Do We Regret Paying Off Our Mortgage? One Year Update

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It has been a year since we paid off our mortgage early. I already discussed our reasons for doing so in that post, so I won’t repeat them here. I also wrote a really long post on every single facet I could think of in the Pay Off Mortgage Early vs. Save More For Retirement debate. So I won’t go into that here either.

But how do we feel a year later? Did we regret it? Let’s take a look at what happened from March 2013 to March 2014.

Mortgage rates bounced around a bit but in general look to be about half a percentage point across the board. (Source: HSH.com) I probably couldn’t get the same mortgage rate I had before anymore, but it would still be a pretty low rate historically.

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Investment returns over the last year were quite robust. If I model my portfolio roughly with the Vanguard LifeStrategy Growth Fund (VASGX) which is a low-cost index fund split roughly into 80% broadly diversified stocks and 20% broadly diversified bonds, my trailing 1-year return would be 15%.

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Bond interest rates in particular went up overall. The 10-year Treasury Bond rate went from 1.8% to nearly 2.8% over the last 12 months. (Source: FRED)

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(Note I don’t talk about the value of my home. This is because paying extra towards your mortgage early is not an additional investment in your house. You already own the house so you are already exposed to any change in home value regardless of your mortgage size. The mortgage is just another debt with an interest rate.)

So interest rates went up and we could have earned more money investing the money in my portfolio rather than pay down my 3% mortgage. Well, if I had a time machine maybe that would matter. But in reality it has been great. The lack of a mortgage reduced our monthly expenses significantly. We have been able to work less and got to spend an entire year watching our colicky baby grow into walking, talking, little person (meaning we are still more tired than ever before, ha) while still maintaining good cashflow and thus minimal financial stress. I’m not saying this applies to anyone else, but paying off our mortgage early has worked out well for us.

Mortgage Interest Tax Deduction Doesn’t Help Homeownership?

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The mortgage interest tax deduction primarily helps the wealthy buy bigger houses rather than increase homeownership rates, according to a new study quoted by this WSJ article. The study found that such tax benefits have help increase the size of house by as much as 18% in affluent areas. Here is a graphic of the average annual tax savings from 10 major metro areas, broken down into households earning over and under $100,000 a year.

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My non-political thoughts:

Don’t overestimate the benefit of the mortgage tax deduction. It is easy to simply take your marginal tax bracket (say, 28%) and say that you’re saving 28% on all your mortgage interest. But mortgage interest is only tax-deductible if you itemize, which encompasses just 30-40% of Americans. Even then, you should consider the incremental savings above the standard deduction.

Everyone can take the standard deduction, which in 2014 is $12,400 for married filing joints and $6,200 for single filers. Let’s say your mortgage is for $250,000 and the interest rate is 4%. That’s $10,000 in interest annually. So far, the married folks have no tax benefit at all! You would need a lot of other deductions like state income tax, property tax, and charitable contributions to push you over the hump. For example if you have $7,400 in other deductions, then only half of your mortgage interest ($5,000 out of $10,000) is actually saving you anything extra in taxes.

Accordingly, the study quoted above also found that homeowners with incomes above $100,000 were between three and four times as likely to claim the tax benefit as those earning less than $100,000.

Even if you do itemize and have a high income (~$254k for single, ~$305k for married filing joint), look up the new Pease Limitation which reduces the value of various deductions including mortgage interest, state/local taxes, and charitable contributions.

Be prepared that the mortgage interest tax deduction may go away. I’m not going to talk about whether or not it should go away, but realistically there is a chance that it will. If it does disappear, it think it would be done gradually to prevent a shock to housing prices. However, I wouldn’t buy a house where I am depending on the tax deduction to maintain affordability. Tax laws change.

My prediction is that the mortgage interest tax deduction is still too popular to be completely nuked. Most likely there will be more legislation that nibbles around the edges like the mentioned Pease limitation that does a income phase-out or the total loan amount allowed will be reduced from the current $1,000,000 cap.

Free FACT Consumer Reports: Banking, Insurance, and Employment History

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Annual reminder for 2014. The best known part of the Fair and Accurate Credit Transactions Act (FACT Act) is that you can get a free copy of your credit reports from all three major credit bureaus once every 12 months. However, there are also several other consumer databases that you should check as well which are also available absolutely free once every 12 months, and they can also have a significant financial impact. If you got one last year, you can now get another one and reset the 12 month clock.

