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Careful mixing home making and investing

April 2, 2015

As much as society romanticises the first home purchase, ‘getting on the ladder’ is always the dominant motivation for buying that first property. Behind the Australian dream there is usually a pragmatic calculation by the first time buyer that it’s time to start the process of building equity.  The growing equity represents greater security and opportunity, far more so than the physical bricks and mortar. Conversely, those waiting to buy fear not just paying more when they finally succeed, but a longer-range predicament that delaying equity accumulation may close doors to them in the future – say the means to buy a bigger home near a good school or having the funds to invest in a business proposition.

You may shudder at my deconstruction of nest-making into cold-hearted rationalist decision-making. Fortunately, although the dominant factor, there are usually other objectives and constraints that are a little more tender.  Many home buyers want or need to be close to family and friends.  They may well have a strong bond to a particular area. Work or schooling requirements often constrain our decision-making.

It is these ‘lifestyle’ elements that distinguish the typical home buyer from the out-and-out investor.  The investor seeks to maximise their financial return whilst the home buyer concedes some financial gains to accommodate other goals.

But is it possible to have it all: the home that delivers investment grade returns?  On paper yes, but it rarely happens without something being compromised.

Typically, the highest quality investment properties are found in the inner suburbs of our capital cities; they tend to be older-style houses or apartments located on quiet streets with a consistent residential architecture. And – here is the rub for those hoping to combine investment and lifestyle goals – they aren’t usually that large. One- and two-bedroom apartments and two-bedroom houses are the most in-demand types of properties by inner suburban renters. Hence those are the ones investors gravitate to and so deliver the best returns.

You may be fortunate that your lifestyle needs mirror the qualities of an investment property. But if not, it’s a case of weighing up which objective is most important to you and accepting the least bad compromise.  If you conclude that maximising returns remain paramount, perhaps you can cope with the kids sharing a bedroom for a few years or having to commute a little further to your non-CBD job or to visit the family in suburbia.  But of course it is just as reasonable to conclude that you’ll swap some extra capital growth for a bit more space, a shorter commute and proximity to family and friends.

If you do make the lifestyle sacrifice and opt to live in the investment-grade property, consider maximising the rewards by committing to keep the property for the long-term.  Factor into your planning how to retain the property when you eventually decide to change the family home.  Execute that plan well and you now have the best of both worlds: the family home that meets your lifestyle needs and an investment property that is earning a rental income and delivering strong capital growth. Moreover, you save on the transaction costs relating to selling the first property (and perhaps buying an investment property at a later date).

Note that there are tax implications relating to an asset that shifts from being a principal place of residence (PPOR) to an income earner. The ATO has a very useful guide on this issue on its website (bit.ly/ATOhomerent). In short, on the upside, you can now claim back your net expenses including interest at your marginal tax rate.  On the downside, any capital gains made on the property during the period it is leased out are now subject to capital gains tax when you eventually sell the property.  In essence, these changes just put you into the same boat as every other property investor.

Bear in mind that many investors maintain a high level of debt on their investment property throughout the life of ownership in order to maximise their negative gearing tax benefits (whilst aggressively paying down their PPOR loan, which isn’t tax deductible).  But in this change-of-PPOR scenario, if you had been diligently paying down the original mortgage as a home owner, you may find that the loan (which becomes investment borrowings with the change of PPOR) may be so low that your rental income exceeds your expenses.  You can’t just increase the loan to increase the deductions. According to ATO rules, the cost of any further borrowings on the now rental property are not tax deductible. The ATO considers the new loan to be for private purposes and therefore non-deductible.  But if you know when you buy a home that you intend to convert it to a rental property in the future, this scenario can be avoided by taking out a mortgage with an offset account. Rather than paying down principal, you pay money into the offset account. These offset account funds can eventually be withdrawn, preserving the original loan, and maximising your future tax break. Naturally, make sure you obtain advice from your accountant before you proceed.

Attempting to subsume your lifestyle needs to your investment objectives isn’t without risks. You may misjudge how important those lifestyle needs are and find yourself unhappy. This is especially the case when there are others involved i.e. a partner and/or children.  At a minimum, you’ll want to have your partner fully on board from the start of the journey and check-in with them from time to time to affirm the joint sacrifice. Richard Wakelin

Image: renjith krishnan