Practical steps every new homeowner should take

January 6, 2010 | 128 Comments

What could be more exciting than taking the leap from renter to first-time homeowner? You can turn the key in a lock that no landlord has access to, read in a hammock in your own backyard and paint your dining room bright red. Some first-time homeowners get swept up in all the excitement and make mistakes that can jeopardize everything they’ve worked so hard to earn.

Don’t be one of those people: Take a few moments to ponder these seven practical concerns that will help ensure that your first home becomes the place of luxury and financial freedom you expected it to be.

Don’t overspend on furniture and remodeling
You’ve just handed over a large portion of your life savings for a down payment, closing costs and moving expenses. Money is tight for most first-time homeowners. Not only are their savings depleted, but their monthly expenses are often higher as well, thanks to new expenses such as water and trash bills and extra insurance.

Everyone wants to personalize a new home and upgrade what may have been temporary apartment furniture for something nicer, but don’t go on a massive spending spree to improve everything all at once. Just as important as getting your first home is staying in it, and as nice as solid maple kitchen cabinets might be, they aren’t worth jeopardizing your new status as a homeowner. Give yourself time to adjust to the expenses of homeownership and rebuild your savings; the cabinets will still be waiting for you when you can more comfortably afford them.

Don’t ignore important maintenance items
One of the new expenses of homeownership is making repairs. There is no landlord to call if your roof is leaking or your toilet is clogged (on the plus side, there is also no rent-increase notice taped to your door on a random Friday afternoon when you were looking forward to a nice weekend). While you should exercise restraint in purchasing the nonessentials, you shouldn’t neglect any problem that puts you in danger or could get worse over time, turning a relatively small problem into a much larger and costlier one.

Hire qualified contractors
Don’t try to save money by making improvements and repairs that you aren’t qualified to make. Your home is both the place where you live and an investment, and it deserves the same level of care and attention you would give to anything you value highly. There’s nothing wrong with painting the walls yourself, but if there’s no wiring for an electric opener in your garage, don’t cut a hole in the wall and start playing with copper. Hiring professionals to do work you don’t know how to do is the best way to keep your home in top condition and avoid injuring — or even killing — yourself.

Get help with your tax return
Even if you hate the thought of spending money on an accountant when you normally do your returns yourself, and even if you’re already feeling broke from buying that house, hiring an accountant to make sure you complete your return correctly and maximize your refund is a good idea. Homeownership significantly changes most people’s tax situation and the deductions they are eligible to claim. Getting your taxes professionally done for one year can give you a template to use in future years if you want to resume doing your taxes yourself. And remember, tax-preparation expenses are tax deductible, so whatever your marginal tax rate is, think of that as a discount on the cost of the service.

Keep receipts for home improvements
When you sell your home, you can use these costs to increase your home’s basis, which can help you to maximize your tax-free earnings on the sale of your home. In 2008, you could have earned up to $250,000 tax free from the sale of your home if it was your primary residence and you had lived there for at least two of five years before you sold it.

Let’s say you purchased your home for $150,000 and were able to sell it for $450,000. You’ve also made $20,000 in home improvements over the years you’ve lived in the home. If you haven’t saved your receipts, your basis in the home, or the amount you originally paid for your investment, is $150,000. You take your $250,000 exemption on the proceeds and are left with $50,000 of taxable income on the sale of your home. However, if you saved all $20,000 of your receipts, your basis would be $170,000 and you would pay taxes on only $30,000. That’s a huge savings: In this case, it would be $5,000 if your marginal tax rate is 25%.

Don’t confuse a repair with an improvement
Unfortunately, not all home expenses are treated equally for the purpose of determining your home’s basis. The Internal Revenue Service considers repairs to be part and parcel of homeownership — something that preserves the home’s original value but does not enhance its value. This may not always seem true. For example, if you bought a foreclosure and had to fix a lot of broken stuff, the home is obviously worth more after you fix those items, but the IRS doesn’t care — you did get a discount on the purchase price because of those unmade repairs, after all. Only improvements, such as replacing the roof or adding central air conditioning, will help decrease your future tax bill when you sell your home.

For gray areas (like remodeling your bathroom because you had to bust open the wall to repair some old, failed plumbing), consult IRS Publication 530 and/or your accountant. And on a nontax-related note, don’t trick yourself into thinking it’s OK to spend money on something because it’s a necessary “repair” when in truth it’s really a fun improvement. That isn’t good for your finances.

Get properly insured
Your mortgage lender requires you not only to purchase homeowners insurance, but also to purchase enough to fully replace the property in the event of a total loss. But that’s not the only insurance coverage you need as a homeowner. If you share your home with anyone who relies on your income to help pay the mortgage, whether it’s a girlfriend or a child, you’ll need life insurance with that person named as a beneficiary so he or she won’t lose the house if you die unexpectedly. Similarly, you’ll want to have disability insurance to replace your income if you become so disabled that you can’t work.

Also, once you own a home, you have more to lose in the event of a lawsuit, so you’ll want to make sure you have excellent car-insurance coverage. If you are self-employed as a sole proprietor, you may want to consider forming a corporation for greater legal protection of your assets. You may also want to purchase an umbrella policy that picks up where your other policies leave off. If you are found at fault in a car accident with a judgment of $1 million against you and your car insurance covers only the first $250,000, an umbrella policy can pick up the rest of the slack. These policies are usually issued in the millions.

Source: www.msnrealestate.com


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