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 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: 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.

Tuesday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: A financial advisor’s tips for starting an emergency fund. Also in the news: How small homes can offer big returns, why partner’s wealth is very important to only 5% of OKCupid users, and how to raise financially savvy kids.

Emergency Funds: A Financial Advisor’s Tips for Getting Started
Start your fund today.

Small Homes Can Offer Big Returns
Bigger homes aren’t always better.

Partner’s Wealth ‘Very Important’ to Only 5% of OkCupid Users, Survey Finds
Why money doesn’t seem to matter.

How to raise financially savvy kids
Getting them off on the right foot.

Friday’s need-to-know money news

mortgage2Today’s top story: Why you should front-load your IRA in January. Also in the news: Rideshare insurance for drivers, why January is the best time to buy a home, and how fifteen minutes a day can get your finances in order.

Front-Load Your IRA in January for a Bigger Payoff
It’s all about compound interest.

Rideshare Insurance for Drivers: Where to Buy, What It Covers
What Uber and Lyft drivers need to know.

Why January Is the Best Time to Buy a Home
Timing is everything.

Commit to Fifteen Minutes of Financial Literacy a Day to Get Your Finances in Order
Make it a daily habit.

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.

Wednesday’s need-to-know money news

images-2Today’s top story: NerdWallet’s 2016 American Household Credit Card Debt Study. Also in the news: The best places in American for first-time homebuyers, why Christmas loans are the coal in your financial stocking, and the best free online courses to help with your finances.

2016 American Household Credit Card Debt Study
Creeping back up.

Best Places in America for First-Time Homebuyers
Where you should be looking.

Christmas Loans: The Coal in Your Financial Stocking
Bah humbug.

The Best Free Online Courses to Help With Your Finances
It doesn’t get better than free!

Monday’s need-to-know money news

refinancingToday’s top story: How to find and finance bank-owned properties. Also in the news: Tips for handling holiday financial stress, how to have the money talk with your parents, and what to do when financial aid and scholarships don’t fully cover course fees.

How to find and finance bank-owned properties
It’s easier than you might think.

5 tips for handling holiday financial stress
Don’t let stress ruin the holidays.

How to have the ‘money talk’ with your parents
Tackling a difficult subject.

Financial Aid and Scholarships Don’t Always Cover Course Fees
Making sure you can cover your costs.

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.