What’s Your Retirement Plan?
You know how you go the extra mile for your clients—running a quick vacuum before a showing, bringing in flowers or even your own furniture to create that wow factor, wearing out your tire treads to find someone the perfect home. That’s because you’re taking your clients’ dreams seriously.
But even as you help your clients with their plans, are you thinking about yours? What about that ultimate plan-ahead task, your own retirement? Without an employer-based 401(k) or pension set up for you, your long-term financial wellness is fully on your shoulders—and it can be a daunting responsibility.
Financial planner Tad Cook, who specializes in serving real estate clients at @Financial in Chicago, says that a quick rule of thumb is to set aside 25 to 35 percent of your gross income for taxes; save 10 percent for retirement; and then base your working budget on the remaining 65 percent.
What plans are best for real estate professionals? Take a look at four retirement options for independent contractors.
But this is a key point to remember: Retirement plans are not a one-size-fits-all proposition. “It really all depends on the volume of business you have and how aggressively you want to pursue a program,” Cook says. “We have to look at the whole financial picture—and age comes into it.”
Here are stories of three individuals at different ages and stages of their careers. What you learn about their situations and solutions may help you come up with your own set of strategies.
How to face down inflation
Alison Parker, 36, a newly licensed practitioner with Keller Williams in Glen Ellyn, Ill., recently had her first closing. She loves real estate, is a mother of two toddlers, and is excited about how she can blend her budding career with the rigors of motherhood. Her husband, who works in IT, has a pension and 401(k) through his company. She does not. Parker knows she should save for retirement, but at the moment, she’s concentrating more on building her business and setting up college money for the kids.
The plan for the kids, in fact, is pretty well developed: Alison’s young family recently moved from Chicago to the suburbs, but instead of selling their condo when they bought their single-family home, they decided to refinance the condo on a 15-year note and turn it into a rental. It will be paid off when the kids are ready for college. The plan is to sell it at that time to generate funds for the children’s college. At least that’s the thinking so far.
Cook strongly endorses the Parker family’s decision to hold on to their first property, but instead of tapping it for college funding, that second property makes more sense as a retirement vehicle. “Income is so much the key to retirement,” says Cook, “and inflation is an issue.” Because the cost of living is always rising, you can expect living expenses to increase during your retirement. If all your assets are in a fund, you would need to take more money out to meet rising costs. “But with a rental,” Cook says, “you can raise the rent every year and fight inflation.” Cook says real estate agents who have investments in two or three homes have the easiest retirement planning, so there’s no time like the present to get something in place. And even while many practitioners are advising clients about investment opportunities in real estate, a majority haven’t heeded that wisdom themselves. Only about 30 percent of REALTORS® currently own investment property, according to the latest Member Profile by the National Association of REALTORS®.
If you’re looking to set aside money for college, Cook says investments in a 529 college savings plan are recommended since they grow tax-free, at an average of 6 percent, which may be more favorable than real estate values, which tend to increase at an average rate of 3 percent a year. Of course, as a caveat, he adds that performance of any asset can vary. Another cautionary note from Cook: Don’t pay for your kids’ education out of your retirement fund. “That doesn’t work well for anyone,” he says. Think about it: Most kids would rather pay off their student loans than support you in your old age. And, if for some reason you do have to take funds out of a 401(k), Cook advises that you replace it as soon as possible.
How to sock it away
Dave Mattes, 52, has been a real estate agent for most of the last 20 years, not including a five-year excursion into mortgage lending before returning to his passion. Now a sales associate at RE/MAX of Reading in Wyomissing, Pa., he and his wife Melanie, who is also an agent, are aggressively putting money into two Roth IRAs and a SEP IRA . “I’ve been slow to the party, like most people, unfortunately,” Mattes confesses. “It is truly ‘do as I say, not as I’ve done.’ You need to be socking money away starting at age 25 and never, ever, ever stop.”
The Matteses may have been late starters, but they made other investments along the way, now owning eight properties, most of them in the Reading area. “It’s perfect for self-employed agents to acquire properties with 10 percent down,” he says. Mattes purchased his properties with conventional 30-year mortgages, then gradually converted to 15- or 20-year notes. The properties will be paid off as the couple moves into their 60s. “Now I’ll have an asset sitting there that I could cash in, or will have rental income that should provide a decent quality of life.”
Mattes acknowledges that the advice to put money away for retirement was always out there, at the fringes of his awareness. “You know the whole time you need to do it,” he says. His brokerage even encouraged people to make retirement planning a priority by providing contacts and programs for agents and staff. “Our office is very proactive about making tools available to us. They bring people in from outside—accounting firms, financial advisers. They make it easy for us to put a percentage of our income into various accounts.”
Mattes himself now relies on his accountant and financial planner to guide him with his savings program. “They were referred to me by someone I trust,” he says.
