Since early March, the COVID-19 pandemic has been making a substantial financial impact on millions of people across the country. With 22 million jobless claims in just one month and a slowly moving economy, many homeowners are left wondering if their properties will see a decline in value as workers continue to lose their jobs and minimize personal spending. Spring is traditionally the prime time for buying and selling homes, but thanks to COVID-19, listings have dropped significantly.
What We Already Know
Beginning in March, mortgage rates have fluctuated significantly. They’ve fallen to record lows—the average for a new 30-year fixed-rate mortgage currently falls near 3.33% – and may continue to drop. For those who already own homes, applications to refinance their homes are up almost 168% from March 2019.
Mortgage rates and home values, while related, are two separate entities. History shows us that home prices are likely to fall during recessions, but to what degree is specific to your local market. If available homes in a particular area are already highly sought-after (places like San Francisco, Los Angeles, or Seattle), it is unlikely homeowners will see their property values go down much at all. That said, with such low mortgage rates available, buyers who haven’t suffered from layoffs or unemployment could find their opportunity to purchase a property. If there is still a demand for homes in an area, home prices are likely to remain steady.
Past research from Zillow shows us that during previous pandemics in the US that home prices remained stable with only small declines in home prices. The research also showed that there were fewer real estate transactions and NOT sales happening at a loss.
COVID-19 is already an oddity, and its impact cannot be denied around the world. With that, all homeowners with interest in selling should be prepared for the likelihood of home values dropping until this pandemic passes and the economy settles. While a drop in home values could leave sellers in a challenging situation, it’s also not ideal for anyone who may be looking to draw upon their home equity in the not-so-distant future.
While so much of our lives remain up in the air, and while the economy is so unsettled, this is an opportunity to pull back and see what happens. If the panic around COVID-19 dies down sooner than anticipated, buyers and sellers may not even notice a change in the market.
The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act passed by Congress at the end of March provides direct economic assistance to Americans during the COVID-19 pandemic. In the bill, certain provisions allow people to withdraw from their retirement accounts, including their 401(k)s and IRAs, without the usual early withdrawal penalty. Individuals must have been directly affected by coronavirus – through personal, spousal, or dependent diagnosis or furloughed, laid off, or reduced hours from their job to be eligible for the fee-free withdrawals.
While pulling from retirement funds seems like a simple and fast fix, it may not be the best option based on an individual’s circumstances. Those who stand to suffer the most amid the pandemic are those who are nearing retirement and those already in retirement. The unexpected ups and downs, current unemployment, and new potential health costs in this unprecedented time leave many Americans wondering how they’ll be able to retire comfortably in the current economic climate.
Consider these Options to Counteract the Effects of COVID-19 on Retirement Funds
Keep Current Costs Low
Take a look at current expenses and determine if anything can be eliminated or reduced. Any unused subscriptions? Are you paying for the right amount of insurance? Consider shopping around for lower rates. Can you negotiate any current bills – cell phone, credit cards, internet, anything with an interest rate, even your cable? Hold off on any major home or equipment upgrades and work with what you already have before adding on another expense.
Use Your Home
Assess your risks for taking out a second mortgage or a reverse mortgage. If your mortgage is already paid off, look into home equity loan options. A cash-out refinance may also be available if you’re still paying the mortgage. Over one-third of Americans have their wealth tied up in their homes, so it may be worth it to see if downsizing your home is an option. If so, it might be possible to pay for your smaller home in cash and use the remaining proceeds from the sale of your old for any outstanding debts or liabilities as you near retirement. The location of your home should also be considered – the cost of living can vary significantly from state to state, so moving to a new state or country may bring you more bang for your buck.
Plan for the Long-Term
Health care and long-term care can be an extreme cost for senior citizens. Assisted living and nursing home facilities usually top $60k+ for just one year. Long-term care insurance is costly but can help prepare you and your loved ones to pay the necessary costs. With Americans living longer each year, it’s worth it to plan on trying to stretch your retirement savings to last until age 90. Calculate how much you (and/or a spouse) would need with the assumption you’ll live to be 90. It’s also worth looking at final expense insurance, which could help cover final expenses at the end of your life. Planning for the event in advance can take the financial stress off family members left behind, whether it’s through final expense insurance or setting up a savings account with the express purpose of paying for any final expenses.
While we’re in a global pandemic, everything isn’t all doom and gloom. COVID-19 has hit the country, and our bank accounts hard, but people will bounce back after this economic crisis – much like investors after other recessions in our nation’s history.
Whether you’re working with a robust tax refund, a work bonus, or an inheritance of some kind, here’s a list of positive moves to make with that windfall.
Evaluate Your Debt
There’s “bad” debt and “good” debt. Good debt is an investment that will grow in value or generate long-term income, such as student loans or home equity loans. Bad debt is anything that quickly loses value, doesn’t generate income, and/or has a high interest rate, such as credit cards and cash advance loans. Whenever you come into extra funds, it’s recommended to pay down or pay off bad debt as a top priority.
