Ask the grumpies: Pay for renovation in cash or take out loans?

Ellie asks:

I am moving to take a new job and have been fortunate enough to be able to buy a house in New Town right off the bat. There is, however, some fairly significant work to do on said house, also right off the bat. I will have enough cash from the sale of my house in Current Town to cover the cost of this work, but am wondering if I should. Given what’s going on with interest rates, would you pay for renovation work in cash? Or take out a second mortgage/HELOC to cover reno expenses and invest the house proceeds? Once moving expenses work their way through the cash flow pipeline, I would be able to pay off a second mortgage pretty aggressively.

I feel like this should be a relatively simple opportunity cost calculation, but somehow it doesn’t feel as simple as it feels like it should. Secondary question: Is there any way to blame the Ongoing Unpleasantness for making this a harder decision that it ought to be?

Well, if you’re asking what we would do, we would pay in cash.  It’s possible you could open a HELOC in case of emergency and then just not use it unless there’s an emergency. But, we also left carpet in the childrens’ bathroom until our mortgage was mostly paid off (and #2 doesn’t even own a house), so we may be too risk averse.

In terms of what is optimal:  If this is just a short term cash-flow thing, then you won’t be wasting much time not being in the market and can put the moving expenses into it once they’re done.  Second mortgages are a hassle and sometimes you are not allowed to prepay them or you still have to pay for mortgage insurance even after you’ve hit 20% loan to value ratio (this will depend on the mortgage terms– some of them are pretty nasty).  HELOCs tend to have interest rates that are higher than your first mortgage and make the uncertain gains of the stock market less attractive compared to the certain losses of the HELOC.

If this were a longer term thing in terms of repayment, say, more than a year, you’d want to look at the bigger picture more carefully and it might be more worthwhile to take out some additional debt (probably the HELOC rather than the second mortgage just because the hassle factor is smaller, but intelligent people will disagree on this).  Mainly the margin I would be looking at would be an employer match for retirement.  If paying in cash for renovations means that your retirement savings isn’t going to happen, then I’d take a long hard look at that– what renovations need to actually happen, and what are interest rates on loans?  Getting an employer match will blast past most interest rates, even high ones.  Then after that you’ll have to think about whether you’ll remember to set up more retirement savings once you have money again– if not, then you might want to set that up and take out more loan just so you don’t lose out on retirement savings by not getting around to setting it up.

The Ongoing Unpleasantness makes long-term planning difficult for many people.  Uncertainty at large makes things difficult at small.

So:  tl:dr

If you’re going to have the money in a few months, pay in cash.
If it’s going to be longer, make sure you get your employer match for retirement and take a loan if you have to.
Then: think about hassle, interest rates, and how likely you are to set up retirement savings later.

Update with some numbers:

The total cost of the work will be in the neighborhood of $40,000. So a very decent chunk of change that could do a lot of things. Once the down payment on the new house is made, I should have about $59,000 left of the proceeds from selling my current house and I have $40,000 or so cash in savings. I don’t have any other debts that would be logical first priorities—student loans and car are paid off, and credit cards are paid in full every month. But there will be some decently expensive travel & transition costs in the immediate term, as well as some concerns about cash flow because the new job pays 9-month contracts over 9 months, without the option of distributing payments over 12 months. So there will be a couple of months between the last paycheck from my current position and the first paycheck from the new one.

It looks like the local credit union there is offering home equity loans at 4.75%.  [No numbers for a second mortgage.]

Investing options are… my Roth [IRA and] my TIAA-CREF [presumably a 403(b) through work].

One thing to remember is that you’re most likely not going to have to pay all of the renovation costs upfront.  So it is possible that some of the bills will not come due until after your reimbursements have come in, possibly after your paychecks have started (depending on how long things drag).  You won’t need to decide on the IRA until April.  It sounds like you will have enough leftover that you should be able to start your retirement savings via direct deduction from your paycheck without worry when school starts.

Given the numbers above– the HELOC rate isn’t terrible, but it’s not low enough to make investing the difference a slam dunk.  Personally I’d figure out how much you intend to contribute to the 403(b) and get that started with the school year (so that it goes on auto-pilot) and then decide on the IRA after all the renovation stuff stuff has been figured out or April happens, whichever comes first.

