MONEY Investing

The Low-Risk, High-Reward Way to Buy Your First Investment Property

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Fuse—Getty Images

These four questions will help you be a more successful real estate investor.

When I first read Brandon Turner’s article, “How to ‘Hack’ Your Housing and Get Paid to Live for Free,” it was like a light switch flipped in my head. That was the first article that truly made sense to me as a wannabe investor. It seemed so clear, so right, so obvious that everyone’s first real estate investment should be in a small multi-family property.

I immediately set out to implement this strategy — to buy a property, to move into it, rent out the accompanying units, and to start living for free. Unfortunately, I quickly ran into a little problem: I had set myself up to attempt to meet four seemingly impossible criteria:

  1. The property needed to be affordable with conventional financing.
  2. The property needed to be in a location that I wanted to live in.
  3. The property needed to generate positive cash-flow.
  4. The property needed to offer a reasonable chance at appreciation.

After spending six months looking for an investment property to acquire house-hacking style, I’m not convinced that the truly difficult thing for a first time investor is in getting financing, or even in finding properties that cash-flow sufficiently. The truly difficult problem for me was deciding on where I wanted to make that commitment. Buying a rental property that you intend to live in and actively manage is more than just a financial commitment. You are likely going to live, work, and invest in that area for at least the next few years.

I actually feel that I had plenty of opportunities to purchase duplexes and fourplexes that would have been decent from a cash-flow and appreciation standpoint within 20-50 miles of Denver. Those opportunities seemed almost too easy. The real trick in my opinion is buying those types of properties right downtown. I’m talking inside the city limits.

I’ll admit it, I’m a spoiled, immature 24-year-old, and I refuse to live in an area that isn’t near the heart of my city (Denver, CO). I want to be close to where my 20-something friends live — by Coor’s Field, downtown restaurants and nightlife, convenient to I-70 (the highway that grants easy access to the awesome Rocky Mountains), and, of course, right by my workplace.

In this article, I want to walk through why I believe that all four of those previously mentioned criteria are so important to first time investors and explain some of the basic things that I did to buy a property that I believe meets each of them. I think that this approach is possible for many people who live in urban environments and are willing to be patient and methodical.

Here are four questions that I believe every first time house-hacker should ask themselves, and how I personally answered them.

Question #1: Can I afford the property with conventional financing?

There are two obvious followup questions to the “can I afford this?” question:

  • How much money do I have?
  • How much money does property in the area I want to buy in cost?

If you want to house-hack and still live in a reasonable place in an urban area, you need some cash. Even with great owner-occupier financing terms, you’ll need a substantial amount for the downpayment if you want to live in a somewhat desirable spot near a happening city. I’m not interested in living in Detroit and putting down $500 for that $10,000 home. I want to live and invest in Denver, CO, where a comparable structure might cost 10, 20, or even 50 times more than that.

I spent a full year working hard and living frugally to save up an amount that would comfortably cover a 5% down payment on properties in the area that I wanted to live in. If you don’t like this strategy for gathering funds for your first downpayment (the “save more money” strategy), then I’d suggest that you seriously question whether you want to get into real estate investing in the first place.

Another critical thing to keep in mind is that if you are purchasing a property that needs repairs, minor or major, you will need cash to pay for them. Among other expenses, I’ve shelled out thousands in plumbing and electrical work, appliances, and DIY tools and materials. If you are transitioning from renting to an owning property, then there might be a chance that, like me, you don’t own a robust set of tools and don’t have familiarity with the materials needed to work on even relatively simple projects like painting and drywall repair. By ensuring that I bought the property with a good $10,000 cash cushion, I was able to easily cover all the little repairs and contractor costs that came up, and I now have a pretty solid little toolset that has proved to be much more enjoyable to work with than I previously would have thought.

Related: A New Way to Look at the Concept of “House Hacking”

Question #2: Will I be happy living there?

I think that many of us as investors, new and experienced alike, have to acknowledge that we are investing to improve our financial position and in doing so, to improve our lives. I believe that house-hacking does not work if it means that you have to live in an area that you don’t want to be in! For me to be happy with my living situation, I needed to live in the city. It was not acceptable to purchase property in the boonies and move far away from the places I enjoy going to on a regular basis just to get a good return on my first investment. For me, that meant I had to limit my purchasing area to properties close to the heart of downtown Denver, CO.

Buying property actually downtown (less than 5-10 blocks away from Coor’s Field in my mind) was simply not a reasonable option — the only properties that most newbies can reasonably purchase might be condos, which are not a traditional type of investment from which one can generally expect great rental cash-flow. It’s just too expensive in the true heart of the city, and the only properties that are being purchased there are multi-million dollar homes and swanky apartment complexes. There’s a reason why buildings go straight up in big cities.