Consider Your Emergency Fund
Your rainy-day fund should be stocked with at least three months’ worth of living expenses. If yours isn’t there yet, think about boosting it with your refund. If you are a business owner or your income fluctuates, consider shooting for six months’ worth of living expenses.
Fund Your 401(k)
This is a good time to open or boost contributions to your 401(k) or individual retirement account. The 401(k) contribution limit for 2020 is $19,500 for those under age 50, and taxpayers over age 50 are allowed an additional “catch-up” contribution of $6,500.
Open a Roth IRA
If you’re married filing jointly and have a combined adjusted growth income of less than $196,000, you can contribute up to $6,000 to a Roth IRA. The adjusted growth income cap for single filers is $124,000. This is meant to be a long-term money management move, but if you need to withdraw sooner, you can do so tax-free and penalty-fee, though you may owe taxes and penalties on any earnings (not regular contributions) you withdraw.
Invest in Stocks
Assuming you’ve paid off debt, built up your emergency savings fund to three to six months’ worth of living expenses, and boosted your retirement fund, you could think about consulting a financial professional to build a stock portfolio that aligns with your financial goals and personal risk tolerance. Or, if you’re stock market savvy, you can open a brokerage account on your own and start investing in a stock you believe has the potential for growth.
Additional money moves you could make with your refund (again, assuming debt, emergency savings, and retirement funds are taken care of) include making home improvements; opening up a savings account for something big, like saving for a down payment on a house; or donating to charity.
The start of a new year is a time for fresh starts and new goals, but it’s also the beginning of the oft-dreaded tax season, which means Tax identity thieves are on the lookout for information they can use in order to create fraudulent tax returns. Here are some tips to help protect yourself from tax identity theft during tax season.
File Early to Prevent Tax Identity Theft
Tax-related identity theft most commonly occurs from February to early March because thieves want to beat real taxpayers to the punch by filing fraudulent returns before legitimate ones. Because the IRS allows only one tax return per Social Security number per year, your best defense against identity theft is to file your taxes as early as possible.
Use E-File Instead of Postal Mail
An e-filed tax return arrives instantly at the IRS, which then sends back an acknowledgement receipt. At this point you’ll be notified if there’s any suspicious activity, such as possible identity theft. The quicker you know, the quicker you can deal with it. Before you e-file, however, be sure that your firewall, antivirus, and anti-spyware software are all up to date. If you do send your tax return in by post, think about taking it directly to the post office rather than letting it sit in your mailbox.
Don’t Fall for Scams
The IRS will not contact you by phone, email, or text to ask for personal or financial information. Never give out your Social Security number, passwords, PINs, and credit card or bank information to someone who reaches out via these channels. Official correspondence from the IRS is issued in the form of a letter and sent through the mail. However, scammers are getting increasingly clever, and sometimes phony links can look just like the real IRS website. If you ever have questions about the legitimacy of an IRS related query, your best bet is to call the IRS at 800-829-1040.
Protect Your Financial Accounts
Start by using a different password for each of your financial accounts, preferably one that combines letters, numbers, and special characters. It’s also wise to use a two-factor authentication when available, which requires you to verify your login—typically a code sent via call or text.
How to Report Tax Identity Theft
If you’re a victim of tax-related identity theft, you’ll find out when you try to file your return and learn that a return has already been filed with your Social Security number, or you’ll receive a letter from the IRS stating that a suspicious return using your Social Security number has been identified. If either of these happen, you should do the following:
- Complete a paper return. As shocking as it is to learn that you’ve been the target of identity theft, you still need to file your tax return. In order to avoid tax penalties or late fees, submit a paper return by the filing deadline.
- Go to IdentityTheft.gov to file a report with the FTC and IRS.
- File an Identity Theft Affidavit (Form 14039). Fill out and attach this form to your paper return. It will make its way to the Identity Theft Victim Assistance Organization, which will work on your case. Be prepared to submit various forms of documentation proving your identity.
- Contact the three major credit bureaus—Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion—and ask them to place a fraud alert on your credit records. You should also consider asking them to freeze your credit in case the thief should try to open new credit accounts in your name.
- Request a copy of the fraudulent return via Form 4506-F. Seeing the fraudulent return will help you determine the specifics of the theft, such as what family information has been compromised.
- As a precaution, delete any stored credit card numbers from shopping sites and change saved passwords to online accounts.
If you have questions on tax identity theft or would like to discuss your 2019 tax return, please feel free to email me at email@example.com or call 317.549.3091.
As the clock winds down to the end of the year, there are a few last-minute money moves to make in order to lower your tax bill.
Maximize Your 401(k) and HSA Contributions
While tax deductible contributions can be made to traditional and Roth IRA accounts until April 15 of 2020, the deadline for 401(k)s and HSA accounts is December 31 of this year. You can contribute up to $19,000 to a 401(k), 403(b), most 457 plans, and federal Thrift Savings Plans (plus $6,000 in catch-up contributions for those who are 50 or older). As for HSA accounts, the maximum contribution for 2019 is $3,500 for individuals and $7,000 for family coverage. And if you’re 55 or older you can contribute an additional $1,000.
