Q&A: Don’t keep a mortgage just for the tax deduction

Dear Liz: Does the new tax law, with its increased standard deduction, change the calculus of maintaining my mortgage? I owe about $250,000 at 3.25% on a 30-year mortgage. I no longer itemize, so I don’t get the benefit of the tax deduction for the interest. My payments are about $1,500 a month, but I could easily pay it off.

Answer: It never made much sense to keep a mortgage just for the tax deduction. The tax savings offset only a portion of the interest you pay. (If you’re in a 33% combined state and federal tax bracket, for example, you’d get at most 33 cents back for every $1 in mortgage interest you paid.)

A more compelling reason to keep a mortgage would be if you were able to get a better return on your money by investing it, or if you didn’t want to have a big chunk of your wealth tied up in a single, illiquid asset.

Q&A: Mortgage payoff pros and cons

Dear Liz: Should we use a $350,000 inherited non-spousal Roth IRA to pay off our mortgage? We have $285,000 left on our mortgage and would like to retire within 10 years. This is our dream home, and we don’t think we can otherwise pay it off before retiring. We have $1.1 million in other retirement accounts, an emergency fund, a $40,000 pension, and no other debt. Our home is worth $900,000.

Answer: In general, paying off a mortgage before retirement makes a lot of sense. Doing so reduces the amount of money you need to take from retirement funds, which can help make those funds last longer.

Being mortgage-free is not a goal you should pursue at any cost, however. You could end up having too much money tied up in your house and not enough in savings or investments. Also, the inherited Roth has significant advantages. Although you must take minimum distributions from the account, those are tax free and can be based on your life expectancy, which means the bulk of the money can continue growing for quite some time.

Tuesday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: What to do if Hurricane Dorian hits your home and mortgage. Also in the news: How to fall in love with your car again without breaking the bank, drink up savings at Starbucks, and why you should add cash to your car’s emergency kit.

What to Do If Hurricane Dorian Hits Your Home, Mortgage
What to do first.

Fall in Love With Your Car Again Without Breaking the Bank
Rekindle an old flame.

Drink Up Savings at Starbucks
Just in time for Pumpkin Spice Latte season.

Add Cash to Your Car’s Emergency Kit
But don’t leave it on the dashboard.

Q&A: Why not to prepay a mortgage

Dear Liz: I want to save interest by making biweekly mortgage payments. My loan company said I couldn’t do that, but I wondered if there was a way by first paying the monthly mortgage and then making a half payment mid-month toward the next month’s due date, to get started. Then I’d make another half payment at the beginning of the following month. Ideally, this would all be arranged with autopay. I’m retired with a 4%, 30-year mortgage that has a $1,900 monthly payment and my retirement accounts are currently paying better returns.

Answer: You actually won’t save any interest until your mortgage is paid off, which could be 25 years from now if your mortgage is relatively recent. And getting a better return from your investments is a good reason not to accelerate your mortgage payments. You also shouldn’t prepay a mortgage if you have any other debt, lack a substantial emergency fund or are inadequately insured. (Those who are still working also should be maxing out their retirement contributions before making extra mortgage payments.)

With a biweekly payment plan, you’d pay half your monthly mortgage payment every two weeks. Instead of making 12 payments a year, you make the equivalent of 13 payments. Paying the extra amount helps you pay off the mortgage sooner. A bi-weekly payment plan would shave about four years off a $400,000 mortgage at 4%. The interest savings kick in once you’re mortgage-free. Then you’d save the $47,000 or so in interest you’d otherwise pay in the final years of the loan.

If you’re determined to do this, you should talk to your mortgage lender, because the arrangement you’re describing sounds a lot like the biweekly payments it won’t accept. You could hire a company that specializes in these arrangements, but the fees you pay for the service detract from your savings and aren’t really necessary. Instead, consider simply making an extra payment against the principal each month. Ask your lender how to set this up with autopay so that you’re actually paying principal. Otherwise, the extra amount might just be applied to the next month’s payment, defeating the purpose.