But real estate pros should be sure they understand whose best interest their financial counselor is committed to. The Trump administration in February sought to delay the Obama-era “fiduciary rule” that was slated to take effect in April and would require investment advisers to disclose whether they had a commission-based payment structure that favored their own financial gain over their clients’ interests. Cook from @Financial says it’s important to inquire about how investment advisers are paid for their work with you. “First and foremost, ask about fees, which can involve commission, startup costs, ratios, percentages, or other management expenses,” he says. If you’re getting advice from stockbrokers paid on commission, their greater loyalty may be to their brokerage and its products rather than you. Independent financial planners are paid directly by clients, so their interests are not aligned with any particular investment product or brand.
The important point, Cook says, is that the earlier you start saving, the more you earn over the long term. In fact, when you start saving matters more than how much you save, because of the power of compound interest. Mattes finds he must now put away three times as much each month as he would have if he had started years ago. “So I’m taking the complete opposite approach with my son, who’s 26,” he says. Mattes is strongly encouraging his son to start putting money away in a retirement fund—and he is matching those contributions for him.
How to be a serial investor
Wayne Reuter, 62, and his wife, Teresa, 58, retired in 2016 and 2014 respectively, after lengthy careers. Wayne originally worked for the Union Oil Company of California, then 20 years ago joined Teresa’s real estate business RE/MAX Excels in Geneva, Ill., and they continued to build their practice together.
For decades, Wayne has been a religious tracker of the family’s income and expenses. He could tell you what he made and spent in any given year, going back to the 1990s. “In ninth grade, a Ouija board said I was going to live to 86,” he says wryly, “so that’s what I’m planning for.”
He and Teresa made many real estate investments, over the years. The first house they bought was in Boca Raton, Fla., in 1978. They paid $37,500 for it, and when they moved, instead of selling it, they decided to make it a rental. They finally sold the house for $185,000 in 2016—but more important than the appreciation was that in the interval, it generated more than $300,000 in income for them.
Over the years the Reuters bought and sold about 30 other properties in Illinois, owning usually about five at a time. They bought them, rented them, managed them, paid them off, then sold them.
“If you’re in real estate,” Wayne says, “you know what a good deal is.” His advice: “Get one investment property and see if you like being a landlord.” Some people find it a headache, but not the Reuters. “Managing a property and being a landlord is similar to managing people,” he says. They communicated carefully with their tenants, striving for flexibility and honesty. “And the good thing about being a landlord is that you can delegate tasks (for a fee).”
But real estate was not the Reuters’ only investment. They always saved. “You can start with saving 1 percent of each commission in year one and increase that amount in each subsequent year, but get in the habit of saving and every year putting money into your retirement accounts.”
Not everyone has this kind of discipline, and according to Cook, age 50 seems to be the magic number that kicks people into gear. “If a real estate professional has not done a lot of savings in their 20s, 30s, or 40s,” he says, “then in their 50s, that’s when people wake up to fact they need to be saving aggressively for retirement. At this point, the Solo 401(k) is often the vehicle that we use.” That’s because the higher contribution limits can help you do your best to make up for lost time. Or you can split your contributions between types of accounts, deductible and nondeductible. Find a certified public accountant or financial planner you trust who can advise you. The best retirement advice is to practice smart money management—the rules you’ve always heard about. Says Reuter, “Spend less than you make, pay off your credit card balance each month, try to keep three to six months of cash on hand for emergencies and the months you don’t make enough, plan your taxes ahead, and make your quarterly payments. And put away 10 percent every year.”
And own real estate. “Once you get your short-term expenses under control, you should have a property. There’s nothing like having someone else to pay the mortgage.”
Reuter makes it sound easy, and of course it isn’t for everyone. So if you feel overwhelmed at the prospect, it might help to remember that adage about how to get a big tree in your yard:
The best day to plant a tree is 20 years ago. But the second-best day is today.
HVAC is an acronym to which landlords need to pay particular attention. It refers to heating, ventilation, and air conditioning—systems which have to be in good working order.
Keeping a rental unit warm in winter and cool in summer obviously benefits your tenants, but it also benefits the HVAC unit itself, which can suffer damage from extremely high or low temperatures as well as from moisture buildup caused by a lack of ventilation.
1. “H” is for “Heat”
The implied warrant of habitability requires landlords to supply some method of heat, and some communities get pretty specific about heating requirements. For example, New York City requires heating units to maintain a minimum temperature of 55 degrees Fahrenheit from October 31 to May 31, and San Francisco requires a minimum temperature of 68 degrees between the hours of 5 a.m. to 11 a.m. and from 3 p.m. to 10 p.m. all year.
Don’t give your tenants the cold shoulder! State laws define what temperature your rentals need to conform to.