ChexSystems Banking History
ChexSystems is a consumer information database used by an estimated 80-90% of all banks to help determine the risk of opening new accounts. Think of it as the bank’s version of a credit bureau. If a person commits check fraud or overdraws their account, it will be listed here. In addition, the simple act of opening or closing a bank account may be recorded in their database. Getting a negative ChexSystems record can leave you blacklisted from opening bank accounts at most major banks.

Get your free ChexSystems consumer report here.

Medical History Used For Insurance Underwriting
MIB (previously known as Medical Information Bureau) is run by 470 insurance companies and has a “primary mission of detecting and deterring fraud that may occur in the course of obtaining life, health, disability income, critical illness, and long-term care insurance.” They record information of “underwriting significance” for those who have applied for life and health insurance with MIB member companies. If you have not applied for individually underwritten life, health, or disability income insurance during the preceding seven year period, then you probably don’t have a record.

Get your free MIB consumer file here.

Insurance Claims History
CLUE stands for Comprehensive Loss Underwriting Exchange, and they collect information that is used to calculate your potential risk of loss and thus your insurance premiums. You can also find out about previous claims on the house you are currently renting or recently bought, even if they weren’t made by you.

The C.L.U.E. ®Personal Property report provides a seven year history of losses associated with an individual and his/her personal property. The following data will be identified for each loss: date of loss, loss type, and amount paid along with general information such as policy number, claim number and insurance company name.

The C.L.U.E. ®Auto report provides a seven year history of automobile insurance losses associated with an individual. The following data will be identified for each loss: date of loss, loss type, and amount paid along with general information such as policy number, claim number and insurance company name.

Get your free CLUE Auto and Personal Property Reports here.

In addition, you should also request your free A-PLUS report (Automated Property Loss Underwriting System), which is a smaller database that also contains information about property loss claims.

LexisNexis Personal Reports Full Disclosure File
As one of the largest personal information databases in the US and a for-profit company (part of Reed Elsevier), LexisNexis should just rename themselves Big Brother, Inc. You can request a “Full File Disclosure” that supposedly includes all of the information that they have on you – including public records, real estate transaction and ownership data, lien, judgment, and bankruptcy records, professional license information, and historical addresses on file.

Request your LexisNexis Full File Disclosure here. You’ll need to fill out a PDF form and snail mail it in.

This is part of my annual checklist at the beginning of each new year.

Case-Shiller Home Price Index Update: Getting Frothy Again?

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Real estate prices have rebounded in many areas since the financial crisis, so much that some people are wary of another Housing Bubble. The S&P/Case-Shiller 20-City Composite Home Price Index measures the value of residential real estate in 20 metropolitan areas of the U.S. The latest update (PDF) shows that average home prices are back to their mid-2004 levels:

Measured from their June/July 2006 peaks, the peak-to-current decline for both Composites is approximately 20%. The recovery from the March 2012 lows is 22.9% and 23.6% for the 10-City and 20-City Composites.

While the recent rise does look sharp in nominal terms, the Bonddad blog took the 20-city index values and divided them by both average hourly income (blue) and by consumer inflation (red) over the same time period:

This latter chart would suggest that at least nationally there really is no sharp spike in housing prices. In our area, I felt like things were getting heated earlier in the year but then things subsided a bit with all the Fed taper talk and rising mortgage rates. I no longer have a horse in this game as I’ve paid off our mortgage with no desire to upgrade, but I do wonder how home prices will react if mortgage rates keep rising.

4 Different Rules of Thumb For How Much House You Can Afford

Updated for 2013. By definition, a “rule of thumb” is meant to be a greatly simplified estimate for a complicated matter. Mortgage lenders use income size, income stability, credit score, downpayment size, and other factors before approving a loan. But the most common way to express affordability is as a multiple of your household or individual annual income. CNN Money says 2.5 times:

The rule of thumb here is to aim for a home that costs about two-and-a-half times your gross annual salary.

The now-defunct Washington Mutual Bank suggested up to 4-5 times:

As a broad generalization, most people can afford to purchase a house worth about three times their total (gross) annual income, assuming a 20% down payment and a moderate amount of other long-term debts, such as car or student loan payments. With no other debts, you can probably afford a house worth up to four or even five times your annual income.

Running Your Own Numbers
I decided to run some numbers for myself using values I think are reasonable along with current interest rates. The Federal Housing Administration provides the following guidelines for the loans that they accept:

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Realty Mogul Review: Fractional Investment Property Ownership, Hard Money Lending

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rmlogoRealty Mogul is a new “crowdfunding” start-up that lets you invest in residential investment property for as little as $5,000. You either take a partial ownership position in a property, or you become a lender to (experienced) house flippers. The new thing here is that you can do it completely online with a few mouse clicks (no mortgage brokers, real estate agents, or tenants) and again that low minimum $5,000 investment. (Thanks to reader Johnson for the tip.)

