self-employed for just over a year. Because of disbursements from a recent divorce, I have enough money to make a 40% down payment on a modest house. My income will easily cover the resulting mortgage payments, health insurance and other expenses, but I’ve been turned down for a loan several times without a cosigner. A family member has offered many times to do this, as the person doesn’t have the means or interest in buying a house anytime soon for various reasons. Reluctantly I am considering it.

This person has a good job but will not be contributing any money toward my down payment or mortgage payments. I plan on setting up a separate shared bank account that will cover at least a year to 18 months of expenses for the home in case something happens to me, so my relative isn’t burdened in any way. I also plan on listing this person as a beneficiary on the mortgage so they could choose to sell the house or live in it.

What would be the tax liability if this happens? What if we become roommates and they pay me rent? Would it be a good idea to refinance in a year or so to remove the cosigner? Would a revocable living trust be a better way to handle this situation?

Answer: The best way to handle this situation is to find a good real estate attorney who can explain your options. Your relative should do the same.

Cosigning a loan would have a lot of upside to you and mostly downside to your relative. Cosigners are equally responsible for the home loan, but they aren’t typically owners of the property.

If you want your relative to inherit the house should you die, you can include her as the property’s beneficiary in estate planning documents or a transfer on death deed, if your state has that document for real estate. (Mortgages aren’t assets, so they don’t have beneficiaries.) If your relative inherits the house, she typically wouldn’t owe taxes unless yours is one of the six states that still has an inheritance tax (Iowa, Kentucky, Maryland, Nebraska, New Jersey or Pennsylvania). In these states, closer relatives typically pay a lower rate than more distant relatives or those who aren’t related.

You also could leave a sum of money to pay the home’s expenses for a certain period. That probably would be a better idea than a shared bank account, unless your relative insists on access to such a thing as a condition of the loan. In general, you should minimize financial entanglements with people if you’re not married to them or legally or morally responsible for them.

You probably should try to refinance this loan at your earliest opportunity, rather than leaving her on the loan or inviting her to be your tenant. Even in areas where landlord-tenant law favors the landlord, such a relationship can be tricky. In other areas, you could find yourself saddled with a relative who would be extremely difficult to evict.

Q&A: The road to homeownership should be paved with skepticism

Dear Liz: My husband is 46 and I am 43. We have been living in Las Vegas for six years. We are aware that we missed out on buying a home a few years ago. Are we chasing a dream or do you think that we might have another chance to buy a house in the next few years? I am also very concerned about another recession. Some websites forecast one in 2018.

Answer: Some websites forecast the end of the world in 2016. And 2015. And 2014. And so on.

Recessions, by contrast, are pretty much inevitable but they’re not really predictable. You shouldn’t try to time your real estate purchases hoping to avoid, or take advantage, of the lower prices they might bring.

In general, you need to be a lot more skeptical about what you read and what you’re told if you want to be a homeowner and not get fleeced.

Everyone involved in real estate transactions — as well as in most other financial transactions — may have an incentive to mislead you or at least not tell you the whole truth. That’s why it’s so important to do your own research and make your own decisions.

Here’s just one example. A lender will tell you how large a mortgage it will give you, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you can really handle that loan. You may have other goals, such as retirement, that you won’t be able to achieve if you take on a too-large payment.

The best time to buy a home is when you want to be a homeowner, you’re financially ready to do so and you can afford to stay put for several years, because it can take a few years’ worth of appreciation to offset the costs of buying and selling a home (not to mention moving costs).

You also should make sure you have a healthy emergency fund — three months’ worth of expenses is a good start — to handle the inevitable unexpected expenses that arise when you own a home.

Q&A: Capital gains

Dear Liz: If and when we sell our house, the capital gain is likely to exceed the $500,000 exemption limit. I am carrying over a loss of about $100,000 from stock sales. Can I use this loss to offset the capital gain from the house?

Answer: Yes. Capital losses can be used to offset capital gains, including those from a home sale.

