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Tiny Home Retirement: How Downsizing Helped Me Retire Early

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When Rhonda Jourdonnais, 64, decided to retire early, she knew she needed to downsize her monthly housing costs. So she bought a tiny home on Whidbey Island in Washington State.

When Rhonda Jourdonnais turned 62, she began feeling she was ready for retirement. She had worked as a veterinary technician and assistant for 25 years, and wanted to try living off Social Security. But on a fixed income, there was no way she could afford her monthly mortgage and homeowners association fees at the townhouse she owned in Grass Valley, California.

She thought of different ways she could make her vision a reality, and then a drastic idea sprung to mind: She’d live in a tiny home.

Jourdonnais, 64, had followed the tiny-home movement since it began gaining popularity in the early 2000s. “Tiny House, Big Living” premiered on HGTV several years ago, and the TV show rekindled her interest in the movement. She was living in California at the time — where she’d been for five years — but says she wasn’t happy. She envisioned moving back here she used to live, on Whidbey Island in Washington State.

“In California, the housing is too expensive,” Jourdonnais tells MagnifyMoney. “I wouldn’t have been able to retire and still keep up my townhouse without working.”

The monthly HOA fee for her townhouse was close to $400, which would not have been sustainable.

She decided to take the leap in  2015. She sold her townhouse at a profit and put that money into her IRA. In October 2015, she flew to Colorado Springs, Colo., to order her tiny home. She found a company there that had been in business since 1999, and she considered them the most reputable. In December of that year, she retired from her job and in February 2016, she moved into her 8-by-24-foot home on a friend’s six-acre property on Whidbey Island. She pays her friend $200 per month to stay on her property.

“The tiny homemade retirement possible,” she says.

Toward early retirement

Jourdonnais says that since moving into her tiny home, she lives on roughly half of the money she did before retirement. Before, she would have had to work until she was 70 to save enough for retirement, and she didn’t feel physically or emotionally prepared for that.

Jourdonnais and many others are turning to tiny-home living as a way to make early retirement possible.

According to Senior Planet, 40 percent of tiny-home owners are over age 50. And there are other advantages that seem tailor-made for older Americans. According to figures cited in a CBS Moneywatch report from 2016, 89 percent of tiny house owners have less credit card debt than the average American, and 65 percent have none at all. Additionally, tiny home owners have about 55 percent more savings in the bank.

Long thought to be a lifestyle primarily for those interested in achieving more peace of mind through fewer objects, it has also become a way for many people to retire earlier with fewer utility costs, lower property taxes and little or no mortgage. (The average home in the U.S. costs $272,000, compared with $23,000 for a tiny home, according to The Tiny Life.)

Though pop culture has made the concept of tiny-home living popular, it’s still quite rare. Only 1 percent of homes purchased in the U.S. are below 1,000 square feet, and the average tiny home clocks in at somewhere between 100 and 400 square feet, according to data compiled by the blog Restoring Simple.

Weathering the challenges

Tiny-home living is rife with challenges, including complicated permit and zoning codes. But Jourdonnais says the biggest ongoing hurdle for her is simply adjusting to the space, especially on cold, rainy days.

“If I get up to go into my kitchen it’s like two steps,” she says. “If I go into my bathroom, it’s two steps. If somebody was claustrophobic, they probably wouldn’t like the lifestyle.”

Her advice to people interested in retiring early by moving into a tiny home is to try it out before buying a property. The U.S. has numerous tiny-home rental communities, which Jourdonnais recommends. “The thing I miss the most is the space,” she says. “It is a really big adjustment. It’s definitely worth it for people to try it out in some of the rental communities.”

But overall, Jourdonnais has loved her new lifestyle. She regularly takes a small pop-up travel trailer to campsites with her dog. (Some people actually travel with their tiny houses, but she does not — she says she doesn’t have a truck big enough to pull it.) And she has already traveled much more in retirement than she ever anticipated.

Jourdonnais has planned her finances so that she can sustain tiny-home living for many years to come, assuming her Social Security remains the same. “I imagine it could be the way I live the rest of my life,” she says, “as long as I stay healthy.”

Jamie Friedlander
Jamie Friedlander |

Jamie Friedlander is a writer at MagnifyMoney. You can email Jamie here

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What Happens to Debt When You Get Married?

