3 ways real estate can boost your retirement income

There's big appeal in the idea of investing in real estate right now. And it's not just because of all the attention these days on President Donald Trump, who made his fortune in the industry.

Many real estate-related investments have done quite well in the last decade or so. The median sales price of single-family homes hit $315,700 at the end of the third quarter, up 23 percent from the prior peak for values in 2007 before the financial crisis hit.

11 ways to retire with $1 million:

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11 ways to retire with $1M

Make a Commitment to Save for Retirement

If saving for retirement isn’t a priority for you, consider this: If you’re struggling to get by now on a small paycheck, how will you get by in retirement without savings and no paycheck? You don’t want to retire broke and live on Social Security benefits alone.

“It can certainly be challenging to build up a good-sized nest egg, but it will certainly be impossible if you never try,” said Belinda Rosenblum, a certified public accountant and president of Own Your Money. “It all starts with a commitment.”

To ensure you follow through on your commitment to saving, let your family or friends know about your financial goals, said Polly Scott, spokeswoman for the 2017 National Retirement Security Week promoted by the National Association of Government Defined Contribution Administrators.

“If you talk about it … you’re more likely to do it,” she said.

Know Your Number

You might be asking yourself, “How much do I need to retire? Do I really need to save $1 million?” The answer will vary from person to person.

“One million dollars isn’t the magic number,” Scott said. “In most cases, it doesn’t even have to be close to that number.”

So, the first thing you need to do is calculate how much you need to have to retire and how much you should save each month to reach that goal. There are plenty of free online retirement calculators — such as ones at Fidelity, Schwab and Vanguard — that can help.

Once you know how much you need to set aside each month to reach your savings goal, you can create a plan to make it happen.

“Even if you don’t get to $1 million and you only get to $100,000, at least you’re not retiring on just Social Security,” Scott said.

Start Saving as Soon as Possible

The sooner you start saving, the less you’ll have to set aside each month to save $1 million for retirement — which is good news if your income is low.

“If you are age 30 today and invest $600 a month from now to age 65, if your investments earn an average return of 7 percent a year, by age 65 you’ll have $1 million,” said Dana Anspach, founder and CEO of financial planning firm Sensible Money. “If you’re starting at age 40, you’ll need to be able to put away about $1,300 a month to get to $1 million by age 65 — still assuming a 7 percent return.”

If you start saving at age 20, you could set aside less than $300 a month and have $1 million by age 65, assuming a 7 percent annual return. By starting at this younger age, you’d need to save half as much each month as you would have to if you waited until 30 and about one-fourth as much if you waited until 40 to start building a $1 million nest egg.

Find Room in Your Budget to Save

If you’re making less than $50,000 a year, you might be wondering how you can find room in your budget to save several hundred dollars a month.

“First, you have to want financial freedom just as much as you want other things in life,” Anspach said. Focusing on that goal helps you see the payoff from cutting costs from your budget, which can range from finding less-expensive housing to buying things used rather than new, she said.

“Even something as small as giving up soft drinks in favor of water can lead to big savings,” Anspach said. “Suppose you spend an average of $12 a week on soft drinks and tea. That’s $624 a year.”

Rosenblum said you can cut $250 out of your monthly budget easily to put into savings by opting for a lower-cost cable TV package, slashing your grocery bill by planning meals to eliminate food waste, and eating out or getting take-out less often. Resources such as 5 Dollar Dinners can help you make low-cost meals at home, she said.

Be Consistent

In reality, “becoming a millionaire is less about how much you make and more about consistency,” said Deacon Hayes, founder of WellKeptWallet.com and author of the forthcoming book, “You Can Retire Early!”

“One way to ensure that you actually invest consistently is by setting up an automatic transfer from your bank to your investing account," he said. "This way, you can stick to your investing strategy without much thought required each month.”

If your employer offers a workplace retirement plan such as a 401k, you can have contributions automatically deducted from your paycheck. If you were automatically enrolled in your employer’s plan, check your contribution amount to make sure you’re saving enough each month to reach your savings goal. “You need to be contributing a minimum of 10 percent of pay,” Scott said.