#2 says:  Pay cash because it takes time to open a HELOC (apply, get approval, etc.) and you want the reno done ASAP so you can move in and not go insane.

Grumpy Nation:  What are your thoughts?  Any experiences with HELOC/2nd mortgages/renovations/etc.?


Ask the grumpies: whether or not to purchase insurance

H.I.P. Person (Home Insurance Purchasing Person) asks:

How do you decide if you need insurance for something? We are updating our home owners coverage and they are peddling the following:

1) service line coverage –  up to $10,000 per event
2) systems coverage (a/c, hvac, water heater, furnace, and the like) – up to $50,000 per problem
3) sewer back up (?? not sure of max coverage)

We live < 75 miles from the coast; <20 miles from two major water coastal inlets but  not in a flood zone. What hurricane related insurance should we own? The policy comes with wind/water but not flood and they don’t really want to sell us flood (they are offering #3 instead).

Are any of these worth it?  What price point would make them worth it or not?

DISCLAIMER:  We are not financial advisors.  Get advice from real professionals or do your own research before making important monetary decisions.

So in economics, you purchase insurance when the expected utility of the insurance is greater than the cost of the insurance.  So, assuming you knew how your utility function was shaped (the important part for this purpose is that you know your coefficient of risk aversion, in this case specifically how much you hate the possibility of loss), and you know the probability of a bad thing happening, you just multiply that probability by your expected utility plugging in the amount you’d be out if the bad thing happens and then add the probability that the bad thing doesn’t happen and multiply that by your expected utility plugging in the amount you’d have if the bad thing didn’t happen.  Problem is… in reality, we usually don’t know the probabilities of these negative events occurring (or even what those negative evens could be!) and we definitely have no clue about what our utility functions look like.

So how does one decide what to get insurance on in reality?  Well, if you have rough ideas of probabilities, you can look at the expected value of something happening.  Expected value is like expected utility, but it tells you what the break-even point is assuming you have no emotions.  You’re neither a gambler nor risk averse.  But risk averse you can look at those numbers and think to yourself, “How do I feel about this calculation?”  In general, the insurance company is out to make money, so they’ll be charging more than the expected value of the thing happening, but does the amount more that they’re charging seem reasonable to you?

If you don’t know the probabilities of something bad happening, you can still play with worst case scenarios:  If the bad thing happens, what would you have to pay out of pocket to fix it without insurance?  What would you have to pay out of pocket with their insurance?  Is the peace of mind for the difference between those two numbers worth what they’re charging?  (And again, if you have rough ideas of how probable these events are, you can factor that in as well).

Another thing to do is to google around, preferably with reputable sites, to see what kinds of insurance are usually a good idea and what kinds are generally scams.  You can ask people around you too, though people often do things that don’t make sense if there’s good marketing on the part of the insurance company or if they’re more credit constrained or risk seeking than you are.

An important thing to note is that you want insurance to insure against risk.  You don’t want it as a pre-payment for things you’re going to pay for eventually.  You don’t want a high monthly cost if you can avoid it by sharing some of the pain should disaster strike through a higher deductible.  The goal isn’t to save money, it’s to smooth your consumption over good and bad states of the world.  Don’t try to beat insurance– in the best states of the world you give them money and they never give you money.  But you want it there when disaster strikes if you can’t handle the disaster on your own.

If it were me, I’d definitely eschew the service line coverage unless it was really cheap– we can afford a 10K emergency.  Since the limit is capped, it is not actually useful insurance unless paying up to 10K would be devastating.  (Capped insurance is often a red flag– if they stop paying after a certain amount is spent you may be better off self-insuring because if something really terrible happens they’re not going to be much use, and self-insuring means you’re not paying for the additional administrative costs of going through them.)

Systems coverage again, we probably wouldn’t pay… replacing a/c, hvac, water heater, furnace etc. is all stuff that has to get done some time anyway (and none of these should cost 50K, unless that’s including the damage after a water heater explodes or something) so paying them is like pre-paying for bills you’re going to have, but it is likely you’re going to have less choice about how to make those replacements and you’ll be paying their administrative costs over what you’d be paying if you did these things yourself.  And, again, it’s capped.  This is unlikely to be good insurance.