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According to the New York Federal Reserve, total student loan debt in the U.S. has reached $1.3 trillion, while more than 44 million Americans have student loan debt. Between these figures and soaring credit-card debt, paying off all we owe can take some people years, if not decades. 

The problem can seem particularly acute for young couples, more and more of whom are getting married with tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars to pay off. In many instances, one partner has significantly more debt than the other. 

When Jeff and Cassandra Campbell of Austin, Texas.,  got married in 2006, Jeff was $61,000 in debt — his was a combination of credit card debt, a second-home mortgage and a car loan. Cassandra was debt-free, but the couple immediately agreed that with marriage, his debt was now the burden and responsibility of both of them.   

“I believe that successful couples combine everything when they say, ‘I do,’” says, Jeff, 53. “It’s no longer my income or your debt, it’s ours.”

Deciding how to tackle a single spouse’s or partner’s debt is no simple thing. It might be nice to chip in to help pay down your beloved’s debt, but in the eyes of the law, marriage doesn’t necessarily mean you have to. 

What happens to debt when we marry? 
 

Adam S. Minsky, a Massachusetts-based lawyer and expert in student loan law, says that although it varies by state, most of the time debt brought into a marriage only affects the spouse who brought it in.   

“Generally speaking, certainly where I practice here in Massachusetts, there is no way to make a spouse liable for a debt,” he says.

An exception might be if the couple did a form of refinancing once they got married and now jointly own the debt together. But if one spouse brought a debt into the marriage and both spouses paid off the debt together, the other spouse would not be liable for the debt, and that debt wouldn’t affect his or her credit score.

“As long as [the debt] only stays in one of their names, it’s only going to be reported for one of them,” Minsky says. 

There are, of course, slightly different rules when it comes to couples who are divorcing. For example, if a spouse helped pay off the other’s debt in marriage, that circumstance is often taken into account in divorce proceedings, Minsky notes. 

Learning the legal nuances of spousal debt, having necessary premarital conversations and understanding  optimal strategies for paying off debt can allow a couple to avoid the uncomfortable and frustrating conversations that might accompany one spouse having significantly more debt that the other.

Here are some tips on how to tackle debt as a couple:  

Have those tough (but essential) conversations before getting hitched.

Minsky says his greatest piece of advice for couples in which one partner has significant debt and the other doesn’t boils down to this: Talk about it openly before marriage. 

“Communication is the most important thing,” he says. “Because you don’t want to get married and then find out there’s a bunch of debt you didn’t know about, or you didn’t fully understand the nature of the debt, or you didn’t have a plan. I’d say develop that communication and be comfortable talking about it.” 

Eric Bowlin, 32, a real estate investor based in Worcester, Mass., says he and his wife, Jun — whom he met during graduate school—always approached their finances as a team. Eric says Jun accepted his roughly $85,000 debt ($60,000 of which was related to student loans) before they got married in 2009. But a tough conversation ensued when Eric wanted to make a large real estate investment before they had paid off the debt.  

“I deployed to Afghanistan” around 2010, he says, “and when I got home, we had saved about $100,000. We could have easily paid off all my student loans, car and half the multifamily house we owned, but I told her I wanted to use every dollar to invest in more real estate and I wanted to drop out of our Ph.D. program.” 

He says despite Jun’s hesitation, she agreed. “To this day I’m amazed she ever agreed to let me do that,” Eric says. He spent all of his savings, maxed out all his credit cards and borrowed about $40,000 from friends.  

“She was crying at night and I couldn’t sleep because of the stress,” he says. But his decision paid off. He has since built up a successful real estate portfolio, and the couple paid off their debt in 2016.

Employ strategies for paying the debt off together.

Once you and your partner have agreed to tackle the debt together, come up with a solid plan.  

“I’ve seen trouble happen when married couples never really talked about [debt], and then it’s a thing,” Minsky says. “Or they didn’t really come up with a plan and now there’s complicated feelings of resentment or guilt or shame.” 

The plan a couple employs will vary based on an array of variables: the amount and type of debt, income level, housing situation, location and more. The Campbells, for example, didn’t decide to pay off their debt until the birth of their first daughter. 

Shortly thereafter, they discovered the “snowball method,” popularized by personal finance personality Dave Ramsey, and decided to pay off their debts from smallest to largest.

