Real Estate: Time to Sell that Large House?

American homes are a lot larger than they used to be.  In 1973, the median size of a newly built house was 1,500 square feet.  In 2015, that figure was 2,500 sq. ft. – 67% more. Plus, with smaller families, there is lots more room per person: 507 sq. ft./person in 1973, and, almost double, 971 sq. ft./person in 2015.

In addition, Americans aren’t any happier with bigger houses.  A study by PhD Clement Bellet found that “house satisfaction in the American suburbs has remained steady for the last four decades.”  His reasoning is based on the premise that people compare their houses to others in the neighborhood-particularly the biggest ones.  The largest homes in the neighborhood seem to be the benchmark.  Dr. Bellet tracked the “one-upmanship” by owners of the biggest homes from 1980 to 2009.  He found that the size of largest 10% of houses increased 40% more than the size increase of median houses.  Apparently, the competition never ends.

Fifty years ago, a one bathroom house or a bedroom that slept 3 siblings might have felt cramped- but it also probably felt normal.  Today, many Americans can afford more space and they’ve bought it. They just don’t appear to be any happier with it.

Dr. Robert Shiller, the noted Nobel Prize winner and co-author of the Case-Shiller index of housing prices, was interviewed recently by the WSJ for an article titled “The Biggest Ways People Waste Money”.  Dr. Shiller opined that “Big houses are a waste.”  He believes that modernization has reduced our space needs.  However, he recognizes, that for some, a big house is a symbol of success. Your neighbors may not know about your finances and achievements, but they can see your big house.

Dr. Shiller suggests books such as “The New Small House”- that talk about designing houses to look impressive as well as function on a smaller scale. Living smaller can be easier on the pocketbook, the owner’s time and the environment.  He concludes: “Just like Uber and Lyft and Airbnb, using resources more efficiently, we can also build houses that are better at serving people’s needs without being big”.

As a result, we’re seeing that fewer people want to buy large, elaborate dream houses.  We know that in the high-end suburbs of Chicago that prices today, in some cases, are ½ of what they were 10-15 years ago. In the Southeast and the Sunbelt, McMansions are sitting on the market, enduring deep price cuts to sell.  For example, Kiawah Island currently has 225 houses for sale, which is a 3-4 year supply.  Of these, the largest and most expensive are the hardest to sell, especially if they haven’t been renovated recently.

The problem is expected to get worse in the next decade.  Baby Boomers currently own 32 million houses, 40% of all the homes in America, and many of these homes are big ones. As the Boomers advance into their 70s and 80s, many will be looking to downsize and/or move to senior housing and therefore will attempt to offload their big house.

When we at DWM talk with clients about housing, we generally ball park a figure of 5-7% of the market value of the house as the annual net cost.  The costs include interest, if there is a mortgage, the opportunity costs of not investing the equity in the house, real estate taxes, insurance, and maintenance and repairs. From this total we subtract the expected appreciation.  For example, a $500,000 house with a $200,000, 4.5% mortgage, might have $9,000 in interest, $18,000 in opportunity costs, $5,000 in real estate taxes, $3,000 in insurance and $5,000 in repairs. Total costs of $40,000 less 2% appreciation of $10,000 nets $30,000 in annual net costs or 6% of the market value.  Of course, values differ across the country and by house. Furthermore, there are some sections of the country experiencing excellent appreciation and some that are experiencing deprecation in value.

As we look at our spending, it’s always good to compare the value received to the cost and, if the cost exceeds the value, a change might be in order.  In our example, if the couple owning the $500,000 house feels they are getting $30,000 or more per year of value from the house, that’s great.  If they are not, particularly if they have a bigger house that may not be appreciating and may be hard to sell in the future, they may want to think about a change now.  Give us a call if you would like to discuss this very important topic.

Your Digital Footprint: How to Protect your Virtual Footprint

The new digital age has seen the onset of countless new conveniences whether through online shopping, banking, entertainment, or social networking. We can now order food and have it delivered to our door, transfer money at the push of a button, and video chat with friends and family that are halfway around the world. Through all these advancements, however, one thing stays the same, the necessity of virtual security. With all these new apps and websites to use comes the addition of endless different passwords to ensure the safety of personal information, with some sites even forcing you to make a new password every x months as an extra layer of security. All in all, this builds up quite the “portfolio” of digital “assets” that can sometimes get confusing. Now, it may not be a comfortable topic, but in the case of the death or incapacity of the owner of these digital accounts, add another layer of complication, as family members now have to weed through various accounts to consolidate their estate.