Taking an equity ownership position means that you own a little slice of a single-family home or multi-unit complex while a professional does the buying, fixing up, renting out, and eventual selling. Realty Mogul only has done one deal like this so far (fully funded) and the intended timeframe is 5-7 years. You earn rent while the house hopefully appreciates in value, and cash out when the house sells.

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We Paid Off Our Mortgage: History and Commentary

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We paid off our mortgage. We contacted Provident Funding and requested the full amount due including any accrued interest, the money was sent via bank wire, and the loan is recorded as paid in full. As you might imagine, I spent many hours contemplating this move. In a somewhat anticlimactic fashion, the letter below warning us we had to pay the property taxes ourselves was the first physical acknowledgement of the occasion. I found it amusing that it was addressed “Dear Homeowner”, as I never really felt like I owned my home until now.

A bit of history. When we first bought our home, we looked at the common rules of thumb regarding house affordability and ended up paying 20% down with a initial mortgage less than 3 times our combined income. Indeed, we qualified for the mortgage on my wife’s documented income alone. We thought about getting a 15-year note but went for the flexibility of the 30-year note, while paying it down at the 15-year pace. Over subsequent refinances, our interest rate dropped from 6% to 3%. Even though this made our required monthly payment much less, we kept up the higher monthly payments which had us on the pace of a 10-year payoff.

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Rule of Thumb: When To Pay Off The Mortgage Early

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There was a lot of good discussion in my lengthy early mortgage payoff post. Now instead of lengthy details, let me try out a quick rule of thumb about early mortgage payoff. Recall from Wikipedia:

A rule of thumb is a principle with broad application that is not intended to be strictly accurate or reliable for every situation. It is an easily learned and easily applied procedure for approximately calculating or recalling some value, or for making some determination.

So roughly applicable to many – but not all – situations.

Early Mortgage Payoff Rule of Thumb

You should time your mortgage payoff date to coincide with the date of retirement, or semi-retirement. Here, I would define retirement or semi-retirement as a time when you’ll be wholly or partially dependent on non-work income like Social Security, pensions, annuity payments, stock dividends, or other investment income. A downshift into a lower-paying second career would count as a semi-retirement.

In my humble opinion, this quick and dirty rule will help you balance the opportunity to invest in potentially higher-returning investments (stock mutual funds, dividend-paying stocks, real estate, high-yield bonds) with pursuing the benefits of having a fully-owned house (less stress, less leverage, lower required monthly expenses, lower required withdrawals from investments and thus lower marginal tax rates).

Example 1. 20s, 30s, 40s with long future career. You love your job and/or want to be doing it for the next 25+ years. In this case you have lots of human capital and a regular stream of income. You also won’t be needed to cash out your retirement assets for a long-time, making it much more likely that your stocks will achieve their higher average returns. Take on the 4% interest rate fixed for 30 years, and over time your salary will rise with inflation while your payment stays the same.

If anything, you could do a DIY biweekly payment plan and pay off your mortgage in under 24 years with less “pain” due to a behavioral trick (works best for those on a biweekly paycheck schedule).

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Pay Off Mortgage Early vs. Save More For Retirement? Digging Deep Into The Details

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In the world of personal finance, you can always generate a good debate if you talk about paying off your mortgage early. The argument usually boils down to something like this:

If your interest rate is 4%, then paying extra towards that mortgage will earn you 4%. If you think you can earn more than 4% elsewhere, then don’t pay off your mortgage.

However, when it comes down to if YOU should pay extra towards YOUR mortgage, the above statement is an oversimplication. As Einstein is credited with saying, “Make everything as simple as possible, but not simpler.”

Since I am faced with this decision myself, let’s address the implied assumptions in the sentence above and all the other little details that go into the decision.

Warning: This is a braindump post and thus rather long and detailed…

Assumption #1: Your mortgage interest is 100% tax-deductible.

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TreeHugger CEO Apartment: 420 Square Feet, 8 Rooms

I’m surprised I missed this earlier since I love this type of thing, but below is a nicely edited video from Gizmodo showing the 420 square feet apartment of TreeHugger.com CEO Graham Hill. It’s cool how they fit in the claimed 8 rooms using moving walls, floor-to-ceiling storage, and clever furniture and appliances: living room, office, bedroom, guest bedroom, dining room, bathroom, kitchen, and I guess they’re counting the closet as a room? You really have to see it to understand.

