Carrie Schwab Pomerantz
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Dear Carrie: What is the best way for me to help my 30-year-old son buy a house? I'm 64 and about to retire in the next year or so. I have enough in my retirement fund to pay for all my essentials and some extras, but I'm not wealthy. What's your advice? --A Reader

Dear Reader: The housing boom seems like a distant memory these days, but home ownership is still a worthy aspiration -- and a challenge for many first-time buyers. Parental help can be invaluable, but you're right to think through this issue before you act. So thanks for a great question!

BEFORE YOU HELP...

First and foremost: Be sure you're truly in a position to help. It sounds like you're well prepared for retirement but without a lot of cushion. I suggest running your own numbers again, with realistic assumptions about your income requirements and lifespan, before you speak with your son. You've worked hard to prepare for retirement, and you don't want to worry that helping your son might jeopardize your own financial security.

ASSESS THE SITUATION

Let's assume you do have the resources to help. What's the best way to go about it?

First, talk with your son about the realities of home ownership, such as the true costs of buying a home. First-time buyers often focus on the mortgage payment to determine affordability, but the actual ongoing cost is much higher (insurance, property tax and maintenance). Does he earn enough to afford all that and still live within his means? Is his job stable? Will he be able to stay in the area for several years?

Second, understand the degree of his financial need. Does he need help with the down payment or would your commitment be ongoing? Help with a down payment strikes me as reasonable; an ongoing need might make me think he's not financially ready to own a home. And--a more philosophical issue--how much should he be willing to undertake himself? Is this an opportunity for him to assert his financial independence, perhaps deferring the buying decision for a few years?

Obviously, you know your son, but getting these issues out into the open is essential--and will reinforce the idea that financial matters, with a bank or with you, are serious and have consequences.

THE FORM OF YOUR HELP

Now you can make some informed decisions about what kind of help you can provide. If it's strictly a matter of helping with the down payment (probably the most common form of parental assistance), you can give him $13,000 a year without triggering gift taxes. If he's married, you can make a gift to his spouse for another $13,000; if you're married, your spouse can do the same for a total of up to $52,000 in gifts tax-free in any one year.

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Carrie Schwab Pomerantz

Carrie Schwab Pomerantz is a Motley Fool contributor.

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