The good news is that the same advancements in technology that brought around all these security features, questions, passwords, etc. are the same ones that provide a solution here. Available widely on the web are numerous different password vaults and managers that will allow users to store all of this information in one spot. Applications such as LastPass, True Key, Zoho Vault, 1Password and many others all can accomplish this purpose of simplifying this complicated web of components down to something that is easily manageable. Any new website or service you use can easily add log-in information or notes so that if you ever need to log-in and can’t remember your information, the application will do it for you!

These applications also offer the option to designate “digital heirs” that in the case something happens to the user, these vaults can be passed along and not locked permanently! In this manner, those handling the estate can easily gain access to all the accounts necessary all in one place.

In the case that you’d prefer to simply write down all of your log-in information and other important online details in a notebook or binder, which is sufficient, just make sure to let someone know where that “book” is and how to access it! We at DWM have actually put together a document that can help to organize this all in one written location including other important estate information such as the location of trust documents, powers of attorney, etc. Please feel free to use it if you’d prefer the traditional paper copy!

One additional step beyond providing access to your accounts to your digital “executor” is actually letting them know what to do with the accounts. For instance, if you’d prefer your Facebook to be set to “memorialized” which will effectively make the account inactive, but allow family and friends to continue to post memories and stories on the page versus closing it out entirely. Also actively selecting if you’d like certain digital assets to go to certain heirs, for example if you would want your grandson to receive your illustrious Fortnite account or your daughter to receive the log-in for your online knitting chat group, you can designate those wishes either in the password manager app or in your notebook. That way there will be no confusion or argument over who gets what when the time comes to distribute those assets.

As an added layer of protection, the right to digital assets can be specified in a trust document drawn up by an estate planning attorney for those with more complicated situations that need specific direction. These specifications usually outline the power of the successor trustees to access, view, modify or make use of any electronic accounts including those financial sites that are used.

To summarize, from Uber to Schwab to Amazon to Facebook and many, many more, the necessity to build a plan to preserve our digital legacy for when “the time comes” is imperative. Using these plans can ease the transition for your loved ones to get their arms around your digital assets and secure your legacy properly. At DWM, we would encourage you to get these items in order to make things easier on you and your loved ones in the future, hopefully a long time down the road.

IT’S SUMMERTIME! LET’S TALK BASEBALL: IT’S MORE THAN JUST A GAME

First, full disclosure. I love baseball. I was born 2 blocks from Wrigley Field and walked to Cub games alone when I was 7 and sat in the bleachers. As a lifetime Cub fan it’s a mixed blessing- a life of both affection and affliction. Happily, the Cubs are having another good year and the White Sox are resurging. Baseball is a fun game for sure, but it’s more than just a game. This week’s Economist’s article “Baseball and Exceptionalism” examines how our national pastime reflects America’s desire to be different and successful.

You may have heard that a young man named Abner Doubleday invented baseball in 1839 in Cooperstown, New York. Doubleday later was credited with firing the first shot for the Union at Ft. Sumter and became a Civil War hero.

Actually, that story is untrue. Doubleday was at West Point in 1839 and he never claimed to have anything to do with baseball. The Doubleday myth was created by A.J. Spalding, a sporting goods magnate. In the 1930s the National Baseball Hall of Fame was established in Cooperstown. However, if you visit Cooperstown today, you’ll see a plaque admitting that the Doubleday myth is untrue.

The real history of baseball, like many things, is more complicated than that. References to games resembling baseball in the United States date back to the American Revolution. Its most direct ancestors appear to be two English games; cricket and rounders. However, American promoters in the 19th century, including Mr. Spalding, saw political and commercial profits to be gained from promoting a uniquely American game that was both different and exceptional. Actually, no surprise, American baseball teams raided cricket clubs (Philadelphia for example had 100 such clubs) for players, while the great American poet Walt Whitman proclaimed “Baseball is our game- the American game.”

Anglophobia, stirred by Britain’s trade with the Confederacy during the Civil War, pushed the issue. Alarmed by the persistent claim that baseball was invented by the English, Spalding bankrolled a commission, fueled by “patriotism and research” to produce a better explanation. The Doubleday myth was the result.