Q&A: Why a reverse mortgage might be a good idea for some older homeowners

Dear Liz: I recently retired to a small house I bought 30 years ago. I refinanced four times to get the rate down from 11% to 3.5%. This provided me with a low monthly mortgage (just under $450), but my current 30-year loan won’t be paid off until I’m 92. I’ll be 67 in two months, and just received an inheritance of $400,000 following the death of my parents. My only income is $2,000 a month from Social Security and a monthly pension check of $1,100, although I do have an IRA that should be worth roughly $170,000 by July.

I’m thinking about paying off the $90,000 remaining on my mortgage, which would allow it to be passed on to my sister, nephew (or whomever) without any complicated bank or loan issues. It also would free up that mortgage payment for other household expenses. The house needs some work, such as a new carport, double-pane windows, proper insulation, deck repair and maybe termite work, all of which will probably eat up the better part of $100,000. Is it worth keeping the loan just to maintain the tax deduction or does it makes financial sense to pay it off?

Answer: Keeping a mortgage just for the tax deduction doesn’t usually make much sense. Here’s why: If you’re in the 25% federal tax bracket, you’re getting back only about 25 cents for each dollar in interest you pay. Most homeowners get even less back, and many don’t get any tax advantage from their mortgages at all.

It can make sense, though, to keep a mortgage to preserve liquidity. Younger people, especially, should be wary of tying up most of their net worth in a home if that equity would be hard to tap in an emergency. Home equity lines of credit offer one way to access that equity, although lenders can freeze or reduce those lines on a whim.

Because you’re over 62, you could consider paying off the loan and then setting up a reverse mortgage line of credit.

An FHA-insured reverse mortgage line of credit can’t be shut down once it’s established, as long as you abide by the loan rules (such as paying your property taxes and insurance, and keeping the home in good condition). In fact, the amount you can borrow can increase over time with a reverse mortgage credit line. You don’t have to make monthly principal and interest payments on the money you borrow with a reverse mortgage.

Any amount you borrow will grow over time, typically at variable interest rates, and will have to be repaid when you die, sell or permanently move out of the home. That would complicate leaving the house to your heirs, but if the amount you owe is greater than the home’s worth, your heirs aren’t on the hook for the difference with an FHA-insured reverse mortgage, also known as a Home Equity Conversion Mortgage.

In any case, preserving an inheritance probably shouldn’t be your top priority. You should focus instead on preserving your quality of life and your financial flexibility.

Reverse mortgages have gotten safer and less expensive in recent years, but you would need to exercise discipline not to waste the money you borrow on frivolous purchases. You want that equity to be available for you when you need it, such as for nursing home or other long-term care expenses.

You would be required to get counseling before applying for a reverse mortgage, but you also should talk to an independent, fee-only financial planner to make sure this approach makes sense.

Q&A: Capital gains taxes explained

Dear Liz: Do I understand correctly that I must live in a house for two years before selling it to avoid paying capital gains tax, regardless of how much I may profit from the sale?

Answer: You do not. You must live in a home for two of the previous five years to exempt up to $250,000 of home sale profits. (Married couples can exempt up to $500,000.) After that, you’ll pay capital gains taxes on any remaining profit.

Even if you didn’t last the full two years, you may be able to claim a partial exemption if you meet certain criteria, such as having a change in employment, a health condition or other “unforeseen circumstance” that required you to move out.

Q&A: How a short sale can short-circuit your credit score

Dear Liz: In 2010 I was laid off from my construction management position. I was unable to find work for 28 months. The bank tried to foreclose but I was able to arrange a short sale of my home in March 2012. Shortly after that, my unemployment benefits ran out and I was unable to pay my obligations (two credit cards totaling around $9,500).

I did get a good job in June and in July worked out payment plans to get the back debt caught up. I have since paid this debt off (November 2016) and pay any credit card balances in full every month. I also pay my car loan on time using automatic debits.

