Q&A: Mortgage payoff or emergency savings?

Dear Liz: My husband was laid off recently, and he quickly took a new job with a 25% pay cut to continue insurance benefits and the same retirement program. We regularly pay $500 to $1,300 extra on our house payment. We cannot keep that up. However, with his severance package and vacation day payout, we now have more in our bank account than we owe on our mortgage. If we paid off the $80,000 mortgage now (house is valued at $600,000), we’d have an emergency fund of only $10,000, but we could replenish those savings slowly each month with no house payment. We have no other debts. How do we know when is the right time to pay off the mortgage?

Answer: Think about what would happen if you paid off the mortgage and your husband were to be laid off again or you suffered some other financial setback. The $10,000 left in your emergency fund could be depleted quickly. If you don’t have stocks or other assets you could sell, you might have to raid your retirement accounts or turn to high-cost loans.

This is why financial planners recommend having an emergency fund equal to three to six months’ worth of expenses if possible — and why using your savings to pay off a low-rate debt might not be the best use of your money.

If you’re determined to pay off your mortgage, consider setting up a home equity line of credit first. That will give you a relatively inexpensive source of credit in an emergency.

Q&A: House sale implications for retiree

Dear Liz: I’m 67, divorced since 1992 and retired with a good government pension, a retirement investment fund, some stocks and cash savings. I plan to sell my home of 33 years soon for a hefty profit and buy a smaller home. I owe $100,000 on the mortgage. I worry about a significant increase in payments to Medicare and tax obligations to the IRS. What financial advice do you have for me? This is my first time selling and buying a property on my own.

Answer: Now would be a great time to consult a tax professional about your options. You can exempt as much as $250,000 of home sale profit, but gains beyond that would incur capital gains taxes and could increase your Medicare premiums.

The amount you owe on your mortgage doesn’t affect the tax you owe on a home sale, but other expenses might. For example, you may be able to reduce your taxable profit if you kept good records of the amounts spent on home improvements. What you spent on maintenance and repairs over the years won’t help, but any work that improved the value of your home may be added to what you paid for the home to increase your tax basis. This basis is what’s subtracted from the sale price to help determine your taxable profit. Certain expenses you incurred to buy your home, such as closing costs, and to sell it, such as real estate commissions, also can help reduce the taxable portion.

IRS Publication 523 goes into detail about how to calculate home sale profit, but an enrolled agent (you can get referrals from the National Assn. of Enrolled Agents) or a CPA could be extremely helpful in advising you about these calculations.

Q&A: Worried about identity theft? Here are some things you can do

Dear Liz: Last week I received my annual mortgage interest report. The envelope was not sealed and my full Social Security number was exposed. Two days later, I received an e-mail from PayPal for a purchase made online in my name with a different address. What do I need to do to protect myself from identity theft and are there any penalties my mortgage company could face?

Answer: The penalties for exposing your information depend on your state’s laws. You can contact your state attorney general’s office for more information.

At the very least, consider reporting the issue to the mortgage company and demanding that your Social Security number be redacted in future mailings. Better yet, see if you can go paperless and download your tax documents, a process that is typically more secure than having your private financial information sent through the mail.

It’s entirely possible the fraudulent purchase was unrelated to your mortgage company’s sloppy practices, but you should still take steps to reduce your odds of being victimized again. Obviously, you need to change your PayPal password but you should also make sure all your accounts — especially your financial and email accounts — have unique, complex passwords. A password manager such as LastPass or 1Password can help you keep track.

Good computer hygiene also can help reduce your risk. That means turning on your computer’s firewall, using a secure browser and keeping that browser up to date. Update and frequently run antivirus software as well.

Another important step in reducing identity theft risk is freezing your credit reports at all three major bureaus: Equifax, Experian and TransUnion. This should prevent someone from opening a new fraudulent credit account in your name but won’t prevent account takeovers, such as what may have happened with your PayPal account.

Detect account problems as quickly as possible by regularly reviewing bank, payment and credit card transactions. Consider putting alerts on your accounts for foreign transactions or transactions over a certain size or signing up with a credit- or identity-monitoring service.