They put retirement savings and vacations on hold, paid cash for everything except bills and generally limited their eating out and social activities. They became debt-free about five years ago.

Jeff’s advice for newly married couples is to agree on a budget before each month. 

“Some spouses will naturally be more of the spender, saver or math nerd,” he says. “So while it’s not crucial that both be involved in doing everything, the discussion should happen prior to the start of each month about where ‘our’ money is going to go, and what out of the ordinary expenses may be happening.” 

Don’t forget about your taxes.

Minsky advises giving thought to how you will file your taxes, especially in the case of student loan debt.

For example, if one spouse mostly has federal student loans and is going to do an income-driven repayment plan, there could be incentives for filing taxes as an individual as opposed to making a couple’s joint filing. That way, the income of the spouse without student loan debt won’t be factored in.   

We have previously explored the nuances of deciding whether or not to file jointly or single when spouses have student loan debt. 

Have a story to share? Send us a note at info@magnifymoney.com.

Jamie Friedlander
Jamie Friedlander |

Jamie Friedlander is a writer at MagnifyMoney. You can email Jamie here

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How to Make a Career Change in Your 40s

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Chandrama Anderson was the senior director at a technology start-up in the heart of Silicon Valley when she decided it was time for a career change. At the time, she was in her early 40s and grieving the recent deaths of her daughter and grandparents.

She decided she wanted to do what she called “work of the heart.” For her, that meant pursuing a career as a family therapist.

Having earned her undergraduate degree in journalism and creative writing, she would have to go back to school for a master’s in order to transition to psychology. She quit her lucrative job at the tech firm and enrolled at John F. Kennedy University in Pleasant Hill, Calif., where she earned a master of arts in counseling psychology/holistic studies over the course of three years.

Going back to school after working for 25 years was daunting, but she didn’t let the intimidation factor stop her.

“A person said to me, ‘You’ll be 48 when you’re a therapist,” she recalls. “I replied, ‘I’ll be 48, or I’ll be 48 and be a therapist.’”

Fifteen years since she quit her job, Anderson, now 57, is the president of Connect2 Marriage Counseling, a couples counseling practice in Palo Alto. She oversees a team of therapists who see people primarily for marriage counseling, premarital counseling, grief and relational issues.

Running her own team of therapists wouldn’t have been possible if Anderson hadn’t taken a risk and made a career change later in life, when she truly felt it was time.

As Anderson’s example shows, switching careers in one’s 40s is definitely doable. But it does require the right amount of planning and forethought.

Kerry Hannon, a retirement, personal finance and career change expert — and the author of numerous books, including “What’s Next? Follow Your Passion and Find Your Dream Job” — says there’s been an uptick in the number of people switching careers in their 40s and even their 50s.

Indeed, a 2014 study from USA Today and Life Reimagined, an organization dedicated to helping people reimagine their lives, found that 29 percent of people ages 40-59 were planning to make a career change in the next five years. Numerous factors are at play in such findings, but Hannon believes that among the biggest, it’s easier to start a business and ramp up one’s education online today.

Many people who change careers at this stage in life, Hannon says, do so because of defining and often tragic life experiences, such as a death in the family or a serious illness. That played a factor in Anderson’s metamorphosis.

“They pause and they say: ‘Is this what it’s all about? Is this what I really want to be remembered for? Is this how I want to spend the rest of my life?’” Hannon says.

There are certain roadblocks to changing careers in middle age: Financial readiness is one, and workplace age bias another. One 2013 AARP study found that three out of five older workers said they had experienced or witnessed age discrimination at work.

Hannon believes making a career switch at this age can be done if one takes the right steps.

Move for the right reasons

Before anything else, take a long, hard look at why you’re intent on making this change.

“First, do your soul-searching about why you want to make this jump, this transition to something new,” Hannon says. Put another way: Really drill into your motivation and figure out if this is your passion, or if you’re simply in a rut at your current job.

To say Mounir Errami put some serious thought into becoming a doctor in his 40s would be an understatement. After working several different jobs over the course of his career, Errami — now a doctor at University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas — knew he wanted to return to medical school at the age of 38. He had initially started medical school at 18 in Lyon, France, but dropped out. He then pursued a Ph.D. in biochemistry and bioinformatics, as well as an MBA, and started two business.