Fortunately, Denver has several surrounding neighborhoods with properties at price points affordable to folks making less than $50K per year. These neighborhoods are convenient to downtown with good bike routes and cab/Uber rides that are less than $10 a pop. I ended up picking two areas to search for property. Both areas were roughly equidistant from downtown Denver and my workplace (BiggerPockets HQ happens to be about 5 miles directly Southeast of Lower Downtown Denver).

Question #3: Will the property cash-flow?

Here in Denver, CO, we’ve got a little bit of a tough housing situation. Houses and investment properties are being listed for less than one day and then selling for ten, fifteen, or even $20,000 more than asking price. I’ve heard from some readers that cities with similar characteristics, like Austin, TX, have similarly tough markets for investors.

Luckily, as an owner-occupier looking to buy multifamily property, I had a couple of serious advantages over the competition. First, I was looking at properties that most other would-be homeowners weren’t interested in; first-time buyers usually aren’t looking to purchase a duplex, triplex, or fourplex. Second, I had the opportunity to bid on properties before investors that did not intend to inhabit the property because of a special government program — the First Look program from Fannie Mae.

In my opinion, these two advantages that I had as an owner-occupier house-hacker are the trump cards that gave me an edge in looking for great multi-family deals in an urban environment. After months of searching, my agent suggested a duplex to me. This property was listed on the MLS and was like a lot of other opportunities out there that I had looked at, but with one small difference: this property was part of that “First Look” program.

Because investors couldn’t make offers on the property for several weeks, and because the demand for duplexes, triplexes, and fourplexes among first-time homeowners is very small, I had little competition. I was able to run the deal by my friends, family, mastermind group, and by investor friends I’d met through BiggerPockets. That window gave me the confidence I needed to pull the trigger and make the largest financial commitment of my life to that point — while competing investors never even had a chance to offer.

Question #4: Is there a reasonable chance at appreciation?

If you read around on BiggerPockets, you are going to learn that experienced investors refer to appreciation as the “icing on the cake” — it’s usually not even considered in the purchase of investment property. While it’s still a good idea to look at cash-flow first as an owner-occupier, putting in the extra time to look for investment properties that offer a good chance at appreciation as well can reward you handsomely in the long run.

As a house-hacker, appreciation can produce a more powerful financial impact for you than it can for a traditional investor, because of a special tax-law that benefits owner-occupiers:

Assuming that you live in the property for more than two years, when you sell property, much of the capital gains are tax-free.

This tax break is incredibly powerful for those looking to house-hack with small multifamily properties because we have the opportunity to take advantage of appreciation as it relates to both income properties AND smaller residential properties:

As multi-family properties, increasing the income of the property can force appreciation.

As hybrid properties, duplexes – fourplexes can also benefit from appreciation caused by an improving local market.

I carefully selected properties that I felt offered me the opportunity to get both types of appreciation:

  • Forced Income Appreciation: I chose a property that needed what I considered to be a reasonable amount of cosmetic work and that had multiple opportunities for improvement. Since moving in, I’ve had the entire plumbing system overhauled, I’ve added appliances like washer/dryer units and refrigerators, and I’ve put in substantial cosmetic work, Do-It-Yourself style. These improvements should reduce the operating expenses of the property over the long run and give me an advantage in attracting and retaining tenants, hopefully improving the property’s long-term income potential.
  • Market Appreciation: One of the benefits to purchasing properties in an area that you yourself want to live in is that, generally speaking, other folks want to live there, too. This presents a decent opportunity for appreciation in itself if you have personal reasons for desiring to live in a certain area that are applicable to large demographics. However, I didn’t stop there, as I looked for properties within these neighborhoods that were also in the path of government sponsored infrastructure projects.

In my case, a light-rail project is currently under construction and will offer convenient and low-cost transportation options to my neighborhood. It is my hope that infrastructure projects like this one, coupled with the overall tremendous growth of the Denver local economy, will allow me to benefit from market appreciation, though I understand that having purchased the property, this is now out of my control.

The hope here is that I can leverage both types of appreciation to create substantial value from this property over the next few years. I then hope to cash out on that increase in equity, tax-free, and reinvest it in a larger income producing real estate asset.

Related: BP Podcast 086 – House Hacking Your Way to 97 Units (While Holding a Full Time Job!) with Cory Binsfield

Conclusion

This is my first investment property. There is every possibility that I’ve made a huge mistake somewhere along the line. I could be way off in my estimation of expenses, long-term rents, desirability of the neighborhood, or I might have simply gotten ripped off on the purchase in general. I hope that none of those things are true, and I certainly feel that I did my due diligence at each stage of this investment — but only time will tell if I correctly analyzed each critical input.

Maybe I’m slower than other investors, and maybe I suffered from a great deal of “analysis paralysis.” It took me a long time to pull the trigger and finally make a serious offer on my first investment property. I had been researching my market and defining my criteria for at least 6 months — not to mention the full year that I had been saving up for such a purchase!

