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Life Events

Do You Qualify for Free Tax Preparation and Filing?

The editorial content on this page is not provided by any financial institution and has not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

Tax return check

Between buying the tax preparation software and paying the e-filing fee, filing your tax return can be costly. In-person preparation services such as H&R Block or Liberty Tax can be even more expensive, charging $40 to $100 for the simplest of returns. However, there are options for free tax preparation and filing services available to many filers in the U.S.

Check below to see if you qualify for any of the free options.

Adjusted Gross Income (AGI) of $62,000 or Less – The Free File Program

The IRS and private tax software companies partner to offer free tax preparation to about 70 percent of America’s taxpayers. The Free File program has 13 software options to choose from, including free options from big names like TurboTax and H&R Block.

To qualify for Free File, you must at minimum have an adjusted gross income (AGI) of $62,000 or less. Some of the software providers place stricter restrictions on users, such as lower AGI requirements or age restrictions. State preparation and filing may still require payment depending on where you live and which software you use.

AGI of $62,000 or Less – United Way’s MyFreeTaxes 

United Way offers online free tax preparation and filing using H&R Block’s software to individuals and families that made $62,000 or less. MyFreeTaxes includes a state return as well.

AGI of $54,00 or Less, Disabled or Limited English – VITA 

The IRS-sponsored Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program is open to those who make less than $54,000, are disabled, elderly or have limited or no proficiency in English. The program offers free in-person tax preparation and filing services by IRS-trained volunteers from the local community.

You can search for a VITA center location on the IRS’s site. They are often conveniently located in schools, libraries or malls.

The Elderly – TCE

The IRS also sponsors the Tax Counseling for the Elderly (TCE) program. The program assists those that are 60 years or older with low to moderate income. The trained volunteers, often retirees, are knowledgeable on questions that senior filers may have about retirement and pensions. The AARP’s Foundation Tax-Aide program works with the TCE program to run many of the tax preparation centers. Similar to TCE, the AARP’s program is geared towards 50-plus filers who can’t afford tax prep service.

The IRS’s website has a list of documents you should bring to a VITA or TCE tax preparation session.

Learn more about tax filing for seniors here.

Proactive Filers – TurboTax Absolute Free 

TurboTax offers an Absolute Zero edition that’s free for filers through approximately March 18th. To qualify, you must file a 1040EZ or 1040A and not have rental, business or contractor income. You also must take the standard deduction.

Military Ties – FreeFile, VITA or Military OneSource

Active-duty military members can have fewer restrictions to use software from Free File providers, but there is still, at least, the $62,000 or less AGI requirement. Outside the Free File program, some tax preparation software companies also offer discounted or free versions of their software to military members outside.

Examples include TurboTax and TaxSlayer.

Military members may be able to find VITA centers on military bases, and the volunteers on staff are specially trained to work with military members’ taxes.

Another free option is to use Military OneSource, which provides free state and federal tax preparation and filing services to active-duty military members and their family. It’s also open to members of the National Guard and the reserve, those who were honorably discharged or retired in the past 180 days and eligible survivors of deceased active-duty and National Guard members. See the website for a full list of eligibility requirements.

Low- to Moderate-Income Earners – Local Organizations  

In addition to the resources listed above, there may be state or regional organizations the offer free tax preparation and filing. For example, the Piton Foundation provides help to families in Colorado that earned less than $53,000 in 2015. The New York City Food Bank has over 15 tax preparation sites throughout the city where New Yorkers can receive free assistance. It’s available to those who earned $54,000 or less and have dependents, or $30,000 or less without dependents.

Simple Taxes on Less than $100,000

If you earned less than $100,000, have no dependents, no contractor or freelance income, are younger than 65 and don’t plan to itemize your taxes — then you may be eligible to file a 1040EZ. This could also mean filing for free with both state and federal taxes. TaxAct and TurboTax both offer the option to file for free with a 1040EZ.

Want the full list based for each state? Check out Free Tax Filing for Every State Online.

Louis DeNicola
Louis DeNicola |

Louis DeNicola is a writer at MagnifyMoney. You can email Louis at louis@magnifymoney.com

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Life Events

How to Make a Career Change in Your 40s

The editorial content on this page is not provided by any financial institution and has not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

 

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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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Health, Life Events

You Could Be Paying for More Insurance Than You Need

The editorial content on this page is not provided by any financial institution and has not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

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Tiffany Hamilton knew as a college student that she would one day be an entrepreneur. With that in mind, she made sure to enlist the help of a financial planning company when she bought her first life insurance plan at 21, as she was just getting her start in real estate.

That first policy was a $20,000 term-life plan that cost her about $80 a month. When her salary increased, she decided she needed more coverage than that. As a single woman with a burgeoning business, she wanted to make sure she had enough coverage to take care of any debts and leave something for her mother..

Her insurance representative at the time encouraged her to up her coverage. So at 25, she converted her policy to a $1 million whole life policy.

“I thought by going to a financial planner, sitting down and answering the questions, and then going off of their recommendations, I thought I was doing the right thing,” Hamilton told MagnifyMoney. “Yes, the $1 million would give my mom X, Y and Z, but was that in my best interests?”

Now 35 and running her own real estate business based in Tallahassee, Fla., Hamilton has lately been wondering: Is it possible to be overinsured?

How much insurance is too much insurance?

As we grow in our careers, home life and families, paying for life insurance becomes another one of those obligatory items on our financial to-do lists, like establishing a 401(k) or an emergency fund. But the sheer volume of life insurance options available may have created a unique problem: Some of us might be overly insured. That is, our insurance coverage may be wildly disproportionate to our salaries and overall net worth.

Joel Ohman, a Tampa, Fla.-based certified financial planner and founder of Insuranceproviders.com, said it’s also easy to end up with a policy that has more bells and whistles than you genuinely need.

Generally speaking, life insurance is a type of coverage that provides a payout to a selected beneficiary in the event of the policyholder’s death. This is often called the “death benefit.” Many people aim for a death benefit that includes a payout substantial enough to cover a few years of the deceased’s salary, funeral expenses and any outstanding debts.

Those with families may also want to include money to pay off a house, children’s college funds and more.

Of course, there are other options for anyone who has a large estate, want to make charitable contributions, needs special tax breaks or has other complicated financial circumstances to consider.

“Unless there are complex estate planning requirements or the insured has exhausted all other investment options, then typically the idea to use life insurance outside of a straightforward death benefit payout is a fool’s errand that will only result in a fancier car for your insurance agent,” Ohman said.

The cost of being overinsured

The difference in premiums between insurance plans can be striking, and if you’re not sure precisely what to get, it’s easy to throw up your hands in frustration. But if you simply choose a plan that may “sound right” without carefully exploring all your options, you could easily wind up paying for more coverage than you need.

Most insurance websites include insurance calculators to make it easy to figure out what your costs could be for a variety of different plans. Using State Farm’s calculator for example, a $500,000, 20-year term policy for a 30-year-old woman in Arizona is about $33 a month. Comparatively, a whole-life policy is $460 a month. That’s a difference of nearly $5,000 a year.

In Hamilton’s case, she realized she was paying thousands of dollars more for insurance than she needed to. In 2016, she converted her $1 million whole-life policy into a $500,000 universal-life policy.

“That cut my budget down by almost $10,000 a year,” she said.

John Barnes, a certified financial planner and owner of My Family Life Insurance, said those cost savings can be important for families.

“My take is, you can be doing something else with that money,” he said. “Families today are squeezed. I’m not about to overextend them, I’m going to get them the right amount.” The additional savings, he said, could go toward retirement, college tuition or other financial need.

Ohman said that a simple term-life policy is a great way to get inexpensive insurance that will still take care of most families’ needs.

“When people are looking for pure life insurance, they want to protect their loved ones if something should happen to them, and they want them to be financially taken care of in a worst-case scenario,” he said. “Ninety-nine percent of the time, then, that cheaper term life insurance product is going to be the best fit.”

Chris Acker, a chartered life underwriter, chartered financial consultant and independent life insurance broker in Palo Alto, Calif., said he almost always recommends term-life insurance to his clients, particularly young families.

“If you’re talking about people in their 30s,” Acker said, term insurance “is hands down the best way to go.”

That’s because it’s an inexpensive way to get insurance that provides coverage for your entire family. Plus, you can always get additional insurance later. But he cautions against applying one piece of advice across all situations.

