MONEY Ask the Expert

How to Get a Double Dose of Tax-Deferred Savings

Investing illustration
Robert A. Di Ieso, Jr.

Q: When I turn 70½ I’m required to start withdrawing funds from my 401(k) and pay taxes on it. I don’t need this money to live on. Is it too risky for me to invest it? – Dolores

A: What you’re referring to are required minimum distributions (RMD), which generally begin in the calendar year after you turn 70½.

Even if you can afford to keep your money parked in your retirement plans, the Internal Revenue Service insists that you start withdrawing money annually from your retirement accounts once you reach a certain age.

“It typically starts at 3% to 4% of the value of your account and goes up from there,” says Gretchen Cliburn, a certified financial planner with BKD Wealth Advisors headquartered in Springfield, Mo. You can estimate your RMD using a worksheet from the IRS.

Fail to withdraw the minimum and you’ll face a hefty penalty – 50% on the amount that should have been withdrawn, plus regular income taxes.

“Where things can get confusing is if you have multiple accounts,” says Cliburn. “I recommend consolidating accounts so you avoid missing an RMD.”

To add to the confusion, you can take your first distribution the year you turn 70½, or postpone it until April 1 the following calendar year – though you’ll need to take double the distributions that year. Likewise, if you’re still working, you’ll need to take RMDs on your IRAs, but you can delay taking distributions on your 401(k) or other employer-sponsored plan until the year after you retire.

Now, what should you do with that distribution?

“The answer really depends on your situation and your goals for that money,” says Cliburn. “Will you use it to support your lifestyle over the next 10 or 20 years, or do you want it to go to future generations?”

“If you want to hang onto those funds, your best bet is to open a taxable investment account and divide the distributions into three buckets,” she says. One bucket can be cash; another bucket might go into a balanced mutual fund, which owns stocks and bonds; the final bucket might go to a tax-efficient exchange-traded stock fund, such as one that tracks the S&P 500.

Just how much goes into each bucket depends on your other sources of income. “If you have a guaranteed source of income, you may feel more comfortable taking on a little more risk,” says Cliburn.

If you’re absolutely certain that you won’t need these required minimum distributions to live on — and that you have other funds to cover your retirement living expenses — then you could use the distributions to help others, and possibly get some tax savings.

You need earned income to contribute to a Roth IRA. But you could, for example, help your children fund a Roth IRA (assuming they qualify). You can gift any individual up to $14,000 a year before you have to file a gift tax return. They’ll make after-tax contributions to the Roth, but the money will grow tax-deferred. Withdrawals of principal are tax-free — provided the account has been open at least five years — and all withdrawals are tax free after the account holder turns 59½.

Another option is to open or contribute to a 529 college savings plan. The money grows tax-deferred and withdrawals for qualified education expenses are exempt from federal and state tax. Depending on where you or your children live, there may be a state tax deduction to boot.

A tax-free charitable transfer is another possibility, though you’ll need to wait to see if so-called qualified charitable contributions, or QCDs, are renewed for the 2015 tax year. Taxpayers didn’t hear about last year’s renewal until December.

Assuming it’s a go, it’s a sweet deal. Last year, IRA owners age 70½ or over were able to directly transfer up to $100,000 per year from their accounts to eligible charities, sans tax.

MONEY Ask the Expert

The Best Investment Gift for a Grandchild

Investing illustration
Robert A. Di Ieso, Jr.

Q: What is the best investment gift that I can give to my 19-month-old granddaughter? – L. Gutierrez

A: Whether you have $100 to give or $10,000, the best investment gift for a young grandchild is to open or contribute to a tax-advantaged 529 college savings plan.

“For grandparents who want to help their kids pay for college, these make the most sense,” says John Gajkowski, a certified financial planner and co-founder of Money Managers Financial Group, in Oak Brook, Ill. “You have a broad range of choices of where and how you invest, and you can maintain control if you wish.”

More importantly, your investment grows sans tax, and qualified withdrawals—for things like tuition, fees, and room and board for higher education—aren’t subject to state or federal tax. Some states offer a tax deduction to boot if you go with your home-state plan.

Meanwhile, saving money in a 529 plan will have a minimal impact on financial aid. By contrast, if you were to put money in a traditional investment account in your granddaughter’s name, those sums would be factored into the family’s expected contribution.

Should your granddaughter get a full scholarship to college, no worries. You can just name another person as the beneficiary—they can be any age and needn’t be related.

If you must cash out, you will have to pay a 10% penalty, plus federal and state tax, on any earnings. This shouldn’t be a deal breaker, says Gajkowski. The advantages of socking away money in a 529 plan outweigh the risk that you won’t use the funds for higher education.