Q&A: Plan for taxes after mortgage payoff

Dear Liz: In a recent column, you answered a question from a couple who just paid off their mortgage. You suggested increasing retirement or emergency savings or possibly charitable contributions. All good, but you should have pointed out that the mortgage lender will not be responsible for paying the property tax and fire insurance going forward. I would suggest the couple open a separate account and build up a fund to pay those expenses or they could be facing financial hardship when the tax and insurance bills come.

Answer: Good point. Many homeowners are accustomed to paying their homeowners insurance and property taxes through escrow accounts set up by their mortgage lenders. Once the loan is paid off, these bills become the homeowners’ responsibility to pay.

Q&A: Mortgage payoff creates options

Dear Liz: My wife and I just paid off our mortgage. What’s the correct thing to do now with the amount we used for the mortgage payments?

Answer: Congratulations! Paying off a mortgage is a big deal, so consider using some of your freed-up money to celebrate in whatever way seems appropriate.

Many Americans don’t have adequate retirement or emergency savings, so those should be high priorities along with paying off any other debt you might have.

If you’re in good shape, though, consider boosting your charitable contributions. Studies show that generosity contributes to happiness, and spending money on others often makes us feel better than spending on ourselves.

Q&A: When mortgage shopping, does checking your credit scores lower them?

Dear Liz: We’re trying to refinance a mortgage. All of the mortgage lenders claim that checking our credit scores will not affect the scores. However, that is not true. What gives? The three credit bureaus all list “too many inquiries” and penalize us. Does calling them do any good or make it even worse?

Answer:
Checking your own scores is considered a soft inquiry that has no effect on your scores. When a lender checks your scores, there can be a small ding, but credit scoring formulas also have a feature that reduces the effect when you’re shopping for a mortgage.

Essentially, all the mortgage inquiries made within a certain amount of time are grouped together and counted as one. In addition, the formulas ignore any mortgage inquiries made within the previous 30 days. The amount of time you can shop varies with the credit scoring formula, so it’s generally a good idea to concentrate your shopping into a two-week period.

What you don’t want to do when you’re in the market for a mortgage is to apply for other credit. Those inquiries are not grouped with your mortgage inquiries. The effect of these inquiries fades quickly and is usually pretty small — typically 5 points or less for FICO scores, for example. But even a small ding could cause you to pay more in interest if your scores aren’t already excellent.

Q&A: Refinance or use IRA funds on mortgage?

Dear Liz: I owe $360,000 on my mortgage. I have sufficient funds in my IRA to pay this amount off without depleting income distribution for the next 20 years. I am currently paying $1,100 monthly on an interest-only loan, but I have to start making much larger principal payments in November 2022. Would you advise withdrawing IRA investment monies (and taking a tax hit) to pay off the full loan amount, or simply getting a conventional mortgage and live with a higher payment ($1,500) each month? I am 77 and retired now for four years.

Answer: Making that large a withdrawal will almost certainly hurl you into a much higher tax bracket and increase your Medicare premiums. Refinancing the mortgage while rates are low likely makes the most sense, but consult a tax pro or a fee-only financial advisor before making any big moves with retirement funds.

Q&A: Here’s a retirement dilemma: Pay off the house first or refinance?

Dear Liz: My husband and I are retired, with enough income from our pensions and Social Security to cover our modest needs, plus additional money in retirement accounts. We have owned our home for 35 years but refinanced several times and still have 15 years to go on a 20-year mortgage.

With rates so low, we were contemplating refinancing to a 15-year mortgage just for the overall savings on interest, but we started thinking about the fact that, at 67 and 72 years old, it’s unlikely that both of us will survive for another 15 years to pay off this loan. Since that’s the case, we’re now thinking about taking out a 30-year mortgage, with monthly payments $700 or $800 less than what we currently pay.

Our house is worth around 10 times what we owe on it, and if we had to move to assisted living we could rent it out at a profit, even with a mortgage. We also each have a life insurance policy sufficient to pay off the balance on the mortgage should one of us predecease the other.