“The bottom line is, there’s no right answer,” he said. “No two cases are the same.”

Types of life insurance

There are two main types of life insurance: Term insurance and permanent insurance. When consumers typically think about life insurance, they are looking for an option that will provide their families with financial stability if the unthinkable happens. If you work full time for a company, it’s possible that your workplace has a some type of life insurance policy, often equal to one year of the employee’s salary.

But some experts recommend that families purchase their own insurance plan outside of their employer because employer-sponsored life insurance typically falls short of their family’s actual needs.

Permanent insurance does exactly what the name implies: It provides lifelong coverage. In addition to the death benefit also provided by term-life insurance, permanent insurance also accumulates cash value. But with that added benefit comes pricier premiums.


Whole Life


Variable life


Universal life


Variable universal life

Whole life is the most common type of permanent insurance. With a whole life policy, the premium never changes. Part of the premiums goes into a savings component of the policy, which builds cash value and can be withdrawn or borrowed. That cash value also has a guaranteed rate of return.

Variable life offers the same death benefit, but allows consumers the option to seek a better return by allocating premiums to investments like stocks and bonds.

Universal life lets you vary your premium payments and gives a minimum death benefit as long as the premiums are sufficient to sustain it.

Variable universal life insurance is a sort of mix between variable and universal life, meaning consumers can vary premium payments and can also allocate them among investment subaccounts.

Best for: Those who want a policy that offers cash value and stable premiums. There are also tax advantages to this type of policy.

Best for: Those who want the same advantages as a whole-life policy, plus the option of allocating premiums toward different stocks and bonds.

Best for: Those who want the same advantages of any permanent policy with the option of varying premium payments. For example, those who may want to start with a lower premium that increases as their finances do

Best for: Those who want the option to vary premium payments, but also the option to allocate those payments toward different stocks and bonds.


Term-Life Insurance

Term-life insurance provides coverage for a specified amount of time — let’s say 15 or 20 years. Customers pay a premium each month and are covered through the specified term. This is typically the cheapest insurance option.

Best for: Those whose need for coverage will disappear or change at some point, like when a debt is paid or children reach adulthood and go to college. Also good for those looking for a low-cost option.

Even within term- and whole-life insurance, there are additional products you could be offered, like mortgage life, return of premium (in which your premium is returned if you outlive your initial term) and final expense (which covers just funeral expenses). There’s even an option that would provide lifetime protection for your estate upon your death. With all the available options, it’s easy for the costs to add up.

Tips to choose the right life insurance

Use a life insurance calculator. Wealthy families, those with special-needs family members and others in unique situations will also have different insurance needs. Most insurance websites offer calculators to help consumers decide how much coverage to take. The consumer website lifehappens.org also offers step-by-step guidance on choosing insurance, along with a needs worksheet.

Get multiple free quotes. Consumers can also get free quotes from multiple insurers from sites such as My Family Insurance, InsuranceProviders.com and http://myfasttermquotes.com/, which are independent-agent sites for Barnes, Ohman and Acker. Keep this in mind: Getting a quote doesn’t obligate you to work with a particular company or insurer.

Choose the right advisor. It’s also important to understand that hiring an insurance agent or financial planner is just like any other relationship: You want someone who works best for you and inspires comfort. Hamilton said she not only interviewed potential reps this last go-around, she also requested references and asked them about their company philosophy before making a decision. LifeHappens suggests that consumers use referrals to find an insurance provider.

Seek out independent agents. When it comes to actually choosing an agent or financial planner, Ohman suggests looking into independent agents that aren’t tied to a particular insurance company. That’s because a “captive” agent can only recommend those products that his/her company provides, whereas an independent agent can recommend any number of companies. That doesn’t mean they don’t have your best interests in mind, just that they aren’t able to provide customers with options outside their company offerings.

“The only products that they know about, the only products that they’re even allowed to bring to your attention,” Ohman said, are “their own products.”

Understand what it means to be a fiduciary. Another thing to consider is whether the company or adviser you’re working with is a fiduciary. “One of the big advantages you get with working with an insurance agent who has that CFP designation is that they are supposed to be working as a fiduciary, which means they put your financial interests first,” Ohman said.

Those who hold a CFP designation like Ohman are expected to provide fiduciary care to their clients. It’s also perfectly OK to ask your agent if he or she is, in fact, a fiduciary.

By the way, this doesn’t mean that other agents can’t or won’t provide clients with the type of insurance that works best for them. But don’t hesitate to ask if they’re paid on commission and whether a bonus or trip is tied to a particular transaction.

Check the insurance company’s ratings. Once you get a recommendation, he says, make sure the company has at least a A rating or better from independent agencies that rate companies’ financial strength. There are four independent agencies that provide this information: A.M. Best, Fitch, Moody’s and Standard & Poor’s. Do your research and find the ratings from each of the four agencies, because some companies may highlight a positive rating from one agency and play down a lower rating from another agency.

Trust your gut. Barnes said regardless of whom you choose to represent your insurance needs, make sure you have a level of comfort.

“Don’t be discouraged, there are some great independent agencies,” he says. “If it doesn’t feel right during the process, trust your gut.”

That means continuing to be open-minded, but also not allowing yourself to purchase an insurance product you don’t want or can’t afford. During that first meeting or so, Barnes says the agent should spend time getting to know you and your situation without necessarily trying to sell you on a product.

Similarly, Acker says it’s OK to question your agent to make sure you’re getting the best policy for your needs and lifestyle: “Don’t be bullied into buying what someone else says you should buy.”

For her part, Hamilton says she also looked into whether companies were commission- or fee-based. That’s because a fee-based company will charge a set rate, which can ease the worry of having an overzealous rep who may offer expensive products to boost his or her commission.

Because many good policies also offer a conversion option, you’re not “stuck” forever with something that doesn’t actually work for you. That means you have the option to change policies, as Hamilton did. Some consumers also choose to buy additional policies down the road.

But, and this is key, you shouldn’t let uncertainty or the fear of overpaying keep you from getting at least a simple policy.

“Think about today — the immediate need; protect that right this second,” Acker says. “Then that gives you time to work on your financial planning. Then you can figure out if you want to keep the insurance.”

Crystal Lewis Brown
Crystal Lewis Brown |

Crystal Lewis Brown is a writer at MagnifyMoney. You can email Crystal here

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Investing, Life Events, Retirement, Strategies to Save

Think Twice Before You Max Out Your 401(k)

The editorial content on this page is not provided by any financial institution and has not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

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Financial planners can’t emphasize the importance of saving for retirement enough: The earlier you start saving and the more you contribute, the better. But should you max out your retirement account? And if so, how do you do it? 

Unfortunately, there’s no solution suitable for all; every individual has a different financial situation.  

But let’s start with the basics: The maximum amount of money you can contribute to your 401(k), the retirement plan offered by your company, is currently $18,000 a year if you are under age 50, and $24,000 if you are 50 or older. If you were starting from scratch, you would have to tuck away $1,500 a month to max it out by year’s end.  

This is a big chunk of money. And although there are multiple benefits to saving for retirement, you may want to think twice before hitting that maximum.  

Remember, this is money that, once contributed, can’t be withdrawn until age 59.5 without incurring penalties (with some exceptions).  

What’s more, putting away a significant portion of their savings to max out their retirement fund doesn’t make much sense for some workers.  

If you are fresh out of college and your first job pays $50,000 annually, you’d need to save 36 percent of your paychecks to max out your 401(k) for the year.   

“Everyone needs to save for retirement, and the more dollars you could put in, the earlier, the better, but you also need to live your life,” says Eric Dostal, a certified financial planner with Sontag Advisory, which is based in New York. “To the extent that you are not able to do the things that you want to accomplish now, having a really really robust 401(k) balance will be great in your 60s, but that would cost now.”  

A few things to consider BEFORE you max out your 401(k)

  1. Do you have an emergency fund for rainy-day cash? If not, divert any extra funds to establish a fund that will cover at least three to six months’ worth of living expenses.  
  2. Do you have high-interest debt, such as credit card debt? High-interest debts, like credit cards, might actually cost you more in the long run than any potential gains you might earn by investing that money in the market.  Still, if you can get a company match, you should try to contribute enough to capture the full match. It never makes sense to leave money on the table.  
  3. Do you have other near-term goals? Are you planning to buy a house or have a child anytime soon? Do you want to travel around the world? Do you plan to pursue an advanced degree? If so, come up with a savings strategy that makes room for your nonretirement goals as well. That way you can save money for those big-ticket expenses and will be less likely to turn to credit cards or other borrowing methods. 

