One of my good friends, "Judge Rob," is a local, elected judge who also owns a small family business. Judge Rob paraphrased Warren Buffett when we were discussing mortgages over a recent breakfast, saying, “If I knew where I was going to live for the next decade or so, I would buy a house with a long-term mortgage." The idea is that a mortgage is a good hedge against inflation because you pay it off with much cheaper dollars down the road.
Today, many pundits point to low interest rates and encourage people to borrow as much as they can while interest rates are low. While they do have a good point, deciding when to pay off my own mortgage caused a great deal of conflict between the logical and emotional parts of my brain.
In the early days of black-and-white television, much of the programming was old, silent movies. Who can forget the little old widow, confronted by the evil, rich banker, who licked his chops at the opportunity to throw her out as her mortgage payment came due? As the deadline got closer, the piano would bang louder and faster, and somehow Widow Nell would make her payment in the nick of time. Was I programmed by my generation’s version of Sesame Street?
There's Something to Being "Old School"
I spent a good bit of my breakfast with Judge Rob in "Yes, but!" mode. Here's why.
When I was contemplating paying off my mortgage, I spoke with a CPA who also happened to be a financial advisor recommended by a good friend. I explained that I was self-employed, so my income fluctuated, and my mortgage was my largest monthly bill. I suggested that there could be some emotional benefit to paying it off. Less stress perhaps?
He insisted that I could invest and out-earn the cost of my first mortgage. He pooh-poohed the idea of paying it off to calm my nerves, and kept repeating that I could easily invest my money and earn more after taxes than the cost of the first mortgage.
When I asked if his mortgage was paid off, he responded with, "Oh, hell yes!" I was flabbergasted. How could he advise me to do one thing when he'd done the exact opposite? He explained that his wife was from Germany – the old school where you pay your bills, don't borrow money, and stay out of debt.
Then I asked him, "Once you paid off your mortgage, did you sleep better at night?" He pondered a bit and said, "Yeah, I guess I did. I no longer worried about it. No matter how bad things got, we would still have a roof over our heads."
When I asked Vedran Vuk, our senior research analyst, about when to pay off a first mortgage, he made some excellent points. First, you should no longer view your house as an investment that's going to rapidly appreciate as it did in the past. A house is a home, and you should look at it that way. Second, right now a mortgage can make sense from an investment perspective. If you can borrow money at 3.5%, invest it, and earn a guaranteed higher return on it, you'll come out ahead.
The real question becomes: where can you find a guaranteed greater return, even with the low mortgage rates available today? The government is committed to keeping interest rates artificially low for the foreseeable future. Yields on CDs and high-quality bonds are pathetic.
I just checked my brokerage account, and the longest CD they have available is a five-year CD paying 1.15%. A 30-year Treasury bond will pay 2.8%. Neither holds any appeal for me, particularly if I were investing with borrowed money.
If you've found an investment that's a lead-pipe cinch – one that’s absolutely, positively going to pay off – and a low mortgage rate, you may want to roll the dice. However, I want to add one more note of caution.
The upcoming issue of Money Forever's premium subscription, which we're releasing on December 18, takes an in-depth look at reverse mortgages, one of the most controversial ways to help fund your retirement. Our team will explain reverse mortgages in easily understood terms, highlight pitfalls to avoid, and explain how a reverse mortgage is a good way for some (but not all) folks to fund their retirement and maintain their lifestyle.
Before obtaining a reverse mortgage you must go through HUD counseling. While researching our upcoming report, I came across a study of over 20,000 people who had been through HUD counseling between September 2010 and November 2010. A few statistics really jumped off the page!
In 2000, the average age of people receiving reverse mortgages was 73 years old. By November 2010, the average age had dropped to 71.5, and it's continuing to decline. In other words, retirees are tapping into their home equity at an increasingly younger age, many because they have no other choice.
It was also interesting to learn why these folks wanted a reverse mortgage. In the 70-and-older group, 38% still had mortgage debt. Seventy-one percent owed 25% or more on the current value of their home, and 33% had a mortgage in excess of 50% of the value of their home. Many wanted a reverse mortgage because they could not service their existing debt. A reverse mortgage is based on the net equity in your home. If their homes were paid for, meaning no huge house payment, perhaps they could have put off the reverse mortgage for a few more years. The older the applicant, the higher monthly payment they receive.
I wonder how many of these folks lost money betting on their lead-pipe cinch investment because they had been nudged along by their CPA.
My point is simple. For most baby boomers and retirees, their home is their largest asset. You don't want to live like the little old widow in a black-and-white film, worrying about getting thrown out of your home, particularly if you're no longer working.
Nevertheless, if you had a mortgage with a 3.5% interest rate and we were still living in a world where a top-quality bond or CD would pay you 5% or more, it could make sense to take advantage of it. But that's not the world of today.
Ideally, you would pay off your mortgage and then use the money you'd been setting aside for payments to build a nice portfolio. For many folks, home equity is like a security blanket – and a potential source of income for when they may really need it.
The Judge's Word Isn't Always Law
As I left our breakfast meeting, I shared a few parting comments with Judge Rob. The mortgage conundrum has both financial and emotional factors. Paying off your mortgage is a milestone; it really does change your life. I certainly sleep better, and my blood pressure probably dropped ten points. It was the point when my wife and I actually started accumulating true wealth.
Once I paid off my mortgage, I never looked back.
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On the Lighter Side
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Congratulations to the Northwestern Wildcats, who have been invited to play in the Gator Bowl in Jacksonville on New Year's Day. They have a tough opponent in Mississippi State. As ESPN mentioned, neither team is known for filling stadiums; hopefully we can get some reasonably priced tickets.
For a change of pace this week, a friend sent me several anagrams – words scrambled up and rearranged with the same letters. I don't know who has time to think these up, but some are pretty darn clever.
DORMITORY… DIRTY ROOM
SLOT MACHINES… CASH LOST IN ME
- DESPERATION… A ROPE ENDS IT
Until next week…