His first business went under and once he was in his late 30s, he sold his second one, a software company. He then took a few years off to spend with his family.

After a reset, he knew he wanted to return to medical school, lest he always have regrets.

If he hadn’t made that choice, he says, “it would’ve been sort of an unfulfilled quest that I had started and never finished.” He adds, “I’m very happy I’ve done it.”

Once you’ve identified your intended path, take a look at the marketplace, Hannon says. “What’s the market for it? What’s out there? Who’s currently doing it? Reach out to those people. If possible; network with people who are currently doing the kind of work that you would like to do.”

Just because you think you know your new life is calling, that doesn’t mean it’ll fulfill your every dream. After all, it’s still a job. Figure out if you’re OK with the inevitable downsides of a new career before diving in.

“If possible, it’s really, really important to do the job first,” Hannon says. “Volunteer or moonlight. Something might feel dreamy and like, ‘Oh my gosh, I always wanted to do this,’ but when you’re actually doing it every day, it might not have that glamour to it that you thought.”

Facing a pay cut

For some workers, the whole point of pursuing a new career in their 40s is to leave one low-paying field for a job with better financial prospects. But in reality, the opposite may be true.

“You absolutely have to get financially fit,” Hannon says. “It’s really critical.” She says it’s likely you’ll earn less when you begin your new job — either because you’re a newcomer or you’ve started your own new venture, in which most of the money goes into the business. Coupled with the fact that most career changes occur on a three- to five-year timeline, factoring in a return to school and additional training, you’ll want to save up.

If you’re taking a substantial pay cut, focus on paying down lingering debts or downsizing your lifestyle to fit your new, reduced income.

“At a certain life stage, you might also be able to downsize your home,” she says. Indeed, some people in this demographic might have children who have already left home.

Anderson and Errami were both fortunate to be in a solid financial condition before entering school. Anderson says she inherited some money from her mother and grandmother, while Errami used funds saved from his previous business.

Not having to worry about finances when switching careers means you can focus on the path ahead, in all its nuance.

“If you’re financially fit, then you have options,” Hannon says. “Then you give yourself the opportunity to try different paths, to try new things and move in a different direction without that burden of a must-have salary.”

Don’t quit your day job just yet

Changing careers after decades in a certain field isn’t something to be taken lightly. As previously discussed, it’s vital to make sure you aren’t just restless in your current position. Hannon says you should really identify your “why” before making any drastic decisions.

“What’s the motivation?” she asks. “Is it that you’re just bored with your job right now? Because there are lots of ways to fix that.”

Perhaps you need to work in the same field, but move to a different company. Or perhaps you need a new position within your existing field.

And if you ask yourself these questions and are still fairly certain you want to switch careers, do not quit right away. Saving up around six months’ worth of salary is a great way to ensure you’re financially ready for a change. If you don’t have this much money in the bank, stay at your current job for a bit longer and try moonlighting or working a side gig in your desired field.

Going for it

Once you’ve decided you’re ready to switch careers, Hannon suggests taking these four steps:

  1. Go slow. Take your time and do one thing every day toward making the change. Start out by asking someone in your intended profession for coffee.
  2. Again, don’t be so quick to quit your day job. There are exceptions to the rule, but most people shouldn’t quit their job. Instead, volunteer or get a side job.
  3. Take baby steps. This doesn’t mean you can’t get started right away. Just don’t spend a huge portion of money or dedicate an immense amount of time to your new career path until you’re absolutely certain it’s the right fit.
  4. Don’t be afraid. Hannon says she has spoken with hundreds of people who have made later-in-life career transitions. She says they invariably say, “I wish I had done it sooner.”
Jamie Friedlander
Jamie Friedlander |

Jamie Friedlander is a writer at MagnifyMoney. You can email Jamie here

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Why Sabbaticals Could Be the New Pre-Retirement

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Brad N. Shaw, a Dallas, Texas-based serial entrepreneur, took a two-year sabbatical from 2011-2013 to spend more time with his family. He’s pictured here with his family in Vail, Colorado. (Photo courtesy of Brad M. Shaw)

Serial entrepreneur Brad M. Shaw made a bold decision several years ago to take two years off from work and move his family to Vail, Colo.