Maximize your 401(k) contributions

If your emergency fund is flush, your bills are paid and you’re saving for big expenses, you are definitely ready to beef up your retirement contributions.   

First, you’ll want to figure out how much to save.   

At the very least, as we said above, you should contribute enough to qualify for any employer match available to you. This is money your employer promises to contribute toward your retirement fund. There are several different ways a company decides how much to contribute to your 401(k), but the takeaway is the same no matter what — if you miss out on the match, you are leaving free money on the proverbial table. 

If you are comfortable enough to start saving more, here is a good rule of thumb: Save 10 percent of each paycheck for retirement, though you don’t have to get up to 10 percent all at once.  

For instance, try adding 1 percent more to your retirement fund every six months. Some retirement plans even offer automatic step-up contributions, where your contributions are automatically increased by 1 or 2 percent each year. 

Larry Heller, a New York-based certified financial planner and president of Heller Wealth Management, suggests that you increase your contribution amount for the next three pay periods and repeat again until you hit your maximum.  

“You will be surprised that many people can adjust with a little extra taken out of their paycheck,” Heller said.   

Once you’re in the groove of saving for retirement, consider using unexpected windfalls to boost your savings. If you get an annual bonus, for example, you can beef up your 401(k) contribution sum if you haven’t yet met your contribution limit.  

A word of caution: If you’re nearing the maximum contribution for the year, rein in your savings. You can be penalized by the IRS for overcontributing. 

If your goal is to save $18,000 for 2017, check how much you’ve contributed for the year to date and then calculate a percentage of your salary and bonus contributions that will get you there through the year’s remaining pay periods.  

Shen Lu
Shen Lu |

Shen Lu is a writer at MagnifyMoney. You can email Shen at shenlu@magnifymoney.com

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Life Events

What To Do If You Inherit A Home

The editorial content on this page is not provided by any financial institution and has not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

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The thought of inheriting a home might at first put images of dollar signs in your head. But if you have inherited property from a loved one, it’s not as simple as passing over a set of keys. There are all sorts of legal and tax hoops to jump through if you want to make the most of your new asset.

If you are in a situation where you stand to inherit property or have already done so,  you’ll need all the facts to make the best decisions concerning your new asset. This guide will explore some topics you’ll want to explore further to make the most of your inherited home .

Get a lawyer

As soon as you are aware of a potential inheritance, seek legal help from an experienced estate planning lawyer who’s also familiar with real estate law. A lawyer will navigate court proceedings and help you make strategic, informed decisions that can have an impact on the final value of your inheritance. Since laws governing inheritance and probate vary from state to state, it’s crucial to find an expert with knowledge about the laws in your state for specific recommendations.

Check for any liabilities

It’s entirely possible to inherit property with encumbrances or interests attached to it. The existence of additional heirs, even estranged ones, could mean that the property actually belongs to a number of people. These interests must be figured out and settled in order for one or more people to take ownership of the property as an inherited asset.

Also, there could be liabilities like back taxes, unpaid utility bills or child support expenses that result in liens against the property. There could even be additional mortgages or reverse mortgages against the home. If you inherit a home with a mortgage(s), that debt must be paid off before you can take legal possession.

If there are multiple heirs involved, along with tons of outstanding debt against a property, you may decide not to pursue claiming it based on the value of the home. The trouble of probating the will and acquiring the property could outweigh what you stand to gain based on appraised value.

Get an appraisal and estimate your tax liability

Taxes go hand in hand with inheritances, especially when inheritances involve property. The amount of these taxes will depend on the value of the real estate. That’s another reason why getting an appraisal of the inherited property is recommended.

An appraisal of the inherited home can be useful for determining inheritance, estate or capital gains taxes. Each state is different and may impose only an inheritance tax or an estate tax or both.

If you sell the home, you’ll only need to report your inheritance on your tax return for the year you sell the home. You’ll report this activity on Schedule D of your tax return. The date-of-death valuation (i.e. stepped-up basis) is what is used to determine the value of the estate to be taxed.

There is an exception to taxes on a sale: if you move into and live in the home. In this case, it’s considered your personal residence and not an investment property. For the most part, personal residences that are sold do not need to be reported on a tax return if the owner has lived there for two years or more.

If you decide to keep the home and rent it out, you’ll have to report your rental income and expenses on Schedule E of your Form 1040  for tax filings. Once you sell it, you’ll use your stepped-up basis to pay taxes on the profit of the sale as mentioned above.

A home appraisal gives property a value in dollars based on the home’s characteristics and nearby homes with comparable features. You’ll want to determine the value of the home as soon as you can. Why? As mentioned, the value of your inheritance could be affected by a number of variables: taxes, the presence of multiple heirs, even outstanding debts against the property.

You’ll want to get an appraisal as close to your relative’s date of death as you can, to determine the tax situation. Your “initial investment” amount is set at this date and will be the basis for calculating taxes due (should you profit from the sale of the home).

For example, if Grandpa Joe purchased a home for $60,000 in 1965 and died in 1995, you’ll want to know the value of the property in 1995 to understand how much the home has grown in value. If the home appreciated to $135,000 by 1995 and you sell it for $140,000 any time after this, you’ll owe taxes on that $5,000 profit. This amount would be much less than taxes based on profits made from the 1965 purchase amount.

If you decide you don’t want to pay the capital gains taxes on the inherited home, you’d have to live in the property for at least two years.  Once you sell the property, $250,000 of the profit will not be taxed ($500,000 for married couples.) There are many other ways to further shelter profits that exceed this amount, but this is a good starting point.

Estates with property  worth several million dollars or more will have to pay an estate tax. This tax is on your right to transfer property at death. Currently, estates worth almost  $5.5 million will owe up to 40 percent in estate taxes.

An appraisal will help you make strategic moves with your inherited property. So, the sooner you obtain one, the sooner you can make make decisions to move forward (or not) with the property.

Set yourself up for a smooth transfer

There are many ways that real estate can be transferred from the deceased (decedent) to an heir. With a few exceptions, as soon as someone dies, any assets titled in the decedent’s name transfer to his or her estate.

Once the court determines that you are a rightful heir to the estate, you’ll obtain a court order that grants you rights to possess the property. From here, you’ll want to make sure the title and deed to the property are in order for a proper transfer.

An experienced real estate lawyer should be able to handle all the research related to the property to make sure you don’t run into problems with either the initial transfer or a sale down the road. Graziano suggests heirs obtain a title search and insurance to ensure their rights to occupy, rent or sell the property they’ve inherited.

The state you live in (or own property in) creates this estate entity.  In the probate process, the state will attempt to distribute estate assets to all heirs on record.

Real estate, unless previously directed by the decedent, will also pass into an estate for distribution. The complexity of the probate process and timeline depend greatly on the type of estate your relative had and whether there was a will, a living trust or some other circumstance. All such variables factor into the manner in which you receive your real estate inheritance.

For each situation, you’ll need to know your options and what to expect from the transfer process.

Case #1: My relative had a will

In this case, your relative has expressed the desire to give you the property.  In somes states, a will can help expedite the probate process because the wishes of the decedent are plainly stated. You’ll need to file a copy of the will with the local county court to begin the probate process so that assets, including real estate, can be distributed.

Case #2: My relative did not have a will

If there was no will, the decedent’s assets will enter into a “intestate” probate proceeding.  In this case, you can still start the probate process at your local county courthouse. A judge will decide how to divvy up assets since your loved one did not leave any instructions for disposition of assets.

For those who die without a will, the courts will distribute assets according to the state inheritance laws. These laws, known as intestate inheritance laws, will dictate who gets what in probate proceedings. The most likely heirs of an estate’s property are spouses, children and siblings, but the court will have the final say.

Even if your relative did not have a will, an experienced probate attorney knows how to handle the process of opening the estate. The lawyer will present evidence to the court, informing it of the existence and whereabouts of living heirs for estate asset distribution.

Case #3: My relative had a living trust

Sometimes a person may transfer ownership of property to an entity called a living trust. A trust is a legal document that tells a trustee, chosen by the creator of the trust, how assets should be handled in the event of death or incapacitation.

