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

The Pitfalls of Claiming Social Security in a Common-Law Marriage

Ask the Expert Retirement illustration
Robert A. Di Ieso, Jr.

Q. I lost my WWII husband on January 14, 2014. It was a common-law marriage. I worked for over 50 years in the fields of education and medicine. However, many of the places where I worked did not have Social Security. I have turned in all the evidence required to prove that we presented ourselves as husband and wife. Texas recognizes common-law marriages. I am confined to a wheelchair. I served our country, as a civilian commissioned as a 2nd Lt., in the Air Force and Army overseas. Please help me as I am going to be homeless. – Joan

A. In the six weeks since Joan wrote me this note, she found a place to live. But she is no closer to resolving her problems with Social Security. It is easy to paint the agency as a heartless bureaucracy preventing an impoverished, 80-year-old veteran from getting her widow’s benefit. But there’s nothing about Joan’s story that is easy, and her problem is one that is becoming all too common.

Today more and more couples are living together without getting married, especially Millennials and Gen Xers. And many of them are having children and raising families. More than 3.3 million persons aged 50 and older were in such households in 2013, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

There can be sound reasons for avoiding legal marriage. But when it comes to Social Security, you and your family may pay a high price by opting for a common-law union. Quite simply, it may be difficult, if not impossible, to claim benefits. And that can damage the financial security of your partner, children and other dependents. If you are in a common-law marriage, here are the three basic requirements for claiming benefits:

1. Your state recognizes common-law marriage. And yours may not. Only 11 states plus the District of Columbia recognize these marriages—among them, Colorado, New Hampshire, and Texas, which is Joan’s state of residence.

For your partnership to qualify, these states generally require that you both agree that you are married, live together and present yourselves in public as husband and wife. But the specifics of these rules are different in many states and usually complicated.

Social Security rules follow state laws when determining eligibility for spousal and survivor benefits. (The same policy applies to same-sex marriage.) If you do qualify, you will be able to receive the same benefits as you would with a traditional marriage, including spousal or survivor benefits.

2. You’ve got plenty of documentation. Social Security requirements for claiming survivor benefits call for detailed proof of the union. For an 80-year old, wheelchair-bound person like Joan, that’s a challenge to provide, especially in the case of a deceased spouse. Among other documents, she must complete a special form, plus get similar forms filled out by one of her blood relatives and two blood relatives of her late partner, John.

3. You’re prepared to fight bureaucratic gridlock. Joan has had multiple meetings with Social Security postponed for reasons she does not understand. She has been told she does not qualify as a common-law spouse under Texas laws. But the reasons she has been given may be incorrect. She says, for example, a Social Security rep told her that she and John needed to own a home to qualify. This is not true. She needs only to document that they lived as husband and wife and held themselves out to be married. Beginning in 2003, Texas made it harder for couples to qualify as common-law spouses, which could complicate Joan’s case.

Making matters even more difficult, Social Security has other convoluted rules that can change or even invalidate her benefits. Joan, it turns out, took a lump-sum payment from her government pension decades ago. That triggers something called the Government Pension Offset rule, which may prevent her from receiving a survivor’s benefit based on John’s earnings record. (For more on that rule, click here.)

Clearly, older Americans need more help than we’re giving them to navigate Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and other highly regulated and complicated safety-net programs. This is hard stuff even for experts. It is not possible for the rest of us to understand without more knowledgeable assistance.

Meanwhile, for those in common-law marriages it’s important to plan ahead now. If you can’t qualify for Social Security benefits, you will need to save more while you’re still working. If your state does recognize common-law marriage, find out what documentation you’ll need, so you’ll have it when you file your claim. The last thing you’ll want to do in retirement is struggle with the Social Security bureaucracy.

“I am pushing 80 and this has been going on now for two years,” said Joan, a former special-needs educator, in a recent email. “I hope my health holds up as I have no life. What a way to treat an American citizen in a wheelchair who can teach the deaf to talk, the dyslexic to read and the stuttering to talk. I am just useless living in a room.”

Joan has another Social Security appointment scheduled this week.

Philip Moeller is an expert on retirement, aging, and health. He is co-author of The New York Times bestseller, “Get What’s Yours: The Secrets to Maxing Out Your Social Security,” and a research fellow at the Center for Aging & Work at Boston College. Reach him at moeller.philip@gmail.com or @PhilMoeller on Twitter.

Read next: The One Investment You Most Need for a Successful Retirement

MONEY Ask the Expert

What to Say When a Job Interviewer Asks You an Illegal Question

Robert A. Di Ieso, Jr.