My credit scores remain stuck in the 675 to 690 range and none of the steps that I take seem to help. I know that after seven years the negative information regarding the mortgage and the credit card past dues will drop off. Since I did the short sale and not a foreclosure, though, why are my credit scores treating me as if I did a foreclosure or chose bankruptcy?

Answer: A bankruptcy theoretically slices more points off credit scores than either a foreclosure or a short sale. The hit you take from a short sale, though, depends in part on how your lender reported the transaction to the credit bureaus.

If the lender reported a deficiency balance — which is essentially the balance of your mortgage that wasn’t repaid after the sale — the impact will be similar to a foreclosure. If the lender opts not to report the balance, the credit score impact will be somewhat less. After the foreclosure crisis started, some lenders opted not to report those balances as an incentive for homeowners to arrange short sales rather than let their homes go into foreclosure.

You’re already doing most of what you need to do to repair your credit, including having different types of credit (credit cards are revolving accounts while car loans are installment accounts) and paying those debts on time.

One tweak you can try is reducing your credit utilization on those cards. If you regularly charge 30% or more of your credit limits, try reducing your charges to 10% of those limits or less. It’s good that you pay in full, but the balance that’s used in most credit scoring formulas is the one the credit card issuer decides to report. It’s often, but not always, the amount that shows as your balance due on the statement closing day. Reducing the amount of credit you use may boost your scores a few more points. Other than that, you simply have to wait for time to pass and for your responsible credit use to undo the damage of the past.

Q&A: Capital gains tax on home sale profit

Dear Liz: I recently sold a home and am trying to escape the dreaded capital gains tax. I’ve done everything I can to reduce my overall tax bill, including maxing out my retirement contributions. I don’t want to buy a more expensive home to escape the gains tax. Any thoughts?

Answer: Buying a more expensive home wouldn’t change what you owe on your previous home. The days when you could roll gains from one home purchase into another are long gone.

These days you’re allowed to exclude up to $250,000 in home sale profit from your income (the limit is per person, so a couple can shelter $500,000). In other words, that amount is tax free, as long as you lived in the home for at least two of the previous five years. Beyond that your profit is subject to capital gains taxes. The top federal capital gains rate is 20%, plus a 3.8% investment surtax if your income is more than $200,000 for singles or $250,000 for married couples.

Here’s where good record-keeping may help. While generally you’re not allowed to deduct repair and maintenance costs from that profit, you can use home improvement expenditures to reduce the tax you owe. Home improvements are added to your cost basis — essentially what you paid for the property, including settlement fees and closing costs, and that’s what is deducted from your net sales price to determine your profit.

You’ll need receipts plus credit card or bank statements to prove what you paid. Improvements must “add to the value of your home, prolong its useful life, or adapt it to new uses,” according to IRS Publication 523, Selling Your Home. Examples of improvements include additions, remodels, landscaping and new systems, such as new heating or air conditioning systems. You can include repairs that are part of a larger remodeling job, but you can’t include improvements you later take out (such as the cost of a first kitchen remodel after you do a second one).

Q&A: Parking money for a short term

Dear Liz: We will soon be selling our home and moving into an apartment until we purchase a new home. Our proceeds from the sale will be over $600,000. It seems that there is no place to safely put the funds and get some meaningful interest to boot. Savings accounts and money markets pay very little interest, and certificates of deposit have a fixed time. We may need to withdraw the money in as few as 30 days, but it may be six months or longer. Any suggestions where to park our money?

Answer: Some online banks currently offer interest rates around 1% for savings accounts. It’s not much, but it’s better than the 0.06% rate that’s currently the national average, according to the FDIC’s April 3 report. An Internet search for “best savings rates” should turn up competitive offers.

A rate of 1% isn’t much and means that you’ll lose a little ground to inflation, which is currently more than 2%. But it’s more important that your money be safe and liquid, ready when you need it, than for you to try to squeeze a high return from it.

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.