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Home Sweet Home: The Role of Home Ownership in Retirement Planning

I’ve seen many framed “Home Sweet Home” signs hanging on walls of homeowners’ houses. But I’ve never seen one hanging on the walls of renters’ houses.

Homeowners’ houses, like those of renters, provide shelter, but homeowners are different from renters and so are their houses. Homeowners’ houses are investments like stocks and bonds. They serve as savings piggybanks, like IRAs and 401(k)s, and can be bequeathed to children and others.

Home Ownership Offers Three Kinds of Benefits

Houses, like all products and services, provide three kinds of benefits—utilitarian, expressive and emotional. Utilitarian benefits answer the question, “What does something do for me and my finances?” All houses provide the same utilitarian benefits as shelters, but homeowners derive additional utilitarian benefits from their houses as investments if their home values go up or utilitarian costs if their home values go down.

Expressive benefits convey our values, tastes and social status. They answer the question, “What does something say about me to others and myself?” Homeowners derive expressive benefits in high status, having the means to buy a house or at least put a down payment on one. And they derive expressive benefits from the freedom to modify their houses to express their tastes.

Emotional benefits answer the question, “How does something make me feel?” Homeowners enjoy the emotional benefits of pride of ownership and peace of mind from knowing that no landlord can evict them. 

Helping Clients Understand the Three Types of Benefits Derived from Investments

Clients typically ask financial advisers many housing questions such as:

  • Should I buy a house or rent one?
  • Should I pay off my mortgage or keep it?
  • Should I sell my house and buy a smaller one?
  • Should I get a reverse mortgage?

Financial advisers can help enhance the well-being of their clients by considering each of the three kinds of benefits and costs and guiding clients to do the same. This is important to remember as some advisers may be prone to considering only utilitarian benefits and costs and guiding clients to do the same. Buy a house or rent one? Run the numbers. Pay off the mortgage or keep it? Run the numbers. Get a reverse mortgage? Run the numbers.

A daughter wrote to MarketWatch’s Moneyist: “My parents want to use $300,000 in retirement savings to pay off $160,000 left on their home. Is that a good idea?” One adviser said: “Step back and create a budget spreadsheet so you can get a handle of overall cash flow for your parents.” Another adviser said: “I would be hesitant to suggest they use over half of their liquidity to pay down the mortgage. I would ask whether they have considered selling their current home and purchasing a home that would allow them to pay for the replacement home. A reverse mortgage is another alternative to tap equity in their home.” 1

Yet, the parents might well be right in their preference to pay off their mortgage. The expressive and emotional benefits they could derive from being mortgage-free might exceed their utilitarian costs of diminished liquidity. When I faced the same choices years ago, I considered all three types of benefits and costs and chose to pay off my mortgage. I’m not sure whether the utilitarian benefits I derived from my choice exceeded their costs, but I’m sure the expressive and emotional benefits I continue to derive from living mortgage-free exceed their costs. Paying off my mortgage enhanced my well-being.

Houses have a special place in our portfolios and in our life cycles of saving and spending.

Standard life-cycle theory says our sole reason for saving during our working years is spending during our years in retirement. Behavioral life-cycle theory says our reasons for saving and spending during our working and retirement years consist of wants for the full range of utilitarian, expressive and emotional benefits of saving and spending.

Spending Source Pyramids and Spending Use Pyramids

Behavioral life-cycle theory includes “spending source” and “spending use” pyramids.

The bottom layer of the spending source pyramid contains “income,” including wages, dividends and interest, Social Security benefits and payments from pension plans. The middle layer contains “dips into regular capital,” including proceeds from the sale of stocks, bonds and other investments, whether in retirement accounts such as IRAs and 401(k) accounts, or outside them. The top layer contains “dips into bequest capital,” including proceeds from the sale of investments intended as bequests, especially houses.

The bottom layer of the spending use pyramid includes what we must have or provide, such as food, shelter and support of minor children. The middle layer is what we like to have, such as vacations and new cars. Above these layers is a layer of bequests. For all but the richest families, the largest part of bequest is a house.

Behavioral life-cycle theory predicts that investors are reluctant to dip into regular capital and especially reluctant to dip into bequest capital, mostly houses. Housing equity makes up a large proportion of the wealth of older Americans, yet, on average, people don’t sell their houses to support their non-housing consumption as they age.2 Moreover, homeowners are reluctant to embrace reverse mortgages that pay them while they continue to live in their houses. Only 2% of eligible homeowners choose reverse mortgage contracts.3

Advisers can enhance the well-being of their clients by helping them understand the benefits and drawbacks of their spending source and spending use pyramids. Avoiding dips into regular capital, such as stocks and bonds in deferred-contribution retirement accounts and outside them, is a wise and effective habit that reduces spending and increases savings during our working years.

But that habit becomes a drawback in retirement when dips into regular capital are necessary for a comfortable, yet prudent, standard of living. Even dips into bequest capital, such as by reverse mortgage on a current house or replacing it with a smaller house, might be necessary.

Financial advisers should be aware of the expressive and emotional benefits clients derive from avoiding dips into regular capital and bequest capital as they strive to persuade clients to forego these benefits.


 

1Quentin Fottrell, “My parents want to use $300,000 in retirement savings to pay off $160,000 left on their home. Is that a good idea?” The Moneyist/MarketWatch, April 3, 2021.

2Steven F. Venti and David A. Wise, “Aging and Housing Equity: Another Look,” in Perspectives on the Economics of Aging, ed. David A. Wise (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004), 127-180.

3Thomas Davidoff, “Reverse Mortgage Demographics and Collateral Performance,” February 25, 2014. Available at SSRN.


This material has been prepared for educational purposes only. It is not intended to provide, and should not be relied upon for, investment, accounting, legal or tax advice.

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