There are a couple of ways to go about making a contribution to a 529 account. The first is to open a 529 account in your name—you would serve as the custodian—and designate your granddaughter as the beneficiary. The advantage of going this route, says Gajkowski, is control. You can control how the money is invested, and you can change the name of the beneficiary at any time.

Option 2 is to help your granddaughter’s parents open their own 529, and make contributions to their plan. While you’ll give up control, this is a great way to get buy-in from your adult children—and get other relatives on board.

“We’ve had a lot of clients offer matching benefits to their [adult] children to incentivize them to save,” Gajkowski adds. “You can spread the word and let people know there is a general pool for college savings.”

While 529s are sponsored by individual states, you can invest in any state’s plan. In other words, if you don’t like the options or fees of your home-state plan, you can go with any state’s plan—and the money can be used for higher education in any state.

Start by seeing how your state plan sizes up against other states.

If your state allows for an income tax deduction (it’s typically capped at a few thousand dollars) and has a solid plan, that’s a good starting point. “But I would be far more concerned about the performance of the portfolio than any state tax benefit,” says Gajkowski, who recommends looking at the overall fees, investment options and track record.

If your state’s plan gets poor reviews, shop around for the best direct-sold non-resident plans at SavingForCollege.com. Most advisers recommend going with an age-based investment option, which will invest fairly aggressively when your child is young and gradually get more conservative as college approaches.

Your contributions are subject to the gift tax, though you can gift an individual up to $14,000 ($28,000 for couples) a year without running into that limit. You can also contribute up to $70,000 ($140,000 for couples) in one year and claim it over a five-year period.

The lifetime maximum contribution limits on most plans range from $200,000 to $350,000 per beneficiary. As college tuition trends higher, so are these saving ceilings.

MONEY Ask the Expert

Have Mutual Funds Lost a Key Advantage Over ETFs?

Investing illustration
Robert A. Di Ieso, Jr.

Q: ETFs seem to be taking the place of mutual funds, but my understanding is that mutual funds are still your best option if you want to reinvest dividends. Is that true? — Bill from Florence, S.C.

A: Once upon a time, there was some truth to this. But the popularity of dividend-focused exchange-traded funds has prompted most brokerages to tweak their policies to accommodate dividend reinvestors.

“From an investor standpoint the experience should be similar, though the process behind the scenes is different,” says Heather Pelant, a personal investor strategist with BlackRock, which manages mutual funds as well as ETFs via the firm’s iShares division.

Before ETFs became widely adopted, some brokerages charged ETF investors a transaction cost for dividend reinvestments, says Pelant. Hence the notion that mutual funds are a better vehicle for reinvesting dividends. “These platforms have since come up with procedures and features that are parallel to mutual funds,” she says.

Today, most large brokerages give investors the option of depositing dividend payouts into their cash accounts or automatically reinvesting dividends back into the security – be it an individual stock, mutual fund, or ETF. You should be able to make this choice on a fund by fund basis, change your preference at any time, and reinvest your dividends for free.

Still, it’s always a good idea to double check your broker’s own policy, lest you get dinged with additional fees.

One way ETFs are different (slightly) from mutual funds is the timing of reinvestments. Mutual fund dividend payouts are reinvested at a fund’s net asset value on the ex-dividend date, which is essentially the cutoff date for new shareholders to collect that dividend.

ETF investors, on the other hand, have to wait for all transactions to settle, typically a few days, to repurchase shares. If share prices swing widely during that short window of time, it could make a difference — for better or for worse.

For most investors, however, this nuance matters far less than all the other factors that go into deciding whether to invest via an ETF or fund.

Meanwhile, dividend reinvesting is a great tool to stay fully invested and systematically buy additional shares over time, says Pelant. Over the long term, these payouts really can add up.

Of course, because different funds will have different payouts, automatically reinvesting dividends could eventually throw off your allocations — even more reason to make sure you periodically rebalance your portfolio.

MONEY home improvement

How to Squeeze the Most Value From Your Home

woman in kitchen
Getty Images

Buyers and sellers are getting busy, but if you're planning to stay put, low rates on home equity loans and lines of credit make this a good time to remodel.

In part one of our Spring Real Estate Guide, we told you what to do if you’re in the market for a home this year. In part two, we offered tips for sellers. Today we’ve got advice for those who want to say put and add value with smart home improvements.

