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August 7, 2017 | It’s Still Debt

A best-selling Canadian author of 14 books on economic trends, real estate, the financial crisis, personal finance strategies, taxation and politics. Nationally-known speaker and lecturer on macroeconomics, the housing market and investment techniques. He is a licensed Investment Advisor with a fee-based, no-commission Toronto-based practice serving clients across Canada.

Kevin rides a giant, black Harley about the size of a backhoe. A car would be more mobile (and go in reverse), but way less cool. Kev has a house, too, with a mortgage that’s getting tougher to pay down. Life, ya know.

So he wrote me with an idea and a question:

I’m curious to know if you’d recommend pulling out 100k in equity in a house NOT to buy a rental house but to invest in a diversified portfolio and hopefully make a 6% to 8% yearly return only to turn around and put it back down onto the mortgage to pay it off faster? I’ve been contemplating on things to do to pay down the mortgage and create some income, no good having this equity just sitting here when it can be working for us! Seems starting a corporation is out of the question now thanks to T2 and his finance guru.

Given that real estate’s fat days are behind us but debt isn’t going anywhere, does this make sense? Maybe. Let’s roll it around.

Millions of people have, collectively, billions in real estate equity. When house prices stop going up, this becomes dead money. The only value you can really ascribe is what it might save you in equivalent rent. For example, a $1.5 million house can normally be rented for $3,000 a month. The family with a $500,000 mortgage and $1 million in equity is spending $2,400 (monthly) on the mortgage plus about $600 in property tax, insurance and utilities (water, sewer) that renters never pay. So they ‘own’ a home for the same monthly outlay as the family who rents it.

But they have put down $1 million to live there. If that were conservatively invested, and returned 6% annually, it’s $5,000 a month. So the house actually costs $8,000, and  could yield a non-deductible capital loss as easily as a non-taxable capital gain.

In other words, in a declining, flat, comatose or normal housing market, the cost of ownership when real estate has climbed to these levels is insane. Renters who invest win, ten times out of ten. If interest rates creep up and mortgages renew higher, the economics of owning get worse. In the current environment, a lot of people have to be asking themselves – like Kevin – if there isn’t some way to use that dead equity which is no longer supporting a rising asset.

Yes, a HELOC is one way of unleashing equity. It’s a line of credit secured by real estate, which means the debt is registered against the property but also that it comes with a preferential rate of interest. That’s normally prime + 0.5%. These days that equates to 3.45% (and it may rise to 3.7% in October). The line’s rate is almost always variable, so it will increase along with the bank prime. And HELOCs are demand loans. If real estate prices truly collapsed or another credit crisis hit, the bank could ask you for the money back in, oh, 30 days.

The good news is all of the interest is deductible from your taxable income if the money is used to generate more money. Yup, that could be real estate paying you rent or (wiser) a balanced and diversified portfolio of financial assets. So, if you earn $120,000 and live in BC, for example, you effectively reduce the loan interest rate by 41%. Now the HELOC costs you just 2%.

Given that well-managed, non-cowboy, globally-balanced and diversified ETF portfolios have pumped out an average of 6.5% over the last seven years (two of which were market stinkers), this mean a spread in the 4% range. Last time I checked, that was better than the 0% home equity is currently paying.

So to Kev’s question. If he borrowed $100,000 on a HELOC and invested it for a 7% return, then used the cash flow generated ($7,000) to pay down his existing mortgage faster, would it make sense? Well, interest-only payments on the line would cost $3,450, but he’d reduce his income tax by $1,400 (if he earns enough). So he’s up five grand. That’s cool – it can be used as a pre-payment on the amortized mortgage. But wait. Kevin now owes another $100,000. But wait again. He has a $100,000 liquid investment portfolio.

By removing equity and borrowing, the Harley dude has (a) diversified his net worth, (b) reduced his income tax bill and (c) accelerated the mortgage payments, saving a whack of interest.

This is not a slam-dunk strategy for everyone. If rates rise and the payments get hard to make, you lose. If the world goes to crap and the loan is called, you lose. If your house craters and the bank finds out, you lose. If your job fades, you lose. If you invest in the wrong stuff (like gold, bitcoins, weed stock or junior oil & gas), you lose. If the feds drop the hammer on HELOCs again, you lose.

Debt is debt. The world’s soaked in it. Most people would be unwise to shoulder more.

The best strategy, history will show, is to trash debt by selling high. This is high.

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August 7th, 2017

Posted In: The Greater Fool

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