Housing Dilemma….Part 1

As I have mentioned in previous posts in 2017, I am struggling with a Housing Dilemma which has paralyzed me for the last month and a half. It took me some effort to break out of it and write this post. In this post on my Housing Dilemma (Part 1), I will try to detail two big dilemmas I am facing. Your feedback will be very much appreciated. In Part 2 of the post, I will write about my decision…which hopefully will give me some peace and closure.

Looking back…

I discovered Financial Independence…kind of by accident around 2003. My first blog post ever via this blog was on 07/21/2014. I re-read that first post again and realized that my goal of FI was 10 years from 07/21/2014 i.e. by 07/21/2024, I should have achieved Financial Independence . To be honest, it was more of a stake-in-the-sand kind of goal rather than a well thought out date based on pure math. But, setting this date has got me far ahead of my expectations from when I started this blog.

My goals when I started this blog…

I went back to read what Financial Independence meant to me. From there, I got the following goals. These early goals were refined a bit more…but they still are the main pillars of my FI strategy.

  1. Emergency Fund for 12 months of expenses
    1. Achieved
  2. Multiple Passive Income Streams that produce $50000 per year for years 50-70
    1. On hindsight, this goal was too aggressive at my current funding level 🙂
    2. Depending on my housing decision, I may need additional funds OR more time. But I am happy with the current progress (Jan 2017) and will surely continue with this goal!
  3. College Fund for my kid
    1. Will be achieved in the next 8 years
  4. A retirement fund that covers 30 years of expenses for years 70-100
    1. Will be achieved in the next 8 years
  5. A paid off roof for my family
    1. The biggest question mark 😦 More on this later
  6. A $100K medical fund to help fix emergency health issues…not sure about insurance with preexisting health issues.
    1. In 10 years, if I do not dip into the emergency fund, that fund will be folded onto the medical fund. And I will need to add some more money of course.
    2. But, will surely be achieved.
  7. Life Insurance to cover my family.
    1. Note that this is insurance coverage outside of work to protect my family.
    2. Achieved!

Biggest Question Mark

Financial Independence to me meant that the family abode was paid off. Basically, zero debt with a healthy passive income to boot was my dream. I have come to realize that the big decision of buying a family abode is comprised of a few smaller decisions:

  • Location:
    • I live in a HCOL (high cost of living) area…can we move out of here to a LCOL (low cost of living) area?
    • For various reasons, moving is not an option for our family. All our connections (family and close friends) are here and uprooting everything is not practical.
  • Money:
    • The best case scenario for me is a mortgage amount of somewhere between $425K to $525K. I analyzed this in three posts….the final one was this. Links to the other two are within.
    • No mortgage => no tax deduction on the mortgage interest. I have been paying more tax than needed for the past couple years while I was building my passive income engine. Need to correct this.
  • Kid’s Deadline:
    • We have moved 3 times within the last 7 years and that has taken a toll on my kid the most…3 different schools and zero long term friends. My kid enters middle school next year and I want to drop down roots before that…most possibly another school change but hopefully the last one until high school. So, I have appx 1.5 years left to buy a house.
  • Satisfaction:
    • After visiting many open houses and considering the needs and wishes of our family (size, school district, space, layout, etc), I have come to the decision that a “satisfactory” house is a 3B/2B SFH in a reasonably good school district with low crime. This will cost me anywhere between $850K to $950K…depending on how far into suburbia I am willing to move to. Trust me, you will not get a mansion for this…welcome to my HCOL area 😦
    • In waiting to buy a house, our family spent a few vagabond years. We were saving up for the down payment as well as building the passive income streams. Whatever house we buy will be the one we will stay for the next 18 years atleast. So, the criterion of a 3B/2B SFH is not something I can relax.

So, it seems to me that the only criterion I can relax are:

  • Money
  • Kid’s Deadline

Depending on which of the above two criterion I relax, there can be a few different directions I can go in. And here comes the dilemma.

Housing Dilemma 1: Relax Money criterion and stick to Kid’s Deadline

A mortgage size between $425K and $525K will fit into my FI window. Assuming the worst case cost of $950K for a house, I will need a down payment of $325K to even bid for the house. I have some down payment money but accumulating $325K will take me many many more years.

Vivianne suggested one way: sacrifice some retirement funding to build this down payment up.The stock market is at insane levels…so, perhaps not investing in 401K for a year is not a bad idea. Cons are:

  • Even if I stop investing in 401K and stop adding new funds to my passive income streams, I can save a max of $20K to $25K over the next year and a half.
  • 401K funding is the only tax-efficiency move I have going for me….don’t want to lose this…
  • Can I sacrifice my passive income streams? Hmm…..

So, lets say I relaxed my mortgage limit and took a $625K mortgage (analysis)…the jumbo loan limit in my HCOL area. This means my FI plan will need to be extended to 15 years at least. Say, I am agreeable to this as well. So, what is the dilemma then? Buying at the peak.

