MONEY buying a home

How to Get Ready to Buy a Home

Checking your credit report and getting pre-approved for a mortgage are key, says Century 21 CEO Rick Davidson.

MONEY Ask the Expert

How to Live Well on Less by Retiring Overseas

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Robert A. Di Ieso, Jr.

Q: I hear a lot about people retiring overseas to make their retirement savings go further. My wife and I are pretty adventurous. But can we really save money retiring in another country?

A: Retiring abroad isn’t for everyone—but more and more people are doing it. Nearly 550,000 Americans receive their Social Security benefits abroad, up from nearly 400,000 in 2000, according to the Social Security Administration. That’s a small number compared to the 43 million people over 65 receiving Social Security benefits. Still, 3.3 million of America’s 78 million Baby Boomers say they are interested in retiring abroad, according to Travel Market Report.

The growing interest in overseas living isn’t all that surprising, considering the worries of many pre-retirees about making their money last. There’s no question that you can live well on less in many countries. But to make that happen, you’ll need to plan carefully, says Dan Prescher, an editor at International Living, which publishes guides on the best places to retire overseas.

For most Americans, the biggest savings are a result of the lower prices for health care and housing overseas, says Prescher, who lives in Ecuador with his wife Suzan Haskins. The couple co-authored a book. The International Living Guide To Retiring Overseas On A Budget.

Most countries have a national healthcare system that cover all residents, and monthly premiums are often less than $100. It’s relatively easy to become a resident of another country, which typically involve proving you’ll have at least a modest amount of income, perhaps $1,000 a month.

But quality of health services varies, so research carefully, especially if you have medical problems. Even in countries with well-rated health care systems, the best services are centered around metropolitan areas. “Larger cities have more hospitals and doctors. The farther out you go, the quicker the quality falls off,” says Prescher.

Though Medicare doesn’t cover you if you live abroad, it’s still an option, and one that you should probably keep open. If you sign up—you’re eligible at age 65—and keep paying your premiums, you can use Medicare when you are back in the U.S.

Home prices, property taxes and utilities can be significantly lower in Mexico and countries in Central and South America, which are popular with U.S. retirees. In Mexico, you can find a nice three-bedroom villa near the beach for as little as $150,000, says Prescher.

But you’ll pay a premium for many other needs. Gas and utilities can cost a lot more than in the U.S. And you will also pay far more for anything that needs to be imported, such as computers and electronics or American food and clothing. “A can of Campbell soup can easily cost $4.50,” says Prescher. “You have to ruthlessly profile yourself, and see what you can or can’t live without, when you are figuring out your spending in retirement.”

Then there are taxes. As long as you’re a U.S. citizen, you have to pay income taxes to the IRS, no matter where you live or where your assets are located. Even if you don’t owe taxes, you must file a return. If you have financial accounts with more than $10,000 in a foreign bank, you must file forms on those holdings. In addition, the new Foreign Accounts and Tax Compliance Act (FATCA), which requires foreign banks to file U.S. paperwork for ex-pat accounts, has made many of them wary of working with Americans. You may also need to pay taxes in the country where you reside if you own assets there.

Check out safety issues too. Use the State Department’s Retirement Abroad advisory for information for country-specific reports on crimes, infrastructure problems and even scams that target Americans abroad.

The best way to find out if retiring abroad is for you is to spend as much time in your favorite city or village before you commit. Go during the off-season, when it may be rainy or super hot. See how difficult it is to get the things you want and what’s available at the grocery store. Read the local papers and check out online resources. In addition to International Living’s annual Best Places to Retire Overseas rankings, AARP writes about retiring abroad and Expatinfodesk.com publishes relocation guides.

The most valuable information will come from talking to other ex-pats when you’re visiting the country, as well a through message boards and online communities. “You’ll find that ex-pats have to have a sense of adventure and patience to understand that things are done differently,” says Prescher. “For many people, it’s a retirement dream come true.”

MONEY Ask the Expert

When You Do—and Don’t—Need a Pro to Manage Your Money

Investing illustration
Robert A. Di Ieso Jr.

Q: “At what net worth should I consider getting a money manager?”

A: There is no magic number for when you need help. Similarly, you don’t have to wait for your net worth to hit a certain mark to seek out the services of a pro.

“As soon as you have enough money that it’s keeping you up at night wondering what to do, then that may be when you need to find some help,” says Deena Katz, a certified financial adviser and associate professor of personal financial planning at Texas Tech University. “But that number will be different for everyone. Some people will feel it at $100,000, others at a million.”