Unlike with probate, which is handled by public courts, the distribution of assets in a trust can be handled privately, quickly and with less expense. Assets in a trust do not have to go through probate. That’s why many people choose trusts instead of, or alongside, a will.

If your relative had a trust that owned the real estate you are due to inherit, then the trustee will transfer ownership of this asset to you via deed, title or both.

Case #4: I am a joint owner of the property

If you are a joint owner or joint tenant of a real estate asset, there is no need for probate, in most cases. With joint tenancy, the ownership of the deceased’s property passes to survivors in the joint tenancy.

Though joint tenancy can be in place for many reasons, this is most common when a married couple own property together. When a spouse passes away, the transfer can be as simple as providing a death certificate to the title company. The company can easily update the title with this information. If this applies to your situation, you’ll still want to consult your CPA and/or attorney for next steps regarding this arrangement.

Case #5: My relative had a small estate

In some states, there is a “small estate” process that allows you to skip probate altogether. In many cases, you can claim real estate and other minor assets via affidavits or briefer court proceedings.

Each state, however, has its own threshold for the dollar amount that would classify an estate as “small.” In some states, there are also expedited proceedings for estates that only contain real estate. If you can receive your property inheritance without the longer, more extensive process of probate, a small estate proceeding is ideal.

Make a plan to sell, refinance or keep the home

There are different options available to people who inherit a home. Depending on your goals you can choose to sell it, rent it out or live in it.

Selling the home you’ve inherited

In this case, you’ll want to make sure that you care for the home until the sale is complete. Make sure all expenses are paid, like the mortgage, property taxes and utilities. Keep the properly well maintained and in livable condition so that there are no problems when it comes to selling the house. When the sale is complete and the balance of the mortgage or any other debt in the estate paid off, the sale proceeds can be divided among heirs.

A home with a mortgage usually has a due-on-sale clause to require full payment when the borrower dies. However, this clause is suspended in two cases:

  • Because of the death of a joint tenant
  • Property is transferred to a relative resulting from the death of a borrower.

This means that the heir can keep making payments on the property under the existing terms of the mortgage. However, if there are other plans to sell the property or transfer interest from one or more heirs to another, you will have to pay off the existing mortgage.

Keeping the home to rent it out

If you are looking to become a landlord and rent the home, you can take ownership of the property. There may be additional steps to take if a mortgage still exists on the property or if there are are additional heirs involved. You should know, too, that there are tax implications to receiving rental income (discussed below), but it could still be a viable way to get more cash from your inherited property

Keeping the home and live in it

Finally, you could keep the home and use it as your primary residence. Again, with a mortgage and multiple heirs involved, there will be more steps to that you can have official ownership.

Refinancing the mortgage

If one or more of the heirs decide to keep the inherited property as an rental income property or a primary residence, the mortgage on the home may have to be paid off before taking ownership (except in the cases mentioned above).

Though a mortgage cannot be issued to an estate, lenders will typically work with the estate’s attorney for a solution that satisfies the mortgage debt. This may include selling the home or allowing an heir to refinance the balance of the mortgage due on the home.

If there’s more than one heir to the estate and one decides to take sole ownership of the home, this heir could arrange a refinance and purchase transaction. In this type of transaction, the proceeds of the refinance can be used to purchase the other heirs’ interest in the home.

Final thoughts

Inheriting a home can be silver lining when grappling with the death of a loved one. However, if you don’t take all the steps required to obtain rightful ownership, the property could be another source of hassle and a monumental time-suck.

Graziano urges heirs to work with a lawyer on all aspects so they understand the inheritance process. In this way, they can get the most value from their inherited assets, with the the least amount of hassle and the fewest surprises.

Aja McClanahan
Aja McClanahan |

Aja McClanahan is a writer at MagnifyMoney. You can email Aja here

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Life Events, News, Retirement

Why Sabbaticals Could Be the New Pre-Retirement

The editorial content on this page is not provided by any financial institution and has not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

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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Life Events

7 Ways to Lower the Cost of Divorce

The editorial content on this page is not provided by any financial institution and has not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

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As a newlywed, the very last thing on your mind is probably getting divorced. But, unfortunately, divorce is something you may encounter — there were over 813,000 divorces in 2014 alone, according to the latest CDC data, compared to 2.1 million new marriages.

The cost of getting divorced can be just as expensive as getting married. Some estimate the legal fees alone can cost thousands of dollars, not to mention other costs that may be involved in changing your life post-divorce.

The difference is, when you get married you likely had time to prepare your finances. This may not always be the case when you get ready to get divorced.

So, what can you do if you can’t afford to get divorced? Here are some options that may be able to help lower the high cost of divorce.

Shop around for the right attorney

Brette Hankin, a business development manager for S&T Communications in Colby, Kan., says she visited several divorce attorneys to find one that was within her price range.

“The first lawyer I talked to said the retainer fee would be $10,000,” she says. “There was no way I could afford that.”

Eventually, Hankin visited other attorneys in her community and was able to find one who was more affordable.

“The lawyer I chose had a $5,000 retainer fee and was willing to return whatever money was not used for my case,” she says.

Ask friends and family for referrals to good attorneys in your area, or see if your state’s bar association has a way to search for attorneys specializing in divorce/family law.

Work out a “limited scope” arrangement or a payment plan

To help clients who may not be able to pay for their entire legal fees up front, some attorneys may also be willing to take payment plans, or work in a limited scope. Limited scope means they only handle certain parts of your case and you can handle the others.

“In cases where a client cannot afford traditional representation, I will sometimes represent a client in what is referred to as limited scope representation,” says Darlene Wanger, Esq., an attorney based in Los Angeles. “This means that I could represent a client for a single hearing, and then I am no longer the attorney of record.”

To cut costs even more, Wanger says she sometimes acts behind the scenes as a consulting attorney, helping clients fill out paperwork and working through the process without appearing in court.

“Never appearing in court can save a very large expense,” Wanger says.

If you still feel sticker shock at the cost of your legal fees, ask your attorney if you can work out a payment plan. This can help relieve some of the pressure to pay their fees all at once.

Reduce your filing fees

If you’re the spouse filing the divorce petition, ask about the filing fee with your local courthouse. The fee for filing a divorce petition varies based on the state and county in which you live and file your divorce. Filing fees can vary from $70 in Wyoming to $435 in California.

For simple divorces, without children or a large amount of property, you can usually fill out the petition yourself. This can save you from paying attorney fees.

Many individuals who are unable to afford a divorce don’t realize that they can get the divorce petition filing fee waived as well. A judge will review a written affidavit stating your economic hardship so the filing fee can be waived.

Keep things amicable (if possible)

When people think that they can’t afford to get divorced, it’s usually because they’ve heard about long, drawn-out court battles that cost thousands. But if you work with your spouse as much as possible, you can save a lot of money on attorney fees and court costs.

For example, after the filing of a divorce petition, the responding spouse will generally file an answer, even if they agree with everything stated in the petition.

While this can speed up the divorce process, it will cost more money. Any time an answer is filed with the court, it is subject to another filing fee. You could apply for the fee to be waived again, or if you and your spouse are in agreement, the answer could be written as a formality but not filed with the court.

Filing a joint petition for divorce can also save money as neither spouse would have to be served by a sheriff or certified mail.

Get divorced for free

Lizzie Lau, a 47-year-old travel blogger, used as many resources as she could to help her save money during her divorce. She was able to get divorced for free in California, the state with the highest filing fee.

“Initially, I assumed I would have to pay several hundred dollars in filing fees even though I had no income and no support,” Lau says. “But I went to the courthouse and talked to them. I was told that based on my income the fee would be waived, and as long as we didn’t go to court, it would be free. Although, they told me it was pretty rare for a divorce to go through without going to court. I assured them that I was going to be the exception to the rule.”

Lau got the filing fee waived for her petition. Plus, she and her spouse worked together to avoid other costs. Because they were in agreement, he didn’t file a response, and they were able to get divorced without appearing in court, saving them from paying for attorneys and other court costs.

File a pro se divorce

Part of Lau’s strategy included filling out her own legal paperwork and representing herself for her divorce case. This is called a pro se divorce, meaning you represent yourself without an attorney.

This is not a strategy that would work well for divorce cases involving disputes over child custody or property and asset division.

There are a wealth of resources online that can assist people with filing pro se divorces by explaining things in common language.