For Spalding and many Americans then and now, baseball was (and is) more than just a game. It reflects the triumphs, defeats and tensions of our nation. American baseball is the story of our country over the last 150 years. A common endeavor, yet with periodic problems and disputes between communities, owners and workers, and cultures. Mexicans, Irish, Jewish and African Americans saw baseball as a point of entry to American culture. Author Philip Roth called baseball “this game that I loved with all my heart, not simply for the fun of playing it…but for the mythic and aesthetic dimension it could give to a boy’s life in participating in a core part of America.”

The Economist makes three very good points about Americans creating, and in many cases still believing, the untrue Doubleday myth about our national pastime. First, America is often less exceptional- because, like baseball, it is more of a “European- accented hybrid”- than it considers itself to be. Second, there are costs to self-deception such as isolation in sport and otherwise. For example, right now 2 billion people are avidly watching the Cricket World Cup while baseball remains basically an American game. Third, our country’s belief in our exceptionalism may be at the core of our achievements. Believing you are different and exceptional increases your confidence and that can produce greater success.

Henry Ford is known not only for his fantastic success with his automobile empire but also for his great quotes. I really like this one: “Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t- you’re right.” Henry Ford inspired Americans to be more confident-exceptional and different- and therefore more successful. Spalding’s myth about Abner Doubleday inventing baseball isn’t true, but certainly has helped Americans believe that we are exceptional and different and this had helped lead to many of our successes.

And, now, “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.”

SECURE – Update on New Retirement System Legislation

Capitol.jpg

Two weeks ago, the House of Representatives almost unanimously passed the Setting Every Community Up for Retirement Enhancement (SECURE) Act, adopting their version of long-awaited retirement legislation that can now be introduced for deliberation on the Senate side and ultimately head to the President’s desk.   While Congress has discussed this for many years, these policy changes come at a time when life expectancy has increased and a greater number of American retirees must ensure that they don’t outlast their savings. The bill is now in the Senate Finance Committee, where action has slowed as a handful of Finance Committee members have some issues they want addressed before agreeing to vote on it.  

The marquee provisions in the House bill, estimated to cost $16.8 billion over 10 years, include providing tax credits and removing barriers for small businesses to offer retirement plans and boosting the minimum age for required minimum distributions (RMDs) to begin from 70½ to 72 years old. Other significant changes written in the House bill would make it easier for tax-deferred retirement plans, like 401(k)s, to offer annuities and also repeals the age cap for contributing to individual retirement accounts, currently 70 ½. There are also beneficial measures for part-time workers, parents, home-care workers and employees at small businesses, as well.

As reported by the May 23rd WSJ article, the House legislation also repeals a 2017 change to the “Kiddie Tax” that can boost tax rates on unearned income for low and middle income families that had caused surprise tax increases for many, including many military families of deceased active-duty service members . This policy change would also benefit survivors of first responders and college students receiving scholarships. This provision helped accelerate the passage of the bill to resolve a problem for military families right before Memorial Day.

To help pay for these changes, the House bill limits the “stretch IRA” provisions for beneficiaries of inherited IRAs. Currently, beneficiaries can liquidate those accounts over their own lifetimes to stretch out the RMD income and tax payments. The House bill would cut the time down to 10 years, with some exemptions for surviving spouses and minor children.  

A handful of Republican Senate members have some concerns about the House bill, including the House’s resistance to a provision that allows 529 accounts to pay for home-schooling costs. The Senate Finance Committee has introduced a bill closely resembling the House legislation – the Retirement Enhancement and Savings Act. Republican Senators are considering whether to make even broader policy changes than the House bill.

Here are the key items included in the House bill that are of most interest for our DWM clients:

IRAs if you are over 70 ½ – This bill would increase the age for the required minimum distributions (RMD) to begin from 70 ½ to 72. This will allow the accounts to grow and save taxes on the income until age 72. Also, there would no longer be an age restriction on IRA savings for people with taxable compensation – the age had previously been 70 1/2.

401(k)s – Small business employers would be allowed under this legislation to band together to offer 401(k) Plans to their employees, if they don’t offer one already. Long-standing part-time workers would now be eligible to participate in their employer’s Plan and new parents would be allowed to take up to $5,000 from 401(k)s or IRAs within a year of the birth or adoption of a child. Employers would also be required to provide more comprehensive retirement income disclosures on the employee statements and it would be easier for employers to offer annuity options in their 401(k) Plans.

Student Loans/529s – The House version of the bill would allow up to a $10,000 withdrawal from a 529 to be used for student loan repayment.  

At DWM, we are always watching for legislative changes that might affect our clients and will continue to report on these important developments. Please don’t hesitate to contact us with any questions or comments!