That said, I believe that my first investment is by far my most important. A bad choice could cripple me financially, discourage me from investing again, or at the very least, significantly slow me down in accumulating the funds to make a second investment. But, in spite of all the potential negative outcomes, because I did just one thing right, I can sleep well at night:

That one thing was buying in an area that I am happy to live in.

At the end of the day, it doesn’t truly matter whether I’m able to keep my unit rented out, or if the market tanks. Worst case scenario, I get an expensive education in real estate investing and live in a place that is slightly smaller than I could have otherwise afforded.

I’ve got the ultimate exit strategy.

This article originally appeared on BiggerPockets, the real estate investing social network. © 2015 BiggerPockets Inc.

More from BiggerPockets:
I Quit My Day Job, Retired Early & Started a New Venture Using Real Estate: Here’s How
3 Smart Ways to Make an Extra $1,000 a Month Through Real Estate Investing
5 Habits of Highly Miserable Real Estate Investors (and How to Kick Them)

MONEY renting

How to Be a Dream Tenant and Snag Any Rental You Choose

Hand holding gold key, close-up
David Muir—Getty Images

Keep pets, friends, and bad credit from ruining your shot at a nice rental

If you are a renter, you have many obstacles ahead of you. Landlords are full of horror stories, and you are just another potential horror story. You want and need to be the best renter the new landlord has ever seen.

No landlord really wants you, but they need you. They need you to help them pay their rental mortgage; they need you to help them pay their personal mortgage, they need you to help them retire early. But they do not need you to come around and damage the premise or cause them a lot of extra work. Here is how to be the best renter you can possibly be.

Prepare for the Apartment Viewing Process

When you set up a showing for a rental property, it is really an interview. You are interviewing the landlord or property management company, and they are interviewing you. Make a critical mistake in this process, and you will have to move on to the next property. You do not have to be dressed for church, but do not come looking like you are homeless.

Get A Solid Credit Score

Anyone can have a decent credit score at 18 years old. Apply for a secured pre-paid Visa card, use it for a small charge once a month, and pay the bill when it comes due. Just like that, you will have a 700+ credit score. If you already have bad credit, you are starting behind the 8-ball and may have more difficulties. Clean up your credit report as soon as possible to increase your credit score.

Related: The Top 14 Tips Landlords Wish Their Tenants Knew

Knowing approximately what your credit score is will help immensely, in case there are credit score requirements for the rental. There is no sense in applying for a place you will not get. Bring in your proof of a credit score to help, but know that any decent landlord will also run your application through a credit check process and verify that your version closely matches theirs.

Come Prepared to Rent

You should be ready to rent any place you are looking at; otherwise, why waste your time or the landlord’s? Bring along proof of employment and income, along with your W2, tax forms, or a pay stub. Bring a pen to fill out an application and a checkbook to write out a check for the application fees. If you like the rental, you should also put down a holding fee to hold the rental. If you do not like the place or the landlord, keep the information in your pocket for the next place.

Control Your Viewing Group

Bring everyone along who will be renting — and no one else. A landlord will assume that your friend who arrives with you and is “living somewhere else” will be moving in as soon as you sign a lease. If your fiance who has just gotten out of prison stays in the car, I will also assume he looks so rough no one will rent to him, and I will also assume he will be moving in. Do not be offended if the landlord wants to keep criminals out of their multifamily rental.

If you have kids, do not let them run wild in the rental. It is not your place yet. If you are viewing an occupied unit, remember that it is someone else’s house. The current tenants do not even want you there, but they know the landlord needs to show it. If your kid steals a toy from the current renter and you have to come back from your car to return it, please do not be offended when you are politely declined for the rental.

Clean Up Your Pet Situation

Get rid of your “lab mix” dog that looks and acts like a purebred pit bull. Landlords do not like pit bulls, insurance companies do not like pit bulls, and many cities do not like pit bulls. If you have a 200 lb. bull mastiff, expect to be declined as a renter in any places that do not also allow horses. If you have six cats, get rid of at least four of them. Do not even apply if you have an intact male cat.

If you have a fish tank, keep it under 55 gallons. I have had renters with 200+ gallon saltwater fish tanks, and while they are impressive, they are way too big. Do not think for a minute that large or poisonous snakes are a great pet in an apartment, even though they are quiet. If your dog barks, get a bark collar for it.

If you have more than two pets, in any combination of dogs and cats, you are going to have a problem, especially if you can barely afford the rent.

Learn Move-In Etiquette

Once you have been approved, plan on moving in during the day. You can start as early as 7 a.m. during the week — or even 8 a.m. on the weekends — but do not start moving in after 8 p.m. Wait until the next day. Do not block the other tenants’ cars with all of your mover’s cars. If you have to temporarily block driveways and garages, be prepared to quickly move out of the way in short notice. Other tenants need to go about their day and do not want to be inconvenienced by you.