Q&A: Limiting your rate shopping window

Dear Liz: We’re planning to refinance our mortgage and are concerned about generating multiple credit inquiries which would lower our excellent credit scores. Is there some kind of licensed, bonded ethical middle-agent who could get just one official credit report from each of the three bureaus and then send it to all the lenders I designate? Our FICOs are so good that we want lenders to compete for our refi business but don’t want the process itself to lower FICOs just for inquiries only.

Answer: The FICO formula has you covered. With the FICO scores most lenders use, multiple mortgage inquiries made within a 45-day window are aggregated together and counted as one. Furthermore, any inquiries made within the previous 30 days are ignored entirely. That allows you to rate shop for mortgages without dramatically affecting your scores.

The FICO formula extends this “de-duplication” process to two other types of borrowing: auto loans and student loans. Only similar types of inquiries are grouped together, however. If you shopped for both mortgages and auto loans, then two inquiries eventually would be factored into your credit scores, rather than just one.

Credit cards, personal loans and other types of borrowing don’t get the same treatment. If you apply for two credit cards while shopping for a mortgage, you would have three inquiries — two that are immediately factored into your scores and a third that would be counted after 30 days had passed.

Also, some lenders use older versions of the FICO formula that have a shorter rate-shopping window — 14 days instead of 45. If you want to be absolutely sure your mortgage shopping has a minimal impact on your scores, you can limit your shopping to that two-week period.

Q&A: How to boost your credit score before you buy a house

Dear Liz: I am trying to purchase my first home. I have a 20% down payment for the price range that I am looking for. The issue I am running into is that I have relatively new credit and my credit score is not great at all. I had to go to the emergency room two years back with no insurance and have medical expenses that went into collections. I am now in a financial spot to pay them off. These are the only negatives on my credit report that are unresolved. Will paying these off get my credit to the point that I can buy a home? I am lost as to how to get my score where it needs to be.

Answer: Unfortunately, paying collection accounts typically doesn’t help your credit scores, especially the scores used by most mortgage lenders.

Since you’re new to credit, you may not realize that you don’t have just one credit score. You have many. The two major types are FICO and VantageScore. The latest versions of each (FICO 9 and VantageScore 3.0 and 4.0), ignore paid collections. In addition, FICO 9 and VantageScore 4.0 count unpaid medical collections less heavily against you than other unpaid debts.

But mortgage lenders typically use much older versions of the FICO score, which count all collections against you even if they’re paid.

That said, it would be tough to get a mortgage with unpaid collections on your credit report. Since you have the cash, you may be able to negotiate discounts so that you can resolve these debts at a somewhat lower cost. (Collectors typically would much rather get a lump-sum settlement than wait to be paid over time.)

You’ll also want to get some positive information reported to the credit bureaus to help offset the negative information. The fastest way to do that would be to persuade someone you know who has good credit to add you as an authorized user to one of his or her credit cards. This person doesn’t have to give you the card or any access to the account. Typically, the account history will be “imported” to your credit reports, which can help your scores as long as the person continues to use the card responsibly.

Another way to add positive information is with a credit-builder loan, offered by many credit unions and Self Lender, an online loan site. Usually, credit-builder loans put the money you borrow into a savings account or certificate of deposit that you can claim after you’ve made 12 on-time payments. This helps you build savings at the same time you’re building your credit.

Secured credit cards also can help. With a secured card, you make a deposit with the issuing bank of $200 or more. You get a credit limit that’s typically equal to that deposit. Making small charges on the account and paying it off in full every month can help you build credit without paying interest. You’ll want a card that reports to all three credit bureaus, because mortgage lenders typically pull FICO scores from all three bureaus and use the middle of the three scores to determine your rate and terms.

Q&A: Here’s a case where taking retirement funds early might make sense

Dear Liz: My wife and I are both retired and receiving annuity payments. In addition, we have about $1.3 million in traditional IRAs and $350,000 in another annuity that will pay us each about $1,000 per month. We are moving from Texas to Arkansas sometime in the next year. Texas has no state income tax and pretty high property taxes, while Arkansas has lower property taxes but about 6% income tax. We plan to put down about $200,000 on a new home and obtain a mortgage for about $350,000 at about 4% interest.

