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

Need a loan

If you know you need to borrow, home equity loans can be an excellent way to satisfy cash flow needs, says Pallaria, who considers their tax deductibility an important part of the equation. But he also cautions that it's important to weigh all your options carefully.

Even if you have a decent amount of equity built up, you're likely to find it tough to get a home equity loan if you don't fit today's mold of eligible borrowers because lenders are clamping down on credit and underwriting standards.

"I think people certainly need to have credit scores north of 700 or maybe even north of 750 these days to really be able to secure a home equity loan, because having equity is one side of the story, being able to pay it back is the other," he says.

When borrowing, if you have the option of withdrawing money from an investment portfolio, getting a personal loan or dipping into your home equity, compare the net rates of return first. With a home equity loan tax deduction, a 7 percent loan might only cost 5 percent. If you expect your investment portfolio to return better than 5 percent, it might be better to the leave that money untouched.

Beware of taking withdrawals from tax-favorable retirement accounts since that may result in tax consequences, plus the possibility of stiff penalties for early withdrawals.

If you decide to go with a home equity loan, make sure to file the long Form 1040 at tax time. "For folks who aren't itemizing, they're basically missing out on a deduction," Pallaria says.

Ready to remodel

Although home improvements generally increase the value of your home, the return isn't always dollar-for-dollar. However, some improvements are consistent winners. "Statistics show that kitchens and baths have the best return on the dollar that is spent renovating those items," Pallaria says. His advice is to keep in mind that not everybody has the same taste. The next owner may not want to pay for your koi pond or a garage that's been transformed into a dance studio.

To maximize resale potential, any renovations should be conservative, says Pallaria. "If they're going to renovate a basement or make more living space, being on the conservative side of how it's built, how it's structured and how it's decorated is going to be important to people that may be prospective buyers of the house."

Keep an eye on the bottom line and weigh decisions in terms of livability. The benefit of borrowing equity for home improvement as compared to other loans is the tax advantage available to anyone who itemizes his or her returns.

Buying a car

Although home equity borrowing to purchase a vehicle usually affords the luxury of lower payments, Pallaria points out that this turns a five-year car loan into a 15-year home equity loan.

"I would say if you're considering using a home equity loan to buy a car, it's not necessarily a bad thing, but stretching it out longer than you need to isn't the best use of that strategy."

He adds that it's best to make the repayment schedule "apples to apples." In other words, if you're going to purchase a car using a home equity loan, try to time your payments so the car is paid off within 60 months or less. Of course, the interest on a home equity loan is generally tax deductible if you itemize. Compare costs using Bankrate's auto loan calculator.

Financing an education

Many people use home equity loans to pay for educational expenses. However, Pallaria says college 529 plans are by far the best way to save for your child's college education because not only do earnings grow tax free, but the distributions are tax-exempt when used for qualified educational expenses. Plus grandparents, aunts and even the child can contribute.

Students who are unable to take advantage of a college 529 plan may want to consider federal student loans, or as a last resort, a loan through the private sector. Pallaria cautions that interest rates on private student loans can be high. With interest rates on home equity loans climbing, it's important to consider the consequences of borrowing with both types of loans.

"You need to look at what the interest rate environment is: Is it going to change? What's the payback period? Are equity rates up or down?" The good news -- interest on both types of loans is tax deductible within certain guidelines.

Has home equity funded your dreams or turned into a nightmare? Share your story.

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