One of the good articles that explain what I am trying to say is Case-Shiller House Prices Bubble 1.0 vs today. 2006-2007 was the largest housing bubble in history. And in my HCOL area, prices today are much much more than 2007 prices. If 2007 bubble was the largest bubble, what does it make the house prices we have today? It is really insane 🙂

I concur with the above article as I have personal proof of it. Here is one example of a sfh that a friend bought in Dec 2007….

  • Dec 2007: 922K
  • Dec 2009: 699K
  • Dec 2013: 883K
  • Dec 2016: 1200K

Even if I assume that 2016 is Bubble 2.0, if the bubble pops, I cannot expect the prices to go back to 2009 prices…at best, the prices might settle around 883K (2013 prices).

Conclusion: With this background, is this the right time to bug a house? Is this the right time to commit to a huge mortgage that will require mandatory full employment for the next 15-20 years? Even if we deduct mortgage interest deduction of $20-$30k ($625K mortgage @ 4.5%), if the house price drops by 200K, would it be a smart buy? I am not so sure….especially since even refinancing will be ruled out for underwater homes.

Housing Dilemma 2: Relax Kid’s deadline and keep Money 

Lets say I will wait for the house prices to fall to a reasonable value…say appx $800-850K for a sfh 3br/2b home in a reasonably good school district with low crime. Let us say that this price reduction will only happen in 2020 i.e. three years from now. I can save money for the home down payment and still stick to the $525K mortgage. But, this means I have to continue to rent and potentially move again for my kid’s middle school i.e. continue the Vagabond family life 😦

I hate to put my family through another temporary move, but lets see what this option of delaying a home purchase till 2020 brings us.

  • I can save enough money for a down payment to let me pick a $525K mortgage i.e. stick to my FI schedule of 10 years….
  • I am not buying at the peak of the market….a peak which is really really historic. I have seen my close friends struggle in the 2008 housing bubble , lose jobs and houses and saw first hand what devastation it can cause for families.

So, what do I lose by postponing my purchase?

  • Obviously, I feel that I am not being a responsible parent and husband by elongating the vagabond life by another three years.
  • I am going to lose the tax benefits of a mortgage…most probably in the highest earning years of my life….i.e. when I could most benefit from a deduction in taxes.
  • House prices may rise up even more….hey, anything is possible 🙂

I cannot do anything about the first con and the third is not realistic in my opinion. But I can do something about the second. What if I purchased one or more cash-flow positive rentals in a LCOL area? Here are some positives:

  • Use leverage to add one more income stream
  • Diversify my income stream to include rental income along with dividend income
  • Get the mortgage tax deduction

Some negatives are:

  • The rental purchases also will be at the top of the housing market bubble…unless I identify a market that is not so frothy.
  • Remote rental management…lack of time is so prevalent in my life now…so, how does one manage remote properties? Can I identify a rental management agency to help me out? Doable but will take some work.
  • If housing market falls in 2018, I will not have enough money to take advantage of it.

Conclusion: With this background, is this the right time to postpone purchase of family residence and buy a rental property instead? I will be getting the tax benefit and hopefully get the renters to pay off most of the mortgage. And over time, diversify my passive income stream as well. Am I being too selfish in signing up my Kid and wife for few more years of Vagabond life?

Readers

If you have read this far, I truly appreciate it! As I said before, the above two dilemmas have paralyzed me for the last month and a half. If I may ask one favor, do you have any thoughts on how I can solve my dilemma? Which option should I pick: Dilemma 1 OR Dilemma 2? Am I missing any pros/cons in each dilemma? Feel free to share your valuable opinions! Thank you very much!

Advertisements

Investing in real estate….passively :-)

Over the past couple months, I have been thinking about all things real estate. Basically, the question boils down to: in what ways can I add a real estate component to my financial portfolio.

  • First, I was thinking about what is a “good mortgage amount” that fits my criterion for FI in 10 years. My primary residence will not be an investment in real estate, but will add a real estate component to my financial empire 😉
  • Second, the question that came to my mind was: can I somehow add a real estate component to my portfolio before purchasing my primary residence?
    • I use Personal Capital to track where my portfolio is and it is an AWESOME tool to track all your finances in one place. The one feature I really like is that it breaks down all the funds in your portfolio into the following categories, JUST by taking the names of the different funds like VDIGX, VTCLX, etc. For example,
      • Large cap, mid cap, small cap split
      • Cash and bonds split
      • Alternatives (real estate, etc)
      • US and International split
    • Personal capital pointed out a weakness in my portfolio diversification w.r.t. lack of investment in Alternative Investments like Real estate, hedge funds, commodities, etc.
    • Hence I started looking at how to add a real estate dimension to my portfolio.

This blog talks about the options I investigated.

Option 1: Rental Property Investment

I live in a HCOL (high cost of living area) on the west coast. Real estate is normally expensive in my HCOL area, but it is especially so in today’s market. There are many reasons for it, but primarily I would say that institutional investors and foreign investors are the main reason. For example, many houses that are listed in the market nowadays come from Berkshire Hathaway Property Holdings!