Taking a two-year sabbatical had its challenges, the major one being uprooting his family in pursuit of more work-life balance and a change of scenery. But overall, he says taking time off was more than worth it — both for his family and his business.

“My daughter was growing up so fast,” says Shaw, who is CEO of a web design firm in Dallas. “As a serial entrepreneur, I was always away traveling or at the office. I wanted to be a present father and play a role in her upbringing. I also wanted to show her a life outside of the Dallas suburbia bubble.”

‘No reason to wait’

The concept of taking a sabbatical is not new. People have been taking them for decades. They’re typically thought of happening in academia, in which professors are paid to take time off for research. But sabbaticals have transcended academia and have spread into the general workforce in recent decades.

Thanks to a new wave of workers who value purpose over stability, the upswing of the gig economy, and companies that offer unlimited vacation time or paid sabbaticals, taking an extended break is becoming more of a reality for many. Many major companies in the United States offer unlimited vacation time or paid sabbaticals, such as Groupon, General Electric, and Adobe.

There’s also the reality that today’s American workers are not able to retire as early as previous generations — and they’re living longer, healthier lives. So a sabbatical can serve as a mini retirement, or a chance to take a break from the grind of 9-to-5 life.

Ric Edelman, the founder and executive chairman of Edelman Financial Services, explores this topic in his new book, “The Truth About Your Future: The Money Guide You Need Now, Later, and Much Later.” He says the combination of people living longer and being healthier in old age means the notion of retiring at 65 will be gone in the near future, both because it won’t be affordable and people will get restless.

“You’ll be healthy enough to work, you’re going to want to work, and economically, you’re going to need to work,” he says. “For all those reasons, you’ll continue working. And so that notion that you’ll wait until you’re 60 to take that around-the-world cruise really won’t exist. There won’t be a particular reason to wait.”

Edelman says that instead of the traditional life path (go to school, get a job, retire, die), we’ll have a cyclical one in which people go to school, get a job, take a sabbatical, go back to school, take a different job, etc. Instead of having one big chunk of a 30-year retirement, people will take two years here, three years there, six months here, and they’ll enjoy time off throughout their life at various intervals.

Research has also proven that companies and the economy benefit when employees take sabbaticals. According to a report by Project: Time Off, an offshoot of the U.S. Travel Association, there has been a jump in employees taking time off in the last year. Unused vacation days cost the economy $236 billion in 2016 — an amount that could have supported 1.8 million jobs. In essence, employees not cashing in on their paid time off hurts the economy because employees are forfeiting money that could instead have been used to create new jobs.

Dan Clements, author of “Escape 101: The Four Secrets to Taking a Career Break Without Losing Your Money or Your Mind,” says the biggest benefit of taking a sabbatical is the perspective change it offers.

“People come back from sabbaticals with a completely different vision for how they want to live their life,” Clements tells MagnifyMoney. “They come back and they change jobs or they transform themselves in the company they’re in or they change their business.”

Upon returning to Dallas, Shaw says he made the decision to forgo scaling up his business in favor of running it on a smaller scale so he could be less stressed.

“The time away allowed me to reset my business ideas,” he says.

Clements thinks many companies have begun to offer unlimited vacation days or paid sabbaticals to keep up with the new generation entering the workforce, because by and large, millennials value purpose over stability. Companies want to keep employees happy by offering them the opportunity to find purpose in a way their 9-to-5 job might not be able to.

“You have a different generation of people entering the workforce for whom work means something different,” Clements says. “What they expect from work is not necessarily security and a paycheck, but what they expect is meaning from work more than previous generations have. Part of the way companies can supply that is to give people the time and flexibility to find it.”

Taking the plunge

Tori Tait, the director of content and community for The Grommet, an e-commerce website that helps new products launch, took a 30-day sabbatical in August. Her company offers paid sabbaticals at employees’ five-year mark. Tait, who lives in Murrieta, Calif., spent time relaxing in Huntington Beach, Calif., boating on the Colorado River, and living on a houseboat in Lake Mead, Ariz. Like Shaw, she says the biggest benefits for her were time off with family and a fresh perspective once she returned to work.

“I’m a working mom, so summers are often filled with me in the office, and [my kids] wishing we were at the beach,” she says. Tait says she enjoyed how during her month off, she didn’t have work in the back of her mind the way people often do when on a five- or six-day vacation.