If you don’t have access to a workplace retirement plan, you can save for retirement on your own by setting up automatic transfers from your checking account to an individual retirement account, such as a Roth IRA or a solo 401k if you’re self-employed.

“Make [the] commitment to pay yourself first then work your lifestyle around what’s left,” Scott said.

Take Advantage of Matching Contributions From Your Employer

A great way to boost your retirement savings is to find out if your employer will match your contributions to your workplace retirement account. The most common match is a dollar-for-dollar match. But, typically, you have to save a certain percentage of your income to get the full match.

Twenty-five percent of employees miss out on this free money because they don’t contribute enough to their retirement plan to get their employer’s full matching contribution, according to Financial Engines, an independent investment adviser website.

“If you work for an employer that offers a retirement plan and a company match, be sure to contribute enough to receive the full employer match,” Anspach said. “Many employers match up to 3 percent of your pay. At $50,000 a year of income, that adds up to $1,500 a year of employer-provided funds.”

Save Your Tax Refund

If you get a big tax refund, you should put that money into retirement savings, Rosenblum said. The average refund for the 2017 filing season was $2,782, according to the IRS. If you earn $50,000 a year, stashing a refund of that size would be equivalent to saving about 6 percent of your income, she said.

Or, you could adjust your tax withholding by filling out a new Form W-4 to put more money back into your paycheck each month rather than get a big refund each spring. Then, use that extra money in your paycheck to boost your automatic contribution to your 401k or workplace retirement account.

Get a Side Gig to Boost Savings

Another way to come up with more cash to retire with $1 million is to get a side gig to boost your income. Both Scott and Rosenblum recommend finding a second job and stashing those earnings into a retirement or investment account.

You could open a Roth IRA and contribute up to $5,500 a year if you’re single and your modified adjusted gross income is less than $118,000 or married with a modified AGI of less than $186,000. The big benefit of this account is that you can withdraw money tax-free in retirement. Withdrawals in retirement from a 401k or traditional IRA are taxed as regular income.

Choose Investments That Offer Growth

To increase your chances of having $1 million in retirement, you need to invest your savings in assets that will grow.

“No one gets rich by saving in the bank,” said Byrke Sestok, a certified financial planner and president of Rightirement Wealth Partners in White Plains, N.Y. “If you have 30 years before retirement and 30 years during retirement, then you have the time to participate heavily or totally in the stock market, and ignore the big drops and focus on the fact that stocks have historically proved to be a better-performing asset class over bonds and cash.”

That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s up to you to pick the right stocks, though. See if your 401k or workplace retirement plan offers index funds, which track the performance of a broad stock market index such as the S&P 500. Or, Scott recommends target-date funds, which have managers who shift your portfolio allocation over time from stocks to more conservative investments as you near retirement age.

Opt for Alternative Investments

If you make less than $50,000 a year, there’s only so much you can afford to set aside in savings each month. So rather than save your way to $1 million, build your net worth through investing in real estate or starting a business, said Todd Tresidder, wealth coach at Financial Mentor.

“Think outside the traditional model — go to alternative assets,” he said.

Don’t assume your lower income limits your ability to pursue either of these alternative assets. You don’t necessarily have to have money to start a business, Tresidder said. You just need an idea, and you have to be willing to put in the hard work to make it happen.

If you want to invest in real estate, Tresidder said you can get a loan for a small, inexpensive property, fix it up on your own and flip it for a small profit. Then you can use that equity to buy your first rental property that will generate a stream of income.

Don’t Tap Retirement Savings Before You Retire

You can cash out a 401k when changing jobs, but that will seriously hurt your chances of saving $1 million for retirement.

“Don’t ever do that,” Scott said. “That is very destructive to your retirement security.”

Not only will you have to pay state and federal income taxes, but also you will have to pay a 10 percent early withdrawal penalty on the money you withdraw. Plus, most people don’t go back and replace what is withdrawn, Scott said. So, they miss out on investment earnings.

To avoid having to tap retirement savings — whether it’s to get you through a period of unemployment or to pay for emergencies — Scott recommends that you build an emergency fund. Set aside cash in a savings account each month so you can access if you’re hit with an unexpected expense.

“You don’t want to be in a situation where you’re in an emergency and raid your retirement account,” she said. “That’s counterproductive.”