It’s always nice to remember that the value of your house should climb while you’re enjoying it—and at a great mortgage rate (assuming you take the advice below about refinancing!). If you’re at the love-it rather than list-it stage of your life, remodeling may be a good option. Nationwide, 57% of home-owners surveyed recently by SunTrust said they planned to spend money on home-improvement projects this year. But be warned: The competition for contractors in many markets is fierce. You may have to wait your turn in line.

If you’re staying where you are, here are three ways to get the most out of the home you’re in.

Hit the refi table. According to CoreLogic, roughly 30% of all primary mortgages still carry an interest rate of 5% or higher—even though the average fixed rate today is 1.3 points lower. If you took out a $300,000 loan in mid-2009, say, and refinanced the roughly $270,000 balance at today’s rates, you’d cut your payments by about $370 a month.

You might consider making a few other changes. First, don’t assume that your current lender will offer you the best deal this time around—different lenders are marketing different kinds of loans.

You might also want to switch to a 15-year fixed-rate mortgage, especially if you are a decade or so from retirement and looking ahead to reducing your debt. You’ll pay more each month: about $170 more than the current payment on the $300,000 30-year mortgage at 5% cited previously. But you’d retire the loan nearly a decade sooner and save tens of thousands in interest.

There’s a good reason some homeowners haven’t refinanced at all: They couldn’t. In 2012 about a quarter of homeowners owed more on their homes than the houses were worth. Thanks to rising property values, that’s changing. Today only 11% of owners have negative equity, according to CoreLogic.

If you’re one of them, you may still be able to refinance, perhaps without having to bring cash to the table. Borrowers with FHA and Veterans Administration loans are eligible for “streamlined” refinancing, which looks at payment history rather than equity. For borrowers with conventional mortgages, the Home Affordable Refinance Program (HARP) is still available and has undergone some improvements since it was introduced in 2009. If you were turned down before, it’s worth another shot, says Keith Gumbinger, vice president of HSH.com, a mortgage information provider.

Get the right renovation financing. For a project that requires a one-time loan and at a fairly predictable cost—say, a bathroom—you may want to consider a home-equity loan, says Gumbinger. The 5.9% rate isn’t all that favorable, but you have the security of its being fixed. For a larger project in which you’ll need ongoing access to funds, a home-equity line of credit can be a better option since it operates like a credit card. HELOCs are now ringing in at 4.8%. The downside is that the rate is variable, so if you won’t be able to pay the debt off in two years, it might not be your smartest choice.

Think about the next owner. According to a 2014 survey by Houzz, 53% of homeowners who are remodeling say they are hoping to increase their home’s value. Yet most upgrades won’t help your resale. The most common remodeling projects are kitchens and bathrooms—9.5% and 7.7% of all upgrades, according to Harvard’s Joint Center for Housing Studies. But according to Remodeling magazine’s 2015 Cost vs. Value report, you’ll recoup only 70% of costs on a bathroom remodel, 59% on a bathroom addition, 68% on a major kitchen remodel, and 79% on a minor kitchen. (The only project that recoups more than its cost: installing a steel front door, which runs from $500 to $750.) That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t renovate; just know that you’re not going to get back all of what you put in.

No matter what project you choose, consider adding improvements to appeal to aging baby boomers. According to the Joint Center for Housing Studies, just over half of existing homes have more than one of five key features for aging in place. Notably, only 8% have wide doorways and hallways or levered door and faucet handles. Those could become huge selling points. Just think: Those renovated doors could provide the perfect entrée to your next great home.

Read next: If You Want to Buy a Home Here’s What You Need to Do Now

MONEY Ask the Expert

The Best Way to Own Gold and Silver

Investing illustration
Robert A. Di Ieso, Jr.

Q: I’m looking for information on adding gold and silver to my investments. What are the advantages and disadvantages of buying coins? What about gold and silver stocks or mutual funds?

A: “We think gold and other precious metals can play a part in a well-diversified portfolio, but our preference is to own the stocks or the mutual funds that would give you that exposure,” says Joe Franklin, a certified financial planner and president of Franklin Wealth Management in Hixson, Tenn.

The trouble with coins, he says, is that dealers charge a premium. And the price you pay isn’t based purely on the value of the underlying gold, silver or platinum. There are other factors at play, such as historical value or the costs associated with minting commemorative pieces.

If do buy coins, you can start by searching the U.S. Mint’s site for an authorized purchaser in your region, then do additional research to make sure that the outfit is reputable. This is an area rife with scams.

Another consideration with owning the actual metal is storage: If you pay a third-party to hold the coins for you, there are additional fees. If you store it in a safe at home, there are additional risks. A bank safe deposit box may be your best bet, but annual fees range from about $20 to more than $200 depending on the size.

