Financial advisers have long cautioned retirees to avoid taking on mortgage debt when they buy a home. But some find it unavoidable -- even when they're downsizing to a smaller property in a more affordable real estate market.
Rodney Harrell, a housing policy adviser for AARP, says older homeowners are increasingly likely to keep facing mortgage payments in their later years. In fact, a majority of owners over 55 now have mortgages versus a minority in 1989. The data -- the most recent available--show a dramatic change.
Economic factors are the key reason why fewer retirees are able to buy a different property without taking out a home loan.
"Housing costs have gone up higher than incomes," Harrell says.
Still, he notes that many longtime homeowners have less equity than before the housing downturn of recent years. When they sell one home to buy another, they often lack the funds to pay cash for the new property or to make a large enough down payment to be spared high monthly mortgage costs.
Facing a substantial monthly mortgage payment can be especially troublesome for retirees, who are often beginning to face health problems. The risk to those with a mortgage is that they'll lack the funds to pay for both housing and health care, including their medicine. They may also want to have enough of a cash reserve to pursue interests and hobbies in their retirement years.
Here are a few pointers for retired or soon-to-retire homebuyers:
-- Design your housing agenda in the context of a larger life plan.
Sheryl Garrett, the founder and CEO of the Garrett Planning Network, a nationwide network of fee-only financial advisers, says that for most people a home purchase in retirement involves lifestyle changes and trade-offs. As she says, such trade-offs are highly personal and best made after a period of reflection and planning.
She says her years of experience working with retired clients have taught her that those who are able to pursue their passions during this period of their life are most likely to thrive. But whether you plan to take up pottery, study a musical instrument or travel to China, your interests will have financial implications.
As a first step for couples seeking to identify their strongest personal interests, Garrett recommends that couples do one of the pencil-and-paper exercises she outlines in one of her many books, "Personal Finance Workbook for Dummies."
Working separately, the partners write down 30 things they'd like to experience, see or do. Then they classify these as "A," "B" or "C" level desires. Finally, the partners share their lists with each other. They then focus on the high-priority items.
To gain a broad understanding of retirement and how to balance your financial and personal plans before committing to a home purchase, Garrett recommends a book called "The New Retirementality" by Mitch Anthony.
-- Do an inventory of your savings for retirement.
Any comprehensive plan focused on cash-flow concerns in the present should also factor in long-term financial needs, says Eric Tyson, a personal finance expert and author of "Mind Over Money: Your Path to Wealth and Happiness."
Before you take out a mortgage of any size, he encourages you to do a full accounting of your retirement funds, especially if you're in good health and can anticipate a long life span.
To gauge how well-prepared you are for a potentially long period of retirement, he suggests you use the free planning calculators provided by such mutual fund companies as Vanguard and T. Rowe Price.
"Before making any mortgage commitment, the sensible thing is to first tally up your assets and liabilities. Making a move doesn't mean you have to be house poor. But you do need to plan," says Tyson, co-author of "Home Buying for Dummies."
-- Take into account the extra time a bigger property could cost you.
Suppose your housing dream involves a much bigger property complete with elaborate gardens. If an assessment of your finances indicates you could afford it, should you go ahead on that basis alone?
Not without considering the implications for your time, Tyson says.
"Time is precious, especially in retirement. And keeping up a really big home can be draining on both the physical and emotional levels," Tyson says.
Tyson suggests people carefully review their personal priorities before purchasing a property that could tax their time.
"For a lot of retired people, spending time with friends and family is more important than keeping up a big house," he says.
-- Don't rule out moving to a lower-cost area to fulfill your housing dream.
Are you willing to move to a different area to upgrade your housing without increasing your monthly mortgage payments? If so, Tyson suggests you might wish to consider changing venues.
Tyson cautions that anyone considering a retirement move to save money should factor in all the costs associated with the move, including the local property taxes in the new area. In addition, take note of the air travel costs associated with living in a remote area.
"Don't count on wishful thinking about moving to cut expenses. Do a detailed analysis or you might live to regret your move," he says.
(To contact Ellen James Martin, email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.)