Q: I was recently being interviewed for a job, and it seemed to be going well. But then the interviewer asked if I was planning to have children. Is she allowed to do that?

A: If the question made you uncomfortable, there’s a good reason. It’s illegal to ask—and the person interviewing you may not even know it.

One in five hiring managers say they have asked a question in a job interview only to find out later that it was a violation of federal labor laws to ask it, according to a CareerBuilder survey.

In the same survey, one third of employers who were given a list of banned questions also said they didn’t know the queries were illegal.

Things that are out of bounds for companies to ask about include your age, race, ethnicity, religious affiliation, disability, plans for children, debt, and whether you are pregnant, drink, or smoke.

While it’s unlikely that an interviewer will bluntly ask your age or religion (though that does happen), a lot of interviewers veer into dangerous territory just by making small talk, says Rosemary Haefner, chief human resources officer at CareerBuilder. “Casual conversation is part of the interview process. When you’re chit-chatting, sometimes the conversation turns more personal.” In other cases, hiring managers want to make sure people are a good cultural fit, so they try to tap into other parts of a candidate’s life, Haefner says.

Sometimes it’s just how the question is framed that makes it illegal. For example, you can ask if a job candidate has been convicted of a crime, but not if he or she has an arrest record. You can’t ask a person’s citizenship or national origin, but it’s OK to ask if the person is legally eligible to work in the U.S.

Some hiring managers may be in the dark because they’ve never gotten formal training or don’t interview people often. But not everyone is just clueless. Anti-discrimination labor laws exist for a reason, says Haefner. “You shouldn’t be asked about information that’s not directly relevant to whether you can perform a job,” she says.

Understanding what’s allowed and what’s not is in a company’s best interest too. A job candidate who isn’t offered a position may say certain questions were used to discriminate against her and file a complaint with the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission or hire a lawyer. Though discrimination may be hard to prove, the company could face legal action and financial penalties.

If you’re the person doing the interviewing, check in with your HR department about training, and prepare your questions in advance so you are less likely to stray into illegal territory.

When you’re on the other side of the interview table, it’s a little trickier.

Whether you should answer a personal question is your choice, but if the question seems inappropriate, Haefner suggests responding with a question of your own. “Say, as diplomatically as possible, ‘I just want to clarify how that is relevant to the job.’”

If the questioner doesn’t take the hint, then it may not be a company you want to work for anyway.

MONEY Ask the Expert

Which Wins for Retirement Savings: Roth IRA or Roth 401(k)?

Ask the Expert Retirement illustration
Robert A. Di Ieso, Jr.

Q: I am 30 and just starting to save for retirement. My employer offers a traditional 401(k) and a Roth 401(k) but no company match. Should I open and max out a Roth IRA first and then contribute to my company 401(k) and hope it offers a match in the future?– Charlotte Mapes, Tampa

A: A company match is a nice to have, but it’s not the most important consideration when you’re deciding which account to choose for your retirement savings, says Samuel Rad, a certified financial planner at Searchlight Financial Advisors in Beverly Hills, Calif.

Contributing to a 401(k) almost always trumps an IRA because you can sock away a lot more money, says Rad. This is true whether you’re talking about a Roth IRA or a traditional IRA. In 2015 you can put $18,000 a year in your company 401(k) ($24,000 if you’re 50 or older). You can only put $5,500 in an IRA ($6,500 if you’re 50-plus). A 401(k) is also easy to fund because your contributions are automatically deducted from your pay check.

With Roth IRAs, higher earners may also face income limits to contributions. For singles, you can’t put money in a Roth if your modified adjusted gross income exceeds $131,000; for married couples filing jointly, the cutoff is $193,000. There are no income limits for contributions to a 401(k).

If you had a company match, you might save enough in the plan to receive the full match, and then stash additional money in a Roth IRA. But since you don’t, and you also have a Roth option in your 401(k), the key decision for you is whether to contribute to a traditional 401(k) or a Roth 401(k). (You’re fortunate to have the choice. Only 50% of employer defined contribution plans offer a Roth 401(k), according to Aon Hewitt.)

The basic difference between a traditional and a Roth 401(k) is when you pay the taxes. With a traditional 401(k), you make contributions with pre-tax dollars, so you get a tax break up front, which helps lower your current income tax bill. Your money—both contributions and earnings—will grow tax-deferred until you withdraw it, when you’ll pay whatever income tax rates applies at that time. If you tap that money before age 59 1/2, you’ll pay a 10% penalty in addition to taxes (with a few exceptions).

