Q&A: What to consider when you’re deciding whether to sell and move for better schools

Dear Liz: I’m 47, married, with one child in private elementary school because the public school option for our neighborhood is not good. We earn a combined $260,000 per year. (We know we’re fortunate, as we come from lower-income circumstances). I’ve eliminated all of my credit card debt and owe only mortgage debt ($168,000 plus $30,000 on a line of credit used for remodeling). Our home is worth about $350,000 and the scheduled mortgage payoff is about 25 years from now.

We’ve thought of moving for a bigger, better house and especially better school options as our child grows through middle and high school. However, we’ve begun to think that staying put is better, since a new house will be much more expensive and a new 30-year mortgage would mean we’d still have a mortgage payment into our 70s. I saw my dad struggle in retirement because he still had a mortgage to pay on a fixed income; I don’t want that.

If we stay put and are aggressive, we can pay off the current house much sooner than 25 years. Any advantage of moving to a place with good public school options at best pencils out the same financially as private school because of increased mortgage costs. But I see peers and family members moving around, taking on mortgage debt that they won’t pay off before they retire. Are we making the right financial decision in staying put?

Answer: You’re not wrong to want to avoid a mortgage in retirement — or the considerable costs of moving. Each move can eat up 10% or more of your current home’s value, once you account for real estate agent commissions and other selling costs, plus moving expenses. Minimizing the number of moves you make in a lifetime can save you a considerable amount of money.

That said, paying the premium for a home in a better school district may pay off in greater appreciation and perhaps less risk of loss during a downturn.

Because the other financial costs of moving versus staying put are roughly equal, perhaps you should think about your future. Do you want to move to another community when you retire, or do you plan to stay put?

If you’ll remain, is your current home a good option for your later years, or can it be remodeled to help you age in place? The best layout would be to have the main living areas, including a bedroom and a full bath, on one level. Ideally, there also would be at least one entry with no steps, hallways and doorways at least 36 inches wide and enough space in the main rooms for a wheelchair to turn around — generally a 5-foot-by-5-foot clear space, according to the National Assn. of Home Builders.

Some homes can’t be made age-friendly. If that’s the case, and you don’t want to move to another area when you retire, making the move to a more appropriate house now could make sense.

In any case, thinking about the next phase of your life may bring more clarity to the “stay vs. move” decision and help you arrange your finances accordingly.