Financial Literacy 2007 - Home equity
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home equity
Making home equity work for you

If you're like most Americans, your home is your most valuable asset and your mortgage payment is almost certainly your largest monthly payment. With so much money tied up in one item, it's important to understand the role your home plays in your overall financial picture.

Is it smart to take out a home equity loan for home improvements? Is it wise to tap equity for higher education expenses? Should you scrimp to make extra payments to principal each month?

The home equity equation has become more complex in recent times, due to deteriorating conditions in the housing market. Although homes in some regions of the country are seeing modest price appreciation, many homes have fallen in value. In the year through September 2008, the national median price for housing declined 9 percent, from $210,500 to $191,600, according to the National Association of Realtors. Naturally, under these conditions lenders have retreated from heavily marketing home equity loans.

However home equity loans are still available. Getting a loan in this new housing landscape depends on several factors, including your particular financial situation, tighter credit issuing standards and the less lofty real estate appraisals, says John Pallaria, a Certified Financial Planner and adjunct professor in Boston University's CFP Program. Here Pallaria takes a look at possible uses of home equity.

What is your goal?
  1. Heading to retirement.
  2. Building home equity.
  3. Need a loan.
  4. Ready to remodel.
  5. Buying a car.
  6. Financing an education.

Heading to retirement

You always want to be debt free going into retirement," Pallaria says. As a homeowner, any equity you have in your home is similar to money in the bank and can only help you when you retire. That said, think about these three things before funneling money into your home:

1. Pay down loans with highest interest rates first. While it's important to look for the highest rate of return when investing, when repaying debt, work to eliminate your highest rates first. Pallaria recommends paying off all credit cards on which you carry a balance. Once you pay them off, use your funds to pay the principal off on other types of loans, such as car loans.

2. Fully fund 401(k)s. Always take advantage of employer matching contributions. In fact, Pallaria recommends maxing out your retirement plan before funneling extra money into building home equity. "Leading up to retirement, fully funding your employer-sponsored retirement plans and any IRAs would be an important consideration," he says. For 2008, IRS rules allow you to contribute up to $15,500 per year to your 401(k) account -- $20,500 if you're over 50 years old and making catchup contributions.

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3. Defer prioritizing home equity if home values depreciating. If the market in your area is sliding, Pallaria suggests homeowners exercise caution and put less emphasis on tapping home equity. Many people count on the equity in their home to help sustain them in retirement, but a house is not always the high-yield investment it first appears to be.

"If home values have gone down and now you're tapping into the equity, a) how much are you borrowing and, b) while in retirement do you have other sources to pay back that loan? I think that's a very important component here."

Building home equity

Looking forward to the mortgage-burning party but finding it tough to set aside extra funds? Follow these tried-and-true strategies to pay off your mortgage faster and to build home equity:
  • Raises. Set aside a portion or the full amount of any raise you receive for paying down mortgage or equity loans.
  • Extra payment. Send an extra payment to your lender directly at the beginning of month. Or apply any money left in your checking account at the end of the month to your loan's principal.
  • Shift funds. If you've been paying down credit cards, shift the money to your mortgage payment after you pay off your cards. You're already used to paying out that money anyway.

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Advice for homeowners looking for options to use their home’s equity wisely. Delivered monthly.

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Too soon for home equity loan?

Dear Dr. Don, I was wondering if it is possible to take out a second mortgage on my house to pay for my student loans. I've owned my house for about one year now, but I don't have much equity in the home. My student loan... Read more

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