With a Roth 401(k), it’s the opposite. You make your contributions with after-tax dollars, so there’s no upfront tax deduction. And unlike a Roth IRA, there are no contribution limits based on your income. You can withdraw contributions and earnings tax-free at age 59½, as long as you’ve held the account for five years. That gives you a valuable stream of tax-free income when you’re retired.

So it all comes down to deciding when it’s better for you to pay the taxes—now or later. And that depends a lot on what you think your income tax rates will be when you retire.

No one has a crystal ball, but for young investors like you, the Roth looks particularly attractive. You’re likely to be in a lower tax bracket earlier in your career, so the up-front tax break you’d receive from contributing to a traditional 401(k) isn’t as big it would be for a high earner. Plus, you’ll benefit from decades of tax-free compounding.

Of course, having a tax-free pool of money is also valuable for older investors and retirees, even those in a lower tax brackets. If you had to make a sudden large withdrawal, perhaps for a health emergency, you can tap those savings rather than a pre-tax account, which might push you into a higher tax bracket.

The good news is that you have the best of both worlds, says Rad. You can hedge your bets by contributing both to your traditional 401(k) and the Roth 401(k), though you are capped at $18,000 total. Do this, and you can lower your current taxable income and build a tax diversified retirement portfolio.

There is one downside to a Roth 401(k) vs. a Roth IRA: Just like a regular 401(k), a Roth 401(k) has a required minimum distribution (RMD) rule. You have to start withdrawing money at age 70 ½, even if you don’t need the income at that time. That means you may be forced to make withdrawals when the market is down. If you have money in a Roth IRA, there is no RMD, so you can keep your money invested as long as you want. So you may want to rollover your Roth 401(k) to a Roth IRA before you reach age 70 1/2.

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

Read next: The Pros and Cons of Hiring a Financial Adviser

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.

MONEY Ask the Expert

How to Max Out Social Security Benefits for Your Family

Ask the Expert Retirement illustration
Robert A. Di Ieso, Jr.

Q. Does the family maximum benefit (FMB) apply only to one spouse’s individual’s work history or to both spouses in a family? That is, assume two high-earning spouses both delay claiming a benefit till, say, 70. Would the FMB rules limit their overall family benefits? Or does the FMB include just the overall family benefits derived from the earnings record of one particular worker? —Steve

A: Kudos to Steve for not only knowing about the family maximum benefit but having the savvy to ask how it applies to two-earner households. The short answer here is that Social Security tends to favor, not penalize, two-earner households in terms of their FMBs.

To get everyone else up to speed, the FMB limits the amount of Social Security benefits that can be paid on a person’s earnings record to family members—a spouse, survivors, children, even parents. (Benefits paid to a divorced spouse do not fall under the FMB rules.) The amount may include your individual retirement benefit plus any auxiliary benefits (payouts to those family members) that are based on that earnings record.

Fair warning: the FMB is far from user-friendly. Few Social Security rules are as mind-bendingly complex as the FMB and its cousin, the combined family maximum (CFM). And Social Security has a lot of complex rules. Unfortunately, you need to do your homework to claim all the family benefits you are entitled to receive.

To address Steve’s question, these FMB calculations may be based on the combined earnings records of both spouses. More about this in a bit, but first, here are the basics for an individual beneficiary.

The ABCs of the FMB

The FMB usually ranges from 150% to 187% of what’s called the worker’s primary insurance amount (PIA). This is the retirement benefit a person would be entitled to receive at his or her full retirement age. Even if you wait until 70 to claim your benefit, it won’t increase the FMB based on your earnings record.

Now, I try to explain Social Security’s rules as simply as possible—but there are times when the system’s complexity needs to be seen to be believed. So, here is the four-part formula used in 2015 to determine the FMB for an individual worker:

(a) 150% of the first $1,056 of the worker’s PIA, plus

(b) 272% of the worker’s PIA over $1,056 through $1,524, plus

(c) 134% of the worker’s PIA over $1,524 through $1,987, plus

(d) 175% of the worker’s PIA over $1,987.

Let’s use these rules for determining the FMB of a worker with a PIA of $2,000. It will be $3,500, which equals (a) $1,584 plus (b) $1,273 plus (c) $620 plus (d) $23. The difference between $3,500 and $2,000 is $1,500—that’s the amount of auxiliary benefits that can go to your family. Got that?