Sewer back-up is the only one of these that doesn’t sound 100% scammy.  Check all your other insurances to see if this is covered under them.  Estimate how much a sewer backup could destroy.  Make sure that it’s unlimited covered and not capped and there are no other strings attached.  Think about the probability of this happening.  Look at how much they’re charging for it.  Then go with your gut.

We have no idea about hurricane insurance.  The internet has a bunch of pages about it, noting you should get wind and flood on top of home, but I’m not getting a good idea of what numbers you should be looking at or even how to make that calculation.  You may also want to look into the different deductibles they offer, because none of these sound particularly cheap, but it may be that if you have a high deductible the insurance cost will be more reasonable (assuming you can afford the deductibles).

Good luck!

Grumpy Nation, do you have any better advice for H.I.P.?


Ask the grumpies: Worthwhile renovations?

Chacha1 asks:

Well, I am deep in the throes of remodeling angst so this is a house-and-home but also finance-related topic that people might like to discuss:

What do people think was the BEST money they spent on home improvement, and what do they wish they had left alone?

This is partially a cost/benefit question, because a lot of people think of owning a home as an investment (I think of it as a forced savings plan with really high barriers to entry), but also a Greatest Domestic Happiness question. e.g. I read anecdotally that people love the idea of a huge multi-stage bathroom (separate tub & shower, toilet in a little room with door, double sinks) but personally I see that as a gigantic waste of space. And from a ROI perspective it is also, not anecdotally, a waste of money. So has anyone done such a thing, are they happy about it a few years down the line, etc.

Note, as renters we are not considering any such thing. For us it’s more “do we get the entry door with sidelight that requires reframing or do we choose a standard door with half glass which would mean we can replace BOTH entry doors.” (You can probably guess which way I’m leaning.) :-)

This is definitely a personal question for each homeowning (or formerly home improving) individual of Grumpy Nation to weigh in on.  We have done remarkably little home improvement other than replacing things when they break or when feral kittens or toddlers destroy them past the point of regular aesthetics.  I guess our kitchen looks nicer without gingham wallpaper and our window dressings look better with new blinds.

We have one of those multi-stage bathrooms as our master bath.  The first few years it made me feel kind of dirty, since it literally is the same size as our first efficiency apartment (100 sq feet).  I’ve gotten used to it, but don’t get any additional happiness from it than we would get from a normal bathroom like we have in our MIL suite.  I don’t feel at all deprived at hotels or visiting relatives.  The water closet is one of DH’s favorite places to escape when the kids are going wild– if we can’t find him, chances are he’s in the water closet.  But I’m sure a normal-sized bathroom would function the same way so long as there’s a door to close!

So, grumpy nation, what home improvements have you felt were worth it?  What home improvements do you regret?

Ask the grumpies: if I want to give my kids a huge amount of money as young adults, how should I do it?

Sandy L asks

Should I buy my kid a house or pay for tuition?

Student loans can be deferred etc. if the kid is paying their own way they may be more serious etc.

Tuition. The pay your own way thing is BS. Here’s our deliberately controversial post on that topic. You can compromise by having them pay their own extras (clothing, meals out, etc). Then they’ll have the same experience of learning how to budget and not living high on the hog but without the huge amounts of debt at the end.  Also, note that if you’re paying tuition directly, it isn’t subject to the gift tax.  “Under current IRS rules, a payment made directly to an educational institution to pay for the tuition of a student does not count as a gift to the student for gift tax purposes, ” according to fastweb.

Buying a child a house could lock the kid in place and create additional expenses.  A house is a lot of responsibility when you’re just starting out, and trying to deal with selling and repairs on top of job searching and dating and hobbies and anything else that young people do might be more hassle than help.  (And if the kid decides to sell the house in order to pay off hir education, basically you’ve just given realtors a bunch of transaction fees and paid gift taxes for nothing.)  If you’re only talking about providing a downpayment, that’s even worse because a mortgage is a big fixed expense and the kid might not be able to sell very easily if the house goes underwater and they get a job elsewhere.

What do you think Grumpy Nation?  Any experiences with either?

(Mis-)Adventures in trying to get a whole house water filter.