The fees and logistics of owning coins are only part of the problem, says Franklin. “Gold in and of itself doesn’t have a lot of utility,” he adds. “It doesn’t pay interest or dividends, and while it can go up in value it tends to be a fear trade.”

If you’re interested in pure exposure to gold, a better bet is an exchange-traded fund, such as the SPDR Gold Trust (ticker: GLD), which aims to track the spot price of gold bullion. “There’s more liquidity and transparency with a fund,” he says. “But you’re still going to see dramatic swings.”

For that reason, Franklin’s preferred strategy is a diversified natural resource mutual fund, which has the flexibility to invest in precious metals — namely via shares of mining companies, some of which pay dividends — energy concerns, and other commodities.

“Managers of these funds have a lot more latitude to pick their spots,” he explains. While he isn’t a proponent of market timing, Franklin warns that commodities tend to go through long periods of over- and under performance. “They’re either really in favor,” he says, “or really out of favor.”

MONEY selling a home

If You Want to Sell Your House This Year, Start Doing These Things Now

Living room
Michael Grimm—Gallery Stock

With home prices recovering and interest rates still low, now may be the time to act. Here are 8 things successful sellers need to know.

In part one of our Spring Real Estate Guide, we told you what to do if you want to buy a home this year. In today’s part two we’ve got tips for sellers. Stay tuned for part three, with advice for those who want to say put and add value with home improvements.

If you haven’t sold a house in the past decade, brace yourself. Today’s buyers are demanding. They’re savvier about market dynamics and data and want to see houses on their own schedule, says Redfin’s chief economist, Nela Richardson. “We’re finding that buyers want access to your house when it works for them,” she says. “They don’t want to wait for the open house.” Baking cookies won’t cut it anymore.

Some things in your favor: Low interest rates are your friend too. Buyers know that rock-bottom mortgages can’t last forever. If interest rates start to tick up, there could well be a rush to buy. On the other hand, if rates go up too far, that will almost certainly dampen prices. “As a buyer’s monthly payment goes up with rising rates, something’s got to give—and that’s likely your home price,” says Keith Gumbinger, vice president of HSH, a mortgage information provider. In other words, sellers: If you snooze, you may well lose.

Your Action Plan

Sell first, then buy. The dilemma most sellers face is whether to buy a new place at the same time. In general, it’s smarter to sell before you buy—there’s nothing worse than having to carry two mortgages at once. You may be able to rent your house from the buyer for a few months, or at least find a short-term rental elsewhere. The one thing you don’t want to do is try to buy a new place with the contingency that you have to sell your old place first. Nothing kills a deal faster, especially if you’re up against other bidders.

Don’t just list your home—market it. Gorgeous photographs, video walk-throughs, perfect floor plans—buyers want it all. You need an agent who can develop a full-blown marketing plan, including social media. “People are doing so much more research ahead of time, going through listings online, and weeding out properties before they see them,” says Benjamin Beaver, an agent with Coldwell Banker in San Angelo, Texas. That’s especially true of millennial first-time buyers, who have grown up with information on demand.

And a top-flight agent can help pay for himself. Redfin found that listings with photos taken by a professional got 61% more views, and homes listed between $200,000 and $1 million sold for $3,400 to $11,200 more than similarly priced homes. A video tour including views of the neighborhood (parks, restaurants, main street) is another great tool. “If your photos capture an interested buyer, the video can help boost their interest,” says Rae Wayne, a real estate agent in Los Angeles. Plus, a video can help drive additional traffic to your listing.

Negotiate with your agent. Bernice Ross, the CEO of RealEstateCoach.com, has a brilliant method for testing a potential agent’s bargaining skills: Ask her for a reduction in her commission—and then think twice about hiring her if she agrees. “If they can’t negotiate a full commission on their own behalf, how are they going to negotiate the best price for you?” she says.

Don’t “test” the market. Pricing right is an art these days. The last thing you want to do is accidentally list too high out of the gate. Not only does it require cutting the price—in many cases to less than the estimated value—but it also means more time on the market. “It’s not like the old days where you put in a 10% buffer,” says Jacquie Sebulsky, a broker with Cascade Sotheby’s International in Bend, Ore. “People are savvier, and many agents won’t even show a house if it’s overpriced.” According to Zillow Talk: The New Rules of Real Estate, a house that is priced right will sell in about half the time of one that is overpriced.