And here’s a key point that trips up many people: Even if the worker claimed Social Security early, which means his benefits were lower than the value of his PIA, it would not change the $1,500 limit on auxiliary benefits. However, when the worker dies, the entire $3,500, which includes the PIA amount, becomes available in auxiliary benefits.

It’s quite common for family claims to exceed the FMB cap. When this happens, anyone claiming on his record (except the worker) would see their benefits proportionately reduced until the total no longer exceeded the FMB. If, say, those claimed auxiliary benefits actually totaled $3,000, or double the allowable $1,500, all auxiliary beneficiaries would see their benefits cut in half.

How CFM Can Boosts Benefits

Enter the combined family maximum (CFM). This formula can substantially increase auxiliary benefits to dependents of married couples who both have work records—typically multiple children of retired or deceased beneficiaries.

The children can be up to 19 years old if they are still in elementary or secondary school (and older if they are disabled and became so before age 22). Because each child is eligible for a benefit of 50% or even 75% percent of a parent’s work PIA, even having only two qualifying auxiliary beneficiaries—say a spouse and a child, or two children—can bring the FMB into play.

But with the CFM, the FMBs of each earner in the household can be combined to effectively raise the benefits to children that might otherwise would be limited by the FMB of just one parent. Under its rules, Social Security is charged with determining the claiming situation that produces the most cumulative benefits to all auxiliary beneficiaries.

Using our earlier example, let’s assume we now have two workers, each with PIAs of $2,000 and FMB’s of $3,500. A qualifying child would still be limited to a benefit linked to the FMB of a single parent. But the CFM used to determine the size of the family’s benefits “pool” has now doubled to $7,000 a month, permitting total auxiliary benefits of up to $3,000.

Well, they would have totaled this much—except there’s another Social Security rule that puts a cap on the CFM. For 2015, that cap is $4,912. Subtracting one of the $2,000 PIAs from this amount leaves us with up to $2,912 in auxiliary benefits for this family. That’s not $3,000 but almost.

So it’s quite possible that three, four, or possibly more children would get their full child benefits in this household. Even if they totaled 200% of one parent’s FMB, they would add up to a smaller percentage of the household’s CFM, and either wouldn’t trigger benefit reductions, or at least much small ones.

And if eligible children live in a household where one or both of their parents also has a divorced or deceased spouse, even more work records can come into play. This is complicated stuff, as borne out in some thought-twisting illustrations provided by the agency.

Before moving ahead with family benefit claims, I recommend making a face-to-face appointment at your local Social Security office. Bring printouts of your own earnings records, which you can obtain by opening an online account for each person whose earnings record is involved. I’d also print out the contents of the Social Security rules, which are linked in today’s answer, or at the very least, write down their web addresses so the Social Security representative can access them.

Good luck!

Philip Moeller is an expert on retirement, aging, and health. He is co-author of The New York Times bestseller, “Get What’s Yours: The Secrets to Maxing Out Your Social Security,” and a research fellow at the Center for Aging & Work at Boston College. Reach him at moeller.philip@gmail.com or @PhilMoeller on Twitter.

Read next: Why Social Security Rules Are Making Inequality Worse

MONEY Ask the Expert

The Surefire Way Not to Lose Money on Your Bond Investments

Ask the Expert Retirement illustration
Robert A. Di Ieso, Jr.

Q: I am leaning toward buying individual bonds and creating a bond ladder instead of a bond fund for my retirement portfolio. What are the pros and cons?—Roy Johnson, Troy, N.Y.

A: If you’re worried about interest rates rising—and many people are—buying individual bonds instead of putting some of your retirement money into a bond fund has some definite advantages, says Ryan Wibberley, CEO of CIC Wealth in Gaithersburg, Maryland. There are also some drawbacks, which we’ll get to in a moment.

First, some bond background. Rising interest rates are bad for fixed-income investments. That’s because when rates rise, the prices of bonds fall. That can cause short-term damage to bond funds. If rates spike and investors start pulling their money out of the fund, the manager may need to sell bonds at lower prices to raise cash. That would cause the net asset value of the fund to drop and erode returns.

By contrast, if you buy individual bonds and hold them to maturity, you won’t see those daily price moves. And you’ll collect your interest payments and get the bond’s face value when it comes due (assuming no credit problems), even if rates go up. So you never lose your principal. “You are guaranteed to get your money back,” says Wibberley. But with individual bonds, you will need to figure out how to reinvest that money.

