MONEY early retirement

The Most Important Move to Make If You Want to Retire Early

Small birdhouse
Michael Blann—Getty Images

Housing is the most dangerous expense for those seeking financial freedom. Here's what you can do to control those costs.

Looking to achieve financial independence and retire sooner? A top priority should be to control expenses—especially your major living expenses like housing, food, transportation, health care, and recreation. We’ll focus on the rest of these spending categories in future columns, but for now let’s take a look at housing—the single largest expense for many, and one that can all too easily sabotage your journey to financial freedom.

Housing-related decisions will impact your financial independence by years, if not decades. Homes are a downright dangerous expense variable, because price tags are high, leverage (borrowing) is usually required, and various financial “experts” with their own agendas are usually involved. And houses expose our vanities, tempting us to spend for the approval of others, instead of in our own best interests. Losses of tens of thousands of dollars are routine in real estate, and can completely derail your savings plan.

Even when you don’t suffer an outright loss, changing homes is expensive. I moved around in my 20’s, had few possessions, and rented, so the cost of relocating was minimal. Then I married, we bought our first house, and had a child. Our next move was punishing: We were forced to sell our house at a steep loss, and, because of all our new stuff, we had to hire professional movers for the first time. When we finally bought a house again, we stayed put for nearly 17 years. In retrospect, that long time in one place was an enormous help in growing our assets and retiring early.

How much does it cost to change homes? By the time you add up the costs of selling, relocating, buying again, and settling in, you can easily spend $20,000, or more. According to Zillow, closing costs to a home buyer run from 2% to 5% of the purchase price. The seller doesn’t have mortgage-related costs but is likely paying a realtor commission as high as 6% or 7%. Then there are moving costs, and the inevitable shakedown costs with any new home: painting, carpets and curtains, repairs, supplies and furnishings, and basic improvements to suit your lifestyle.

In short, changing homes is frightfully expensive, and will probably eat up most of the average family’s potential savings for several years running.

Of course there are scenarios like career moves, where you don’t have the luxury of staying in place. But anytime the choice to move is yours, stop and consider the expenses. The worst possible choice would be an optional move into a larger house that you don’t really need. You are taking on a big one-time expense, plus a bigger ongoing mortgage and maintenance obligation. If more space is truly necessary, consider instead modifying your current home: When our son reached the later teen years, we renovated a larger downstairs room so he could have more space.

Once you’re in your home, be smart about home improvement projects, especially those you can’t do cheaply yourself. Trying to create the “perfect” home is an uphill battle, at best. Borrowing to improve your home is an especially bad idea, in my opinion. You can spend vast sums of money without measurably improving your quality of life. And old assumptions about getting that money back when you sell are outdated. For 2014, Remodeling Magazine reports that the average cost-value ratio for 35 representative home improvement projects stood at just about 66%. In other words, you don’t make money when you sell: rather, you only get about two-thirds of your money back! Financially speaking, that’s a lousy investment.

Lastly, while there are situations where it makes sense, on paper, to hold a mortgage, for those truly dedicated to financial independence, the disadvantages of debt often outweigh the benefits. In general, pay off your mortgage as soon as possible. Using extra income to pay down a mortgage loan can be a solid investment in today’s low-return environment. We paid off our mortgage years before retiring, and the peace of mind was invaluable. Now, in retirement, we rent instead of own. It’s a flexible, economical, and low-hassle lifestyle.

In short, maintaining a home will be one of your largest life expenses. Pay careful attention to your housing decisions if you’re serious about financial freedom!

Darrow Kirkpatrick is a software engineer and author who lived frugally, invested successfully, and retired in 2011 at age 50. He writes regularly about saving, investing and retiring on his blog CanIRetireYet.com. This column appears monthly.

More from Darrow Kirkpatrick:

The Single Most Important Thing You Can Do to Achieve Financial Success

The One Retirement Question You Must Get Right

How to Figure Out Your Real Cost of Living in Retirement

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MONEY Millennials

How Millennials Stalled the Housing Market Recovery

Wrecking ball hitting brick wall
Steve Bronstein—Getty Images

Millennials already have to deal with hefty debt from college, an iffy job market, and growing up in an era where MTV no longer plays music videos, but now they’re being blamed for holding back the real estate boom. Homebuilder adviser John Burns Consulting published details from a study earlier this month concluding that student loan payments will cost the housing industry 414,000 transactions this year that would have totaled $83 billion in sales.

Ouch. The ivory tower is crumbling at the foundation.

It’s been widely assumed that mounting student debt is eating away at this otherwise buoyant housing market recovery. John Burns Consulting’s study — boiled down to a free one-pager for those that aren’t paying customers that got the more thorough report — attempts to quantify the impact.