Tori Tait, pictured with her daughters London, 10, and Taylor, 16, took a company-sponsored, 30-day sabbatical in August 2017. (Photo courtesy of Tori Tait)

Her biggest piece of advice for those planning a sabbatical is to not dwell on the planning aspect of it. “I grappled with trying to plan how I would spend my time,” she says. “Would I travel abroad? Volunteer? Finally do that side project I’ve been thinking about? In the end, I just thought, What is it that I always wish I had more time to do? The answer for me was: spend quality time with my family. So that’s what I did.”

Daniel Howard, the director at Search Office Space, a website that helps businesses all over the world find office space, took a sabbatical after the financial crisis in 2008. He says he took 12 months off to recharge in hopes of returning to work with more optimism and drive. His employers didn’t pay him for the time off, but promised him his job would be there upon his return.

He traveled with his then-girlfriend (now his wife) to Southeast Asia, Australia, New Zealand, Fiji and Central America. They left their phones at home and relied on physical maps to get around. Aside from the occasional email to family to check in, they were completely disconnected. The biggest benefit for him? “The ability to completely disconnect from my working life and the opportunity to become a more well-rounded person by immersing myself in different cultures and experiences,” Howard says.

Although many people take their sabbaticals overseas, one doesn’t need to travel around the world to reap the benefits. Extended time away from work and technology is beneficial no matter where you are.

“I think for a lot of people, a sabbatical is the first real vacation they’ve ever taken,” Clements says. “I tell people that taking a one-week vacation is sort of like trying to swim in a puddle. You wade in a little bit, and you’re barely wet, and then you have to go inside. When you actually get away from your life for two or three times longer than you’ve ever taken a break from work, you get this sense of perspective that I think most people don’t normally get a chance to experience.”

The 4 stages of preparing for a sabbatical

If you don’t work for a company that offers unlimited vacation days or paid sabbaticals, that doesn’t mean you can’t take one. Clements shares his steps for saving up for a sabbatical:

  1. Boost your earnings. Try to figure out if there’s a way you can earn more before taking your sabbatical. Can you finally ask for the raise you’ve been wanting? Can you do freelance work on the side? Can you rent out part of your home on Airbnb, or drive for Uber? Consider all of your options.
  2. Make it automatic. Have money automatically withdrawn from your bank account the same way you would for retirement, a mortgage or automatic bill payments.
  3. Put it out of reach. Once you set aside money in a separate account, make sure it’s out of reach. Put it in a savings account that isn’t accessible online or via the ATM. If you have to physically go to the bank to withdraw cash, you’ll be less tempted to do so.
  4. Stretch yourself. Don’t be afraid to make your automatic savings plan more aggressive than you think you can handle. Challenge yourself to save more than you think you need, because you can always change the amount if you have to.
Jamie Friedlander
Jamie Friedlander |

Jamie Friedlander is a writer at MagnifyMoney. You can email Jamie here

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4 Lessons We Learned from Buying Our House at an Estate Sale

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Newlyweds Laura and Chris Mericas, pictured above, stumbled upon their dream home at an estate sale in Houston, Texas. “We were never wanting to buy a brand new house,” Laura told MagnifyMoney. “We knew that whatever house we got, we would want to do work.” Photo courtesy of Laura and Chris Mericas.

Around a year ago, newlyweds Laura and Chris Mericas were eager to purchase their first home in Houston, Texas. It didn’t take long before they realized homes in the neighborhoods they liked were out of their budget, so they put home buying on hold. Laura and Chris aren’t alone — like other millennials, they’re being priced out of markets across the country. Homeownership among millennials is lower than decades past: For those under 35, 39% owned homes in 1995, compared to 43% in 2005 and just 31% in 2015, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

On the off chance that he might come across a good deal, Chris, 26, continued to look at realtor websites. A year later, he happened upon a home in the Garden Oaks-Oak Forest neighborhood in Northwest Houston that piqued his interest. The property — a three-bedroom, one-bathroom fixer-upper — was listed as part of an estate sale, and it was within their maximum budget of $350,000. They made their move.

“We found the house on a Monday and had an offer accepted by Friday,” Chris says.

But the journey was far from smooth. Here’s what they learned along the way.

You can’t judge a house by its cover photo

Browsing through realtor photos of the house online, Laura wasn’t exactly impressed. Driven by the price point, however, they decided to give it a shot.