I know that conventional wisdom says that we should pay off our mortgage as quickly as we can. But an extra $700 or $800 a month would come in handy! Am I missing something? Is this a bad idea?

Answer: Answer: Not necessarily.

Most people would be smart to have their homes paid off by the time they retire, especially if they won’t have enough guaranteed income from pensions and Social Security to cover their basic living expenses. Paying debt in retirement could mean drawing down their retirement savings too quickly, putting them at greater risk of ultimately running short of money.

Once people are in retirement, though, they shouldn’t necessarily rush to pay off a mortgage. Doing so could leave them cash poor.

You are in an especially fortunate position. Your guaranteed income covers your expenses, including your current mortgage, and you have a way to pay off the loan when that income drops at the first death. (The survivor will get the larger of the two Social Security checks. What happens with the pension depends on which option you chose — it may drop or disappear or continue as before.) Even with a mortgage, you have a large amount of equity that can be tapped if necessary.

So refinancing to a longer loan could make a lot of sense. To know for sure, though, you should run the idea past a fee-only, fiduciary financial planner who can review your situation and provide comprehensive advice.

Q&A: They paid off the mortgage rather than save for retirement. Now what?

Dear Liz: My wife and I aggressively paid down our mortgage and now have it paid off, but we don’t have much saved for retirement. I make about $90,000 a year and will receive a teacher’s pension that will replace between 30% and 60% of that (depending on what option we choose) when I retire in about 10 years. It probably won’t be enough to live on. We will receive no Social Security benefits. We have no other debts, and we would like to make up for lost time as best we can on retirement preparation. What is your best advice for people like us who have diligently paid off their mortgage but have not diligently put money away for retirement?

Answer: The older you get, the harder it is to make up for lost time with retirement savings. You probably can’t do it if retirement is just a few years away.

This is not to make you feel bad, but to serve as a warning for others tempted to prioritize paying off a mortgage over saving for retirement.

If you’re in your 50s, you’d typically need to save nearly half your income to equal what you could have accumulated had you put aside just 10% of your pay starting in your 20s. The miracle of compounding means even small contributions have decades to grow into considerable sums. Without the benefit of time, your contributions can’t grow as much so you have to put aside more.

But you can certainly save aggressively and consider a few alternatives for your later years.

Once you hit 50, you can benefit from the ability to make “catch up” contributions. For example, if you have a workplace retirement plan such as a 403(b), you can contribute as much as $26,000 — the $19,500 regular limit plus a $6,500 additional contribution for those 50 and older.

You and your spouse also can contribute as much as $7,000 each to an IRA; whether those contributions are deductible depends on your income and whether you’re covered by a workplace plan. If you’re covered, your ability to deduct your contribution phases out with a modified adjusted gross income of $105,000 to $125,000 for married couples filing jointly. If your spouse isn’t covered by a workplace plan but you are, her ability to deduct her contribution phases out with a modified adjusted gross income of $198,000 to $208,000. (All figures are for 2021.)

If you can’t deduct the contribution, consider putting the money into a Roth IRA instead because withdrawals from a Roth are tax free in retirement. The ability to contribute to a Roth IRA phases out with modified adjusted gross incomes between $198,000 and $208,000 for married couples filing jointly.

If possible, a part-time job in retirement could be extremely helpful in making ends meet. So could downsizing or tapping your home equity with a reverse mortgage. A fee-only financial planner could help you sort through your options, as well as help you figure out the best way to take your pension when the time comes.

Q&A: Taking out a reverse mortgage may help if coronavirus wipes out your job

Dear Liz: I read with interest the letter from the person who was a tour guide and lost their job due to the virus. I kept reading, expecting you to suggest a reverse mortgage. Are these a bad idea?

Answer: Not necessarily. The person in question owned the home with a sibling, and the sibling did not live in the home, which could complicate the process of getting a reverse mortgage.

If there was substantial equity in the home, however, a reverse mortgage could pay off the existing mortgage and might be worth the effort. One way to investigate this option is to talk to a HUD-approved housing counseling agency.