Prepare for life after divorce

One of the other overlooked costs of getting divorced is the cost to set up a new household. In Hankin’s case, her ex-husband kept the family home while she moved to an apartment.

“He offered to let me stay in the family home, but I couldn’t afford the house payment,” she says. “Instead I got an income-based apartment.”

In other cases, assets may have to be sold if neither party can afford to keep them. Hankin says she got financial help from her parents and did her best to save money and live frugally.

“You don’t think about the costs of setting up a new household until you have to do it,” Hankin says. “Getting pots and pans, furniture, restocking your pantry. All of those things you never think about. We were married for 19 years before we got divorced.”

Hankin shopped at garage sales to save as much as possible. She also got a second job and cashed in her retirement savings. “I felt that it was my only option,” she says. “Now I’m starting from scratch to save for retirement again.”

Kayla Sloan
Kayla Sloan |

Kayla Sloan is a writer at MagnifyMoney. You can email Kayla at Kayla@magnifymoney.com

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Featured, Life Events, News

How to Get ‘Unstuck’ From Your Starter Home

The editorial content on this page is not provided by any financial institution and has not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

Source: iStock

Andrew Cordell bought his first home at the worst possible time — 10 years ago, right before the housing bubble burst.

He’s not going to make that mistake again.

“We had immediate fear put in us as homeowners,” says Cordell, 40. “We know how dangerous this can be.”

So the small “starter home” he purchased in Kalamazoo, Michigan back in 2007 now feels just about the right size.

“When we bought, we figured we’d get another home in a few years,” he says. “But the more we settled, the more we thought, ‘Do we really need more space?’ We don’t actually need a large chest freezer or a large yard. Kalamazoo has a lot of parks.”

Apparently, plenty of homeowners feel the same way.

It’s a phenomenon some have called “stuck in their starter homes.” Bucking a decades-long trend, young homeowners aren’t looking to trade up — they’re looking to stay put. Or they are forced to.

According to the National Association of Realtors, “tenure in home” — the amount of time a homebuyer stays — has almost doubled during the past decade. From the 1980s right up until the recession, buyers stayed an average of about six years after buying a home. That’s jumped to 10 years now.

Expected Median in Tenure in Home
Source: 2017 National Association of Realtors® Home Buyer and Seller Generational Trends

 

Other numbers are just as dramatic. In 2001, there were 1.8 million repeat homebuyers, according to the Urban Institute. Last year, there were about half that number, even as the overall housing market recovered. Before the recession, there were generally far more repeat buyers than first-timers. That’s now reversed, with first-time buyers dwarfing repeaters, 1.4 million to 1 million.

This is no mere statistical curiosity. Trade-up buyers are critical to a smooth-functioning housing market, says Logan Mohtashami, a California-based loan officer and economics expert. When starter homeowners get gun-shy, home sales get stuck.

“Move-up buyers are especially important … because they typically provide homes to the market that are appropriate for first-time buyers,” he says. When first-timers stay put, the share of available lower-cost housing is squeezed, making life harder for those trying to make the jump from renting to buying.

Getting unstuck from your starter home

There are plenty of potential causes for this stuck-in-a-starter-home phenomenon — including the fear Cordell describes, families having fewer children, fast-rising prices, and flat incomes. But Mohtashami says the main cause is a hangover from the housing bubble that has left first-time buyers with very little “selling equity.”

Buyers need at least 28 to 33 percent equity to trade into a larger home, and often closer to 40 percent, he says. Those who bought in the previous cycle might have seen their home values recover, but many purchased with low down payment loans, leaving them still equity poor.

That wasn’t such a problem before the recession, as lenders were happy to give more aggressive loans to trade-up buyers. Not any more.

“In the previous cycle you had exotic loans to help demand. Now you don’t. [That’s why] tenure in home is at an all-time high,” Mohtashami says. “Even families having kids aren’t moving up as much.”

Fast-rising housing prices don’t help the trade-up cause either. While homeowners would seem to benefit from increases in selling price, those are washed away by higher purchase prices, unless the seller plans to move to a cheaper market.

“You’re always trying to catch up to a higher priced home,” Mohtashami says.

Cassandra Evers, a mortgage broker in Michigan, says she’s seen the phenomenon, too.

“It’s not for lack of want. It seems to be the inability to afford the cost of the new home,” she says. “It’s not the interest rate that’s the problem, obviously because those are at historic lows and artificially low. It’s because to buy a ‘bigger and better house,’ that house costs significantly more than their current home. The cost of housing has skyrocketed.”

U.S. Homebuyers and Student Loan Debt (by Age)
Source: 2017 National Association of Realtors® Home Buyer and Seller Generational Trends

There’s also the very practical problem of timing. In a fast-rising market, where every home sale is competitive, it’s easy to lose the game of musical chairs that’s played when a family must sell their home before they can buy a new one.

“Folks are concerned about selling their current house in one day and being unable to find a suitable replacement fast enough,” Evers says.

Cordell, who lives with his wife and eight-year-old son, says the family considered a move a few years ago and briefly looked around. But they quickly concluded that staying put was the right choice.

“We looked at some homes and we thought, ‘I guess we could afford that. But we don’t want to be house broke’,” he says. “We don’t want to take on so much debt that ‘What else are we able to do?’ What if one of us loses our job? I guess you could say we have a Depression-era sensibility. … Who would want to get upside down on one of these things?”

The Urban Institute says this stuck-in-starter-home problem shows a few signs of abating recently. Repeat buyers were stuck around 800,000 from 2013 to 2014. Last year, the number pierced 1 million. But that’s still far below the 1.5 million range that held consistently through the past decade.

There are other signs that relief might be on the way, too. ATTOM Data Solutions recently released a report saying that 1 in 4 mortgage-holders in the U.S. are now equity rich — values have risen enough that owners hold at least 50 percent equity, well above Mohtashami’s guideline. Some 1.6 million homeowners are newly equity rich, compared to this time last year, and 5 million more than in 2013, ATTOM said.

“An increasing number of U.S. homeowners are amassing impressive stockpiles of home equity wealth,” says Daren Blomquist, senior vice president at ATTOM Data Solutions.

So perhaps pent-up repeat homebuying demand might re-emerge. Evers isn’t so sure, however.

“Most folks I talked with are no longer interested in being house poor and maxing out their debt to income ratios. They seem to be staying put and shoving money into their retirement accounts,” Evers says.

The Cordells are content where they are in Kalamazoo and plan to stay long term. If anything would make them move, it’s not growing home equity but a growing family.

“If we ended up with a second (kid), I suppose we’d have to look,” Cordell mused. “But we have no plans for that.”

4 Signs You’re Ready to Trade Up Your Home

  • YOU’VE GOT PLENTY OF EQUITY: Your home’s value has risen enough that you safely have at least 28 percent equity and, preferably, more like 35 to 40 percent.
  • YOU’RE EARNING MORE: Your monthly take-home income has risen since you bought your first home by about as much as your monthly payments (mortgage, interest, insurance, taxes, condo fees, etc.) would rise in a new home.
  • YOU STAND TO MAKE A HEALTHY PROFIT: You are confident that if you sell your home, you’d walk away from closing with at least 30 percent of the price for your new home — or you can top up your seller profits to that level with cash you’ve saved for a new down payment. That would let you make a standard 20 percent down payment and have some left over for surprise repairs and moving costs that will come with the new place. Remember, transaction costs often surprise buyers and sellers, so be sure to build them into your calculations.
  • YOU CAN HANDLE THE RISK: You have the stomach for the game of musical chairs that comes with selling then buying a home in rapid succession. Also, if you are in a hot market, you have extra cash to outbid others or a place for your family to stay in case there’s a time gap between selling and buying.



Bob Sullivan
Bob Sullivan |

Bob Sullivan is a writer at MagnifyMoney. You can email Bob here

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Life Events, Mortgage

The Best Mortgages That Require No or Low Down Payment

The editorial content on this page is not provided by any financial institution and has not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

If you’re considering buying a home, you’re probably wondering how much you’ll need for a down payment. It’s not unusual to be concerned about coming up with a down payment. According to Trulia’s report Housing in 2017, saving for a down payment is most often cited as the biggest obstacle to homeownership.

Maybe you’ve heard that you should put 20% down when you purchase a home. It’s true that 20% is the gold standard. If you can afford a big down payment, it’s easier to get a mortgage, you may be eligible for a lower interest rate, and more money down means borrowing less, which means you’ll have a smaller monthly payment.