Another reason to price right: traffic. In the first week a listing goes on the market, it gets four times as many visits as a month later, Redfin found. Moreover, if you do end up dropping your price, says Richardson, it sends a signal to buyers that you’ll come down more. “One agent described it to me as ‘blood in the water,’ ” she says.

To help you arrive at a price, your agent should show you up to 10 comparable active, pending, and recently sold (in the past three months) listings and sales. The most recently sold and the ones that are pending are the best; six or even four months ago may not reflect today’s market, says Brendon DeSimone, a broker in New York City and the author of Next Generation Real Estate. Automatic valuation tools, such as from Zillow and Trulia, are definitely great sources of intelligence. They’ll show you how quickly houses are selling in your market, how close they are going to asking price, and more. But data can tell buyers only so much. “The computer can’t see the inside of the house,” says Ross, “and it can’t see if your house has a view.”

Go green. With homes selling at a healthy pace, you probably don’t need to make any major pre-sale upgrades. One that does pay off: the front lawn. A 2012 Texas A&M survey found that curb appeal increases sales prices by up to 17%. “Green grass is huge, whether that means new sod or just fertilizer and lots of water,” says Wayne. Sustainability and low maintenance are the top trends for residential landscape projects, according to the 2015 Residential Landscape Architecture Trends Survey, so you might add simple native plants. You don’t have to spend a lot. See what’s on sale at Home Depot. It only has to be green, not gorgeous.

Fix what’s broken. Paul Reid, a Redfin agent in Southern California, recommends getting a home inspection and fixing any problems before you list the house, despite the out-of-pocket costs. “First-time homebuyers in particular don’t want to come in and do a ton of work,” he says. “They’re making a huge financial commitment and don’t want a money pit. I’ve seen it time and again where a buyer will get in escrow, have the inspection, and back out because the list is overwhelming.”

Go clean. Ten years ago it was mostly upper-end sellers (and maybe desperate ones) who went to the trouble to “stage” their home. Now, the idea that you need to clean out your closets, clear off the counters, take down your photos, and pare down the furniture and accessories is Real Estate 101. That said, you don’t need to hire anyone (though you may need to find someplace to store all your junk). Two areas not to forget: the entrance (that expression about not getting a second chance to make a good first impression is true) and the bathrooms. “I like to say that big, fluffy, white towels can add $10,000 to the price of a house,” says Sebulsky.

Give yourself a deadline. It’s true that houses tend to sell faster in spring and summer (in large part because families want to be settled before the new school year begins). And if your home is still sitting come Labor Day, think twice about keeping it on the market into the fall. “By then a lot of people have made their choices, and if your house has been on the market for six months, people automatically assume something is wrong,” says Sebulsky. Every market is different, of course, but winter may actually be a better option. There’s less competition from other sellers, as well as some pent-up demand after the holidays. Bonus: Anyone trudging through open houses during the winter “tends to be pretty serious about finding a house,” Sebulsky says.

Get more answers to your questions about home buying and selling:
How do I make my home attractive to buyers?
What renovations will pay off when I sell?
Will I pay income taxes on the sale of my home?

MONEY home buying

If You Want to Buy a Home, Here’s What You Need to Do Now

suburban neighborhood
Dan Saelinger

For the first time in years, the boom-and-bust housing market may be finding its sweet spot, with good deals for buyers and sellers. Is it time to jump in?

Too hot, too cold, too hot. For more than a decade the housing market has been nowhere near its Goldilocks moment, a just-right rate of growth that offers opportunities for both buyers and sellers. By certain markers, we’re finally starting to get there: Home prices nationwide are expected to rise 4.9% on average this year, according to the National Association of Realtors (NAR). That’s closer than we’ve been in a while to the long-term average of 3.3%—and a lot more manageable than either the sharp drops of the bust years or the 12% spike we saw in 2013.

What’s more, inventory is expected to loosen up, with 1.9 million units on the market this year—far below the flooded supply of 4 million we saw in 2008. The number of homes that were “flipped” (bought for a quick-sale investment) has dropped for the second year in a row, while the foreclosure rate is less than half what it was two years ago. Those are healthy signs for everyone (except, perhaps, for the small army of TV shows obsessed with renovating and flipping).

Can the center hold? The big question now is whether this manageable growth is sustainable in the long term. Economists such as Moody’s Analytics’ Mark Zandi note that we certainly need more first-time homebuyers in the mix to make that happen, because they drive a good piece of demand, allowing current homeowners to trade up—or cash in. In 2014 the percentage of rookie homebuyers on the market hit its lowest level in decades, just 33% of sales, vs. 40% historically. That said, a new report from BMO Harris Bank finds that 74% of Americans 18 to 34 plan to buy a new home in the next five years, and they are budgeting $240,000 to make the sale, a 24% increase over just last year.