Determining whether you need a money manager basically boils down to the questions you have about your money and whether you’re able to find the answers yourself and then follow through.

If your financial situation is complex—say you also manage your small business—or if you simply don’t have the time to dedicate to understanding and managing your own investments, paying an adviser to help you look after your funds could be worthwhile, says Christine Benz, director of personal finance at Morningstar.

You may also want to get investment help if you’re paralyzed by fear or know you’re prone to chasing hot funds, panic selling, or overreacting to market swings. A pro can act as a coach and help you keep your emotions in check, says Benz.

On-going money management can be costly, though. You’ll typically pay an annual fee equal to 1% to 1.5% of your total assets under management. And many wealth advisers won’t take on you as a client unless you have a minimum amount of money to invest, typically a quarter to half a million dollars.

Help just when you need it

Luckily, you probably don’t need investment guidance on a continual basis. Most of us are fine DIY-ing it the majority of the time—using simple online asset allocation tools such as Bankrate’s and sticking with broadly diversified stock and bond index funds—and getting an expert second opinion only when we’re getting started or making a big change.

In that case, you can find a financial planner who charges by the hour or per project. “If you do need more long-term help than these advisers are likely to be able to provide, in my experience they’ve always been quick to refer clients to money managers who can,” says Benz. “It’s a good first step to getting a read on how much help you may need.”

For help finding an adviser who charges an hourly or project-based rate, search the Financial Planning Association website or the Garrett Planning Network’s website.

Help that won’t cost you much

If you don’t want to go it alone but want some investment guidance, you have several options, even if you don’t have a big portfolio. One is to keep your money in a low-cost target-date retirement fund, where the manager will adjust your investment mix based on the retirement date you select.

For a more tailored approach, another low-cost route is a “robo-adviser,” says Sheryl Garrett, a certified financial planner and founder of the Garrett Planning Network. Companies like Wealthfront and Betterment offer portfolio advice that’s somewhat personalized via the web and apps. The firms use software to come up with a stock and bond mix based on your investing goal and time horizon. They then put you into low-cost ETFs and rebalance regularly. Annual fees typically run from 0.15% to 0.35% of assets, on top of ETF charges.

Finally, Vanguard has a pilot program called Personal Advisor Services, which charges 0.3% of assets a year for investment management. You must have $100,000 in Vanguard accounts to qualify; the fund company plans to drop that minimum to $50,000 in the near future.

MONEY buying a home

The Surprising Feature Millennials Insist on When Buying a Home

Century 21 CEO Richard Davidson explains what young, single home buyers value in a new house.

MONEY Ask the Expert

How To Stop Your Home Insurer From Cheating You

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Robert A. Di Ieso, Jr.

Q: My friend had a tree fall on her house during a windstorm and told me she scored a huge insurance payout by using a public insurance adjuster. Would you explain how this works and if it’s worthwhile?

A: If you’ve ever made a home insurance claim, you’re already familiar with the standard operating procedure. The insurance company sends out an adjuster, who inspects the damage and comes up with the repair price that the company will pay to make things right. (You’ll first owe your deductible, of course.)

But that number isn’t written in stone. There’s often a negotiation over, say, whether the flooded air conditioning system gets repaired or replaced or the roof gets patched or completely redone. Also, the payout often grows as the work progresses and new costs are uncovered.

A “public” adjuster is a professional you can hire to help you through this process for a large (say, over $40,000) homeowner’s claim. “Maybe the insurance company wants to patch the spot where the vinyl siding got torn, but there’s no way to find an exact match for the siding, so you’d wind up with an obvious patch,” says David Barrack, of the National Association of Public Insurance Adjusters. “A public adjuster would push for complete siding replacement so the repair is invisible.” Similarly, public adjusters dig behind leaks, he says, for evidence of rot, soggy insulation and mold that some insurance company adjusters might not pursue when writing up a claim.

In short, a public adjuster seeks to maximize your claim.

But there’s a downside. Since the public adjuster is working for you, the cost is born by you—typically 10 percent of the claim total. Giving up $10,000 on a $100,000 claim takes a pretty big bite out of your project budget. So unless you simply don’t have the time—or you’re finding your insurer to be highly unreasonable about your claim—it’s usually a better financial move to handle the back-and-forth yourself. “You don’t need to know anything about home construction or materials pricing,” says Jeanne Salvatore, of the Insurance Information Institute. “Your contractor is an expert who’s already on site, working for you, and he certainly knows what needs to be done and how much it’s going to cost.”