But the biggest incentive to put 20% down is that it allows you to avoid paying for private mortgage insurance. Mortgage insurance is extra insurance that some private lenders require from homebuyers who obtain loans in which the down payment is less than 20% of the sales price or appraised value. Unlike homeowners insurance, mortgage protects the lender – not you – if you stop making payments on your loan. Mortgage insurance typically costs between 0.5% and 1% of the entire loan amount on an annual basis. Depending on how expensive the home you buy is, that can be a pretty hefty sum.

While these are excellent reasons to put 20% down on a home, the fact is that many people just can’t scrape together a down payment that large, especially when the median price of a home in the U.S. is a whopping $345,800.

Fortunately, there are many options for homebuyers with little money for a down payment. You may even be able to buy a house with no down payment at all.

Here’s an overview of the best mortgages you can be approved for without 20% down.

Type of Loan

Down Payment Requirement


Mortgage Insurance

Credit Score Requirement

FHA

FHA

3.5% for most

10% if your FICO credit score is between 500 and 579

Requires both upfront and annual mortgage insurance for all borrowers, regardless of down payment

500 and up

SoFi

SoFi

10%

No mortgage insurance required

Typically 700 or higher

VA Loan

VA Loan

No down payment required for eligible borrowers (military service members, veterans, or eligible surviving spouses)

No mortgage insurance required; however, there may be a funding fee, which can run from 1.25% to 2.4% of the loan amount

No minimum score
required

homeready

HomeReady

3% and up

Mortgage insurance required when homebuyers put down
< 20%; no longer required once the loan-to-value ratio reaches 78% or less

620 minimum

homeready

USDA

No down payment required

Ongoing mortgage insurance not required, but borrowers pay an upfront fee of 2% of the purchase price

620-640 minimum

FHA Loans

An FHA loan is a home loan that is insured by the Federal Housing Administration. These loans are designed to promote homeownership and make it easier for people to qualify for a mortgage. The FHA does this by making a guarantee to your bank that they will repay your loan if you quit making payments. FHA loans don’t come directly from the FHA, but rather an FHA-approved lender. Not all FHA-approved lenders offer the same interest rates and costs, even for the same type of loan, so it’s important to shop around.

Down payment requirements

FHA loans allow you to buy a home with a down payment as low as 3.5%, although people with FICO credit scores between 500 and 579 are required to pay at least 10% down.

Approval requirements

Because these loans are geared toward lower income borrowers, you don’t need excellent credit or a large income, but you will have to provide a lot of documentation. Your lender will ask you to provide documents that prove income, savings, and credit information. If you already own any property, you’ll have to have documentation for that as well.

Some of the information you’ll need includes:

  • Two years of complete tax returns (three years for self-employed individuals)
  • Two years of W-2s, 1099s, or other income statements
  • Most recent month of pay stubs
  • A year-to-date profit-and-loss statement for self-employed individuals
  • Most recent three months of bank, retirement, and investment account statements

Mortgage insurance requirements

The FHA requires both upfront and annual mortgage insurance for all borrowers, regardless of their down payment. On a typical 30-year mortgage with a base loan amount of less than $625,500, your annual mortgage insurance premium will be 0.85% as of this writing. The current upfront mortgage insurance premium is 1.75% of the base loan amount.

Casey Fleming, a mortgage adviser with C2 Financial Corporation and author of The Loan Guide: How to Get the Best Possible Mortgage, also reminds buyers that mortgage insurance on an FHA loan is permanent. With other loans, you can request the lenders to cancel private mortgage insurance (MIP) once you have paid down the mortgage balance to 80% of the home’s original appraised value, or wait until the balance drops to 78% when the mortgage servicer is required to eliminate the MIP. But mortgage insurance on an FHA loan cannot be canceled or terminated. For that reason, Fleming says “it’s best if the homebuyer has a plan to get out in a couple of years.”

Where to find an FHA-approved lender

As we mentioned earlier, FHA loans don’t come directly from the FHA, but rather an FHA-approved lender. Not all FHA-approved lenders offer the same interest rates and costs, even for the same type of loan, so it’s important to shop around.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has a searchable database where you can find lenders in your area approved for FHA loans.

First, fill in your location and the radius in which you’d like to search.

Next, you’ll be taken to a list of FHA-approved lenders in your area.

Who FHA loans are best for

FHA loans are flexible about how you come up with the down payment. You can use your savings, a cash gift from a family member, or a grant from a state or local government down-payment assistance program.

However, FHA loans are not the best option for everyone. The upfront and ongoing mortgage insurance premiums can cost more than private mortgage insurance. If you have good credit, you may be better off with a non-FHA loan with a low down payment and lower loan costs.

And if you’re buying an expensive home in a high-cost area, an FHA loan may not be able to provide you with a large enough mortgage. The FHA has a national loan limit, which is recalculated on an annual basis. For 2017, in high-cost areas, the FHA national loan limit ceiling is $636,150. You can check HUD.gov for a complete list of FHA lending limits by state.

SoFi

For borrowers who can afford a large monthly payment but haven’t saved up a big down payment, SoFi offers mortgages of up to $3 million. Interest rates will vary based on whether you’re looking for a 30-year fixed loan, a 15-year fixed loan, or an adjustable rate loan, which has a fixed rate for the first seven years, after which the interest rate may increase or decrease. Mortgage rates started as low as 3.09% for a 15-year mortgage as of this writing. You can find your rate using SoFi’s online rate quote tool without affecting your credit.

Down payment requirements

SoFi requires a minimum down payment of at least 10% of the purchase price for a new loan.

Approval requirements

Like most lenders, SoFi analyzes FICO scores as a part of its application process. However, it also considers factors such as professional history and career prospects, income, and history of on-time bill payments to determine an applicant’s overall financial health.

Mortgage insurance requirements

SoFi does not charge private mortgage insurance, even on loans for which less than 20% is put down.

What we like/don’t like

In addition to not requiring private mortgage insurance on any of their loans, SoFi doesn’t charge any loan origination, application, or broker commission fees. The average closing fee is 2% to 5% for most mortgages (it varies by location), so on a $300,000 home loan, that is $3,000. Avoiding those fees can save buyers a significant amount and make it a bit easier to come up with closing costs. Keep in mind, though, that you’ll still need to pay standard third-party closing costs that vary depending on loan type and location of the property.

There’s not much to dislike about SoFi unless you’re buying a very inexpensive home in a lower-cost market. They do have a minimum loan amount of $100,000.

Who SoFi mortgages are best for

SoFi mortgages are really only available for people with excellent credit and a solid income. They don’t work with people with poor credit.

SoFi does not publish minimum income or credit score requirements.

VA Loans

Rates can vary by lender, but currently, rates for a $225,000 30-year fixed-rate loan run at around 3.25%, according to LendingTree. (Disclosure: LendingTree is the parent company of MagnifyMoney.)

Down payment requirements

Eligible borrowers can get a VA loan with no down payment. Although the costs associated with getting a VA loan are generally lower than other types of low-down-payment mortgages, Fleming says there is a one-time funding fee, unless the veteran or military member has a service-related disability or you are the surviving spouse of a veteran who died in service or from a service-related disability.

That funding fee varies by the type of veteran and down-payment percentage, but for a new-purchase loan, the funding fee can run from 1.25% to 2.4% of the loan amount.

Approval requirements

VA loans are typically easier to qualify for than conventional mortgages. To be eligible, you must have suitable credit, sufficient income to make the monthly payment, and a valid Certificate of Eligibility (COE). The COE verifies to the lender that you are eligible for a VA-backed loan. You can apply for a COE online, through your lender, or by mail using VA Form 26-1880.

The VA does not require a minimum credit score, but lenders generally have their own requirements. Most ask for a credit score of 620 or higher.

If you’d like help seeing if you are qualified for a VA loan, check to see if there’s a HUD-approved housing counseling agency in your area.

Mortgage insurance requirements

Because VA loans are guaranteed by the Department of Veterans Affairs, they do not require mortgage insurance. However, as we mentioned previously, be prepared to pay an additional funding fee of 1.25% to 2.4%.

What we like/don’t like

There’s no cap on the amount you can borrow. However, there are limits on the amount the VA can insure, which usually affects the loan amount a lender is willing to offer. Loan limits vary by county and are the same as the Federal Housing Finance Agency’s limits, which you can find here.