Anyways, I searched for a couple of rental properties (1B and 2B ones) in and around my area (radius of 25 miles max) and used my blog friend Well Rounded Investor’s Real Estate Income/Expenses spreadsheet. She is truly a well rounded investor, with investments in real estate and stocks. I played with numbers for some rental properties using her spreadsheet and I somehow never broken even on any property….not even close.

I could go more than 50+ miles from my area where the nos are a little bit more friendly, but I would not know the area and it would be a maintenance nightmare. Adding the cost of a property manager will make the numbers very unfriendly.

Another option is to go out of state and invest in rental properties. For example, my office colleague invests in Washington State rentals, but his sister is the property manager…huge trust advantage 🙂 I do not have such an advantage and when I barely have time left to breathe…out of state property investment is too much of a reach.

So, I tabled this idea for now. I will continue to learn from the real-estate-wise blogging friends and hope to add one or more rental properties to my portfolio at a later date.

Option 2: Investing in REITs

REIT is a short form for Real Estate Investment Trusts. REIT funds invest in real estate investment trusts i.e. in companies that purchase office buildings, hotels, and other real estate property types and generate income from renting out the properties. Most of the income produced is distributed as dividends to the investors.

Take for example VGSIX/VGSLX (Vanguard REIT Index Fund). This fund invests in many real estate investment trusts..the top 10 holdings of this fund are:

  • Simon Property Group Inc.
  • Public Storage
  • Equity Residential
  • Health Care REIT Inc.
  • AvalonBay Communities Inc.
  • Ventas Inc.
  • Prologis Inc.
  • Boston Properties Inc.
  • HCP Inc.
  • Vornado Realty Trust

One can invest in a REIT Index (VGSLX) or invest in individual REITs themselves. But, I prefer index funds for diversification. We will talk about this later.

Advantages:

There are a few advantages to owning REITs or REIT funds

  • Adds real estate exposure to one’s portfolio with minimal upfront cash.
    • For example, minimum purchase for VGSIX is $3000.
    • A relatively safe rental property investment in my HCOL area needs at least $70000 (20% on a 350K rental).
  • Diversifies the risk
    • A single rental property => all the risk in one single location and with one single tenant.
    • REIT investment => risk is distributed across multiple locations and multiple tenants.
  • Diversification of assets
    • REITs invest in different assets compared to most companies whose Stocks and bonds we invest in.
    • For example, a REIT that operates hospital buildings will generate  income even in market downturns where stocks and bonds may tank.
  • Liquidity
    • A rental property is not a liquid asset i.e. it cannot be sold quickly to generate money….selling a REIT fund is as easy as one click…ofcourse, quick selling both assets can lead to a loss.
  • Low effort (passive) Asset
    • Once you put in the effort to choose a REIT or a REIT index fund and set up the automatic investment option, there is no further effort required. A really nice asset for busy people 🙂
    • A rental property requires much more effort to manage…even if you are using a property manager. The variables with a rental property are many….quality of tenants, quality of property manager, quality of the property, etc etc

Disadvantages:

  • A REIT is not a tax-efficient investment
    • A REIT generates dividends that are treated as Ordinary Income. So, for folks already in the high income tax bracket, the dividends are taxed at a very high rate.
    • A rental property on the other hand provides an opportunity to claim tax deductions due to mortgage interest deductions, property depreciation, etc etc.
    • For high income tax brackets, tax efficient properties can be a boon.
  • Capital appreciation potential
    • A rental property, bought at the right time, can appreciate many times faster than a REIT fund can.
      • Especially, those that were bought around 2009-2011 time frame.
    • This is especially important when you leverage the buy using a mortgage i.e. pay $70000 down payment for a $350000 property and sell it when it reaches $550000 and make $200K profit leveraging money from a bank mortgage.
  • Single trick pony
    • Rental properties provide the triple threat of an ability to lower taxable income, potential for capital appreciation and doing all this by leveraging money from the bank.
    • REITs are a single trick pony….ordinary income every month.

Conclusion 

Both rental properties and REITs have their own charm. For me, at this point in my life, I am short on two things:

  • Time
    • I do not have time to spare. Between working full time and preparing for a job hunt, I am totally out of time. And a new job means putting in max effort in the first year to establish myself. So, I do not anticipate more time in the next year.
  • Down payment money
    • I am saving for the down payment for my primary home and cannot afford another down payment in the immediate future.

Considering that, I decided to invest in REITs. More specifically, I chose a REIT index fund called VGSLX. It is a Gold rated fund from Vanguard, the low-cost king of mutual funds. I had an IRA in my tax-advantaged portfolio that had accumulated gains over the past 3 years. So, I moved some of my gains in the IRA target date funds into a new position in VGSLX. REITs have gone down a couple percent this year and are close to their 52 week lows. So, I am am getting in with a little bit of a cost advantage. I expect the REITs to go down more this year and I will move a little more of the IRA gains into my real estate position of my portfolio.

I do not expect to tap into my IRA/tax advantaged retirement holdings until many many years from now. If my passive income strategy works out, I may never have to tap into it 🙂 Anyways, the REIT index fund will have many many years to compound all the dividends in a tax efficient way. So, go REITs !!