Start Thinking About Retirement Contributions for 2020
Retirement contributions to 401(k)s have increased for 2020. Individuals can contribute $19,500 next year, and those 50 or older can contribute an additional $6,500. If you prefer to spread out your contributions evenly throughout the year, you’ll need to adjust your monthly contribution amounts by January.
Take Advantage of Your Flexible Spending Account
Funds in a flexible spending account revert back to the employer if not spent within the calendar year. Some companies might provide a grace period extending into the new year, but others end reimbursements on December 31.
Prevent Taxes on an RMD with Charitable Donations
After seniors reach age 70 ½ they must take a required minimum distribution each year from their retirement accounts (an exception to this rule is a Roth IRA account). Seniors who aren’t dependent on this money for living expenses should consider having it sent directly from the retirement account to a charity as a qualified charitable distribution, effectively preventing the money from becoming taxable income.
Consider a Roth Conversion
Because withdrawals from traditional IRAs are taxed in retirement while distributions from Roth IRAs are tax-free, you might think about converting some funds from a traditional IRA to a Roth IRA. Just be sure this move doesn’t tip you into the next tax bracket. You’ll need to pay taxes on the initial conversion, but the money will then grow tax-free in the Roth IRA.
Take Stock of Losses
Sell any losses in stocks for a deduction of up to $3,000, but be aware that purchasing the same or a substantially similar stock within 30 days of the sale would violate the wash-sale rule. If that happens your capital loss would be deferred until you sell the new shares.
Meet with a Tax Advisor
If you’re unsure whether or not you’re ending the year in a favorable tax bracket, check in with an advisor who can identify actionable steps to reduce taxable income through retirement contributions or itemized deductions.
When doing your taxes, the goal is to maximize the tax credits and deductions for which you’re eligible. But tax credits are worth more than deductions with the same value, so knowing the differences between the two will help you save money on taxes.
Both credits and deductions lower your tax bill but in different ways and with different outcomes. Tax credits lower your tax liability while tax deductions reduce your taxable income. For instance, someone who’s in the 25% tax bracket with a $100 tax credit will save $100 dollars in taxes, but if that same person has a $100 deduction, they will only save $25 in taxes (25% of $100).
Tax credits are a dollar-for-dollar reduction on your tax bill, regardless of tax rate, which explains the $100 savings with a $100 tax credit in the previous example. Taking advantage of eligible tax credits after applying all deductions will help to slash your taxes due. Some of the more popular tax credits include:
- Earned Income Tax Credit (EIC or EITC)
- Child Tax Credit
- Child and Dependent Care Credit
- American Opportunity Tax Credit
- Lifetime Learning Credit
- Adoption Credit
- Saver’s Credit
- Residential Energy Tax Credit
Refundable Tax Credits vs. Non-Refundable Tax Credits
Some tax credits are refundable while others are not. When you claim a refundable tax credit that exceeds your total tax liability, the IRS will send you the difference. For example, if your tax liability is $1,000 and then you apply your EITC, which is $2,500, you would use that $2,500 to pay your liability and the remaining $1,500 would be refunded to you. By contrast, a non-refundable tax credit can reduce your federal income tax liability to zero, but any leftover balance from the credit will not be refunded.
There are two types of tax income deductions, which reduce the amount of income you’re taxed on: itemized deductions and above-the-line deductions.
Itemized deductions are certain tax-deductible expenses that you incur throughout the year. For some taxpayers, those expenses add up to be greater than the standard deduction amount, in which case, they should itemize their tax returns rather than take the flat-dollar standard deduction. Keep in mind that if you plan to itemize, you should accurately track your spending throughout the year, and keep supporting documentation (receipts, bank statements, check stubs, insurance bills, etc.) in the instance that IRS would ask for proof.
Common itemized deductions include:
- Medical expenses
- State and local income taxes
- Property taxes
- Mortgage interest
- Charitable contributions
The standard deduction is a fixed amount that varies in consistency to your filing status. For 2019 returns, the standard deduction is:
- $12,200 for single filers and married filers filing separately
- $24,400 for married filers filing jointly
- $18,350 for heads of household
If you claim the standard deduction, you can use “above-the-line” deductions, which reduce your adjusted gross income (AGI), to lower your tax bill. Some of these deductions are:
- Health savings account (HSA) contributions
- Deductible contributions to IRAs
- The deductible portion of self-employment taxes
- Contributions to self-employed SEP-IRA, SIMPLE IRA, and other qualified plans
- Self-employment health insurance premiums
- Penalties on early savings withdrawals
Above-the-line deductions typically aren’t as valuable as tax credits, but they help to lower your AGI, which can slash your tax liability and qualify you for other tax breaks based on income limits.