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At the same time, a low-interest rate environment has depressed yields in typical safe-haven investments like bonds and certificates of deposit. That has made income-generating real estate assets even more attractive.

And, of course, there's the basic value of real estate as part of any well-balanced investment portfolio.

[See: 7 Things That Can Derail Your Retirement Investing.]

"Without alternative assets, a portfolio is limited to stocks and bonds. That means the portfolio is not fully diversified," says Craig Cecilio, founder and president of real estate investment firm DiversyFund. "The other big advantage of real estate investing is that your investment is backed by real assets."

Yes, real estate values do fluctuate – and sometimes drop significantly. But since properties are physical assets, they will always be worth something whereas other investments can go all the way to zero.

So if you like the appeal of real estate, how should you start investing?

Buy rental homes. This is the most direct way to invest in real estate – however, this approach does comes with a few drawbacks.

The first is the initial investment that's required, since buying a house can require a big one-time payment or taking on significant debt. Then, of course, there is the hassle of being a landlord to fix leaky faucets or dealing with tenants.

That said, in many markets where rental rates are higher than mortgage payments on a similar property, a shrewd landlord can easily wind up ahead at the end of every month – and more importantly, have a reliable income stream that is independent of any appreciation in the underlying real estate.

9 most expensive places to retire:

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Most expensive places to retire

9. West South Central

Average spending: $28,540

Younger retirees in Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas and Louisiana spent less than retirees in any other part of the U.S. At $11,742 per year on average, their housing costs are lower than anywhere else in the country. (Go here to see how much house you can afford.) They also spent less on health care. But unlike most regions of the country, where retiree spending falls over time, people in the West South Central region spend more as they get older. By the time people are between the ages of 75 and 84, they’re spending $33,257 per year, in part because of a jump in health care spending to $2,600 per year.

(dszc via Getty Images)

8. East South Central

Average spending: $29,140

Retirees in the East South Central region (which includes Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee and Kentucky) have the second-lowest spending in the country. They also have the biggest difference in spending between pre-retirees (those ages 50 to 64) and people ages 64 to 74, with annual expenditures falling from $42,261 annually to a little less than $30,000. Downsizing might be the main reason. The older survey respondents spent nearly $7,400 less per year on housing than those in the 50-to-64 age group.

A low cost of living is another reason this region is also home to four of the 10 best cities for people who hope to retire early.

7. East North Central

Average spending: $35,201

People in the Great Lakes states of Wisconsin, Michigan, Illinois, Indiana and Ohio had the lowest average spending outside of the South. That’s good news for people retiring in that region, but it comes with a caveat. Average spending in this region didn’t decrease as dramatically with age as it did in some parts of the country. By the time people reached age 85, they were still spending $31,059 per year on average, more than any other region except New England.

6. Middle Atlantic

Average spending: $38,125

Retirees in the mid-Atlantic states of New York, Pennsylvania and New Jersey spend an average of $38,125 every year, only slightly less than those in the 50-to-64 age group. Their average expenses included $13,440 on housing and $1,940 on health care. (You can determine your housing budget here.)

5. Pacific

Average spending: $38,464

Retirees in Washington, Oregon, California, Hawaii and Alaska spent about $38,000 per year on average, including $2,360 on health care and $18,300 on housing. Their housing costs were the second-highest in the country after New England, which may not be surprising considering this region is home to eight of the 10 least affordable cities in the United States.

(peterscode via Getty Images)

4. Mountain

Average spending: $39,411

Living isn’t cheap for retirees in the vast Mountain region, which includes Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, Nevada, Utah, Colorado, Arizona and New Mexico. But things get better as you age. People in these states spend about $10,000 less per year between ages 75 and 84 than they do in the first decade of retirement.

If you end up retiring in the Mountain region, you’ll have lots of company. States such as Arizona, with its sunny skies and relatively low taxes, are perennially popular with retirees.

3. West North Central

Average spending: $42,240

Stereotypically frugal Midwesterners actually had the third-highest spending in the U.S. People in Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota, Iowa, Nebraska, Kansas and Missouri spent more than $42,000 per year on average from ages 65 to 74. About $20,000 went to housing and health care, with $22,000 left over for expenses, including food, transportation, travel, entertainment and dining out.