One solution is to create a laddered portfolio. With this strategy, you simply buy bonds of different maturities. As each one matures, you can reinvest in a bond with a similar maturity and capture the higher yield if interest rates are rising (or accept lower yield if rates fall). All in all, it’s a sound option for retirees who seek steady income and want to protect their bond investments from higher rates.

The simplest and cheapest way to create a bond ladder is through government bonds. You can buy Treasury securities for free at TreasuryDirect.gov. You can also buy Treasuries through your bank or broker, but you’ll likely be charged fees for the transaction.

Now for the downside of bond ladders: To get the diversification you need, you should hold a mix of not only Treasuries but corporate bonds, which can be more costly to buy as a retail investor. Generally you must purchase bonds in minimum denominations, often $1,000. So to make this strategy cost-effective, you should have a portfolio of $100,000 or more.

With corporates, however, you’ll find higher yields than Treasuries offer. For safety, stick with corporate bonds that carry the highest ratings. And don’t chase yields. “Bonds with very high yields are often a sign of trouble,” says Jay Sommariva, senior portfolio manager at Fort Pitt Capital Group in Pittsburgh.

An easier option, and one that requires less cash, may be to build a bond ladder with exchange-traded bond funds. Two big ETF providers, Guggenheim and BlackRock’s iShares, now offer so-called defined-maturity or target-maturity ETFs that can be used to build a bond ladder using Treasury, corporate, high-yield or municipal bonds.

Of course, bond funds have advantages too. You don’t need a big sum to invest. And a bond fund gives you professional management and instant diversification, since it holds hundreds of different securities that mature at different dates.

Funds also provide liquidity because you can redeem shares at any time. With individual bonds, you also can sell when you want, but if you do it before maturity, you may get not get back the full value of your original investment.

There’s no one-size-fits all strategy for bond investing in retirement. A low-cost bond fund is a good option for those who prefer to avoid the hassle of managing individual bonds and who may not have a large sum to invest. “But if you want a predictable income stream and protection from rising rates, a bond ladder is a more prudent choice,” Sommariva says.

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

Read next: Here’s the Retirement Income Mistake Most Americans Are Making

MONEY Ask the Expert

How to Pick an Appraiser to Value Your Heirlooms or Collectibles

Ask the Expert - Family Finance illustration
Robert A. Di Ieso, Jr.

Q: “I inherited quite a large stamp collection. I am sure there are a few valuable ones in there, but aside from quitting my job to spend eight hours a day sorting through them one at a time, what are my options for getting it appraised?” — Russell, Melbourne, Fla.

A: The key thing you need to beware of when seeking out an expert to value an heirloom is conflict of interest: You don’t want the person evaluating your property to have an active interest in purchasing it.

So rather than simply walking into any antique shop or auction house and asking for an appraisal, instead hire a certified appraiser. You’re more likely to get a fair judgement from such an individual because it’s a violation of his or her professional ethics to offer to buy an item he has been hired to appraise.

You can find a certified appraiser in your area specializing in stamps—or any other type of collectible, antique or valuable—via the websites of the three major appraiser organizations: International Society of Appraisers, American Society of Appraisers, or Appraiser Association of America. Each member’s profile should list his or her certification level and background in appraising property similar to yours.

Appraisers might charge a flat fee or an hourly rate starting at $150, says Cindy Charleston-Rosenberg, president of the International Society of Appraisers. (You should avoid those who charge a fee based on a percentage of the item’s value.) Depending on location and the level of expertise your property requires, the total bill may be $400 or more.

For that fee, you’ll get a written report that includes the object’s value, the procedure used to estimate this, and a full description of the item.

Be aware that an item can have different values for different purposes: For insurance or estate taxes, you need to know its retail value, or what it would cost today to purchase. For selling, you need the fair-market value or what a buyer would pay you.

If your item has a minimal value and doesn’t require a full written appraisal, Charleston-Rosenberg says she and the vast majority of appraisers will tell you its ballpark worth and waive the service fee.

“An honorable appraiser will turn away a project when an object is not worth it,” says Charleston-Rosenberg.

Often by calling an appraisal office, you can get a rough idea of whether to pursue a full consultation. Charleston-Rosenberg says she knows of appraisers who request an emailed image of an heirloom to determine if their services are actually needed.

Because your heirloom is not a single object but a larger collection, however, you will probably need to have an appraiser view the stamps in person.

More from Money 101:

Do I need an accountant to do my taxes?

What if I need more time to file my taxes?

How do you know if it makes sense to itemize?

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