 

Got a question for Josh? We’d love to hear it. Please send submissions to realestate@moneymail.com.

MONEY Ask the Expert

How Smart Savers Choose Between a 401(k) or Roth IRA

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Robert A. Di Ieso, Jr.

Q: My husband and I are in our middle 30s and both have good jobs in a professional field. We each make $60,000 a year. Should we be saving in our 401(k) plans, or contributing to a Roth IRA?

A: The answer, of course, is that you should be doing both—but not necessarily in equal amounts, and much depends on your expenses and how much you are able to sock away. Let’s look at some of the variables.

The first consideration is making certain both of you get the full amount of your employer’s matching 401(k) plan contributions. “Fill up the 401(k) bucket first,” says IRA expert Ed Slott, founder of IRAhelp.com. “That is free money and you shouldn’t leave any of it on the table.” In many 401(k) plans, companies kick in 50 cents for every $1 you save up to 6% of pay. If both of you are in such plans, you should each contribute $7,200 per year to your 401(k) plans to collect the $3,600 your employers will match. But don’t contribute more than that, and if you get no match, skip it entirely—for now. It’s time to move on to a Roth IRA.

A Roth IRA is a far different savings vehicle than a 401(k) plan. Having one will give you more flexibility in retirement. Your 401(k) plan is funded with pre-tax dollars that grow tax-deferred. You pay tax when you start taking distributions no later than your 71st year. A Roth IRA is funded with after-tax dollars that grow tax-free for the rest of your life and that of your spouse, and they have tax advantages for your heirs as well. You can also take early distributions of the principal that you contribute, without penalty or tax, should you run into a cash crunch. So after you have each maxed out your 401(k) match, shift to a Roth IRA. Each of you can save up to the $5,500 annual limit.

The downside of a Roth IRA is that you lose the immediate tax deduction that you get with a 401(k) contribution. Still, “you eliminate the uncertainty of what future tax rates may do to your retirement income plan,” says Slott. If tax rates go up, as many believe they must in the years ahead, your 401(k) savings will become a little less valuable. But your Roth IRA savings will be unaffected.

Once you have each saved $7,200 to get the company match of $3,600, and have also fully funded a Roth IRA to the tune of $5,500—congratulate one another. That comes to $16,300 each of annual savings, or a Herculean savings rate of 27%. Most experts advise saving at a 15% rate, and even higher when possible. If you still have more free cash to sock away, you can begin to put more in your 401(k) to get the additional tax deferral. But you should first consider opening a taxable brokerage account where you invest in stocks and stock mutual funds. After a one-year holding period these get taxed as a capital gain, currently a lower rate (15% to 20%) than the ordinary income rate that applies to your 401(k) distributions.

Do you have a personal finance question for our experts? Write toAskTheExpert@moneymail.com.

MONEY Ask the Expert

How To Pick a Trustworthy Manager for Your Trust

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Robert A. Di Ieso, Jr.

Q: “I want to set up a trust fund for my son and grandchild, but I’m not sure who I should get to manage it? —Judy Gillis, Crossroads, Texas

A: Once you set up a trust, you’ll need someone to invest the money, maintain good records, handle taxes, and make payments to the trust beneficiaries. The person that takes on those roles is called a trustee, and your trustee (or trustees) could be a friend or family member, a financial pro, or even you, in certain cases.

Another option is a hybrid set-up: Name a trustee who administers the trust but hires an outside manager to invest the money.

Typically, the trustee’s powers come from the trust agreement you establish, and he or she is legally bound to follow your directions and act in the best interest of the trust. You can specify any rules you wish, such as how much income your beneficiaries should receive. Or you can let your trustee have more discretion based on the guidelines you lay out.

“Serving as a trustee should not be considered an honor. It’s a job,” says Greg Sellers, a certified public accountant and president of the National Association of Estate Planners and Councils. “You want someone you can trust implicitly with both the financial responsibilities of managing the trust and with carrying out your desires laid out in the trust.”

Here’s what to consider before you pick your trustee.

What Type of Trust Is It?

If you are setting up a living trust, which is simply a trust you set up while you’re alive, you can act as the trustee and keep full control of the trust’s management. This is the easiest approach. But if you don’t want to tackle this on your own, you can be a co-trustee or name a trustee to take over.

If you are creating a testamentary trust, which is set up in your will and established only after death, you will need to name a trustee.

How Big or Complicated Is Your Trust?

