Breaking the Home Equity Piggybank

For the vast majority of people “home sweet home” is their most valuable asset. Borrowing against a home can free up cash for many purposes that would otherwise be out of reach. Enter home equity loans and home equity lines of credit (HELOCs), both ways to access home equity without the homeowner having to sell. Home equity loans and HELOCs are essentially second mortgages that are secured by the home as collateral.

To calculate equity, subtract the amount you owe on your mortgage from your current property value. Generally, lenders will let you borrow up to 85% of your home equity, depending on your credit score and history, employment history, and monthly income and monthly debts. However, if you default on payments for either a home equity loan or a HELOC, the lender can foreclose on the property. That said, tapping into your home equity can be a sound strategy to raise cash for large purchases if and when you need it.

The rundown on home equity loans:

  • Lump sum
  • Fixed interest rate
  • Conventional loan structure separated into interest and principal
  • Monthly payments are predictable and don’t change.
  • Monthly payments are for a set period.
  • Monthly payments are made in addition to mortgage payments.

The rundown on home equity lines of credit:

  • Revolving credit line, money is withdrawn as needed (like a credit card).
  • Variable interest rate often begins at lower rate than home equity loans.
  • Conventional loan structure separated into interest and principal or interest-only payments
  • Monthly payments adjust up or down based on a benchmark interest rate.
  • Rising interest rates can increase payment.
  • You only pay interest on the money you withdraw, not the total credit available.
  • Some lenders allow partial or full conversion to fixed rate home equity loans.
  • The typical borrowing period is 10 years followed by a repayment period of 10 or 20 years.
  • During the borrowing period, you have to make minimum monthly payments on the amount you owe..
  • Once the borrowing period ends, you have to repay the remaining balance, like a conventional loan..
  • Interest may be tax-deductible.
  • You can make additional principal payments.
  • You can refinance.

Which option is right for you? Home equity loans could potentially be better for people who have an upcoming one-time expense with a known cost. For example, this might include home improvement projects, a down payment on another property, wedding expenses, emergency expenses, even credit card debt consolation. Home equity loans could also benefit people who want to avoid overspending. On the other hand, HELOCs could potentially be better for people who have upcoming variable or periodic expenses and would benefit from access to a revolving line of credit. For example, this might include home improvement projects, college expenses, medical bills, long-term care expenses, or a new business venture. As with most financial planning questions, the answer to this question depends on each homeowner’s unique circumstances, so this is a great question to discuss with a financial advisor.


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Just Say No to Variable Annuities

Variable annuities are private financial contracts that provide income for a specified period of time, such a number of years or for life, and are tied to the investment performance of the mutual funds held in the contract. While the promise of a fixed income stream is enticing, I’ll level with you about the many downsides. In short, variable annuities are expensive, restrictive, and unnecessarily complicated financial products that offset any financial benefits they claim to offer.

Caveat emptor (“Buyer beware”). The salesperson pushing a variable annuity is largely motivated by the high commissions they will receive from selling it. I belong in the camp where if you are a financial professional, your fiduciary duty is implicit and paramount, and the client’s best interests always come first. The financial professional should never be incentivized to undermine the client’s best interests for their own gain. However, in the case of variable annuities, there couldn’t be a more egregious conflict of interest.

Here is a plethora of reasons not to buy one:

Commissions. Annuities are primarily front-end loaded, commission-based products. When a salesperson tries to sell you an annuity, don’t be afraid to ask about the commission they collect by selling it to you. Annuity firms can pay out commissions of 5% or more. Reality check: for each $100,000 you plunk into the annuity, that’s $5,000 or more in commissions. Furthermore, the mutual funds held in the annuity charge commission-like fees in the form of front-end loads, back-end loads, and 12b-1 fees.

Surrender charges. Most annuity firms charge a hefty surrender fee, usually on a seven year scale. For example, a $100,000 investment could cost you $8,000, or 8%, in surrender charges if you take your money out in the first year. The surrender charges usually go down 1% per year until reaching 0% at the end of the surrender period.

Fees. Additionally, there is a raft of dubious fees that may be charged by the annuity firm. This can include, but is not limited to, any of the following: asset fees, management fees, annual fees, quarterly transaction fees, withdrawal fees, rider fees, administrative fees, mortality and expense fees. With fees in aggregate costing between 2-4% annually, it’s difficult for investors to make money. At best, stated interest rate contracts (often called “guaranteed” interest rate contracts) may end up only paying out the stated rate (like 2%) because the rest is negated by fees. At worst, the fees negate any profits whatsoever.

Risk. The value of a variable annuity goes up and down with the market, so growth is not assured. Consider what would happen if the annuitant were to die prematurely. If the annuity has not been annuitized, the beneficiaries receive the value of the account. Depending on investment performance, this could be significantly less than what was originally invested. Or, if the annuity has been annuitized, all payments cease, even if only one payment has been made.

Irreversible consequences. Once you annuitize, you give up the ability to recover your lump sum or pass it on to beneficiaries. For example, if you put $250,000 into an annuity at age 60 and agree to receive a monthly income for the rest of your life, it could take 25 years to break even. It’s worth belaboring my last point as well – all payments cease at the death of the annuitant.

Poor tax planning. Once you put after-tax dollars into an annuity contract, withdrawals are taxed as ordinary income rather than at more favorable long-term capital gains rates.

Inflation. Rates are currently at historic lows, and will increase in the future. Over time, the purchasing power of fixed annuity payments is greatly reduced by inflation.

No socially responsible choices. Most annuities do not have any environmental, social, or governance screens that measure sustainability and ethics in regard to investments. As such, your investments may be supporting companies not aligned with your values.

Intentional derangement. Annuity contracts seem to be complex on purpose and the salespeople who tout them seem to skimp on disclosure. If the annuitant doesn’t fully grasp the terms of the contract, this benefits the salesperson, who likely doesn’t fully understand it either. Numerous clients have come to me with annuity contracts from other financial professionals and they can’t make heads or tails of them, and they certainly aren’t aware of all the limitations. Older retirees in particular are vulnerable to this dishonorable practice.

These myriad pitfalls of variable annuities add up to a vehement Do Not Touch With A Ten-Foot Pole rating.


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