Most states set heating requirements. Maine, for example, requires a minimum indoor temperature of 68 degrees when the outside temperature falls below 20 degrees. It’s important to be familiar with requirements established by your state as well as your community.
2. “V” is for Ventilation
The “V” in HVAC” doesn’t always get the attention it deserves. Central heating and cooling systems provide automatic air circulation, but rentals that rely on room heaters and lack air circulation systems may suffer the effects the stale air. These include paint deterioration, wood rot, pest infestations, and mold.
Ceiling fans and room fans can provide the circulation needed to control moisture and keep tenants comfortable. You also need to maintain them unless otherwise specified in the lease agreement.
3. “AC” is for Air Conditioning
Landlords generally don’t have the same responsibility to provide air conditioning. If you rent a unit with air conditioning, though, there’s a contractual responsibility for you to maintain it. If you don’t, your tenant may be entitled to a rent reduction or some other consideration.
Common HVAC Maintenance Issues
Whether the heat in a rental unit comes from a forced air furnace, a heat pump, or a radiant heat system, there are usually two main maintenance concerns. One is the heating unit itself—which includes the heat source and the blowers—and the other is the control network. An air conditioning system, which is essentially a refrigeration system, also has a control network, and it’s often the same one that controls the heating system.
Blowers, burners, heating elements, and refrigeration coils can all malfunction, and when they do, the landlord has to repair or replace them. Many HVAC problems, however, result from the thermostat, which can easily be maintained by tenants.
Failure to program the thermostat properly is such a common occurrence that many appliance repair specialists address it first. Is the thermostat switch properly selected for heating or cooling? Is the target temperature properly selected? Is the unit even on? Tenants should have a copy of the manual so they can check the settings themselves before calling for help.
If the batteries in the thermostat are weak, the heating/cooling system won’t get the message to turn on. Batteries are easy to replace, and the tenants can do that themselves, especially if they have the manual.
Thermostat leads can get dusty, and all it takes is a blast of compressed air to clean them. Accessing the leads means removing the cover, which tenants can do if they have the manual to guide them.
Persistent failure of the central air system to maintain the target temperature could be caused by a poor thermostat location. It may be in the sun, behind a bookshelf, or in the path of a draft. Moving the thermostat, as well as replacing worn wires, is usually a major job.
The heating and cooling system connects to the living space via a network of metal ducts, and if you’ve ever looked inside one of these ducts, you’ll appreciate the need for filters. When dust enters the ducts and gets drawn into the central system, it can block gas orifices, hinder fan rotation, reduce heating and cooling efficiency, and even potentially create a fire hazard.
Many HVAC pros offer duct cleaning services, but you generally need these only if you’re renovating; if animals, mold, or contaminants got sucked into the ducts; or if someone in the house has become ill. In most cases, however, you just need to service the filters.
The MERV Rating
Changing the filters at least once a year, which is the best way to maintain system efficiency, is another job that tenants can do, especially if you supply the filters. Filters are classified according to their MERV rating, which is an acronym that means Minimum Efficiency Reporting Value. The higher the MERV rating, the more efficient the filter.
Filters with high MERV ratings can filter out contaminants as small as bacteria, but they also restrict air flow, so it’s best to stick with a filter with a rating in the range of 5 to 8. Ratings go as high as 16, so this is on the low side of average.
Two Ways to Approach Maintenance
The HVAC system, like the rental unit itself, belongs to the landlord who has a vested interest in maintaining it in good condition. As the beneficiary of clean, conditioned air from a properly functioning system, however, the tenant also has an interest in keeping things in working order. You can retain full responsibility for maintaining the system or can share that responsibility with your tenant.
- Landlord Controlled and Maintained
The landlord assumes full responsibility for maintenance. The lease usually specifies standard hours for maintenance, such as from 8 p.m. to 6 p.m. Monday to Friday. If maintenance is required at other times, there is usually an extra charge. This arrangement is typical in multi-unit dwellings.
- Landlord Controlled/Tenant Maintained
The tenant pays for filters and minor service calls, such as cleaning and minor malfunctions, while you pay for major service. The tenant also typically pays the utility bills. This can be a good arrangement for sensitive tenants who require enhanced air filtration or who require temperatures outside normal ranges.
Hang Onto Repair Records
Minor HVAC maintenance responsibilities are seldom overwhelming, so it’s usually in your best interest to maintain your property’s HVAC system. That way, you ensure that proper repairs are made and that all servicing conforms to acceptable standards.
Whether you opt to share the maintenance responsibilities with your tenants or not, keep all the maintenance records in a safe place to ensure faster resolution to problems when they do arise.
Credit to Chris Deziel
Chris has owned and managed 4 rental properties in Santa Cruz, CA, and Salida, CO. He is a DIY handyman expert for popular sites like Pro Referral.