Watch for the walls and ceilings when you move. Do not scrape the walls and break ceiling light fixtures. If you drop trash in the hallways or common areas, pick it up. If you see a neighbor, introduce yourself if they do not do so first. Your neighbor is your ally. They are the ones who will tolerate your noise — or call the cops on you. It’s your choice: be a neighborly neighbor or be the “strange person across the hall.” A simple handshake is all it takes.

Requirements of a Great Renter

Pay Rent. It is impossible to be a great renter if you do not pay rent. You could be a personal friend of Gandhi or a guest of the Pope on a regular basis, but if you do not pay rent, you are a terrible renter by definition. Pay your rent on time; it is due on midnight the evening BEFORE the first of the month. Not on the first, not on the fifth. Set up an auto-pay system so you do not forget; it will save your renter reputation. If you need to pay rent in two installments, pay half in advance, and the rest when it is due.

Do Not Force Other Tenants to Leave. If you have weirdo habits that creep other tenants out, it is a bad deal. Do not deal drugs in the apartment area, or even look like you might be a drug dealer. If you want to be a drug dealer, go do it at work, not at home. If you have a habit of hanging laundry on the deck or using a sheet for a curtain, think twice about it. You do not want to bring down the appearance of the complex because you are too cheap to live like a normal human being.

Do Not Bring in Pests. Stay away from the free furniture on the curbs. It is there for a reason; no one wants it. It is likely to be full of bedbugs. Stay away from bringing home boxes from stores and restaurants that are full of cockroaches. If you bring in cockroaches or bed bugs, do not be surprised if you are eventually asked to leave. It is easier to rid an apartment of pests when it is empty. Pests are non-discriminatory in terms of income level, but low income habits seem to attract them.

Do Not Invite Your Criminal Friends Over. Many criminals who have been to jail or prison have a different mentality when it comes to resolving issues. It typically becomes a fight waiting to happen. Combine criminals, alcohol, and a card game, and it is only a matter of time before someone gets offended and a fight breaks out. When someone gets into a fight and they are hit with a 1.5L brandy bottle, they can fall against the stairway railing and lose half of their ear. I have seen it happen. If you have criminal friends, go play at their house, not yours.

Do Not Just Hang Around. Do not loiter around the outside of the building or allow your friends to do so. When you come home or your friends come over, go into your apartment. Hanging around looks bad — it looks like you are looking for trouble to get into. And especially do not hang around the building or parking lot around after dark. Hanging around and drinking is even worse; do not drink outside your apartment. If you are grilling alone, a beer to pass the time might be OK. Never drink outside when you have friends over.

Disclose Your Extra Guests. Do not expect that because you have paid the rent, you can have extra people living there. There is a reason why tenants get screened; one reason is to make sure you will likely pay the rent. The other reason is to screen out potential troublemakers. If you want a guest, get them approved by the landlord. Maybe there will be slight increase in rent, maybe not. And extra guests also include extra pets.

Do Not Be Crazy. If you think it is a great idea to come home drunk at 2 a.m. and start a fight with your roommates, think again. The other neighbors do not want to hear you wrestling around like a bunch of wild bears upstairs. If you then think you are invincible and want to go out and find another party but decide to punch the ceiling light on your way out, it will not wind up good. The light fixture is cheap to replace, but I will be charging a much greater amount against your damage deposit for my time and trouble.

Be Quiet After 9 p.m. Most tenants work a typical day job. They expect it to be quiet when they go to bed or start to get ready for bed. If you like parties, loud TVs, shoot-em-up video games, or even loud card games, you need to think twice about whether a multifamily rental is for you. You share walls, ceilings and floors. Your music and sound effects become their noise. If you already met the neighbors, they might come over and help you realize you are making too much noise. If not, they may just call the cops.

Related: How to Find a Tenant in Any Market: A Comprehensive Guide

Do Not Attract Police Calls. Call the cops as often as you need to, but never get them called on you. One call and you could be evicted. If you committed a cardinal sin, like domestic abuse or drugs, expect to be shown the door. If your live in roommate gets arrested for having a vehicle chop-shop in the garage, do not expect you will have until your lease ends to move out; you will be lucky to get until the weekend to move. When bad behaviors are noticed and one gets kicked out, everyone gets kicked out.

After the Move-In

Remember that the hurdle you had to overcome to move in, your neighbors also have experienced. The reason why your rental is nice is directly related to that tenant screening hurdle. You should want to keep it nice and get a great landlord reference.

Your home is your castle, but it is not going to be yours forever. Give proper notice to move out. Keep it clean and mostly presentable. Clean up after your pets and control your guests. Enjoy the time you are there.

This article originally appeared on BiggerPockets, the real estate investing social network. © 2015 BiggerPockets Inc.

