Effect of Student Loan Debt on Homeownership Rate

Multiple sources are suggesting that increasing student loan debt levels will have a significant impact on future housing prices because people will delay their home purchases (or put them off entirely). Although that seems like a reasonable assumption, I haven’t actually seen any hard data on it.

In a recent Vanguard research paper titled No bubble to burst: U.S. student debt is not housing [pdf], they took data from the Federal Reserve’s 2010 Survey of Consumer Finances and U.S. Census Bureau and found that:

Although financing a bachelor’s degree with student debt decreases the likelihood of a typical 30-year-old college graduate purchasing a home by –1.7%, obtaining that degree also increases the likelihood of purchasing a home by 10.8%, relative to not attending college at all.


In the end, the conclusion seems to still be consistent with other findings. Getting that college degree is still “worth it” financially, even with the accompanying debt, at least on average. Your income is higher, you’re less likely to be unemployed, and you are more likely to own a home.


I suppose the primary thing to avoid is to not be above average on the debt. If you have to take on $120,000+ of debt just to get a 4-year degree, you’re probably going to the wrong school anyway. If the school really wanted you, they’d offer you a better aid package with grants and/or tuition waivers.

Early Retirement Lesson #3: Home-Buying and Mortgage Advice

housemoneyHere’s another installment of what I would tell my kids about pursuing financial freedom (if they weren’t still in diapers). Previous topics have included the importance of savings rate and whether to focus on earning more or spending less. This time, I wanted to talk about buying a home and mortgages.

Should you buy or rent? Now, there are many buy vs. rent calculators. Here is the best one in my opinion. But as they say garbage in, garbage out, so be careful. Your answer will strongly depend on unpredictable things like future investment performance and/or home price appreciation. In general, the longer you plan on staying in a geographical location (say at least 5-7 years), the better it is to buy your own place. But if you are the nomadic type and want to travel the world, then renting can work out to be much better. In my experience, buying a house often ends up a lifestyle-based decision and not just about the numbers.

If you decide to buy, my opinion is that you should adjust your mortgage size and term to coincide with the date of retirement. I define retirement as when your expenses are exceeded by your non-work income like pensions, Social Security, annuity payments, stock dividends, rental income, or other investment income. Example scenarios:

  • If you love your job and plan on working for the next 30+ years, then go ahead and get a 30 year mortgage. Maybe you have a job that you could work part-time or isn’t very stressful. In this case you have lots of human capital and a long stream of future work income. 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. Be sure to buy a house that you can afford while still investing for retirement. If anything, you could do a DIY biweekly payment plan and pay off that 30-year mortgage in under 24 years.
  • If you have the early retirement bug and want to retire in 15 years, then you should find a home that you can afford with a 15-year mortgage. The interest rate will be lower and as long as you can swing the payments in the beginning, you’ll quickly get used to it. The hard part is to find an affordable home with those higher monthly payments. The hardest part is to be satisfied with it as you’ll have the option and expectation from others to spend more. This is why I think the 15-year mortgage is a powerful tool for aspiring early retirees. It forces you to commit to a long-term lifestyle that fits your goals. Buy a house at age 25, and you’ll be done by 40.
  • Let’s say you receive a monetary windfall (inheritance, huge raise, IPO) and all of a sudden an early retirement is on the table. I wouldn’t necessarily pay off the mortgage completely if you aren’t ready to retire yet. You’ll want to balance the opportunity to invest in potentially higher-returning investments (stock mutual funds, dividend-paying stocks, other real estate) with pursuing the benefits of having a fully-owned house (less stress, less leverage, lower required monthly expenses). My solution would be to pay enough of the mortgage down such that with your usual monthly payments it advances your mortgage payoff date to match your retirement date. If you won the lottery and that date is tomorrow, then yes pay it all off!

One of my reasons for matching mortgage payoff with retirement date is psychological. When you are working, your paycheck is the same every month. This matches well with a fixed mortgage payment. But investment income is often variable. If the tenant in your investment property decides to squat and you have to spend months going through eviction proceedings, your rental income may drop to zero for a while. Many experts now recommend a dynamic withdrawal strategy from your investment portfolio, which would also result in a variable income. But mortgages are like an alligator. You must feed it; if you don’t then it eats you. Other expenses like travel and dining out, those can be adjusted. So I don’t like the idea of having a mortgage in retirement, especially if it is a large percentage of your overall expenses.

However, paying off the mortgage too early can also cause regret if the stock market is rising while you’re piling money into a 4% mortgage. If you are still in the accumulation phase, at times like now you’ll be reminded that you could be investing your paycheck in the market generating higher returns. But if you’re retired, that meant your nest egg was already big enough. If the market goes up, your next egg goes up and you are happier. If the market drops, hey, you already have a paid-off house. So that is why I don’t recommend paying off the mortgage too early, either.

Finally, early retirement with a paid-off house is great because lower expenses means smaller withdrawals from your portfolio, which also means a lower overall tax rate. In fact, with a mix of Traditional and Roth IRAs, we’ve seen that a couple could withdraw over $50,000 a year and still pay zero taxes on retirement. A lower income can also help you qualify for things like health insurance subsidies.

Short version to my kids: If you want to retire early and don’t move around much, buy a modest home where you can afford a 15-year mortgage payment and save at least 25% of your income. If your lifestyle entails lots of moving around, rent and save 50% of your income.

