Coffee heat rising

Financial Freedom: Own the roof over your head

Life on the treadmill

We’ve been talking, on and off, about routes to financial freedom, defined as a life off the day-job treadmill that leaves you free to do what you want to do with your time, not what someone else decides you should do. It takes time to achieve this freedom. You need get enough education or vocational training to land a job that will produce enough income to allow you to build some savings, and you need to live not only within that income but below it. An important part of your early-escape strategy is to get a roof over your head that’s paid for.

Yes. Pay off your mortgage.

In some circles, that’s tantamount to sacrilege. But the fact is, the largest chunk of cash flying out most people’s doors is the mortgage payment, and most of that payment consists of interest. The putative income tax break, if you look hard at it, is negligible compared to the amount of money that goes down the toilet in the form of loan interest. Mortgage interest can more than double the amount you end up paying for your house.

If you have a program like Quicken, it’s easy to figure that amount. Using the loan calculator, enter your principal, the interest rate, and the number of months to pay-off, and the program will generate an amortization schedule showing, in detail, how much each payment reduces the principal and how much, in total, you will have paid by x or y date. You can accomplish the same calculation, though, with Excel or an open-source spreadsheet. Over at The Simple Dollar, Trent provides an easy step-by-step guide to setting up your own loan calculator in Excel.

However you arrive at the full picture, what you find can be startling. M’hijito and I owe $211,000 on the downtown house. At 4.3 percent, over 30  years we will pay $164,907 in interest alone, meaning that if we hang onto the place that long (and it this point it appears we will be forced to do so), we will pay almost $376,000 for the house. When I bought my first house, I paid $100,000 for it, borrowing $80,000 at 8.2 percent on a 30-year traditional loan. At that rate, I would have paid $169,200 for interest alone, way more than doubling the ultimate price of the house.

Whether it’s worth that much in 30 years is beside the point. The point is, a $211,000 mortgage represents $376,000 that doesn’t go into savings. It’s $376,000 that doesn’t go toward achieving bumhood. Every month that we pay toward this loan is a month that a principal-and-interest payment of $1,044 goes into someone else’s pocket.

If he were paying toward rent instead, that also would be money down the toilet: the renter puts money in someone else’s pocket with no hope of ever owning anything and no end to the outgo. At least when you buy a house, you have a chance of paying it off and putting a roof over your head that costs you little or nothing, from day to day.

(It must be noted, though that owning your house is never free. You still will owe taxes on it, and you’re crazy if you don’t buy insurance. Maintenance and repair costs can be significant. These expenses require most mortgage-liberated homeowners to self-escrow something each month in an account to cover such costs.)

The key to bumhood is getting out of debt, and that includes mortgage debt. A thousand bucks (or more) that stays in your pocket each month represents a large fraction of the amount a bum needs to live in comfort and contentment. Given that a person who lives modestly in a city with a reasonable cost of living really needs only about $2,000 to $3,000 net a month, a thousand dollars gets you a third to half-way there!

So…how on earth do you go about doing this? The cost of a house is crushing. What human being can possibly afford to pay for one in full in anything less than an adult lifetime?

Well, I suspect most people can. Here’s the strategy:

1. Buy a house that’s within your means.

Where is it written that you have to live like Pharoah? No one really needs a McMansion. Many smaller houses offer charm, comfort, decent neighborhoods, and ease of maintenance.

If living in a prestigious district is your thing, look for middle-class neighborhoods that border fancier areas. My house, for example, is in a very ordinary neighborhood that abuts a district of million-dollar homes, two blocks from a lovely park. Obviously, if you have kids the school district is important, and so you’ll need to add that consideration into your calculation. It’s worth investigating whether sending a child or two to parochial or private school might actually be cheaper than buying a more expensive house in an area with top-rated public schools, especially if you can qualify for scholarships or tuition assistance.

2. Get the shortest conventional loan you can manage.

Because interest rates on a 15-year loan are lower than those for a 30-year loan, the payments are not that much higher. For example, with a 6.5 percent rate on a 15-year loan for my original $100,000 home, the principal and interest would have been only $128 more than what I was paying toward the 30-year instrument.

Never take on a variable-rate mortgage. Adjustable rates always adjust upwards. Even when the prime rate goes down, banks find excuses to raise the mortgage payments.