More from BiggerPockets:
I Quit My Day Job, Retired Early & Started a New Venture Using Real Estate: Here’s How
3 Smart Ways to Make an Extra $1,000 a Month Through Real Estate Investing
5 Habits of Highly Miserable Real Estate Investors (and How to Kick Them)

MONEY Rentals

US Renters Spent $441 Billion on Rent Last Year

According to Zillow, college kids, newlyweds and all other renters around the country paid a grand total of $441 billion for rent in 2014, up 4.9% from the year before.

MONEY Rentals

The Money Mistake That 48% of Renters Make

List of bills to pay, with "paid" written in red on top
David Gould—Getty Images

They assume their on-time payments will help boost their credit score, according to a new TransUnion survey.

Most Americans know that a good credit score can open the door to lower cost loans for big adult milestones, such as buying a home or car.

Yet it turns out that many renters are misinformed about what goes into that somewhat mysterious three-digit number: Nearly half of renters ages 18 to 64 think rental payments to their landlords are automatically reported to the credit bureaus, according to survey results released last week by TransUnion, one of the nation’s three major credit reporting agencies. The survey also revealed that more than half of renters believe payments for cable and internet, utility and cellphone bills are regularly reported to the bureaus.

Credit agency firms TransUnion and Experian did recently start allowing rental payments to be collected and factored into credit reports. But in practice, most landlords do not yet share with the data collectors that you’re paying on time each month, says Ken Chaplin, senior vice president of TransUnion’s consumer division. Cable, internet, utility and cell providers also typically do not, he says.

Even if your landlord or service firm is one of the few that does report, the payments may not be included in the most common credit score lenders use, called the FICO score. So if you were counting on your on-time monthly rent checks to help you build your credit score, you’re out of luck.

Keep in mind that although being conscientious on paying your rent and utilities won’t help you, your failure to make a payment can hurt you. Some landlords and utility companies do report delinquent customers—not to mention the fact that your accounts could end up in collections. So this isn’t an excuse to stop paying these bills.

Instead it should serve as a wake up call that you may need to work in other ways to improve your credit score, such as paying car loans, student loans and credit card bills on time each month.

Related:

What is a credit report and when is it used?
How is my credit score calculated and how can I improve it?

MONEY Budgeting

Guess Which U.S. City Is the Most Expensive

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Nikreates—Alamy

Hint: It's not NYC.

On average, American households spend the largest share of their annual expenditures on housing. The average family spends $16,887 on housing per year, equating to 33% of the average household’s annual expenditures. But how much do those expenses vary from city to city, and which places are the most expensive?

Well, the Bureau of Labor Statistics recently released a report (link opens PDF) detailing Americans’ average annual expenditures on housing and related items. And contrary to popular belief, New York City is not the most expensive city to live in. Two U.S. cities have overtaken it.

A breakdown of housing costs

The BLS took a deep dive into all the costs of housing, rather than simply comparing the cost of rent or average mortgage payments. Their analysis also took into account utilities (electric, water, and natural gas), household furnishings and equipment (textiles, furniture, floor coverings, appliances, and the like), housekeeping supplies, and other household expenses. What they found was that average annual expenditures on housing were far higher in both Washington, D.C., and San Francisco than in New York.

most-expensive-city-no-longer-nyc_large

The data is current as of 2012, and housing costs in the District of Columbia and San Francisco have risen since then. In D.C., the rise in housing costs is being led by the redevelopment and gentrification of the downtown area, which in turn is being triggered by the high relative number of government and government-related jobs, particularly in the defense contracting sector. Baby boomers are also moving from the suburbs into the city.

In San Francisco, housing costs have always been high, but they’re spiking because of a confluence of factors. The continued boom in technology companies in Silicon Valley — most notably Apple, Google, and Facebook — means that a growing cadre of high-paid employees want to live in the area. Add in a longtime lack of housing development in the city, and you have a rise in housing prices that has become a contentious issue in the San Francisco Bay area as longtime renters are priced out of the city. TechCrunch’s Kim-Mai Cutler provides a great, in-depth piece on San Francisco’s housing problem.

The difference in annual housing costs between the two most expensive cities and the national average is a staggering $10,000. Excluding New York City, the difference between the two most expensive cities and other major U.S. metropolitan areas is over $5,000 annually. If you’re thinking of moving, it’s smart to compare costs carefully before moving to one of the most expensive cities in the U.S.

National differences in housing cost

While the above data is just from major U.S. cities, we have other data from the Bureau of Economic Analysis showing the real value of housing dollars in each state compared with the national average.

real-value-of-housing_large

You can see that generally, coastal states are more expensive than non-coastal states, as many people enjoy living near the ocean. You can also see that the Northeast on average is more expensive than the rest of the country except for California. These high costs, coupled with better weather and low to no income taxes, are why many retirees move south to Florida, Texas, etc.

If considering moving to a more expensive city, you should be sure the benefits will be worth the extra expense. For instance, while I pay a high cost of living to live in New York City, the quality of life that I get in the city makes it well worth it, in my opinion. While New York state is ranked poorly in terms of the happiest states in the U.S., New York City is ranked in the top quartile by happiness among U.S. cities, according to the Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index.