I’m allergic to the water in our area.  If I take a bath or the shower filter wears out, I end up with super-flakey skin and sometimes it itches.  Generally we handle this with a shower filter in the master shower and a sink filter for drinking water in the kitchen.  But then I started getting an itchy spot on my back where one of my bra straps hits (sort of on the right side), and we thought maybe instead of a blemish (there’s no bumps) or some kind of neurological problem it might be me becoming allergic to cloth, specifically the water it’s washed in (we’ve already narrowed down laundry soaps I can use).  I’m not convinced that the itchy spot is from the water, but we figured this was something to try.  Add to that that DC2 seems to have inherited a lot of my skin allergies, and the praise one of my colleagues who is allergic to chlorine gives his whole house water filter, we decided this was worth trying.

In fact, we decided it was worth trying back this summer when DH started getting paid again.  (This was our celebratory purchase.)  We decided it so much that I ended up buying a whole house water filter on “60%” sale from aquasana off amazon (quotes because it’s always on at least a “40%” sale).  From online searching, we determined it would probably cost another $700 -$1K to get the thing installed, and we were fine with that.

We still don’t have whole house filtered water.

My colleague had told us it was so easy.  They just hook up to the waterline and put it in your garage, he said.

My colleague does not have a corner lot where the garage is on the other side of the house (with the pipes imbedded in the concrete slab under the house).  There is no real feasible way to put the filter in the garage.  It has to be attached where the waterline comes into the house.

So we had the plumbers out and they said first we’d have to find the water line, which they could do but they didn’t have the specialized equipment so that would mean digging up a good portion of the lawn searching for it.  So they recommended a service who doesn’t do plumbing but just finds leaks.  That guy found our water line… and a leak (a real leak– that part of the lawn was definitely much greener than the rest of the lawn, we just hadn’t noticed).

So we had the plumbers out again to fix the leak.  Our home water pressure improved noticeably.  They still needed to get back to us on the cost of installation of the water filter.

Then weather happened and the plumbers couldn’t do non-emergency stuff for a while.

Then school happened and we didn’t have time to contact the plumber.

Then our sprinkler system started leaking, so we had to have a new sprinkler repair person out.

Then some hose connections started leaking (at which point we began to suspect that the increased pressure was busting out wherever it could bust) and we had the plumbers out again and they were able to get us an estimate on the whole house filter while they were out.

Then we accepted the estimate and made an appointment.

Then the two plumbers who were supposed to come out couldn’t because one had a wife in the hospital and one had a baby in the hospital (both emergencies, though with the baby it was a preemie so not entirely unexpected and the prognosis and eventual outcome was good).

Then they rescheduled for the next week when I was out of town for a conference.  They came out and fixed another hose connection thingy.

Upon further inspection, they realized that the hot water closet didn’t have enough room for both the water heater already housed there and the whole house water filter and told DH to get a shed.  DH took the day off work and went out and purchased a $300 ugly grey plastic shed and spent $30 on truck rental to get it home.  Then he put it together.  Then he realized he’d need a concrete floor or something to use it for the filter.  Then he realized the plumbers wouldn’t be coming back that day.  Then he realized the shed violated our HOA agreement.  [Update:  he has since resold the shed on Cragislist and so is only out $130, not $330, and we no longer have the ugly thing in our backyard waiting for the HOA to notice it.]

After much discussion, we decided to contact the HOA architectural committee for advice.  They didn’t give advice (the helpful lady had stepped down and was replaced by a guy who spent a long time explaining to DH why rules are important) but they gave us a horrifically lengthy and detailed document we would have to fill out if we wanted to get a shed (only wood are allowed, and boy are they pricey and difficult to find as small as we would want).

Then Thanksgiving happened.  Then Christmas happened.  And today is New Year’s.

So now we have three options which may or may not work.

