How Baby Boomers' Homes May Become Liabilities

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America's population is going to experience a dramatic shift during the next 15 years. More than 130 million Americans will be aged 50 or over, and the entire baby boomer generation will be in retirement age -- making 20% of the country's population older than 65. If recent trends continue, there will be a larger number of retirees renting and paying mortgages than ever before.

A recent study published by Harvard's Joint Center for Housing Studies describes how this could lead an unprecedented number of America's aging population to face a lower quality of life or even financial hardship. However, the same study also points out that there is time for many of those who could be affected to do something about it. 

Housing debt and rent costs pose a big threat
According to the data Harvard researchers put together, homeowners tend to be in a much better financial position than renters. The majority of homeowners over 50 have retirement savings with a median value of $93,000, plus $10,000 in savings. More than three-quarters of renters, on the other hand, have no retirement and only $1,000 in savings on average.

While renters -- who don't have the benefit of home equity wealth -- face the biggest challenges, a growing percentage of those 50 and older are carrying mortgage debt. Income levels tend to peak for most in their late 40s before declining in the 50s, and then comes retirement. The result? Housing costs consume a growing percentage of income as those over 50 get older and enter retirement.

How bad is it? Check out this table from the Harvard study:

Source: "Housing America's Older Adults," Harvard University.

More than 40% of those over 65 with a mortgage or rent payment are considered moderately or severely burdened, meaning that at least 30% of their income goes toward housing costs. The percentage drops below 15% when they own their home. If you pay rent or carry a mortgage into retirement, there's a big chance it will take up a significant amount of your income. In 1992, it was estimated that just more than 60% of those between 50 and 64 had a mortgage, but by 2010, the number had jumped past 70%. 

Even more concerning? The rate of those over 65 still paying a mortgage has almost doubled since 1992 to nearly 40%. 

The impact of housing costs on retirees
The impact is felt most by those with the lowest incomes, and there is a clear relationship between high housing costs and hardship. Those who are 65 and older and are both in the lowest income quartile and moderately or severely burdened by housing costs spend up to 30% less on food than people in the same income bracket who do not have a housing-cost burden. Those who face a housing-cost burden also spend markedly less on healthcare, including preventative care.

In many cases, these burdens can become too much to bear, often leading retirees to live with a family member -- if the option is available. While this is more common in some cultures, this isn't an appealing option to most Americans, who generally view retirement as an opportunity to be independent. More than 70% of respondents in a recent AARP survey said they want to remain in their current residence as long as they can. Unfortunately, those who carry mortgage debt into retirement are more likely to have financial difficulties and limited choices, and they're also more likely to have less money in retirement savings.

What to do?
Considering the data and the trends the Harvard study uncovered, more and more Americans could face a housing-related financial hardship in retirement. If you want to avoid that predicament, there are things you can do at any age.

  • Refinance or no? Refinancing typically only makes sense if it will reduce the total amount you pay for your home. Saving $200 per month doesn't do you any good if you end up paying $3,000 more over the term of the loan. However, if a lower interest rate means you'll spend less money than you do on your current loan, refinance.
  • Reverse mortgages. If you're in retirement and have equity in your home, a reverse mortgage might make sense. There are a few different types based on whether you need financial support via monthly income, cash to pay for repairs or taxes on your home, or other needs. However, understand how a reverse mortgage works and what you are giving up before you choose this route. There are housing counseling agencies that can help you figure out the best options for your situation, and for some reverse mortgage programs you are required to meet with a counselor first. Check out the Federal Trade Commission's website for more information. 

All that said, avoiding financial hardship in retirement takes more than managing your mortgage. A big hedge is entering retirement with as much wealth as possible. Here are some ways to do that:

  • Max out your employee match. If your employer offers a match to retirement account contributions, make sure you're getting all of it. Even if you're only a few years from retiring, this is free money; don't leave it on the table. Furthermore, your 401(k) contributions reduce your taxable income, meaning it will actually hit your paycheck by a smaller amount than your contribution.
  • Catching up. The IRS allows those over age 50 to contribute an extra $1,000 per year to personal IRAs, putting their total contribution limit at $6,500. And contributions to traditional IRAs can reduce your taxable income, just like 401(k) contributions. There are some limitations, so check with your tax pro to see how it affects your situation. Also, while contributions to a Roth IRA aren't tax-deductible, distributions in retirement are tax-free. 
  • Financial assistance and property tax breaks. Whether you're a homeowner or a renter, there are assistance programs that can help bridge the housing-cost gap. Both state and federal government programs exist, but nobody is going to knock on your door and tell you about them. A good place to start is to contact your local housing authority. The available assistance can also include property tax credits, exemptions, and deferrals. Check with your local tax commissioner to find out what is available in your area.

Stop putting it off
If you're already in this situation, or know someone who is, then you know the emotional and financial strain it causes. If you're afraid you might be on the path to be in those straits, then it's up to you to take steps to change course.

It doesn't matter whether you're a few months from 65 or a few months into your first job: Doing nothing gets you nowhere and wastes invaluable time that you can't get back.

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