They were pleasantly surprised.

“Because it was an estate sale and because the people selling it weren’t super motivated [to stage the home for photos],” says Laura, 25. “For whatever reason, the pictures online were awful.”

The home had belonged to a man who was born in the house and purchased it after his parents died. He had rented the home out and planned on permanently moving into the house before he passed away. It was his children who decided to sell rather than continue renting it out.

Laura says she thinks because the home was a rental property, the children were even more eager to sell it. Brian Davis, a real estate investor, says family members eager to sell estate sale properties is common.

“The adult children typically want to sell the property as quickly as possible, since it will continue to accrue costs while it sits vacant,” he says. “Mortgage payments, taxes, insurance and maintenance all add up quickly. These adult children often don’t have as strong of an emotional attachment to the house as live-in owners do, and are less likely to be offended by low offers.”

Emotions will inevitably add complications

Despite the children not being attached to the home, Laura, a freelance journalist, and Chris, a mechanical engineer, still felt unsure how to act during negotiations.

“I think the fact that it was an estate sale made it different on our end,” Chris says. “In the negotiation phase, we were a little conflicted. We don’t want to belittle the fact that they just lost their father … but in addition to that, we wanted to play off the fact that they weren’t selling this house to buy another house. It was extra income that they weren’t expecting because their father died at a young age.”

There were other offers on the table, but most were from professional house flippers who were offering land value only, so theirs was accepted quickly.

A good home inspection is everything

Laura and Chris first found their new home in early March, and they closed on April 24. All in all, the whole process took around 50 days.

“It was a pretty stressful two weeks at the beginning, getting all of our paperwork and getting all of our employment records to get the loan,” Laura says. They both had strong credit scores and were already pre-approved for a mortgage because they had looked into buying a home a year earlier, which helped speed up the process.

But it wasn’t all smooth sailing.

“We had to scramble to get the inspection done,” Laura says. The couple initially asked for 10 days to get the appraisal done, but then asked for a two-day extension because a lot of inspection companies were closed for spring break.

After their initial offer was accepted, inspectors came to look at the home and found it was rife with problems: outdated and dangerous electrical wiring, plumbing troubles, and holes in the sewer line. The inspectors said it would cost around $20,000 for these repairs, so Laura and Chris sent a second offer that took these costs into consideration.

Their offer was accepted immediately.

Fixer-uppers require a lot of imagination — and cash

In most home sales, the property is tidy and beautifully staged. Laura and Chris discovered this wasn’t the case in their estate sale. “I feel like when people are trying to sell their house, they might try to spruce it up a bit in the months leading up to it,” Laura says. “There was definitely none of that. It was dirty. There was dog hair.”

So they used their imagination. Laura and Chris always envisioned purchasing a home in need of renovation and a little TLC, so the problems with the house didn’t faze them. “We were never wanting to buy a brand new house,” Laura says. “We knew that whatever house we got, we would want to do work.”

After completing around $20,000 in necessary home renovations after closing, Laura and Chris moved in early June. Although it’s been a whirlwind few months, the couple feels lucky to have swooped in on the estate sale at the perfect moment. They say every other comparable home they saw in the same neighborhood about $75,000 more than what they paid.

“We saw an opportunity to get into the neighborhood with a steal,” Laura says. “Down the street, there are people building enormous houses. We would never be able to get into this neighborhood at that price ever again.”

Tips for purchasing a home from an estate sale

Kevin Godfrey, an agent with Douglas Elliman and the owner of Henry Laurent Estate Sales, shares his advice for purchasing a home through an estate sale.

  1. Use the estate sale as the open house. Go into the rooms, check the water pressure, inspect the foundation, and discreetly take measurements. Take your time and make sure it’s what you are looking for. A standard open house lasts for two hours, while an estate sale lasts for two days — eight hours each.
  1. If you get in early enough, the owner won’t have an agent yet. Dealing directly with them and only using real estate attorneys to finalize the transaction can save the owner the typical 4% to 6% agent fee.
  1. As with any purchase of a home, you’ll still want to do all of the necessary inspections and search the property records for liens or encumbrances.
Jamie Friedlander
Jamie Friedlander |

Jamie Friedlander is a writer at MagnifyMoney. You can email Jamie here

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