Does it make sense to withdraw money from the IRA to pay down the amount we need to borrow for the mortgage? I can withdraw about $90,000 without putting us into the next higher federal tax bracket, if that makes any difference, and end up saving $5,400 in Arkansas income tax at the same time.

By my calculations, the return on the $90,000 would be almost $8,000 every year in reduced mortgage payments if we took out a 15-year mortgage. If we did the 30-year loan, that savings would be over $5,000. I don’t think we’ll achieve the same returns on $90,000 leaving those funds invested as they are in bonds or cash.

Answer: It usually doesn’t make sense to tap retirement funds to pay down a mortgage, but your case may be one of the exceptions. You have enough saved that the withdrawal won’t claim a big chunk of your available funds and leave you cash-poor.

We’ll assume you’re over 59½ and won’t face penalties for early withdrawal. If that’s the case, then you’ll also be facing required minimum distributions within a few years. These mandatory withdrawals, which must start after you turn 70½, would subject at least some of this money to taxation. The question is whether you want to pay those taxes now or later, and you’re making a pretty good case for now.

Before you withdraw any money from a retirement fund, however, you should consult with a tax pro or a fee-only financial planner, or both. Mistakes made in early retirement often have irreversible consequences, so you want an objective second opinion before you proceed.

Tuesday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: Should you pay off your mortgage before you retire? Also in the news: New UltraFICO score could boost credit access for consumers, a cheapskate’s guide to shopping for credit cards, and 7 year-end tax planning strategies for small business owners.

Should You Pay Off Your Mortgage Before You Retire?
Or is it better to wait?

New UltraFICO Score Could Boost Credit Access for Consumers
Big changes are coming.

A Cheapskate’s Guide to Shopping for Credit Cards
Finding a card to match your careful spending.

7 year-end tax planning strategies for small business owners
Tax season is right around the corner.

Should you pay off mortgage before you retire?

Most people would be better off not having mortgages in retirement. Relatively few will get any tax benefit from this debt, and the payments can get more difficult to manage on fixed incomes.

But retiring a mortgage before you retire isn’t always possible. Financial planners recommend creating a Plan B to ensure you don’t wind up house rich and cash poor.

In my latest for the Associated Press, why a mortgage-free retirement is usually best.

Q&A: When to keep a mortgage into retirement years and reasons you might want to pay it off

Dear Liz: My husband and I have no debt other than the mortgage on our home. My husband will retire in three years while I will continue to work. (I will have to pay for healthcare at that time, as I currently receive my benefits through his employer.) My husband insists that we pay our mortgage off before he retires. The mortgage balance is $59,000 now. We are able to do this, however, I am concerned that we will have no tax deduction whatsoever if we do. Who is correct?

Answer: You may have received some tax benefit in the past for your mortgage. After last year’s tax reform, it’s unlikely you’ll get any tax break going forward.

You have to be able to itemize your deductions to write off your mortgage interest. Now that Congress has nearly doubled the standard deduction, few taxpayers will have enough deductions to make itemizing worthwhile.

Even before tax reform, though, many homeowners got little or no tax benefit from their mortgages. They didn’t pay enough mortgage interest to make itemizing worthwhile, or their itemized deductions barely exceeded the standard deduction. The homeowners who got the biggest benefit were the ones with the largest mortgages. Even people with big mortgages tend to pay less interest over time as they pay down their loans.

Keeping a mortgage just for the tax break is kind of shortsighted, in any case, since you’re only getting back a fraction of what you pay out. For example, if you were in the 25% tax bracket, each dollar you paid in interest reduced your taxes by just 25 cents.

The best arguments for keeping a mortgage have to do with liquidity and investment returns. You shouldn’t pay off a mortgage if it means most of your money is tied up in your home, and if you don’t have enough other assets to cover emergencies and to generate future income. Also, some wealthier people opt to keep a mortgage because the loan is cheap, and they can make better returns on their money elsewhere.

Most people are better off without debts in retirement, though, so if you can pay off your home loan without compromising the rest of your financial life, you probably should.