HomeReady

 

The HomeReady program is offered by Fannie Mae. HomeReady mortgage is aimed at consumers who have decent credit but low- to middle-income earnings. Borrowers do not have to be first-time home buyers but do have to complete a housing education program.

Approval requirements

HomeReady loans are available for purchasing and refinancing any single-family home, as long as the borrower meets income limits, which vary by property location. For properties in low-income areas (as determined by the U.S. Census), there is no income limit. For other properties, the income eligibility limit is 100% of the area median income.

The minimum credit score for a Fannie Mae loan, including HomeReady, is 620.

To qualify, borrowers must complete an online education program, which costs $75 and helps buyers understand the home-buying process and prepare for homeownership.

Down payment requirements

HomeReady is available through all Fannie Mae-approved lenders and offers down payments as low as 3%.

Reiss says buyers can combine a HomeReady mortgage with a Community Seconds loan, which can provide all or part of the down payment and closing costs. “Combined with a Community Seconds mortgage, a Fannie borrower can have a combined loan-to-value ratio of up to 105%,” Reiss says. The loan-to-value (LTV) ratio is the ratio of outstanding loan balance to the value of the property. When you pay down your mortgage balance or your property value increases, your LTV ratio goes down.

Mortgage insurance requirements

While HomeReady mortgages do require mortgage insurance when the buyer puts less than 20% down, unlike an FHA loan, the mortgage insurance is removed once the loan-to-value ratio reaches 78% or less.

What we like/don’t like

HomeReady loans do require private mortgage insurance, but the cost is generally lower than those charged by other lenders. Fannie Mae also makes it easier for borrowers to get creative with their down payment, allowing them to borrow it through a Community Seconds loan or have the down payment gifted from a friend or family member. Also, if you’re planning on having a roommate, income from that roommate will help you qualify for the loan.

However, be sure to talk to your lender to compare other options. The HomeReady program may have higher interest rates than other mortgage programs that advertise no or low down payments.

USDA Loan

USDA loans are guaranteed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Although the USDA doesn’t cap the amount a homeowner can borrow, most USDA-approved lenders extend financing for up to $417,000.

Rates vary by lender, but the agency gives a baseline interest rate. As of August 2016, that rate was just 2.875%

Approval requirements

USDA loans are available for purchasing and refinancing homes that meet the USDA’s definition of “rural.” The USDA provides a property eligibility map to give potential buyers a general idea of qualified locations. In general, the property must be located in “open country” or an area that has a population less than 10,000, or 20,000 in areas that are deemed as having a serious lack of mortgage credit.

USDA loans are not available directly from the USDA, but are issued by approved lenders. Most lenders require a minimum credit score of 620 to 640 with no foreclosures, bankruptcies, or major delinquencies in the past several years. Borrowers must have an income of no more than 115% of the median income for the area.

Down payment requirements

Eligible borrowers can get a home loan with no down payment. Other closing costs vary by lender, but the USDA loan program does allow borrowers to use money gifted from friends and family to pay for closing costs.

Mortgage insurance requirements

While USDA-backed mortgages do not require mortgage insurance, borrowers instead pay an upfront premium of 2% of the purchase price. The USDA also allows borrowers to finance that 2% with the home loan.

What we like/don’t like

Some buyers may dismiss USDA loans because they aren’t buying a home in a rural area, but many suburbs of metropolitan areas and small towns fall within the eligible zones. It could be worth a glance at the eligibility map to see if you qualify.

At a Glance: Low-Down-Payment Mortgage Options

To see how different low-down-payment mortgage options might look in the real world, let’s assume a buyer with an excellent credit score applies for a 30-year fixed-rate mortgage on a home that costs $250,000.

As you can see in the table below, their monthly mortgage payment would vary a lot depending on which lender they use.

 

Down Payment


Total Borrowed


Interest Rate


Principal & Interest


Mortgage Insurance


Total Monthly Payment

FHA


FHA

3.5%
($8,750)

$241,250

4.625%

$1,083

$4,222 up front
$171 per month

$1,254

SoFi


SoFi

10%
($25,000)

$225,000

3.37%

$995

$0

$995

VA


VA Loan

0%
($0)

$250,000

3.25%

$1,088

$0

$1,088

HomeReady


homeready

3%
($7,500)

$242,500

4.25%

$1,193

$222 per month

$1,349

USDA


homeready

0%

$250,000

2.875%

$1,037

$5,000 up front,
can be included in
total financed

$1,037

Note that this comparison doesn’t include any closing costs other than the upfront mortgage insurance required by the FHA and USDA loans. The total monthly payments do not include homeowners insurance or property taxes that are typically included in the monthly payment.

ANALYSIS: Should I put down less than 20% on a new home just because I can?

So, if you can take advantage of a low- or no-down-payment loan, should you? For some people, it might make financial sense to keep more cash on hand for emergencies and get into the market sooner in a period of rising home prices. But before you apply, know what it will cost you. Let’s run the numbers to compare the cost of using a conventional loan with 20% down versus a 3% down payment.

Besides private mortgage insurance, there are other downsides to a smaller down payment. Lenders may charge higher interest rates, which translates into higher monthly payments and more money spent over the loan term. Also, because many closing costs are a percentage of the total loan amount, putting less money down means higher closing costs.

For this example, we’ll assume a $250,000 purchase price and a loan term of 30 years. According to Freddie Mac, during the week of June 22, 2017, the average rate for a 30-year fixed-rate mortgage was 3.90%.

Using the Loan Amortization Calculator from MortgageCalculator.org:

Assuming you don’t make any extra principal payments, you will have to pay private mortgage insurance for 112 months before the principal balance of the loan drops below 78% of the home’s original appraised value. That means in addition to paying $169,265.17 in interest, you’ll pay $11,316.48 for private mortgage insurance.

The bottom line

Under some circumstances, a low- or no-down-payment mortgage, even with private mortgage insurance, could be considered a worthwhile investment. If saving for a 20% down payment means you’ll be paying rent longer while you watch home prices and mortgage rates rise, it could make sense. In the past year alone, average home prices increased 16.8%, and Kiplinger is predicting that the average 30-year fixed mortgage rate will rise to 4.1% by the end of 2017.

If you do choose a loan that requires private mortgage insurance, consider making extra principal payments to reach 20% equity faster and request that your lender cancels private mortgage insurance. Even if you have to spend a few hundred dollars to have your home appraised, the monthly savings from private mortgage insurance premiums could quickly offset that cost.

Keep in mind, though, that the down payment is only one part of the home-buying equation. Sonja Bullard, a sales manager with Bay Equity Home Loans in Alpharetta, Ga., says whether you’re interested in an FHA loan or a conventional (i.e., non-government-backed) loan, there are other out-of-pocket costs when buying a home.

“Through my experience, when people hear zero down payment, they think that means there are no costs for obtaining the loan,” Bullard says. “People don’t realize there are still fees required to be paid.”

According to Bullard, those fees include:

  • Inspection: $300 to $1,000, based on the size of the home
  • Appraisal: $375 to $1,000, based on the size of the home
  • Homeowners insurance premiums, prepaid for one year, due at closing: $300 to $2,500, depending on coverage
  • Closing costs: $4,000 to $10,000, depending on sales price and loan amount
  • HOA initiation fees

So don’t let a seemingly insurmountable 20% down payment get in the way of homeownership. When you’re ready to take the plunge, talk to a lender or submit a loan application online. You might be surprised at what you qualify for.

Janet Berry-Johnson
Janet Berry-Johnson |

Janet Berry-Johnson is a writer at MagnifyMoney. You can email Janet here

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Investing, Life Events, Mortgage

How to Buy a House With a Friend — The Right Way

The editorial content on this page is not provided by any financial institution and has not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

It’s completely possible for you to purchase a house or other property with someone who isn’t your spouse, like a friend or family member.

“It’s a beautiful occasion, but it’s also a complex business transaction,” says Senior Managing Partner of New York City-based Law Firm of Kishner & Miller, Bryan Kishner. “There are tremendous positives to the overall thing, but people need to be careful with the unforeseen items, and a lot of people say they didn’t think about that.”

For friends who are unable to afford a home in their area on a single income, or cohabiting couples, buying a home together can help both parties boost their net worth or simply achieve a goal of becoming a homeowner.