And, given the communal experience of the past couple of years, we know never to accept anything “creative” from the loan department.

3. Pay extra toward principal.

Even if you have a 30-year loan, you can speed the payoff date by paying down principal each month or, if you’re paid semiweekly, by applying some or all of your so-called “extra” paychecks to principal. Another strategy is to apply all of one spouse’s net salary to principal, if you can afford to live on one partner’s income.

The downtown house, for example, cost so much that there was no way we could have made payments on a 15-year basis. However, if we added $130 a month in principal payments, we would pay the house off in 24 years instead of 30. Applying all of his roommate’s $400/month rent payment toward principal would pay the loan in a little over 17 years. Combine the two—$130 out of our pocket and $400 from the renter—and we could kill the loan in 15 years.

4. Build side income streams and apply that money to principal.

A spouse’s salary, a second job, a roommate, a hobby monetized: all these sources of cash can be used to pay down the mortgage. Because lowering principal cuts the interest portion of future payments, it’s helpful to pay extra toward principal on a regular basis (whether it’s monthly, quarterly, semiannually, or even just once a year). But no law says the extra payments can’t be sporadic. Whenever you get a chance to earn extra money, take it, and then use the net to pay down the loan.

5. Apply all windfalls to principal.

I paid off my first house by saving every post-tax penny of spousal support (having lucked into a decently paid job) and investing it. About five years after I bought the house, I used the cash I’d saved plus a small inheritance to pay off the mortgage.

Was it easy to break a chunk out of my savings to throw at the house? Nope. Have I ever regretted it? Nope.

It probably was the smartest thing I ever did. Once SDXB moved out, I could not have paid the PITI and survived on my net income without a roommate or a domestic partner, neither of which was in the cards. The house’s value continued to grow, so that when I was ready to move to a somewhat nicer house in a quieter corner of the neighborhood, I could pay for the next place in cash. And when I was laid off my job, there was no worry about whether I would lose my home.

6. Choose your house wisely.

Purchase with an eye to staying in the place permanently. That’s right: for the rest of your life. Consider whether the neighborhood is likely to remain stable or even improve over several decades, and whether the construction will stand the test of time.

Remember, your house’s value will increase in lockstep with all the other real estate in your area. While the place may appear to double in value over 15 or 20 years, so has everyplace else! This means that if you’ve paid off your mortgage and you want to avoid taking on new mortgage payments when you move, you’ll have to buy a comparable house. Paying off a mortgage means that you’ll be living in similar housing forever, unless you’re willing to take on new debt.

As you can see, this project entails some trade-offs. Unless you earn a ton of money, you likely will not be living in an elegant palace. To get into a decent school district, you may have to take a lesser house than you could have afforded in a neighborhood with weaker public schools. And you’ll need to seek contentment and ego gratification from sources other than real estate, downsizing your housing expectations to fit your long-term goal.

Freedom’s not free. But it’s worth it.

Financial Freedom:

An Overview
The health insurance hurdle

Image: U.S. Air Force Photo/Staff Sgt Araceli Alarcon. Public domain.

Should you pay off your mortgage?

Preparing to write the next installment in a series on achieving financial freedom, I ran some figures to compare the result of paying down a mortgage with extra monthly payments toward principal with investing the same amount monthly in a mutual fund. What I discovered runs against my theory that you’re well served to pay off a mortgage as fast as you can.

I still think that’s true if you’re getting close to retirement. In retirement, every debt should be wiped off your books, because you will need all your cash flow to live on. However, if you’re younger—say, anywhere between 20 and 45—and your mortgage rate is low compared to returns on equity investments, it would be to your advantage to invest extra dollars in a mutual fund earning around 8 percent. At today’s rates, this strategy allow you to accrue enough to pay off the principal faster than will throwing a monthly amount at the loan principal. Here’s how this shakes down:

M’hijito and I have a 30/15 mortgage at 4.3 percent. This means that for the first 15 years, we make payments at the 30-year amortization rate, but after the 15 years have passed, we either have to pay off the loan or we have to refinance it. The loan’s principal is $211,000.

