Asking for advice: my parents keep renovating their McMansion, my sister and I have debts

Would those who spend money renovating their McMansions be better served by helping their adult children with that money? From the one seeking advice:

My parents (mom and stepdad) are in their 70s, retired, healthy, and doing well financially. They spend their money on traveling the globe and constantly remodeling their new Florida McMansion. That’s fine. They can spend their money on whatever makes them happy…

My sister had joint-replacement surgery and has high medical bills. I am going through a legal fight with a previous employer, am unemployed for the first time in my life (I’ve had a job since I was 14), and legal bills are eating my 401(k). Our parents know the details. We’re not asking for any help.

But I don’t want to get on the phone with my mom and have to hear all the issues of remodeling rooms that looked perfectly fine when I visited a year ago. Plus they don’t even ask how things are going with their children and grandchildren. It’s all talk about superficial things and how awesome they are doing.

Advice columnist responds:

But let’s back up for a second. You’ve presented this as a two-item menu: either endure your mom’s affluenza, or stop calling your parents.

There’s a middle choice, though: truth. “Mom, [sister] and I are buried in legal and medical bills. I can’t sympathize over expensive renovations.”

It does not sound as though the McMansion is the actual problem. Yes, the letter writer is upset because the mom both spends money on their McMansion (which, in the letter writer’s opinion, does not need more work) and then spends a lot of time talking about it. But, it seems as though the McMansion could be replaced by a number of objects or hobbies associated with people with resources. It could be golf, fixing up old cars, buying collectible items, playing bridge, or any number of things that, according to the letter-writer, keep the mom from paying sufficient attention to her kids.

At the same time, the McMansion is a potent symbol here. Since it is such a pejorative and loaded term, it leads readers toward a particular kind of person: one with poor taste in architecture, lots of money, and an interest in flaunting their status through their home. Additionally, who would prioritize their expensive home over the real needs of their children? These are not just parents who happen to live in a McMansion; these are unlikable McMansion owners.

Are McMansion owners on the whole more generous with their family? Do they have money to spare and give it away? Others have argued McMansions are bad for children; it is not clear from this letter whether the advice seeker grew up in this home. Could a whole generation of Americans reveal hurts produced by or in McMansions? Even with the attention they receive, widespread tales of childhood McMansion woes are unlikely given the actual number of McMansions in the United States.

Older Americans with growing amounts of mortgage debt

One impediment to retirement for many Americans will be what they owe on their home:

The proportion of homeowners over 55 with housing debt has climbed, the Boston College group recently reported. Dr. Sanzenbacher provided the numbers: 50 percent still had mortgages, home equity loans or lines of credit in 2013, compared with 38 percent in 1998.

An Urban Institute study published this month, based on data from the national Health and Retirement Study, found a similar pattern among homeowners over 65. The proportion with housing debt rose to 35 percent in 2012 from 23.9 percent in 1998.

Moreover, the median amount they owed nearly doubled, to $82,000 from $44,000…

Her work has shown that older people with mortgage debt tend to stay in the labor force longer, and to delay receiving Social Security benefits.

In other words, the consequences of the burst housing bubble are still working their way out. If older Americans owe more money on their homes, they are likely to work longer and stay in their homes longer, making it more difficult for younger Americans to move into the work force and purchase a starter home. And if both older and younger Americans are still struggling in the housing market, who is actually coming out ahead? The truly wealthy who aren’t as hampered by mortgages.

Indiana again takes aim at Illinois businesses

The Illinoyed campaign ended but Indiana has a new strategy to lure Illinois businesses. From the featured story on the A State That Works website:

The state of Illinois has been drowning in debt for years due to mismanagement, and their only solution is to keep raising taxes. Sound familiar? Illinois taxpayers have been picking up the tab for longer than anyone cares to remember, but it wasn’t always that way.

Ten years ago Indiana and Illinois had the same AA credit rating, but the unfunded pension debt crisis in Illinois has steadily deteriorated over the years, to the point that their current credit rating of A- is the worst in the nation.