The most important thing is to live in a place where you are happy. While the main determinants of happiness are the same for everyone, the specifics vary. Be sure that an increased cost of living comes with an increased quality of life.

MONEY mortgages

The Surprising Threat to Your Financial Security in Retirement

House made out of dollar bills with ominous shadow
iStock

More Americans could face a housing-related financial hardship in retirement, according to a new Harvard study.

America’s population is going to experience a dramatic shift during the next 15 years. More than 130 million Americans will be aged 50 or over, and the entire baby boomer generation will be in retirement age — making 20% of the country’s population older than 65. If recent trends continue, there will be a larger number of retirees renting and paying mortgages than ever before.

A recent study published by Harvard’s Joint Center for Housing Studies describes how this could lead an unprecedented number of America’s aging population to face a lower quality of life or even financial hardship. However, the same study also points out that there is time for many of those who could be affected to do something about it.

Housing debt and rent costs pose a big threat

According to the data Harvard researchers put together, homeowners tend to be in a much better financial position than renters. The majority of homeowners over 50 have retirement savings with a median value of $93,000, plus $10,000 in savings. More than three-quarters of renters, on the other hand, have no retirement and only $1,000 in savings on average.

While renters — who don’t have the benefit of home equity wealth — face the biggest challenges, a growing percentage of those 50 and older are carrying mortgage debt. Income levels tend to peak for most in their late 40s before declining in the 50s, and then comes retirement. The result? Housing costs consume a growing percentage of income as those over 50 get older and enter retirement.

How bad is it? Check out this table from the Harvard study:

Source: “Housing America’s Older Adults,” Harvard University.

More than 40% of those over 65 with a mortgage or rent payment are considered moderately or severely burdened, meaning that at least 30% of their income goes toward housing costs. The percentage drops below 15% when they own their home. If you pay rent or carry a mortgage into retirement, there’s a big chance it will take up a significant amount of your income. In 1992, it was estimated that just more than 60% of those between 50 and 64 had a mortgage, but by 2010, the number had jumped past 70%.

Even more concerning? The rate of those over 65 still paying a mortgage has almost doubled since 1992 to nearly 40%.

The impact of housing costs on retirees

The impact is felt most by those with the lowest incomes, and there is a clear relationship between high housing costs and hardship. Those who are 65 and older and are both in the lowest income quartile and moderately or severely burdened by housing costs spend up to 30% less on food than people in the same income bracket who do not have a housing-cost burden. Those who face a housing-cost burden also spend markedly less on healthcare, including preventative care.

In many cases, these burdens can become too much to bear, often leading retirees to live with a family member — if the option is available. While this is more common in some cultures, this isn’t an appealing option to most Americans, who generally view retirement as an opportunity to be independent. More than 70% of respondents in a recent AARP survey said they want to remain in their current residence as long as they can. Unfortunately, those who carry mortgage debt into retirement are more likely to have financial difficulties and limited choices, and they’re also more likely to have less money in retirement savings.

What to do?

Considering the data and the trends the Harvard study uncovered, more and more Americans could face a housing-related financial hardship in retirement. If you want to avoid that predicament, there are things you can do at any age.

  • Refinance or no? Refinancing typically only makes sense if it will reduce the total amount you pay for your home. Saving $200 per month doesn’t do you any good if you end up paying $3,000 more over the term of the loan. However, if a lower interest rate means you’ll spend less money than you do on your current loan, refinance.
  • Reverse mortgages. If you’re in retirement and have equity in your home, a reverse mortgage might make sense. There are a few different types based on whether you need financial support via monthly income, cash to pay for repairs or taxes on your home, or other needs. However, understand how a reverse mortgage works and what you are giving up before you choose this route. There are housing counseling agencies that can help you figure out the best options for your situation, and for some reverse mortgage programs you are required to meet with a counselor first. Check out the Federal Trade Commission’s website for more information.

All that said, avoiding financial hardship in retirement takes more than managing your mortgage. A big hedge is entering retirement with as much wealth as possible. Here are some ways to do that:

  • Max out your employee match. If your employer offers a match to retirement account contributions, make sure you’re getting all of it. Even if you’re only a few years from retiring, this is free money; don’t leave it on the table. Furthermore, your 401(k) contributions reduce your taxable income, meaning it will actually hit your paycheck by a smaller amount than your contribution.
  • Catching up. The IRS allows those over age 50 to contribute an extra $1,000 per year to personal IRAs, putting their total contribution limit at $6,500. And contributions to traditional IRAs can reduce your taxable income, just like 401(k) contributions. There are some limitations, so check with your tax pro to see how it affects your situation. Also, while contributions to a Roth IRA aren’t tax-deductible, distributions in retirement are tax-free.
  • Financial assistance and property tax breaks. Whether you’re a homeowner or a renter, there are assistance programs that can help bridge the housing-cost gap. Both state and federal government programs exist, but nobody is going to knock on your door and tell you about them. A good place to start is to contact your local housing authority. The available assistance can also include property tax credits, exemptions, and deferrals. Check with your local tax commissioner to find out what is available in your area.