We chose this mortgage because, at the time we bought the house, we believed the real estate market was nearing the bottom. We believed the house would drop in value another $4,000 or $5,000 and then begin to rise, probably at around 3 percent p/a. We figured that in five to ten years we could sell or rent the house and either break even or make a small profit. As everyone now knows, this was dead wrong: in fact, real estate was in free-fall, and the house is now worth at best $170,000, but more realistically around $150,000. This turns the loan into a real albatross. One strategy we are considering is to try to pay down principal with whatever extra monthly payment we can make (which ain’t much!), so that in 15 years, the amount to refinance might at least be no more than the house is actually worth, possibly allowing us to sell the house at that time.

In 15 years, with no extra payment toward principal, the loan balance will be $138,338. Monthly principal and interest payments are $1044; PITI comes to something over $1200.

Note that the projected loan balance is less than the most pessimistic present-day valuation. If the market finally has bottomed out and housing increases in value at 3% a year (a figure that is now being bandied about), in 15 years the house will be worth $233,695. That is less than we paid for it, but at least if we sold the house at that time we would walk away with a little cash in our pockets.

With me out of work, about the most we can afford to pay extra toward loan principal is about $100 a month.

Using Excel’s full value (=FV…) formula, I calculated the the return on a $100/month investment in a mutual fund earning 8% per annum. (Over at Vanguard, a number of stock funds and even a few bond funds are returning at this rate; one of them is Windsor II, in which I happen to already have a little cash.) I then used Quicken to run an amortization schedule, and compared the amount a $100/month investment would be worth in 15 years with the amount an extra $100/month principal payment would reduce the loan balance.

Assuming that our mutual fund investment averaged an 8 percent return, if we sent Vanguard $100 a month, in 15 years we would accrue $34,604 (full value =(.08/12,15*12,-100). If we paid an extra $100 a month toward the loan principal, in 15 years we would have paid the balance down by an extra $18,000 ($100 x 180 pay periods). According to Quicken, we would still owe $113,116.

With no extra payments, remember, we would still owe $138,338.

$138,338 – 113,116 = $25,220

Compare that with the $34,604 we would have earned in the mutual fund. Clearly, we would be ahead—by over $9,000!—by investing the money in a mutual fund with low overhead, such as Vanguard and Fidelity offer.

Well, now. Suppose you were not out of work, and so had plenty of cash to throw at the principal. Let’s suppose you really have plenty of cash and you decide to pay the equivalent of an entire P&I payment toward principal. Then what?

If you put $1,044 into a mutual fund every month, in 15 years you would have $361,264. If you paid $1044/month toward principal (in addition to your regular payment) on a $211,000 loan, you would pay off the loan in 10 years.

But by putting the cash into a mutual fund returning 8 percent, in 10 years you’d earn $190,995. Since in 10 years, with no extra payments, your loan balance would have dropped to $167,901, you’d still come out ahead:

$190,995 – $167,901 = $23,094

In other words, if you put the amount of an extra loan payment in an 8% investment, in ten years you would have enough to pay off the mortgage and still leave $23,000 in your pocket. If you used the same amount to pay toward the loan once a month, you would pay off the debt but would have no cash left over.

The conclusion is obvious: If your goal is to pay off your mortgage, you’re better off investing a regular payment in a decent mutual fund than paying the same amount toward principal.

This assumes your mortgage interest rate is lower than the rate of return from an equity fund. Note also that my figures do not take into consideration the small tax advantage gained by paying mortgage interest; this factor also would tend to improve the picture if you invested in the market.

Risky? Sure. But we now know that investing in real estate is wildly risky, too: more so, it develops, than the stock  market. My stock investments are rapidly regaining their pre-crash value, but there’s no credible sign of any recovery in the real estate market here. Even if the value of the house starts to increase at 3% p.a. today, in 15 years it won’t be worth anything like what we paid for it. If property values remain flat for any length of time (as it appears they will), we will lose not only our shirt but our pants, socks, and underwear.

I used to think my father was crazy because he refused to buy a  house until after he had saved enough to pay for it in cash. All the time I was growing up, we lived either in company housing or in rentals. His reasoning indeed was crazy—he bought into The Protocols of Zion, an irrational tract that led him to believe all mortgage lenders were part of a hallucinatory international Jewish conspiracy. However, the effect was that when he retired at the age of 53, he had enough cash to buy a house and a car and to support himself and my mother in a middle-class lifestyle without having to work.

Crazy like a fox, that old boy was.

A rabid fox, but still…