Choosing a family member to manage or co-manage your trust can be a good move for a small- to medium-sized trust. A relative won’t charge you a fee and generally has a personal stake in the trust’s success.

A corporate trustee such as a bank trust department, a lawyer, or a financial adviser will typically know more about trust management, investments, and taxes than a family member, so a pro can be a good choice if you have a large trust or complex assets in it. A professional trustee is also a smart choice if your trust will last for many years or generations.

Sellers advocates a middle-of-the-road approach with a relative acting as a co-trustee or trust protector, which is a person you can designate to oversee a trustee, alongside a professional trustee. This style means the trust will have both an advocate for the beneficiaries as well as an experienced manager.

A professional trustee will cost you, though. You could pay 0.75% to 2.5% of the trust assets a year. Typically, you’ll pay more if your trust is smaller, says Sellers, or if you have high-maintenance assets like apartment buildings within it. To get professional help for less, you could choose a relative as trustee and have them hire an investment company as an independent adviser rather than a co-trustee.

Who’s Right For the Role?

If you want to go with a relative or friend as your trustee, choose someone who is open to learning how to handle the money, who will seek outside help if they need it, and who gets along with the beneficiaries.

Once you’ve got someone in mind, talk with him or her about the role. You don’t want someone to accept out of pressure or feelings of duty when he or she lacks the interest or will necessary to perform the job well.

Sellers also advises against naming one of the trust’s beneficiaries to act as trustee. You want your trustee to manage the trust in the best interest of all beneficiaries and not have conflicting interests.

MONEY Ask the Expert

How Your (Nice) Neighbors Can Save You Money

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Robert A. Di Ieso, Jr.

Q: Is it a good idea to go in with a few neighbors on some pricy, occasional-use outdoor equipment, like an extension ladder and snow blower. How do I handle access, maintenance, and other logistics?

A: This is a terrific money-saving idea that works best if your group consists of people who are close, in both senses of the word: Everyone should be nearby neighbors, to provide easy access to the tools, and everyone should be friends, so the arrangement can be a handshake deal where nobody is counting every nickel or worrying too much about who goes first on a snowy morning.

“Splitting the cost of the machine is also an opportunity to get higher grade equipment than you’d buy for yourself,” says Peter Orazem, professor of economics at Iowa State University, and co-owner of a commercial grade snow blower with two fellow professors and his eye doctor, who all live on the same block. He recommends setting up a few ground rules:

Decide where it’s going to live. Ideally, one group member has a garage with the space to park the machine—and a keypad everyone can use to open it and access the equipment anytime. That way there’s never an issue with figuring out who had it last, where they parked it, and whether they’re home to unlock their shed.

Plan for ongoing tasks. For a snowblower, chainsaw or any other gas-powered machine, avoid frustration by creating a plan to keep the gas can full and the machine tuned up. Orazem does both for his group, at his own expense, in consideration for hosting the machine in his own garage, a significant convenience for him. But you could also assign the responsibility to a different group member each year, and share the costs among the rest of the group (so the person doing the work pays nothing), or come up with any strategy that feels right for your group.

Don’t loan it beyond the group. Letting someone outside your original club borrow the group’s equipment is a recipe for seeing the machine damaged, misplaced, or lost, says Diane Dodge, of Berkeley, Calif., who shared a beater pickup truck with five friends until it blew a head gasket several years ago. “Stay within the confines of the original group—unless you all agree to allow in another member, perhaps to replace someone who moves away.”

Give members an out. What if someone moves away? For expensive items, Orazem suggests agreeing at the start on how a person who pulls out of the group will be reimbursed for his investment. For example, you might decide that the useful life of the $5,000 riding mower you’re sharing between five households is 10 years. If a member leaves four years after the purchase, he’d get a payout from the remaining four members of $600 (his initial $1,000 contribution, minus 40 percent); after seven years, he’d get $300. This cost could be born by the other members of the group, or they could invite a new member in for that amount- nice neighbors only, of course.

 

Got a question for Josh? We’d love to hear it. Please send submissions to realestate@moneymail.com.

MONEY Ask the Expert

The Right Way to Tap Your IRA in Retirement

Q: When I do my IRA required minimum distribution I take some extra money out and move it to a taxable account. Good idea or bad idea? Thanks – Bill Faye, Rockville, MD

A: After years of accumulating money for retirement, figuring out what to do with “extra” money withdrawn from your IRA accounts seems like a nice problem to have. But required minimum distributions, or RMDs, can be tricky.