Like rookie buyers, clients who are new to selling need extra hand-holding through the sales process.
Even the most steely-eyed sellers can get emotional when it’s time to list their home. It’s the place where they raised their children, gathered friends for annual holiday parties, or painstakingly executed their design vision over many years. The longer they have stayed in a home, the greater the challenges they may face getting up-to-date on the rules and regulations governing transactions. Those who have never before sold are, indeed, in uncharted territory. Here are suggestions for working with first-time sellers who may find the financial and legal complexities, as well as the emotional terrain, especially daunting.
First-time sellers who have never contended with buyer demands may not initially understand how neutralizing their home or adding small upgrades can make their property more competitive on the market. Using data to highlight comparable nearby homes and what they’re selling for is a good place to start, but make sure to explain how the data supports your argument. Andy Werner, abr, e-pro, associate broker at RE/MAX Realty Group in Gaithersburg, Md., says many first-time sellers don’t realize how minor repairs can elevate their property’s market value. Buyers typically expect a home to be in move-in condition, so sellers who choose not to upgrade could face a $10,000 to $15,000 price reduction, he says.
“I tell buyers that if you don’t fix up your house, the buyer will go around the corner and buy from someone who did—and they’ll pay $5,000 more,” Werner says. Such an explanation demonstrates market fundamentals to your clients and keeps them on track toward the closing table. The costs of modest repairs, such as repainting, installing carpet, and refinishing or replacing kitchen cabinetry, are often recouped at resale, Werner adds.
Selling After Decades of Owning
Some common seller issues become more difficult simply because of how long a first-time seller has lived in a home. Decluttering, for example, can be hard enough for someone who’s been in their home only five years. Imagine how challenging it is for sellers who have lived in a home for their entire adult life.
It’s not just emotional resistance they’re experiencing. First-timers may simply not be aware of how clearing out personal items improves the odds of a sale. Alice Chin, psa, a broker with Keller Williams Infinity in Naperville, Ill., recommends that sellers who have never dramatically decluttered their homes before do it in stages, clearing one room at a time. Slowing down the pace can ease the mental and emotional pressure involved in getting rid of personal items, she says, and once sellers see the results in one room, it can encourage them to continue working on the rest of the house. If your client needs more convincing, ask a professional home stager to weigh in, Chin says.
Patience Is a Virtue
All sellers benefit from practicing patience while waiting for the right buyer, but this is doubly true for those who are listing a vacation home in resort areas for the first time. They face different market dynamics than if they were selling a primary residence, says McKee Macdonald, a broker with Coldwell Banker Carlson Real Estate in the ski resort town of Stowe, Vt. Many of his clients who are new to selling are shocked to learn how long it can take to sell—an average of 250 days in his market. Some properties have languished for as long as five years, he says.
Therefore, first-time sellers require a higher degree of communication so they can be prepared for the realities of a niche market, Macdonald says. He explains that traditional marketing tactics such as open houses aren’t always effective because the number of skiers (who are prospective buyers) in town on weekends is unpredictable. Instead, he advises his clients to consider renting out vacation properties while they wait for a buyer. After all, selling a second home often isn’t urgent, and a seller’s motivation can change. “Some sellers say, ‘Throw it out there. If we get the price we want, great. If not, I’m still using it,’” Macdonald says.
Experienced Sellers Can Be Rookies
Even seasoned sellers can feel like newbies when market conditions have changed markedly since their last sale. A client who sold one property during a downturn may be ill-prepared for today’s tight-inventory environment and the stress of handling multiple offers. Though it’s a nice problem to have, it can still be overwhelming.
Ashleigh Fredrickson, sales associate at 8Z Real Estate in Denver, says the biggest challenge for sellers of all experience levels is determining which offers stand the best chance of holding up. In a strong seller’s market, buyers can get swept up in the heat of the moment and bid 10 percent over list price only to realize later they won’t be able to qualify for financing, she says. So it’s important to counsel sellers—particularly those who have never been in such a situation—that the highest bid isn’t necessarily the best. “You want to make sure you’re getting the most qualified buyer so that you’re not back out on the market again,” Fredrickson says.
She suggests using a spreadsheet to help sellers analyze competing bids, taking special note of any contingencies. Your clients need to understand that a higher offer with more contingencies may not be in their best interest. “Maybe the timeline is paramount, so the seller will sacrifice a couple of thousand dollars to ensure the deal is done by a certain time,” Fredrickson says.
Above all, directness and thorough education are what every first-time seller needs, Macdonald adds. When a sale isn’t going the way a seller had imagined it would, “you need to look for strategies to offset the negatives.” But always “give sellers the honest truth, and don’t sugarcoat it,” he says.