Stop putting it off

If you’re already in this situation, or know someone who is, then you know the emotional and financial strain it causes. If you’re afraid you might be on the path to be in those straits, then it’s up to you to take steps to change course.

It doesn’t matter whether you’re a few months from 65 or a few months into your first job: Doing nothing gets you nowhere and wastes invaluable time that you can’t get back.

MONEY Rentals

This Is How to Deal With Even the Most Hellish Landlord

You shouldn't have to suffer when your landlord neglects your home.
Simon Winnall—Getty Images

Many landlords neglect their rental properties. Here's what to do if the owner of your home fails to maintain it.

Perhaps you’ve called, texted, and emailed your landlord to tell him your heating is broken, your toilet is leaking, and the sink is making an interminable drip-drip-drip sound that’s driving you nuts.

But your landlord doesn’t seem to have any interest in fixing these issues.

What should you do if your landlord isn’t doing his job? Let’s look at some specific scenarios to give you an idea of your rights and options.

When Time Is of the Essence

Example: I haven’t had any hot water in my apartment for three days. Showering is awful and I’m having trouble getting my dishes clean—it’s so gross. What can I do?

Solution: Your landlord is obligated to repair anything deemed “essential” to the health and safety of his tenants. This includes dealing with heating, water and electrical issues; remediation of mold or fungus; battling bug infestations; and keeping the roof in working order.

Make sure that, in addition to calling, emailing or texting, you also send your repair request in writing to your landlord. This written proof could be necessary down the line if you get into a dispute with him.

Tip: Emailing and texting might not constitute “official written notice.” Your lease may specify which forms of communication qualify as “written notice,” so refer to that first and foremost. However, in the absence of any specific communication method stipulated within the lease, you should snail-mail your landlord a letter. Why? It’s the most commonly accepted legal definition of “written notice.”

Paying a little extra for registered mail is also a good idea if you’re worried your landlord is actively ignoring you, as your landlord will have to physically sign and date the receipt when he accepts the envelope. Plus, you’ll have documentation to prove that you sent the letter. (Save the registered mail receipt!)

In addition, keep detailed records of all important dates (when you first noticed the problem, when you left voice mails, etc…) and take plenty of pictures of the problem (with a date-stamp on the photos, if possible) to show the extent of the issue.

If your landlord does not respond to your request, you are within your legal rights to take any of the below steps:

  • Alerting state or local health and building inspectors
  • Suing your landlord in small claims court
  • Breaking your lease for breach of lease terms (it’s best to consult an attorney before doing this to make sure you have a solid case and haven’t failed to do anything you needed to do under the lease terms)

Should you withhold rent payment until its fixed? Not advisable. Your landlord might use this as grounds for eviction. It’s better to keep your situation simple.

Should you repair the problem yourself (or pay to have it repaired) and then deduct that amount from your rent? Again, that’s not advisable. You’re best off doing your job (paying rent and sending written requests) and urging your landlord to perform his job.

When Your Property Has Been Damaged

Example: A pipe burst in my wall, sending water all over the place. A ton of stuff in my closet was ruined. I called my landlord yesterday and he still hasn’t shown up. What now?

Solution: If your personal property is damaged due to negligence on the part of your landlord — e.g., he hasn’t been maintaining the pipes properly, which caused the burst pipe — then you may have a case against him for reimbursement.

This is only if you’ve taken all steps within your power, including moving your property out of the way of the water (if possible) and alerting your landlord to any plumbing issues that might have signaled there was a problem.

If the pipe simply burst and it wasn’t anyone’s fault — e.g., due to an “Act of God” such as weather — your landlord is not responsible for the damage. You should always pay for renter’s insurance to cover your own personal property if calamity strikes.

When It’s Not Life-Threatening

Example: My kitchen sink has been dripping for the past three weeks. It’s driving us all crazy and keeping us awake at night, but my landlord doesn’t seem to care. Help!

Solution: Unfortunately your landlord is under no specific legal obligation to make repairs that are not deemed “essential.” Non-essential or cosmetic issues are up to his discretion, including changing light bulbs, fixing leaky faucets and patching a hole in your window screen. These things are annoying to put up with, but they don’t pose any immediate risk to your health and safety.

How can you determine whether or your not you have the right to minor repairs? First, examine your lease agreement. Some leases specifically state whether a landlord will make only essential repairs, or whether he’ll conduct non-essential repairs that you bring to his attention.