  1.  (The one we’re leaning towards):  Install the filter without the pro kit (looks something like this but is 10-year, not 6-year).  This cuts the width from ~44 in to ~22 in and might allow it to share the outdoor closet with our water heater.  We don’t know yet and would have to have the plumbers out again.
  2. Remove our tanked water heater (which is going to have to be replaced in a year or two anyway) and replace it with a tankless water heater.  Then install the entire filter.  This should be possible, but it may cost another $2K, one K for the tankless water heater, another $1K for installation.  We have to do more research on this.  If money were no option, we’d be in the ideal situation for tankless as this water heater services two bathrooms and nothing else (meaning if we all took showers and baths at the same time we’d only be using 8 gallons max) and we’re in a warm climate.   Apparently the installation of tankless water heaters could be difficult or could be easy depending on where the hookups are and how big the tubes are.  Some newer tankless heaters have more standard hookups than did older models.  But we have to figure out which is which.  (Our garage water heater replacement will be another tank because we like running the dishwasher and clothes washer at the same time.)
  3. We could keep trying to get a shed just for the water filter.

Am I wishing that I’d held off buying this filter?  YES.  Especially since my back hasn’t had that itchy spot for a while (it went away whenever I traveled, so right now my primary suspect is a different environmental allergen).  And the plumbers aren’t returning our calls.

We could cut our losses at this point and either try to return the filter at a loss or sell it on Craigslist at a loss.  But it would also be nice to take a bath from time to time without having to shower afterward (or regretting it later).

So I had hoped to have a happy post about how great whole house water filters are and how it’s changed my life etc…. but… instead I have this warning post about how corner lots and HOA suck and man, home improvement sure can suck away a lot of time and energy.

Have you ever gotten a whole house water filter?  How about a tankless water heater?  Any advice on getting a small (under 6 feet) wooden shed (and does it need a concrete bottom)?

What to do when they dryer stops drying: Or why DH spent some time on the roof

Our dryer was taking longer and longer to get clothes actually dry.  A regular load was starting to take upwards of 2 hours to finish.

We vacuumed out the inner workings of the lint trap (as one does on a somewhat regular basis).  That didn’t help.

We vacuumed out the vent tube and vent area behind the dryer (something we do about once a year, give or take).  It wasn’t particularly clogged. That didn’t help.

Then DH did something he has never done before, despite us having lived in this house for >10 years (give or take).  He followed the vent to where it spits out.  Growing up, our dryer vents had always vented somewhere on the first floor on the side of the house … I’d never thought about that being one floor up from where the dryer was (DH’s laundry room was in the basement, while ours was on the lower ground floor of our split-level).  Turns out our laundry vents out on the roof.

So DH went up to the roof and cleaned out that end of the vent.  It was completely clogged and he doubts that the previous owners ever cleaned it either.

One immediate side effect was that timed dry regular didn’t heat so hot as usual the first time we tried it (DH suspects the heat wasn’t blocked getting out at all).  So DH tried the sensor dry which has NEVER worked since we got the dryer 10+ years ago.  It worked way too well this time, with the clothes ending up hot and bone dry.  So then he tried sensor dry slightly damp and that was perfect.  A few weeks have passed (and the weather outside has gotten warmer) and we’re back to being able to used timed try again.

So yay not having to buy a new dryer because it was just the outside vent being clogged.

Do you have any appliance repair stories to share?  What’s your process when the dryer stops working so well?

Ask the grumpies: When to upsize or downsize a house

First Gen American asks:

When do you downsize, upsize, etc. When you can no longer afford the house you live in, how long do wait until you make the decision to sell. (Due to a life change..job loss, stay home with kids, etc)

We got nuthin’ for this one.  We’ve never been in that situation and never wanting to be in that situation means we haven’t bought as much house as we could afford or bought a house at all and we’ve always had lots of money in the bank.

So yeah, we’re not the people to answer this question.

The people we know who have been in this situation have generally not made the decision to sell at all– just the decision to short-sell or foreclose when forced.  On the internet, we’ve seen people take in housemates to help pay the rent, though IRL I don’t really know of this happening.  People we know tend to upsize over time and only downsize when their kids go to college or they get divorced.

It’s a good reason to live under your means and to lifestyle inflate slower than you can afford to!

#2 notes:

I have definitely moved, but not for can’t-afford-it reasons.

I got a bigger place when my partner joined me in Blasted Place after three years there alone; my place was fine for me but wouldn’t have been enough room for the two of us. We downsized when we moved to Paradise because Paradise is expensive.

#1 says:

Yeah, when moving across country we’ve sometimes moved into smaller but more expensive places (see: our current rental).  But we’ve never sold a house!

Once again, does the grumpy nation have a better response than our poor one?  It must…