Illinois is borrowing a staggering amount of money to pay for state services and they’re seen as a bad risk to keep making those payments, according to the rating agencies. In fact, the interest alone on Illinois’ unfunded liabilities is about $1.5 billion per year…

Indiana is deliberately making smart financial decisions and defining what a state can do to pass the savings of efficient government on to their taxpayers by eliminating debt, keeping taxes low and continually balancing their budget.  It’s a refreshing change from a state like Illinois that has taxpayers picking up the tab for a public debt-management crisis, and it’s what makes Indiana a state that works.

Such efforts have been going on for quite a while yet I haven’t seen evidence that shows a campaign like this works. I’ve long suspected this is more about scoring easy political points than anything else; “look at the good things happening in Indiana while Illinois languishes.” Yet, somehow the Chicago region with its 9+ million people hangs on and the city is continually ranked as one of the top 10 global cities in the world.

One side note: part of northwest Indiana is in the Chicago metropolitan region. According to this campaign, some might get the best of both worlds: the residents and businesses get the lower taxes, less political gridlock, and less debt yet get to take advantage of the jobs and other opportunities the Chicago area offers. In the long run, a significant decline in Illinois or Chicago’s fortunes probably would have some residual negative effects not just on northwest Indiana but also the entire state.

Comparing Greece’s debt problem with the McMansions of the 2007-2008 subprime crisis

One writer links the issues with McMansions in the last decade with the debt issue in Greece:

Sometimes the best way to summarize a complex situation is with an analogy. The Greek debt crisis, for example, is very much like the subprime mortgage crisis of 2007-08.

As you might recall, service workers earning $25,000 annually got $500,000 mortgages to buy McMansions in subprime’s go-go days. The applicant fudged a bit here and there on income and creditworthiness, and lenders reaping huge profits from originating and selling mortgages were delighted to ignore prudent underwriting standards and stamp “low-risk” on the mortgage because it was quickly sold to credulous investors…

The loan was fundamentally imprudent and risky because the borrower was not qualified for a loan of such magnitude. But since the risk was distributed to others, the banks ignored the 100% probability of eventual default and skimmed the profits upfront.

Greece was the subprime borrower, and its membership in the euro gave the banks permission to enter the credit rating of Germany on Greece’s loan application. Though anyone with the slightest knowledge of Greece’s economy knew it did not qualify for loans of such magnitude, lenders were happy to offer the loans at interest rates close to those of Greece’s northern neighbors, and then sell them as low-risk sovereign debt investments.

In effect, the banks were free-riding the magical-thinking belief that membership in the euro transformed risky borrowers into creditworthy borrowers.

Two quick thoughts:

1. Most analogies made about McMansions are not likely to reflect well on such homes. Here, McMansions are part of huge financial problems. Later in the piece we have more negative ideas about McMansions:

Meanwhile, the poorly constructed McMansion is falling apart…So the hapless subprime borrower with the crumbling McMansion and Greece both have the same choice: decades of zombie servitude to pay for the crumbling structure, or default and move on with their lives.

Not exactly attractive options. Yet, the assumption here is that all or most McMansions fall apart within ten years or so. Is this truly the case with McMansions – do they have more repair issues than other homes? Perhaps Consumer Reports could sort this out for us since they like collecting such data.

2. I don’t recall seeing strong evidence that the subprime crisis was primarily driven by people purchasing McMansions. Rather, mortgages were granted that were too risky. But, how many of these loans were actually made for McMansions as opposed to other kinds of housing? The whole housing market was doing crazy things, not just in the McMansion sector.

 

More older Americans dealing with mortgage debt

Retirement may look quite different for many Americans who have more mortgage debt than in the past:

Nearly a third of homeowners 65 and older had a mortgage in 2011, up from 22% in 2001, according to an analysis from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, using the latest available data.

The debt burden also grew — with older homeowners owing a median of $79,000 in 2011, compared with an inflation-adjusted $43,400 a decade earlier.