How did the adviser arrive at $83 billion? Well, we start with the 5.9 million households under the age of 40 that are paying at least $250 in student loan debt, nearly triple the 2.2 million leveraged college grads in the same predicament back in 2005. We then get to the assumption that $250 earmarked for student loan debt every month reduces the buying power of a potential homebuyer by $44,000. That’s bad, and it’s naturally worse depending on how much more than $250 a month some of these indebted students have taken on to pay back. That’s less money they can commit to a mortgage. John Burns Consulting offers up that most households paying at least $750 a month in student loan have priced themselves out of the housing market entirely.

It gets worse

The study only looked at folks between the ages of 20-40. That’s a pretty sizable lot, especially since 35% of all households in that age bracket have at least $250 a month in student debt. However, even John Burns Consulting concedes that there’s “a big chunk of households over age 40 who have student debt” as well. It’s not likely to be as bad, naturally, but it’s all incremental at this point.

This report also happens to come at a time when the housing industry is starting to flinch after a couple of years of boom and bounce. Right now everything seems great. New home sales data released this past week showed the industry’s highest monthly growth rate in more than six years. However, the near-term outlook is starting to get hazy.

Shares of KB Home KB HOME KBH -0.6489% shed more than 5% of their value on Wednesday after reporting uninspiring quarterly results. Revenue and earnings fell short of expectations, and the same can be said about its number of closings and order growth. Earlier this month it was luxury bellwether Toll Brothers TOLL BROTHERS TOL 0.9384% setting an uneasy tone after posting a year-over-year decline in the number of contracts it signed during the period and an uptick in the cancellation rate for existing home orders.

It gets better

The student debt crisis is real, and the skyrocketing costs of obtaining a postsecondary education naturally open up the debate of its necessity. However, it’s also important to remember that university grads are earning far more than those that don’t attend college.

Source: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. (2014). The Condition of Education 2014 (NCES 2014-083), Annual Earnings of Young Adults.

The median of annual earnings for young adults in 2012 was $46,900 for those with a bachelor’s degree, $30,000 for those with just a high school degree or credential and $22,900 for those who did not complete high school. Those going on to grad school for advanced degrees — and that’s where student loans can really start to pile up — are at $59,600 a year.

In other words, most college grads, and especially grad school graduates, are typically better off than those that didn’t pursue higher education, even with the student loan albatross around their white-collared necks. The housing industry would be better off if colleges were cheaper or if student debt levels were lower, but the same can be said about purchasing power in general. At the end of the day, debt-saddled or not, the housing industry needs its college graduates.

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MONEY Ask the Expert

How to Find a Mortgage When Your Credit is Bad

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Robert A. Di Ieso, Jr.

Q: “What’s the fastest or easiest way to rebuild my credit? I want to buy a house, and I can’t get approved.” —Tracy, Fargo, N.D.

A: “The bad news is you really do need a good score to get a home loan today,” says Keith Gumbinger, vice president of HSH.com, a website that tracks the mortgage and consumer loan industry.

If your credit score is below 700, you’ll be hard pressed to find a lender willing to give you a conventional home loan, and if you do, the interest rate and fees are likely to be far too high. So you may want to take the time to rebuild your credit before you shop for a home.

“Before you decide you should you jump in, maybe you want to step back and look at the circumstances that lead to your current credit score,” says Gumbinger. “Look at your bills. You don’t want to put yourself in a position where you could lose the home. It’s expensive to maintain a mortgage.”

To boost your credit score, first get a free copy of each of your three credit reports from annualcreditreport.com. Scan them for mistakes that could be dragging down your score and fix them. After that, repairing your credit comes down to having credit and making your payments on time.

“You can’t improve your score if you don’t have debts, so you will need a credit card or new credit line where your payment history can be recorded,”says Jack M. Guttentag, a finance professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School and founder of The Mortgage Professor website.

You also need to avoid maxing out the cards you have. “If you have a credit card that allows you to draw up to $10,000, having a $9,500 balance will hurt you,” says Guttentag. “Having a $2,000 balance will help you.” For more on improving your credit score, check out our Money 101 guide.

Your other option if you want buy now is to get a loan through a government program designed to help less creditworthy borrowers.

The Federal Housing Administration backs loans that have more relaxed qualification standards (including down payments as low as 3.5%), and the Department of Veterans Affairs has a program that helps members of the military borrow. If you happen to live in certain rural areas, you might qualify for a U.S. Department of Agriculture lending program designed to entice people to settle in less-developed parts of the country.

For a full FHA loan, the agency says you typically must have a minimum credit score of 580. With a 10% down payment, the FHA will insure loans for borrowers with scores between 500 and 579 (below 500, you you typically won’t qualify). The VA and USDA do not set minimum credit standards.

