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: Finding a financial planner

Dear Liz: Your column on delaying Social Security suggests using a certified financial planner on an hourly basis to review one’s retirement plans. I have struggled to find one who charges this way. They almost all want to control your money for a fee. The one I found after some effort charges $500 to $600 an hour. Please make some recommendations. I don’t mind if the CFP is not local. I just want someone who is certified, reputable, with a reasonable hourly fee.

Answer: There are a growing number of options for people who want “advice only” financial planning from a fee-only, fiduciary advisor:

XY Planning Network is a network of planners who offer flat monthly fees in addition to any other options, including hourly or assets-under-management fees. Monthly fees are typically $100 to $200, with some planners requiring an initial or setup fee of $1,000 to $2,000.

Garrett Planning Network represents planners willing to charge by the hour, although many also manage assets for a fee. Members are either certified financial planners, on track to get the designation or certified public accountants who have the personal financial specialist credential, which is similar to the CFP. Hourly fees typically range from $150 to $300, with a consultation on one topic such as Social Security-claiming strategies or a portfolio typically taking two or three hours. A comprehensive financial plan may require 20 hours or more.

Advice-Only Financial is a service started by financial blogger Harry Sit to connect people with fee-only advisors who just charge for advice and don’t accept asset management fees. Sit charges $200 to help people find fiduciary CFPs who are either local or willing to work remotely. The planners typically charge $100 to $400 an hour.

Another option for those who don’t have complex needs would be an accredited financial counselor or financial fitness coach. Those in private practice typically charge $100 to $150 an hour, although many work on a sliding scale, said Rebecca Wiggins, executive director of the Assn. for Financial Counseling & Planning Education.

Q&A: Consult a pro when planning elder care

Dear Liz: My parents and I are discussing the best ways to protect their assets if one of them must live in a nursing home. Their home is paid off, and we were wondering if adding my name on the deed will secure the home from a mandatory sale for caregiving expenses. Please note, I am the only child. Also, I may want to live there someday to care for the other parent. Looking for the best options for saving money and avoiding inheritance tax for this asset.

Answer: Please consult an elder law attorney before you take any steps to “protect” assets because the wrong moves could come back to haunt you (and your parents).

It sounds like you’re contemplating the possibility that one of your parents may wind up on Medicaid, the government health program for the poor that covers nursing home costs. Medicaid has a very low asset limit and uses a “look back” period to discourage people from transferring money or property just so they can qualify. In most states, transfers made within 60 months of the application are examined and, if found to be in violation of the rules, used to determine a penalty period to prevent someone from qualifying for Medicaid coverage. In California, the look-back period is 30 months.

The state can attempt to recoup Medicaid costs from people’s estates by putting liens against their homes. You might see that as an “inheritance tax,” but inheritance taxes are taxes imposed in a few states on people who inherit money or property. Although all states try to recoup Medicaid costs, only six — Iowa, Kentucky, Maryland, Nebraska, New Jersey and Pennsylvania — have inheritance taxes, and these either exempt or give favorable rates to children who inherit.

Having your name added to the deed can cause problems, as well. Your creditors could go after the home if you’re sued, and you could lose a portion of the step up in tax basis you would get if you inherited the house instead. If you’re married and get divorced, your portion of your parents’ home could be considered a “marital asset” that has to be divided.

It’s great that you and your parents are trying to plan for long-term care, but you should seek out professional guidance.

Q&A: How to make retirement saving a priority

Dear Liz: One thing I like about saving for retirement with an IRA is that I can wait until April 15 of the following year and then just contribute a lump sum for whatever I can afford to put in that year. Is there anything similar with 401(k)? Or do I have to have the contributions come out piecemeal with payroll deductions? I keep revising the percentages, but then there is a lag time between when I revise and when that money is taken out. It is a hassle. It would be much easier to just make a lump sum contribution at the end of the year to my 401(k).