That being said, purchasing a home with a friend can be more complicated than buying a house with your spouse. The key to a successful co-homeownership arrangement is to set yourselves up for success from the get-go.

Choose the Right Joint Homeownership Structure

When you buy a home, you’ll get a title, which proves the property is yours. The paper the title is printed on is called a deed, and it explains how you, the co-owners, have agreed to share the title. The way the title is structured becomes important when you need to figure out what happens when a co-owner needs to part with the property.

These are the two most common ways to approach joint homeownership:

1. Tenants in Common

A tenants in common, or tenancy in common, is the most common structure people use when they purchase a property for personal use. This outlines who owns what percentage of the property and allows each owner to control what happens if they pass away. For example, a co-owner can pass their share onto any beneficiaries in a will, and that will be honored.

The TIC allows co-owners to own unequal shares of the property, which can come in handy if one owner will occupy a significant majority or minority of the shared home. For example, if two friends decide to buy a multifamily home, but one friend pays more because one friend’s space has much more square footage than the other friend’s space, they can split their shares of the home accordingly.

Kishner says to make sure you “reference and evidence your intent to use the tenants in common structure on the deed,” as it’s the primary evidence of your ownership — meaning you would write who owns what percentage of the property on the deed and note the parties chose a TIC structure.

The Pros of a TIC structure

Ownership can be unevenly split

You can own as much or as little as you want of the property as long as the combined ownership adds up to 100%. So, if you’re putting up 60% of the down payment, you can work it out with the other co-owner(s) to own 60% of the property on the title.

You don’t have to live there

You can own part of the property without living there. This is relevant for someone who simply wants to be a partial owner, but doesn’t want to live at the property.

You get to decide what happens to your share after you pass away

The TIC allows you the flexibility to decide what happens to your interest in the property in the event you pass away. You can decide if it will go to the other co-owners or to an heir. Regardless, the decision is yours.

The Cons of a TIC structure

Co-owners can sell their interest without telling you

Co-owners in a TIC can sell their interest in the property at any time, without the permission of others in the agreement. However, if they are also on the mortgage loan, they are still on the hook to make payments, says Rafael Reyes, a loan officer based in New York City.

2. Joint Tenants with Rights of Survivorship

This arrangement is different from a tenants in common arrangement in that in the case of one co-owner’s death, the deceased party’s shares will be automatically absorbed by the living co-owners. For this reason, this type of structure is more common among family members or cohabiting partners looking to purchase property together.

If, for example, you are purchasing with a family member and would like them to automatically absorb your portion in case you pass away unexpectedly, this is the option you’d go with. Even if the deceased has it written in their will to pass their interest to a beneficiary, that likely won’t be honored.

A joint tenants agreement requires these four essential components:

  1. Co-owners must all acquire the property at the same time.
  2. Co-owners must all have the same title on assets.
  3. Each co-owner must own equal interests in the property. So if you buy with one friend, you’ll own 50%, but if you buy with two friends, you’d own one-third of the property. This may be an important consideration if co-owners will occupy different amounts of space in the property.
  4. Co-owners must each have the same right to possess the entirety of the assets.

The Pros of a joint tenants agreement

Everyone owns an equal share in the property

There’s not arguing over shares if you go with a joint tenants arrangement, since it requires all co-owners to have an equal interest. So each co-owner has the same right to use, take loans out against, or sell the property.

No decisions to make if someone dies

There’s nothing for co-owners or family members to fight over after you pass away. Your ownership shares are automatically inherited by the other co-owners when you pass away, regardless of what might be written in a will.

The Cons of a joint tenants agreement

Equal ownership

Equal ownership can be a con as much as it’s a pro. If you’re going to occupy more than 50% of the space, or put up more of the mortgage or down payment, you may want to own more than your equal share of the property. If that will bother you, a TIC agreement is best.

How to Create a Co-ownership Agreement

Before you even start the mortgage lending process, it’s recommended to work out an agreement on how you’ll split equity in the home, who will be responsible for maintenance costs, and what will happen in the event of major life events such as death, marriage, or having children.

“You are more or less going into business together” when you purchase a home with a friend or relative, says Kishner. And like any smart business owner, you’ll want to protect yourself in case things go south down the road.

A real estate attorney can help you set up an official co-ownership agreement.

Kishner recommends each person in the agreement get their own attorney, who can represent each party’s personal concerns and interests during negotiation. Rates vary by location, but he estimates a good real estate lawyer would charge around $1,000.

Ideally, Kishner says, this agreement is created and signed before closing the mortgage loan. That way, if simply going through all of the what-ifs scares someone off, they have the opportunity to pull out.

3 Questions Every Co-ownership Agreement Should Answer

The co-ownership agreement you draft and sign will need to address many issues. Here are three common scenarios the experts offered us:

1. What happens if someone wants out?

Your agreement should outline an exit plan in case one or more of you want out of the property. This could be because of a number of reasons but is the area where things can get extremely complicated. For example, what if one of the co-owners wants to be bought out by the other co-owners?

Let’s say you’ve got three people on a mortgage and on the title to a property. If the other two can come up with the money for the equity, you’ve solved that problem.

But if someone wants to sell their interest in the property, for example, Reyes says they can’t just take the cash and walk away, since they’ll still have some financial obligation to the home if they are on the mortgage. So you’d need to also refinance the mortgage to get them off of it, and that could affect the other co-owner’s financial picture. The only way to relieve someone of their financial obligation to the mortgage is to refinance with the lender. That’s because if they leave and decide to stop making mortgage payments, that will affect your credit score.

Be prepared. When you refinance, the remaining co-owners will need to qualify again for the mortgage. If you decided to add a co-owner because you couldn’t originally qualify for the property based on your income, you might not qualify to own after a refinance.

If you can’t refinance, you all may decide to arrange for the departing member to rent out their living space in the household … then you’d need to deal with the issues surrounding finding a roommate or having a tenant. However you all want to go about handling this kind of situation should already be outlined in the co-ownership agreement, so you’ll have one less thing to argue over in a split.

2. What happens if a co-owner loses their job?

You want to be prepared to fulfill your financial obligations if someone loses their income. That’s why it’s recommended to create a shared emergency fund, which you can draw from in the case that one of the owners runs into financial issues (or, of course, to handle any maintenance needs). You can establish the contributions and rules surrounding a shared emergency fund in your co-ownership agreement.

Reyes advises putting away about six months’ worth of the property expenses into a shared savings account.

“That six-month reserve, at least, is important because ultimately, God forbid, if there is some kind of financial turbulence like job loss, they can cover the mortgage or they could sell the home within six months in this market,” said Reyes.

3. How will you pay bills and taxes?

The co-ownership agreement also needs to address how you all will split up housing costs. Kauffman says you should set up a joint account and agree on what each party should contribute to the fund each pay period.

You should consider the repairs, maintenance, and upkeep on the house, as well as things that could increase over time such as property tax and homeowner’s insurance, too, Kauffman adds. In the event those costs exceed what you’ve set aside to pay for them in escrow accounts, the co-ownership agreement needs to outline how the extra bill will be paid.

Applying for a Mortgage as a Joint Homeowner

If you want to purchase a home with a friend or relative, you’ll first have to decide whether or not both of your names will be on the mortgage.

A lender will consider both of your credit scores during the underwriting process, which means a person with a lower credit score could drag down your collective credit score, leading to higher mortgage rates.

Kauffman strongly advises reaching out to figure out your financing before applying for a loan with friends.

“Each of them might understand what they can afford on their own, but they may not be aware of how their purchasing power changes,” Kauffman says. You may find you qualify for more or less house than you thought you could afford.

He adds there are some serious things to consider when you decide to enter into an investment with other people that you’re not necessarily tied to. Carefully consider your personal relationships with the people you’re going into homeownership with.

“You’ve got to really consider who you’re getting into it with and really consider all of these things that are bound to happen when you have [multiple] lives,” says Kauffman.

It can also be potentially awkward when friends or colleagues realize they must reveal aspects of their finances that they might prefer to keep private, such as their credit score, credit history, and total income.

“Oftentimes people learn a lot about their [co-owner] through a credit report, and it becomes embarrassing and uncomfortable sometimes,” says Rick Herrick, a loan officer at Bedford, N.H.-based Loan Originator.

Brittney Laryea
Brittney Laryea |

Brittney Laryea is a writer at MagnifyMoney. You can email Brittney at brittney@magnifymoney.com

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