On the other end of the spectrum, experts warn that prices in some markets have already pushed past the bubbling-over peaks, according to RealtyTrac. In San Francisco the median price for a house in December 2014 was $1 million, up 18% from the peak during the bubble. Prices in New York City (median house: $935,000) are 15% above the peak. It’s not just the coasts either. Prices around Austin are 8.6% higher than they were during the mid-2000s. “What we’ve seen so far,” says Zillow’s chief economist, Stan Humphries, “is still a long way from normal.”

What does it all mean for you? If you’re a buyer, you don’t have to worry as much today about being priced out in a bidding war or by all-cash offers. Sellers who didn’t have enough equity in their homes just a few years ago to justify a move could find themselves in a much better position now. And renovators can still get low rates on home-equity loans and lines of credit. In short: If you’ve been sitting on the sidelines, this may be the time to act—or at least to do some serious number crunching.

Here’s some advice to help would-be home buyers plot their next move. In future posts in this series we’ll offer tips for sellers and those who want to stay put and add some value with smart upgrades.

If you’re in the market to buy

The good news: There are a lot more homes to choose from. In addition to the additional properties already on the market, Zillow’s Humphries is forecasting an increase in houses and condos for sale this year as builders pick up the pace and more homeowners cash in on their rising equity. As prices have risen from the depths of the recession—the median sales price hit bottom in 2012, at an average home price of $152,000—the flippers have started to flee, which has helped the overall market stabilize. “Home prices have risen to the point where, in many markets, houses don’t make sense for investors,” says Daren Blomquist, vice president of Realty-Trac, noting that cash buyers dipped to 30%, the lowest in four years. “That helps level the playing field for regular buyers.”

Then there’s that other important factor: interest rates. Despite prognostications that they could tick up by summer, the 30-year fixed rate—recently at 3.7%—”is still within shouting distance of 60-year lows,” says Keith Gumbinger, vice president of HSH, a mortgage information provider.

suburban house
Dan Saelinger

Your action plan

Start hunting. Sure, you’ve been hearing for years that interest rates would shoot up soon. This time you can believe it—Federal Reserve chairman Janet Yellen signaled as much in her most recent Federal Open Market Committee statement. The NAR is forecasting that the 30-year fixed-rate mortgage will average 4.3% in the third quarter of this year, 4.7% in the fourth, and 5.3% over all of 2016. On a $300,000 loan, the difference between 3.7% and 5.3% would be $285 a month (a payment of $1,381 vs. $1,666) and $102,600 over the life of the loan.

Those rates could go even higher if Europe’s economy starts to recover, warns Sam Khater, deputy chief economist for CoreLogic. One reason that American mortgage rates have stayed so low is that in recent years global investors have poured money into the relative safety of U.S. Treasuries, a main factor influencing the price of mortgages. If money starts flowing back out to the rest of the world, domestic rates will inch up.

Home prices have been heading up as well. Not as fast as in the bubble years, of course, but some areas have already seen double-digit growth. “Until recently the fastest-growing markets were those hit hardest,” says Khater. “Today the fastest growing are those with healthy economies.” With the economy on the upswing, there are a lot more of those now too.

Go fixed-rate, not flex. Adjustable-rate loans may look irresistibly low now—around a 3% average for a five-year and as low as 2.5% for borrowers with credit scores of 760 and higher. But you’re likely to end up paying significantly more at the reset date with rates heading upward. “It’s hard to argue against a fixed-rate loan,” Gumbinger says. The exception: Buyers who plan to stay in the home for less than 10 years may benefit from the low ARM rates in the fixed period.

Right-size your down payment. If you’re looking in a highly competitive market, offer to put down more than the standard 20% if you can afford it. That gives the seller the extra reassurance that if the house appraises for less than the asking price, you’ll still be able to secure a mortgage. Signs that market conditions warrant sweetening the down payment: if houses where you’re looking are going to contract within a matter of days or if they are routinely selling for more than the asking price.

Find a savvy broker. Buyers have so much more information at their fingertips: comparable sales, school district reports, walkability, and more. But don’t underestimate the kind of advice you’d get from a broker. A buyer’s agent will have on-the-ground knowledge of market trends and be able to identify unseen circumstances that affect a property’s price, anything from a cracked foundation or a dead boiler to whether there’s been a recent school redistricting or a zoning change in the area. She might also have access to “pocket” listings that don’t make it online because the privacy-minded sellers don’t want their home flooded with prospective buyers.