Answer: Many people have unpredictable incomes and variable expenses that make planning tough. If you have a steady paycheck, though, you’d be smart to pay yourself first by making your retirement contributions a priority.

It’s generally smart to contribute at least enough to get the full company match, even if that means cutting back elsewhere. Matches are free money that you shouldn’t pass up. If you can contribute more, even better. For many people, retirement plan contributions are one of the few available ways they can still reduce their taxable income.

If you discover after the end of the year that you could have put in more, you can still make a lump sum contribution to an IRA. Since you have a plan at work, your contribution would be fully deductible if your modified adjusted gross income is less than $64,000 for singles or $103,000 for married couples filing jointly. The ability to deduct the contribution phases out so that there’s no deduction once income is above $74,000 for singles and $123,000 for couples.

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.

Q&A: Bad Social Security math

Dear Liz: Regarding when to begin receiving Social Security payments: I would think that people should begin taking payments as early as possible if they can invest it rather than spend it, as a lot of money is “left on the table” between ages, say, 62 and 70. Your thoughts?

Answer: That argument was more compelling a few decades ago when you could get a 7% or 8% return on an FDIC-insured certificate of deposit. These days, there’s no investment that offers a guaranteed return as high as what you’d get from delaying the start of Social Security.

The “take it early and invest” approach also ignores the longevity insurance aspect of Social Security benefits. Most people face a real risk of outliving their savings, which could leave them relying on Social Security for most if not all of their income. Maximizing Social Security benefits by delaying your application can help you live more comfortably, should that happen.

Also, starting early can cause harm to whichever spouse survives the other. When one spouse dies, one of the two Social Security checks the couple was receiving will stop. The remaining spouse will get only the larger of the two checks, which is known as a survivor’s benefit. Maximizing that benefit can help ease the shock of going from two checks to one, so financial planners generally recommend that the higher earner in a couple delay his or her application if possible.

Q&A: Tax take on inherited house

Dear Liz: In a recent column, you quoted an attorney saying that if an inherited home in a trust is sold for its value at the date of death, the trust won’t owe capital gains. We sold our family’s house in 2007 within a month of my mother’s death and the government took half. Fortunately it was a really valuable house in Brentwood, but what are you talking about? I must be missing something.

Answer: If the government took half, then estate taxes — rather than capital gains taxes — probably triggered that hefty bill.

When your mother died, the estate tax exemption limit was much lower — $2 million, compared with the current $11.4 million. The top federal estate tax rate then was 45%, compared with 15% for capital gains.

Q&A: Inflation and Social Security

Dear Liz: Every time someone asks a question about when to start taking Social Security, all you financial advisers make your calculations based on the 7% to 8% annual increase you get by delaying between ages 62 and 70. What you never mention is that once you start getting Social Security, you also start getting the cost of living annual adjustments. I started at 63 and my monthly check has already gone up 5% and it’s compounded. In this era of higher inflation, that pushes out the break-even point into an age in the late eighties. You need to add that into your advice.

Answer: Surveys have shown that most people are happy with their decision to start Social Security, even when they started it early. Perhaps they don’t know what they’re missing.

The researchers who have studied Social Security claiming strategies have factored inflation into the mix, as well as longevity, investment returns and taxes (there’s something known as the “tax torpedo,” which can jack up marginal tax rates for middle-income Social Security recipients). The assumptions can differ, but the results don’t: The majority of people benefit from delaying. In today’s low-interest-rate environment, many researchers say the vast majority are better off.

Another factor the researchers consider — and that many early starters don’t — is what happens to the surviving spouse. When one member of a married couple dies, one of their two Social Security checks goes away and the survivor has to get by on a single check, which will be the larger of the two. That’s why it’s so important that the higher earner in a couple try to delay as long as possible, because it will boost the check for the person left behind.

That doesn’t mean single people should start early, however. Single people tend to have less savings and wealth than married people; they’re more likely to be poor than married couples, and single women have a higher poverty rate than single men. If you wind up getting most if not all your income from Social Security, you’ll want that check to be as large as possible.