I like this concept, especially when efficient use of space allows you to be able to afford to live in the heart of a good city where you can do much of your “living” outside in parks, cafes, bars, and restaurants. I’ve seen the moving wall before inside this Hong Kong apartment (only 344 sf), and much of the furniture is from Resource Furniture (eek, that fancified murphy bed costs $12,000). Installing solar panels (on the window shades?) with battery storage is a nice touch, and I’d consider the portable induction burners and combo microwave/induction oven for my own place.

More on this apartment: LifeEdited, New York Times

Related posts:

Paying Down a 30-Year Mortgage Faster vs. 15-Year Mortgage

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What a difference a year makes. In August 2011, I did a mortgage comparison of a 15-year at 3.75% vs. 30-year at 4.75%. Now I’m redoing that same comparison at current market rates of 30 yr @ 3.25% vs. 15 yr @ 2.625%! To be fair, the numbers I used in 2011 were somewhat high.

In any case, the purpose of this comparison to compare the numbers if you wanted to pay down a 30-year mortgage in a 15-year accelerated timeframe, as opposed to just going with the lower interest rate and mandatory higher payment. I’ll be using the mortgage calculators at Dinkytown.

The 30-year at 3.25% would have a monthly payment of $1,305, while the 15-year would have a monthly payment of $2,018. Now, what would happen if we simply paid the $2,018 towards the 30-year mortgage? Using the calculator, we would enter an additional monthly payment of $713. That tells us the 30-year-plus-extra mortgage would be paid off in 15 years and 11 months, requiring 11 additional payments of roughly $2,000 and thus an extra $22,000 of interest in the end. However, the 30-year does allow me the flexibility to reduce my payment by about $700 a month if things get tight. Is the higher cost worth the extra flexibility?

I thought so when I got my first mortgage, but changed my mind once I figured that if I were to hit so hard that I couldn’t make the 15-year mortgage, I probably wouldn’t want to keep paying the 30-year either and would just sell the house and move somewhere cheaper and smaller. I viewed the potential payoff of going with the 15-year mortgage as being to retire one full year earlier.

Lots of people see the low interest rate for the 30-year mortgage and want to use that money to invest in the stock market. That may work out well if you actually invest your money as planned, I don’t know. I personally have enough invested in the stock market as it is, I don’t really want the extra leverage of essentially investing on margin with borrowed money. There is also a chance that the mortgage interest deduction may get capped or phased out over the next several years. That’s a lot of unknowns. I do know a top rate for a long-term certificate of deposit is the 10-year CD from Discover Bank with a yield of 1.90% APY. Meanwhile, the yield on a 30-year Treasury is 2.79%.

In the end, I don’t think there necessarily is a right or wrong answer. There are even more small nuances that went into my decision process, I’ll try and gather those thoughts for next week.

Mortgage Rates Still Dropping: Good Time To Switch From 30-Year to 15-Year?

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In case you haven’t been paying attention, mortgage rates are still dropping to new lows. Here’s a chart of the historical mortgage rate averages since I bought my house in late 2007, courtesy of HSH.com. It includes the 30-year fixed, 15-year fixed, and the 5/1 30-year adjustable.

From looking up some quotes (see below), 30-year fixed rates are ~3.125% now (~3.5% with no closing costs), and 15-year fixed rates are ~2.5% (~2.875% with no closing costs). Can you honestly say that you would have expected this 10 years ago? Another example of the difficulty of predicting the future.

If you haven’t refinanced in a while, it is definitely worth a try to see how much you could save a month. But what are you going to do with that savings? Buy more stuff that you don’t need? Buy more house that you don’t need? Why not consider refinancing into a 15-year mortgage and have that house paid off much sooner? From this CNN Money article using recent average rates:

Homeowners current paying off 30-year loans with rates of 4% spend about $1,098 a month in mortgage payments on a $200,000 balance, paying a total interest cost of $143,739. Refinancing at 2.63% for 15 years would cost them about $250 a month more, but they would wind up paying just $42,250 in total interest and their payments would end years earlier. Refinancing into another 30-year loan at 3.31% would cost homeowners only $877 a month, saving $221 from the existing loan.

If were to give advice to my future kids, it would be to determine home affordability only using the 15-year mortgage. Just forget the 30-year exists. You’ll be forced to budget properly and if you buy a house at age 30 you’ll be mortgage-free by 45! I think they would thank me in the end. I can still tell them their old man paid his off at 35, of course. ;)

Compare with rate quotes from:

I hear that Costco provides a mortgage refinance referral service now as well – any real-world experience with them from readers?

Recent mortgage refinance articles: