Q: A friend forwarded a query from an acquaintance, a 65-year-old single woman. "She has paid off her house but the yard upkeep is demanding for her. She needs to replace the roof and furnace in coming years. She plans to work until she is 70, but wonders if she should sell her house and move to something smaller or rent something affordable and invest the money from the sale so she has a cushion when she does stop working. She would like to travel and take a vacation now, while she is healthy and can enjoy it, but is afraid to spend her time and income now because she's not sure how long it will last."
A: Her question poses a classic personal finance trade-off. What makes this kind of personal finance decision tricky is you can't get rid of the uncertainty about the future. You don't know what your health will be a year from now, let alone in 10 years. The same goes for your income, the stock market, the economy and so on. The uncertainty is why putting values at the core of personal finance is critical. If you know the "why" — what really matters to you — you can figure out the "how," the money strategy.
With that in mind, my reaction is: Sell the home. The house is absorbing too much time and money. I would manage my finances so that she can travel and take vacations.
Look for a smaller home, maybe a condo or a townhouse. Renting is also smart. With renting, you don't pay property taxes. The insurance and utilities bills are typically lower. The landlord deals with maintenance. In return, you give up control over the property and you're subject to the risk of rising monthly rental costs.
To check on my reaction, I contacted Bradley Weber, director of investment advisory and principal at Aspiriant in Minneapolis.
"If she does not have a strong sentimental attachment to the home, and if the demands on maintenance and upkeep are overwhelming, she should consider downsizing or renting," he says. "The cost savings could be used for travel during her working years and as an offset to the reduction in her income during retirement."
For example, noted Weber, say she sells the home for $250,000. She could afford to pay $1,000 a month in rent for more than 20 years. "In addition, if the proceeds are appropriately invested into a diversified investment portfolio, the money could last even longer or the investment gains could be used toward travel," he said.
Chris Farrell is senior economics contributor, Marketplace, commentator, Minnesota Public Radio.