As for your phrase, “this era of higher inflation” — yes, the 2.8% cost-of-living boost was higher than the 2% increase of the prior year. The year before that, the inflation adjustment was close to zero, and it was actually zero in 2010, 2011 and 2016. Annual adjustments over the last 20 years have averaged just a little over 2%. That’s not a lot to get excited about.

Selling mom’s house may require an appraisal first

Dear Liz: My mother recently passed away. The title to her home was held in the family trust. My siblings and I are in the process of clearing out the house in preparation for a sale. Do we need to obtain a “step-up” basis appraisal before the sale to use in determining capital gain on the home? We do not know the original price paid for the home in the late 1960s. Alternatively, could we use an appraisal made in November 2016 as a basis and apply the one-time $250,000 capital gain exclusion?

Answer: You definitely need to establish a property’s value for income tax purposes soon after the owner’s death. If you sell within a year, you could use the fair market value as the home’s new basis, said estate planning attorney Burton Mitchell.

“There is no law about this one-year period,” Mitchell said. “It is just what is often used by both IRS and practitioners.”

You may want more certainty or think the sale may not happen within a year. Estate planning attorney Jennifer Sawday of Long Beach recommends you immediately reach out to a real estate agent to get a broker opinion value letter or hire a certified real estate appraiser to determine the exact value of the home at the date of your mother’s death.

“If you are able to sell the home close to or not much higher than the date of death valuation, the trust will not have any capital gains,” she said. “Plus real estate expenses and other trust administration fees will be computed against the home selling price to minimize any capital gains as well.”

A tax pro can help you figure this all out. The costs of hiring tax and legal help can be charged to the estate.

All the gain in value from the past five decades won’t be taxed. In some parts of the country where home prices are high, such as California, that step-up in basis is far more valuable than the $250,000 home sale exclusion, which you wouldn’t be able to use anyway unless you lived in and owned the home for at least two of the previous five years.

Q&A: Timing those spouse benefits

Dear Liz: My husband and I are retired. He is 67 and I’m 65. We have been delaying Social Security as we are financially able to wait until he turns 70 to begin benefits. We both turned 62 before January 2, 2016, and are wondering how the “restricted application” rule applies to us. My husband was the primary worker and will have a payout at 70 that is more than twice what I will be paid, so I would be the one taking the spousal benefit. Would you recommend we continue to wait until he is 70 to start benefits, or does the rule make it smarter for us to begin sooner?

Answer: Typically when someone applies for Social Security, she is “deemed” to be applying both for her own benefit and for any spousal benefit that might be available. Restricted applications allowed someone to apply only for a spousal benefit, allowing her own benefit to grow, since delaying the start of benefits increases the amount by about 7% to 8% each year. She could switch to her own benefit when it maxed out at age 70.

Congress changed the rules to eliminate restricted applications for people who turn 62 on or after Jan. 2, 2016. Although a restricted application is still available to you, your husband must be receiving benefits before your spousal benefits can begin. (There used to be something called “file and suspend,” that would allow your husband to trigger spousal benefits without receiving his own, but that has been eliminated. He would have had to reach his full retirement age and requested the suspension before April 30, 2016.)

One other detail that’s important: While your husband’s benefit will continue to grow if he doesn’t start until age 70, the spousal benefit will not. The maximum spousal benefit is 50% of your husband’s benefit at his full retirement age, which was 66. The spousal benefit is further reduced if you should start it before your own full retirement age (which is also 66).

In most cases, it’s best for the higher wage-earner to wait as long as possible to begin, which would mean you would start spousal benefits in three years when your husband turns 70. Remember that it’s the larger check one of you will have to live on after the other one dies; you don’t continue to receive two checks, so it’s usually worth trying to max out the larger one. If you file a restricted application for spousal benefits only, you’d have the option of switching to your own benefit at 70 if it’s larger. You may want to use the Social Security claiming calculator at AARP’s site to evaluate your options.