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Tapping IRA Lands Couple  In Hot Water

Question: Help! We’ve just received devastating news from our accountant that we owe around $11,000 to the IRS and the state for 2012 taxes. The reason for the huge bill is that we cleaned out my husband’s IRA to pay for our son’s college expenses. My husband is almost 65 and working part time after being laid off, and I’m 61 with a full-time job. What is the best way to pay this bill?

Here are the options I can think of: 1) Cash out my three-month emergency certificate of deposit of $12,000 that I’ve saved to cover expenses in case I get laid off. 2) Take money out of my IRA. 3) Use a credit card check that will be at 0 percent for the first 12 months and then will slide to 8.9 percent. 4) Arrange a payment loan with the IRS. 5) Sell our house in which we have 70 percent equity. Which is best?

Answer: Let’s take No. 2 off the table, shall we? If you learn nothing else from this experience, it should be that tapping retirement funds can trigger a big (and often unnecessary) tax bill.

Selling your house over an $11,000 bill is overkill, so let’s eliminate that option as well. Which leads us to three remaining possibilities: Use cash, borrow from a credit card or borrow from the IRS.

Borrowing incurs costs. That zero percent credit offer almost certainly comes with a fee, which is usually 3 percent to 5 percent of the total. If you can’t pay the balance within a year, you start incurring interest charges.

The short-term rate the IRS charges for installment loans is pretty low — lately it’s been around 3 percent — but you also typically incur late-payment penalties. The penalty typically is one-half of 1 percent of the tax you owe each month or part of a month until the bill is paid in full. If you file by the return due date, that rate drops to one-quarter of 1 percent for any month in which an installment agreement is in effect. The maximum penalty is 25 percent of the tax due.

How much either option will cost you depends on how long you take to pay the bill. The cost for cashing out the CD is, by contrast, almost zero. Whatever tiny amount of interest you’re getting is far less than what borrowing would cost you. If you should get laid off before you rebuild your emergency fund, your access to cheap credit could come in handy.

Going forward, let your son pay for his college expenses and conserve what’s left of your resources for retirement.

Question: I’ve gone back and forth over whether to buy property to live in. I would only consider a condo, because I don’t think it’s ecologically responsible for a single person to live in a stand-alone house, plus I have no interest in or aptitude for maintenance. But through family and friends’ experiences, I’m worried that condos can be a nightmare to own. That leaves me stuck with renting, which gives me flexibility. I also live in an extremely expensive area (Boston) and do contract work, so purchasing something I would want to live in might be tricky. But I feel I’m being barraged by people telling me that renting is a losing proposition and that buying is great for my future. I’d rather keep putting money away in my retirement funds, but I wonder if I’m just refusing to “be responsible” as others say. I have no debt at all, so I feel responsible.

Answer: You would think the recent economic unpleasantness would have cured people of the idea that homeownership is right for everyone all the time.

Real estate investors often tout the benefit of “leverage” — using borrowed money to control an asset that can appreciate in value. As we learned, though, leverage can work both ways and can leave you owing more than a property is worth.

In reality, much of the financial benefit of homeownership comes from the “forced savings” aspect of paying down a mortgage. Homes do tend to appreciate in value over time, but on average the appreciation usually doesn’t exceed the overall inflation rate. Plus homes are expensive to own and maintain, which can dramatically reduce the return on your investment. Investments in stocks and stock mutual funds probably will give you a better return over the long haul, and you’ll never have to buy a new roof for them.

Homeownership can be a good idea if you can afford all the costs, plan to stay put for several years and truly want to be a homeowner. Otherwise, renting gives you freedom and flexibility. That’s neither irresponsible nor a losing proposition.

Liz Weston is the author of The 10 Commandments of Money: Survive and Thrive in the New Economy. Questions for possible inclusion in her column may be sent to 3940 Laurel Canyon, No. 238, Studio City, Calif. 91604, or by email at liz@lizweston.com. Distributed by No More Red Inc.