However, these minimums can be misleading. The private lenders who actually make these loans typically have higher standards. Most FHA, VA, and USDA-approved lenders look for credit scores between 620 and 660, and your best chance for getting approved will be to have a score at the high end or above this range, says Gumbinger. If you’re close, being able to show a healthy bank balance or a monthly rent bill that’s higher than your future mortgage payment may help.

Wells Fargo, the country’s biggest mortgage lender, said earlier this year that it would accept credit scores of 600, down from 640, for FHA and VA loans. Bank of America said that it may also accept certain cases with credit scores in the low-600 range, depending on that borrower’s ability to repay the loan.

Keep in mind that these loans carry additional fees. FHA loans require an upfront mortgage insurance premium of 1.75% of the loan value, as well as an annual premium based on your loan-to-value ratio, loan size, and length of the loan. USDA loans carry an upfront premium of 2% and an annual fee. VA loans have a funding fee that varies based on factors such as the type of loan and the size of the down payment.

Even if you qualify for one of these loans, Gumbinger cautions about getting in over your head. These programs are best if your credit problems are due to a job loss or medical bill. “If this was a one-time event and you’re getting past it, then no problem,” he says. “But if you have perpetual problems that are affecting your credit score, maybe you’re not well-aligned for home ownership.”

 

 

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MONEY The Economy

Think the Fed Should Raise Rates Quickly? Ask Sweden How That Worked Out

Raising interest rates brought the Swedish economy toward deflation Ewa Ahlin—Corbis

Some investors are impatient for the Fed to raise interest rates. They may want to be a little more patient after hearing what happened to Sweden.

If you’re a saver, or if bonds make up a sizable portion of your portfolio, chances are you’re not the biggest fan of the Federal Reserve these days.

That’s because ever since the financial crisis, the nation’s central bank has kept short-term interest rates at practically zero, meaning your savings accounts and bonds are yielding next to nothing. The Fed has also added trillions of dollars to its balance sheet by buying up longer-term bonds and other assets in an effort to lower long-term interest rates.

Thanks to some positive economic news — like the recent jobs report — lots of people (investors, not workers) think the Fed has done enough to get the economy on its feet and worry inflation could spike if monetary policy stays “loose,” as Dallas Fed President Richard Fisher recently put it.

If you want to know why the argument Fisher and other inflation hawks are pushing hasn’t carried the day, you may want to look to Sweden.

Like most developed nations, Sweden fell into a recession in the global financial crisis. But unlike its counterparts, it rebounded rather quickly. Or at least, that’s how it looked.

As Neil Irwin wrote in the Washington Post back in 2011, “unlike other countries, (Sweden) is bouncing back. Its 5.5 percent growth rate last year trounces the 2.8 percent expansion in the United States and was stronger than any other developed nation in Europe.”

Even though the Swedish economy showed few signs of inflation and still suffered from relatively high unemployment, central bankers in Stockholm worried that low interest rates over time would lead to a real estate bubble. So board members of the Riksbank, Sweden’s central bank, decided to raise interest rates (from 0.25% to eventually 2%) believing that the threat posed by asset bubbles (housing) inflated by easy money outweighed the negative side effects caused by tightening the spigot in a depressed economy.

What happened? Well…

Per Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman in the New York Times:

“Swedish unemployment stopped falling soon after the rate hikes began. Deflation took a little longer, but it eventually arrived. The rock star of the recovery has turned itself into Japan.”

And deflation is a particularly nasty sort of business. When deflation hits, the real amount of money that you owe increases since the value of that debt is now larger than it was when you incurred it.

It also takes time to wring deflation out of the economy. Indeed, Swedish prices have floated around 0% for a while now, despite the Riksbank’s inflation goal of 2%. Plus, as former Riksbank board member Lars E. O. Svensson notes, “Lower inflation than anticipated in wage negotiations leads to higher real wages than anticipated. This in turns leads to many people without safe jobs losing their jobs and becoming unemployed.” Svensson, it should be noted, opposed the rate hike.

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Sweden

Moreover, economic growth has stagnated. After growing so strongly in 2010, Sweden’s gross domestic product began expanding more slowly in recent years and contracted in the first quarter of 2014 by 0.1% thanks in large part to falling exports.

As a result, Sweden reversed policy at the end of 2011 and started to pare its interest rate. The central bank recently cut the so-called “repo” rate by half a percentage point to 0.25%, more than analysts estimated. The hope is that out-and-out deflation will be avoided.

So the next time you’re inclined to ask the heavens why rates in America are still so low, remember Sweden and the scourge of deflation. Ask yourself if you want to take the risk that your debts (think mortgage) will become even more onerous.

MONEY The Economy

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