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

Why Non-Traded REITs Are a Horrible Investment

housemoneyJust as important as finding a good investment is knowing what investments to avoid at all costs. If you simply manage to avoid putting any money into financial sinkholes, you’ll come out ahead. I’ve already mentioned the common mistake of cashing out your 401(k) when moving jobs.

Joshua Brown of The Reformed Broker has some great insights into the sales-driven world of products peddled to us retail investors. He talks about non-traded REITs (real estate investment trusts) as opposed to publicly-traded REITS that you can buy via a low-cost, diversified fund like the Vanguard REIT Index Fund (VNQ or VGSIX). Non-traded REITs have been increasingly popular in the current low interest environment as they are structured to look like they provide a solid income stream.

In this recent post, he shares a hilarious fictional conversation that would happen if the broker was abnormally honest about the fees involved. Read the whole thing, but here’s a snippet:

With your portfolio size and risk tolerance I would recommend a $100,000 investment. Given that amount let’s first go over the fees. If you invest $100,000 I will be paid a commission of $7,000. My firm is going to get $1,500 – $2,000 in revenue share. My wholesaler, the salesman that works for the investment’s sponsor company, will get $1,000. He is a great guy, buys me dinner all of the time and takes me golfing. The sponsor company is going to get around $3,000 to pay for some of the costs they incurred in setting up the investment. So all in on Day 1 there will be around $87,000 left over to actually invest. I bet you are getting excited.

You hand over $100,000, and after everyone has gotten their cut, there is only $87,000 actually left over to invest in anything. It doesn’t matter what property they buy, the odds are completely stacked against you already. Studies have shown that publicly-traded REITs have higher historical returns than non-traded REITs. On top of that, non-traded REITs have poor liquidity and you may be locked in for 5 years or more. Despite all this, over $20 billion of non-traded REITs were sold in 2013.

Here’s a Reuters article by James Saft that goes into more detail about the many disadvantages of non-traded REITs. Amongst the more amusing excerpts:

When a financial advisor tried to sell my sister a fee heavy non-traded REIT last year, pitching it as an alternative to fixed income, I told her she ought to fire him. […]

The Financial Industry Regulatory Authority, an industry funded oversight body, went so far as to issue an “investor alert” about non-traded REITs in May of last year, warning about inaccurate and mis-leading marketing of the vehicles as well as other risks. Just to give a flavor of the company in which non-traded REITs are traveling, the most recent FINRA investor alert was about marijuana stock scams.

Bottom line: Avoid non-traded REITs. If you want commercial real estate exposure, buy a low-cost fund like VNQ or VGSIX.

Best Buy vs. Rent Calculator Ever? Interactive & Fully Customizable


There are a plethora of buy vs. rent calculators out there, but virtually all of them make at least some fixed assumptions. They might assume that you could invest the difference between renting and buying in the stock market at 8% return while you disagree, or they might assume that your property tax rate is 3% when it is only 0.5%.

The New York Times already had a pretty good one, but their new Buy vs. Rent calculator is the most interactive, user-friendly, fully customizable version that I have ever seen. Here are the factors that it lets you adjust:

  • Home details (price, length of ownership)
  • Mortgage details (rate, downpayment size, length)
  • Future growth rates (Home price appreciation rate, rent appreciation rate, overall inflation rate, investment return rate)
  • Taxes (Property tax rate, your marginal income tax rate)
  • Transaction costs (closing costs on purchase, commission paid on selling)
  • Costs of homeownership (maintenance, HOA fees, utilities covered by landlord, homeowner’s insurance)
  • Costs of renting (security deposit, broker’s fee, renter’s insurance)

If I could find a flaw with the calculator, it would be that you now have the power to tweak your assumptions to reach your desired answer of renting or buying. “Well, if I adjust investment return a bit higher, and I reduce the commission to sell with a discount real estate agent, and stay in there a couple extra years… we should buy!”

Of course, an accompanying NYT article points out that buying a home isn’t all about the numbers.

Mortgage Qualification and Credit Scores

Sometimes I wonder what all the fuss about credit scores is about. But mortgage underwriting is one area where it is very important, mostly due to the unwillingness or inability of lenders to look beyond a subprime credit score. Many brokers that intend to offload their loans to Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac use default screening software where credit scores are a critical factor in automated acceptance. They don’t want to see any blemishes – that means adequate down payment size, clearly documented income, and solid credit scores.

How good does your credit need to be? The chart below compares the distribution of credit scores for purchase loans from 2001 (before the housing bubble got going) to today (source).


Here is a similar chart that shows the overall credit trends over the last decade (source):


In 2001, around 13% of loans went to borrowers with credit scores below 620. By 2013, that number had dropped like a rock to under 0.2%. That doesn’t even warrant a pixel on the bar chart. Hardly anyone with a credit score under 620 today qualifies for a conventional mortgage. Somewhat better news is the share of borrowers with scores of 640-779 have held steady. So working to get into that range may be worth the effort if you really want to buy a house.

Looking forward, as refinances have started to drop significantly, lenders may have to loosen their standards in order to keep their profits up (source).


Government regulators may also be adding their own pressure to improve loan access if the housing market starts to struggle again.

Do We Regret Paying Off Our Mortgage? One Year Update

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.


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%.


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)


(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?

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.


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.

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

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.

We Paid Off Our Mortgage: History and Commentary

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.

[Read more…]

Rule of Thumb: When To Pay Off The Mortgage Early

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).

[Read more…]

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

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.

[Read more…]

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

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