You’ll also want to consider if your repair request is the sort of thing your landlord would be concerned about from a business standpoint. Your hole-ridden window screen is something he may not care about (until he needs to rent the apartment out again), but a leaky faucet could wind up boosting the water bill, which many landlords cover themselves — giving you added arguing power.

When the Problem Is Your Fault

Example: I had a party and things got a little crazy. My ceiling light fixture got knocked off and now it’s hanging by a thread. Why won’t my landlord take care of it?

Solution: A landlord is only required to make repairs necessitated by normal wear-and-tear or by a defect in the property (appliances not installed correctly, etc.).

If the issue is a result of damage, misuse or negligence on your part — or on the part of any guests, children or pets staying with you — your landlord does not have to take care of it. For instance, if your cockroach problem is a result of your failure to keep the kitchen clean, good luck talking your landlord into ponying up the money to take care of it.

In cases like these, you’ll have to take care of the issue yourself, on your own dime, or risk having the damage deducted from your security deposit when you move out.

To read more from Paula Pant of Trulia, click here.

Related:

MONEY 101: Should I Buy or Rent?

 

 

MONEY home prices

America’s ‘Gayborhoods’ Are a Lot More Expensive, a Lot Less Gay

Castro Street in San Francisco is decorated in rainbow flags and balloons for Gay Pride month.
Cammie Toloui—Alamy Castro Street in San Francisco.

What becomes of a trendy gay neighborhood when housing prices soar and straight people move in?

As gay acceptance has risen over the years, gay people have increasingly moved away from historically gay neighborhoods, such as the Castro in San Francisco and Chicago’s Boystown. Simultaneously, more and more straight individuals and couples have felt comfortable enough to move into these neighborhoods. As a result, many gay neighborhoods—call them “gayborhoods”—aren’t nearly as gay as they used to be.

That’s the gist of a new book called There Goes the Gayborhood? by Amin Ghaziani, an associate professor of sociology at the University of British Columbia. His research traces the changing face of gay neighborhoods and explores the implications of these shifts in cities around the U.S.

For instance, from 2000 to 2012, the number of same-sex couple households increased in nearly every neighborhood in Seattle, with one glaring exception: Capitol Hill, described as the “center of the city’s gay and counterculture communities,” according to Wikipedia, experienced a 23% decrease in same-sex households over the same time span, the Seattle Times noted.

“This isn’t unique to Seattle,” Ghaziani explained. As gays have moved far beyond gayborhoods to other parts of cities and into small towns and the suburbs, a “straightening” has taken place in neighborhoods like Capitol Hill.

Much of Ghaziani’s research is based on Chicago’s Boystown, where he lived for nearly a decade, and where the idea for the book was born. “My friends and I began to notice changes in the character and composition of the neighborhood,” he said to the Chicago Tribune “We’d notice more straight couples holding hands and more baby strollers. That became a symbol. Oftentimes a sex store would close and a nail salon would open in its place.”

The shifting demographics must be viewed as a sign of growing acceptance—that of straight people in traditionally gay neighborhoods, and of gay people throughout the land. Still, many of the sources quoted in Ghaziani’s book worry that the blurred lines could mean that much of what makes a gayborhood special will disappear. In an op-ed he wrote recently, Ghaziani quoted Dick Dadey, who was the executive director of Empire State Pride Agenda in the 1990s, explaining, “there is a portion of our community that wants to be separatist, to have a queer culture.” Still, Dadey said, “most of us want to be treated like everyone is,” and, “we want to be the neighbors next door, not the lesbian or gay couple next door.”

Then there are the financial implications of all of these shifts. “It’s impossible to discuss gay neighborhoods without considering economic factors like rent and housing prices,” Ghaziani said in an email to MONEY. He pointed out some data from Trulia in the book showing that several traditionally gay neighborhoods, like West Hollywood and New York’s West Village, are extremely expensive places to live.

Meanwhile, according to 2013 report from Trulia, prices in urban U.S. neighborhoods have been increasing at a faster pace than the suburbs, and prices soared in gay-friendly city neighborhoods in particular:

Neighborhoods where same-sex male couples account for more than 1% of all households (that’s three times the national average) had price increases, on average, of 13.8%. In neighborhoods where same-sex female couples account for more than 1% of all households, prices increased by 16.5% – more than one-and-a-half times the national increase.

These numbers are backed up by other research, such as that highlighted earlier this year by Richard Florida, the celebrated urban theorist and author of The Rise of the Creative Class. In a City Lab post, Florida summed up recent research indicating “a connection between gay neighborhoods and some of the markers of gentrification,” and that “neighborhoods that began the decade with larger concentrations of gay men saw greater income growth, and, especially in the Northeast, greater population growth as well.”

Ghaziani writes, “I don’t think gayborhoods are dying.” But Florida doesn’t sound quite as convinced, writing, “As these areas of the city continue to change, potentially pricing out some of the gay couples who moved in decades ago, gayborhoods could just as easily become a thing of the past.”

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