Take a little time. Sure, you want to keep an eye on the prospect of rising interest rates. But in a balanced market with steadily rising inventory, don’t feel pressure to jump at the first house you like, says Craig Reger, a broker in Portland, Ore. Visit a good number of open houses (at least five) to get a sense of what’s out there, and go shopping with your agent. You’ll start to learn if a property is over- or under-priced and why.

The rules are a little different if you’re looking at new construction, because builders don’t negotiate on price very often. “They tend to sell at 100% of their list price because that’s their comparable for the next house,” says Jacquie Sebulsky, a broker with Cascade Sotheby’s International in Bend, Ore. That said, if you buy in the early stages of construction (when the developer knows you’ll have to live through months of noise, dust, and other hassles), you may be able to ask for help later with closing costs, upgrades, and additional amenities, such as appliances, in lieu of a price cut.

Remember that money isn’t (always) everything. Even in a market where inventory is tight and sellers aren’t negotiating much, you still have some leverage. That starts with minimizing the seller’s potential headaches. If you have attractive financing—a pre-approved loan from a reliable lender or a large down payment—say so. If you can close on the seller’s schedule—whether that means quickly or letting him stay an extra month—do it.

And don’t be shy about plucking a few heartstrings. It never hurts to write a letter explaining what the house means to you. “A lot of sellers don’t want to sell to investors,” says Tim Lenihan, a broker in Seattle. “Hokey as it sounds, it can help you get your foot in the door.”

MONEY Ask the Expert

Rental Properties vs. Stocks and Bonds

Investing illustration
Robert A. Di Ieso, Jr.

Q: I bought a rental property that has increased in value considerably. The cash is great, but I’m wondering if I should sell high and invest in a different asset.
– Russell in Portland, Ore.

A: “This is a situation where there really is no one-size-fits-all answer,” says David Walters, a certified public accountant and certified financial planner with Palisades Hudson Financial Group.

To tackle this question, you’ll want to first get a handle on just how well this investment is performing relative to other assets.

For a simple apples-to-apples comparison, take the property’s annual net cash flow (income minus expenses) and divide it by the equity in the home, he says. You can use this yield to see how the income generated by this property stacks up against that of other investments, such as dividend-paying stocks.

To calculate your total return, take that yield and add it to your expected annual long-term price gains. If your yield is 5%, for example, and you expect the value of the property to appreciate 2% a year on average, your annual total return would be 7%.

Next, you’ll want to figure out just how much you would have left to reinvest after you pay the real estate broker (typical commissions are 6% of the sale price) and the taxes. “In this case, taxes could be a big factor,” says Walters.

Remember, because this is an investment property, you are not eligible for the capital gains exclusions ($250,000 for individuals and $500,000 for couples) available when you sell a primary residence.

Assuming you’ve owned the house for more than a year, you’ll owe the long-term capital gains rate, which is 0% to 20% depending on your tax bracket; for most people that rate is 15% for federal taxes. Your state will also want its share, and in Oregon it’s a pretty big one – 9.9%.

There’s more to it. If you depreciated the property – odds are you did – you’ll need to “recapture” some of that write off when you sell, and at your marginal income tax rate. Here too you’ll owe both federal and state taxes.

One way to avoid paying a big tax bill now is to do a 1031 exchange, in which you effectively swap this property for another investment property in another neighborhood or a different market — though there are plenty of caveats.

Assuming you don’t want to re-invest in actual real estate, the big question is where you should invest the proceeds of the sale – and is it better than what you already have?

You could look at alternative assets that have a similar risk and reward profile — dividend-paying stocks, real estate investment trusts or master limited partnerships.

A better approach, however, may be a more holistic one. “You want to know where this fits in the big picture,” says Walters. Rather than try to pick and choose an alternative investment, you may just roll the proceeds into your overall portfolio – assuming it’s appropriately diversified. If you can max out on tax-deferred options such as an IRA or, if you’re self-employed, a SEP IRA, even better.

Depending on how much other real estate you own, you could allocate up to 10% of your overall portfolio to a real estate mutual fund, such as the T. Rowe Price Real Estate Fund (TRREX) or Cohen & Steers Realty Shares (CSRSX).

The tradeoff: “Most of these funds own commercial real estate,” says Walters. “There aren’t a lot of options to get passive exposure to residential real estate.”

Then again, investing in actual real estate takes time, lacks liquidity, and comes with some big strings attached. On paper, your investment property might seem like a better deal than any of the alternatives, says Walters, “but there are 50 other things you have to think about.”