For decades, Americans strove hard to pay off their mortgages before retirement, an aspiration that when achieved was celebrated with mortgage-burning parties…

A recent study from Harvard University’s Joint Center for Housing Studies showed that of mortgage holders ages 65 to 79, nearly half spent 30% or more of their income on housing costs. Of mortgage holders 80 or older, 61% pay that amount on housing.

This continues a trend noted last year. This is worth watching as a higher percentage of Americans are older and this particularly affects older residents in more expensive markets where housing options are not as cheap. Homeowners could have several options down the road. First, perhaps they shouldn’t buy homes close to retirement age. Unfortunately, this means they might not be as flexible in searching out new jobs. Second, they may have to sell at retirement and bank that money for future concerns. Yet, even if they can make a good return on selling their home, moving can still be a tough transition (even within a metro area as opposed to moving to significantly cheaper markets). Third, they may have to pursue other living arrangements at retirement such as renting rooms or small apartments in their dwelling to try to make some extra money.

Unclear how much student debt is holding back the housing market

The sluggish housing market is likely not helped by the amount of student debt held by young adults:

[T]he Federal Reserve Bank of New York reports today that in 2013, student debtors between the ages of 27 and 30 were less likely to own a home—or, specifically, to have a mortgage—than their peers who were student-debt free. Homeownership rates have fallen fast among all young adults since the recession. But, as shown below, they’ve dropped most precipitously among those who borrowed for school.

6a01348793456c970c01a511b13bd1970c450wi_1Federal Reserve Bank of New York

There’s one key detail this graph leaves out, however, which the Fed shared in a separate report from early last year (and which I’ve written on before). It turns out that, at the end of 2012, borrowers who were current on their student loan payments were actually more likely to take out a mortgage than other young adults. Borrowers who were delinquent on their student loans, however, took out barely any mortgages at all. In other words, young people who already couldn’t handle their debt simply weren’t in the market for houses.

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Federal Reserve Bank of New York

A key point: having college debt doesn’t completely stop mortgage originations. So, reducing college debt (and look at the median, not the average) could help free up the housing market but it isn’t the only problem.

I wonder if there isn’t another way to think about this: more young Americans are willing to trade a college degree for homeownership before they are 30. This could be due to a variety of reasons including earning potential due to a college degree but also a decreased interest in owning a home as opposed to accomplishing other goals like living in an exciting place or establishing themselves in a career. In other words, this issue may not really be about college debt holding people back but rather about the relative interest young adults have in owning a house.

State Budget Crisis Task Force: big debt trouble in Illinois

Even if politicians in Illinois don’t talk about this much, outsiders such as the State Budget Crisis Task Force are noticing the debt trouble in Illinois:

For years, Illinois has racked up billions in public debt to plug budget holes, pay overdue bills, and put money into its mismanaged pension funds. And for the people who live there, this has resulted in decrepit commuter trains and buses, thousands of unsound bridges, 200 hazardous dams and one of the most inequitable public school systems in America…

The group, led by the former Federal Reserve chairman, Paul A. Volcker, and the former New York lieutenant governor, Richard Ravitch, recommended an overhaul of Illinois’ budgeting practices, to make it harder to kite money from year to year and raid special-purpose funds. It also warned that tax increases may be in store…

Illinois has the lowest credit rating of the 50 states and has America’s second-biggest public debt per capita, $9,624, including state and local borrowing. Only New York State’s debt is bigger, at $13,840 per capita. But Illinois has not been able to use much of the borrowed money to keep its roads, bridges and schools in good working order, because years of shoddy fiscal practices have taken a heavy toll, the report said…

While many states have heavy debt burdens and unfunded pensions, the task force warned that Illinois’ problems had been building for decades and were advanced. The state was “insolvent” even before the financial crisis hit in 2008, the report said, but that was hard to detect because “budget gimmicks became a standard practice.”

Not exactly a rosy outlook.

This could relate to the discussion at the national level about how the federal government doesn’t have to balance its budget while other levels of government do. Well, states and other government bodies can still mess up the process even if they are “balancing the budget.”