5 Ways to Use a Home Equity Credit Line in Retirement

Phantom briefcase representing home equity.
Your home equity is accessible and can used in several capacities to help you be more financially flexible. Jan Stromme /Stone / Getty Images

Many people strive to pay off all their debt before retirement. This is a good goal, but there are some types of borrowing that can make sense even once you are retired. A home equity line of credit often referred to as a HELOC (pronounced “he-lock”), is one type of debt you might want to consider using, even if you are retired. Here are five ways a home equity loan can be used to manage your cash flow and account withdrawals.

1. Auto Purchases

When planning for retirement, many people put together a basic budget and forget about expenses like buying cars, as such things may only occur every five or ten years. If most of your money is held inside retirement accounts like IRAs and 401(k)s, then each time you take a withdrawal, that amount will be included as taxable income on your tax return that calendar year.

If you take a large withdrawal in one year to fund a big expense, it may push you into the next higher tax bracket. For example, if your normal withdrawals were taxed at 15%, it could be that if you take more out, it will be taxed at 25%. In such situations, a home equity line of credit may be used to fund a large purchase, so you can pay it off gradually without taking a big taxable withdrawal all in one year.

2. Home Repairs

Just as with auto purchases, many people forget about the cost of home repairs when putting together their retirement budget.

This is one of the items I refer to as a retirement budget killer. If you spend 20 – 30 years in retirement, of course, your home will need work. A home equity line of credit can provide an alternative to selling investments or taking large retirement account withdrawals. By borrowing the funds you can gradually repay it rather than disrupting your portfolio.

3. Alternative Source of Cash in Down Market

Managing money for retirement is quite different than managing money while you are in the accumulation years. Once you are taking regular withdrawals, a down market can have a more severe impact on you. In technical terms, this is referred to as “sequence risk”. If you can either avoid or lower withdrawals in down years, you can increase the expected life of your portfolio and your potential lifetime income stream. A home equity line of credit can be used for this purpose. Use it as an alternative source of cash in down years; then you gradually repay it as your portfolio recovers.

4. Helping the Kids

Have an adult child who is moving, going through a period of unemployment, or otherwise needs assistance? Or maybe they need funds to start a business or buy a home and they will repay you. Many parents lend their adult children money. Whatever the reason, if you will incur tax consequences by selling investments, you might consider borrowing instead. If you have established a HELOC, then, it can be there waiting for you to use in these circumstances.

5. To Fund a New Home Purchase

A lot of people retire, and within five to ten years decided to move.

They didn’t plan on this, it just kind of happens. Sometimes they want to be closer to the grandkids, other times it is a different climate, new activities, or an “over 55” community they want. In most of these cases, a new home is purchased before the old home is sold. By borrowing against your home equity, you can often fund the down payment on the new home. Once again, this may be a better solution than liquidating investments, as selling investments will entail trading costs and tax consequences.

Overall, I think applying for a line of credit in retirement can make a lot of sense. You must have equity in your home for this to work but as long as you do, it doesn’t matter if your home is paid off, or if you still have a first mortgage. The key thing to remember is that you need to build your new loan payments into your retirement budget.

Unless you’re moving soon, you’ll want to plan on repaying what you borrowed so you can use the line of credit again down the road if you need to.