One reason retirees in this region can spend big? Some are quite wealthy. Minnesota, North Dakota, Nebraska and Iowa are all in the top 25 states in the number of millionaires per capita, according to a study by Phoenix Marketing International.

(rasilja via Getty Images)

2. South Atlantic

Average spending: $44,350

Retirees in the sprawling South Atlantic region, which stretches from Delaware to Florida, have some of the highest spending in the U.S. People living in Delaware, Maryland, West Virginia, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia and Florida spend $44,350 per year, on average, including $16,980 on housing and $3,000 on health care.

(DenisTangneyJr via Getty Images)

1. New England

Average spending: $46,019

New England retirees are the biggest spenders in the U.S., with annual expenditures of a little more than $46,000 per year. People in Maine, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Vermont, Rhode Island and Connecticut have the highest housing costs in the country, at $19,507 annually — almost twice as much as those in the cheapest states — though costs fall significantly as people age. Health care spending among 65- to 74-year-olds is also higher than anywhere else, at nearly $6,000 per year, almost twice as much as what retirees in other parts of the country pay.

(kanonsky via Getty Images)

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Of course, renting versus house flipping is very different, and this latter strategy can be fraught with risks, Cecilio says.

"Investors need to ask whether the incentives of the investment issuer are the same as their own incentives," he says.

For instance, if a company benefits by selling you advice or issuing loans instead of sharing in the ups and downs of your investment portfolio, that's a sign that they may not care much whether you ever make any money.

Buy into publicly traded REITs. A special class of companies known as real estate investment trusts, or REITs, are specifically designed to make public investment accessible for regular investors.

In fact, thanks to all the attention, the Standard & Poor's 500 index added real estate as its 11th industry group in 2016 to show the importance of this segment on Wall Street.

[See: 10 ETFs to Buy for Oodles of Growth.]

The biggest appeal for income-oriented investors is that REITs are a special class of investment with the mandate for big dividends. These companies are granted special tax breaks to allow them to more easily invest in the capital-intensive real estate sector, but in exchange, they must deliver 90 percent of their taxable income directly back to shareholders.

As a result, the yield of many REITs is significantly higher than what you'll find in other dividend stocks. Mall operator Simon Property Group (NYSE: SPG) yields about 4.8 percent. Residential housing developer AvalonBay Communities (AVB) yields about 3.1 percent.

And, of course, investors can purchase a diversified group of these stocks via an exchange-traded fund if they prefer. For example, the Vanguard REIT Index Fund (VNQ), yields about 3.9 percent at present and has a portfolio of 155 of the biggest real estate names on Wall Street. The VNQ has an expense ratio of 0.11 percent, or $11 per $10,000 invested.

Crowdfunding. A fast-growing form of real estate investment for the digital age is via "crowdfunded" properties. The concept involves pooling together the investments of individuals to purchase properties, and share in those properties' successes.

DiversyFund is one provider of these crowdsourced investments, as is Fundrise, a Washington, D.C.-based firm that owns properties from South Carolina to Seattle.

"We allow investors to very simply invest in private real estate instead of public real estate, with much lower fees and greater transparency, through the internet," says Fundrise co-founder and CEO Ben Miller.

Private real estate can offer much bigger yields than publicly traded REITs, Miller says, to the tune of 8 to 10 percent annually. But the challenge in the past was the burden of big upfront fees and a lack of liquidity or access to your initial investment after you buy in.

Miller says REITs offer low barriers to entry for investors and the ability to buy or sell stocks on a daily basis, but investors pay a steep "liquidity premium" for the ability to trade – and subsequently, suffer a lower return.

"That liquidity premium is theoretically a benefit, but it's invisible for most people and it's not free," he says. "If you're investing in the long-term for income, why would you pay that premium?"

[See: 7 ETFs to Trade Like a Hedge Fund.]

Crowdfunding platforms like Fundrise, DiversyFund, Realty Shares and RealtyMogul all look to take the best of both private and public worlds. For instance, Fundrise has a minimum investment of just $500 in its "starter portfolio" and charges significantly lower fees thanks to the cost-saving benefits of technology and a lack of middlemen.

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