First, a bit of background on managing RMDs. These withdrawals are a requirement under IRS rules, since Uncle Sam wants to collect the taxes you’ve deferred on contributions to your IRAs or 401(k)s. You must take your distribution by April 1st of the year you turn 70 ½; subsequent RMDs are due by December 31st each year. If you don’t take the distribution, you’ll pay a 50% tax penalty in addition to regular income tax on the amount that should have been withdrawn.

The size of your required withdrawal depends on your age and the account balance. (You can find the details on the IRS website here.) If you’re over 59 ½, you can take out higher amounts than the minimum required, but the excess withdrawals don’t count toward your future distributions. Still, by managing your IRAs the right way, you can preserve more of your portfolio and possibly reduce taxes, says Mary Pucciarelli, a financial advisor with MetLife Premier Client Group.

For those fortunate enough to hold more than one IRA, you must calculate the withdrawal amount based on all your accounts. But you can take the money out of any combination of the IRAs you hold. This flexibility means you can make strategic withdrawals. Say you have an IRA with a big exposure to stocks and the market is down. In that scenario, you might want to pull money from another account that isn’t so stock heavy, so you’re not selling investments at a low point.

You can minimize RMDs by converting one or more of your traditional IRAs to a Roth IRA. Roths don’t have minimum distribution requirements, so you can choose when and how much money you take out. More importantly, you don’t pay taxes on the withdrawals and neither will your heirs if you leave it to them. You will owe taxes on the amount you convert. To get the full benefit of the conversion, consider this move only if you can pay that bill with money outside your IRA. Many investors choose to make the move after they’ve retired and their tax bill is lower. Pucciarelli suggests doing the conversion over time so you can avoid a big tax bill in one year.

Up until this year, you could avoid paying taxes on your RMD by making a qualified charitable contribution directly from your IRA to a charity. The tax provision expired in December. It’s possible Congress will renew the tax break, though nothing is certain in Washington. Meanwhile, if you itemize on your taxes, you can deduct your charitable contribution.

As for the extra money you’ve withdrawn, it’s fine to stash it in a taxable account. If you have sufficient cash on hand for living expenses, you can opt for longer-term investments, such as bond or stock funds. But be sure your investments suit your financial goals. “You don’t want to throw your asset allocation out of whack when you move the money,” says Pucciarelli. Consider a tax-efficient option, such as an index stock fund or muni bond fund. That way, Uncle Sam won’t take another big tax bite out of your returns.

Do you have a personal finance question for our experts? Write to AskTheExpert@moneymail.com.

MONEY

Why You Can’t Wait Until You’re Sick to Buy Insurance

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Robert A. Di Ieso, Jr.

Q. Let’s say an uninsured person is in a car accident, has emergency surgery, and is hospitalized, and after awaking from surgery asks to purchase insurance right away. Under the health law, would his medical costs be covered since he can’t be denied insurance because of a pre-existing medical condition? An article I saw said the hospital would even enroll people and pay their premiums. Is that correct?

A. It’s unlikely that this hypothetical person would be able to sign up for coverage after being injured, says Judith Solomon, a vice president for health policy at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

“It’s true that you can’t be denied because you have a pre-existing medical condition, but you generally have to sign up during an open enrollment period,” says Solomon. Employers generally offer insurance through an enrollment period in the fall. People buying coverage individually on or off the online marketplaces set up under the health law can sign up during open enrollment starting Nov. 15. But there’s a lag between when a person signs up and when coverage begins.

The reason for open enrollment is clear: If people could sign up anytime, chances are they would wait until they got sick to do so, wreaking havoc on the health insurance market that relies on spreading the insurance risk among sicker and healthier people.

Hospitals may sometimes pay premiums for patients’ existing policies or enroll people up front before they get sick. But in general it’s not possible to purchase coverage after you’ve already been injured and admitted to the hospital, says Solomon.

There is one important exception, however. Enrollment in a state’s Medicaid program for low-income people is open year round. If someone lives in a state that’s expanded Medicaid coverage to people with incomes up to 138% of the poverty level (currently $16,105 for an individual), enrollment would generally be retroactive to the first day of the month that the person applied for coverage. In addition, if someone was eligible for Medicaid during the three months preceding the application, medical care received during that time could be covered as well.

Kaiser Health News is an editorially independent program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, a nonprofit, nonpartisan health policy research and communication organization not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.

Do you have a personal finance question for our experts? Write to AskTheExpert@moneymail.com.

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