With real property there’s always the risk that you’ll have to pay in money for, say, a new roof or heating and cooling system. That’s one thing you don’t have to worry about with a mutual fund.

MONEY Ask the Expert

When Going All In Is Not A Risky Bet

hands pushing poker chip stacks on table
iStock

Q: I’m 33 and recently received a $200,000 windfall. But I’m lost on how I should put it to work. Should I invest in phases or all at once? I’m nervous about investing at all-time market highs. – Rod in Los Angeles

A: Assuming you’re investing this money for the long term — and you have sufficient cash set aside to meet short-term needs and emergencies — go ahead and invest it all at once, says Jerry Miccolis, founding principal of Giralda Advisors, a Madison, N.J. firm that specializes in risk management. “Don’t let headlines about the market hitting new highs make your nervous because, if the market does what it’s supposed to do, that should be the norm,” says Miccolis.

Now, you may have heard the term “dollar-cost averaging.” This notion of automatically investing small amounts at regular intervals, as you do in a 401(k) retirement plan, does tend to smooth out the natural ups and downs of the market. It’s one of many perks of investing consistently, come what may.

Still, if you have cash at the ready to put to long-term use, says Miccolis, it’s just as well to invest all at once – and given your age primarily in equities.

This isn’t to say that short-term market corrections – even sizable ones – won’t happen again. “You’ll probably see many in your lifetime,” says Miccolis. “But you risk losing a lot more waiting around for something to change before you invest.”

In fact, investors who’ve had the bad luck of getting in at the very top of a market have ultimately come out ahead – provided they stayed the course. Consider this analysis from wealth management tech company CircleBlack: An investor who put $1,000 in the Standard & Poor’s 500 index of U.S. stocks at the beginning of 2008 (when stocks fell 37%) and again in early 2009 would have been back in positive territory by the end of 2009.

A critical caveat: This advice assumes that you actually keep your savings invested, and not panic sell when things look ugly. Hence, before you make your decision, try to gauge your tolerance for risk – here’s a quick survey to understand your comfort level – as well as your capacity for risk.

While tolerance generally refers to how risk affects you emotionally, capacity refers to how much risk you can actually afford. (You may have a high tolerance for risk but low capacity, or vice versa.)

If you have a steady income, little debt, and several months of emergency savings, the odds that you’d be forced to tap your long-term savings should be low, meaning that your capacity for risk is adequate. If the rest of your financial advice is a bit of a mess, however, you’ll want to use some of this windfall to tighten your ship before you commit to investing it.

Another exception to the advice to invest in one-fell swoop: If you can’t afford to max out on your 401(k) plan, earmark some of this money for living expenses so you can divert a bigger chunk of your salary to these tax-deferred contributions.

MONEY Ask the Expert

Why You Need to Send Your Spouse a Love Letter—About Money

Investing illustration
Robert A. Di Ieso, Jr.

Q: I have accounts with various institutions and have been doing my own investing for more than 30 years. I recently married again but my wife does not get involved with my investments. What instructions should I give her about how to handle these accounts if I die first? — Anonymous

A: The sooner you can bring her into the fold, the better, says Byron Ellis, managing director for United Capital Financial Advisers in The Woodlands, Texas. And not just for the sake of your nest egg, but for the sake of your marriage.

First, consider consolidating your accounts. “A lot of people think having money at different firms is a great way to diversify, and that’s just not true,” says Ellis. Simplifying has advantages for you today, and will make things easier for your heirs down the road.

Next, use this concern about these accounts as a jumping off point for a bigger discussion about money. “People think differently about money, and that can lead to other issues,” adds Ellis.

If you haven’t already, make a date with your wife to talk about everything from how you’d like to handle day-to-day finances to your overall philosophy about spending and saving. Does she have assets of her own? How confident is she about managing money? What motivated you to save as you did?

Once you understand where each of you is coming from, you can talk about how you want to handle things going forward. For example, do you want to continue managing your money separately? What are your near-term and longer-term goals?

Regardless of what comes out of the conversation, you should by all means leave your wife some instructions – for your investments and the rest of your estate. In addition to making sure your will is up to date – that is key – write your wife what Ellis calls a love letter, and ask her to do the same.

This letter should outline your instructions and include all the information you think she should have if you pass away: a list of accounts and account numbers; user names and passwords; your insurance policies; important contacts and phone numbers; an inventory of other assets or items you’ve hidden. Obviously, you’ll need to put this letter in a safe place, such as a safety deposit box, and let your wife know where you keep it.

Finally, make a point of updating the letter once a year; some information will change, and so too may your wishes.

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