There’s no time like the present to improve the ways you manage your money. REALTOR® Stephanie Blakes is also a Certified Financial Planner and founder of Seren Wealth Advisors, a financial planning and investment advisory firm in Houston. She understands from two perspectives just how important it is for real estate agents and brokers to establish smart financial practices.
“I wish more real estate professionals knew that support is out there,” she says. “It’s similar to the misperception that it’s easy to sell your house yourself. People think they can do it—that it’s not that hard. The same thing applies to financial planning. There is a real value in getting professional advice, in having someone review your finances to identify opportunities for improvement. In the long run, you’ll be better off.”
Assess your situation
“The most important things to know in great detail are what your income is expected to be and what your expenses truly are,” Blakes says.
One challenge agents face is that they do not earn their income in tidy, predictable installments. Blakes advocates paying yourself a consistent monthly salary. If you earn more than that salary in a month, put the extra funds in savings. If you earn less, take money out of savings to reach that salary. That way you automatically save for a rainy day and have a regular income with which to do budgeting.
Create a realistic budget and avoid overspending. If you are bringing in less income than you used to, get your spending under control—including debt management. Minimize your debt.
“One of the best ways to reduce your financial risk is to keep your monthly costs as low as possible,” she says. “Because then you can survive on as little income as possible.”
Money Tips Tailored To REALTORS®
NAR’s Center for REALTOR® Financial Wellness provides a wealth of information and tips created specifically for REALTORS®. The online resources include interactive tools to help you learn about financial best practices and achieve your goals. Information provided by the interactive tools is based on answers you provide about your current situation, goals you select, and responses to how you would deal with specific financial scenarios.
Visit the Center for REALTOR® Financial Wellness at financialwellness.realtor.
Make sure to look at your entire financial picture, including life and health insurance, property and casualty insurance, and estate planning.
“Often people think that financial planning is just retirement and investments,” Blakes says. “That’s only a small part of what I do as a Certified Financial Planner.”
Prepare for the expected and unexpected
Set up automatic deferred savings for taxes, retirement savings, and insurance premiums. Build up six months to a year of emergency savings. Discretionary expenses are not included in emergency savings budgets since you should cut discretionary spending during a crisis.
Blakes recommends agents put in place a home equity line of credit (HELOC). Many banks will not charge you fees if you don’t use it. A HELOC should only be used for significant financial emergencies—to keep a roof over your head or food on your table, she says. Income, the ratio of debt to income, and home equity are considered when determining eligibility, so agents should get approved during steady periods of income.
Part-time real estate agents should consider getting disability insurance, just like their full-time counterparts. This is especially true if real estate is the agent’s primary source of income. Agents can purchase their own short- or long-term disability insurance. The insurance can replace some of the income lost during a disability.
Pay attention to your tax forms and deductions
“The biggest pitfall I see with REALTORS® is not putting aside the required amount of money each month to cover quarterly taxes,” Blakes says. This can make it difficult to pay taxes on time, and you may face financial penalties for late or underestimated tax payments.
Agents should pay attention to deductible expenses: what they are and how they track them. “We should track every dollar we spend related to our work,” she says. “It can result in some pretty large deductions.”
Learn about the deductions for which you qualify. Some REALTORS® do not use the home office deduction because they think they do not qualify for it. “It’s just a lack of awareness about what the rules are,” she says.
Keep your own income records; don’t rely on the 1099 form your broker gives you. Blakes says she has seen brokers mistakenly report as income a credit given at closing. Know your taxable income. Brokers will amend your 1099 form to fix mistakes.
Research how a 15-year mortgage might benefit you
Here’s a piece of advice for your own personal finances that you can share with clients as well: Consider 15-year mortgages when buying a home. Many people don’t get quotes for 15-year mortgages and assume 30-year mortgages are the only good option.
“When people tend to stay in a home 10 to 12 years, at that point you’ve only got a couple of years left on that mortgage,” she says. “Whereas in a 30-year mortgage, honestly, for the first 10 years, it’s almost like renting, depending on how expensive the house is. You aren’t putting a dent in the principal.” A 30-year mortgage can also be paid as a 15-year mortgage, thereby saving thousands in interest costs. The best lesson is to explore your mortgage options and decide what’s best for you.
What to Look For in a Financial Advisor
Financial advisors adhere to the fiduciary standard or the suitability standard. Those who follow the suitability standard must direct you to suitable investments. However, a fiduciary must also put your financial interests above his or her own.
Ask about a financial advisor’s pay structure. Does that person make money from commissions, fees, or both? That may influence their advice.
Certified Financial Planners (CFPs) have earned a CFP certification from the Certified Financial Planner Board of Standards. They adhere to high standards and have advanced training. Financial planners can earn many other designations and licenses, which you can research online.
Do your homework. You can check to see if planners have any complaints or actions taken against them. Websites such as brokercheck.finra.org can help you search.
Plan for retirement
You should plan for retirement, of course, and that includes spending time researching your options. There are several types of retirement plans that may be available to you, and if you are on autopilot with only the one you know about, you may be missing an opportunity to improve your financial position.
“An IRA is helpful, but if you have the ability to contribute more than the maximum annual contribution, then it would make sense to consider a Simplified Employee Pension (SEP) IRA, a simplified IRA, or a solo 401(k) to increase your savings and have them be tax deductible,” Blakes says. Larger contributions can make a huge difference over time. Different plans may have advantages for withdrawals or employer contribution options, for example. Your plan choice may also change if you have or intend to have employees. Knowing which option is best for you can result in huge savings in the long term.
What not to do can be as important as what you do
Do not tap your retirement savings except as a last resort, advises Blakes. This is especially true when the stock market is volatile.
“The market has done well since March,” says Blakes. “Since it hit this year’s low, it has recovered nicely,” she says. “It’s still very volatile, though. Leaving those savings to grow is the best approach.”
Similarly, you should not take cash out of your home during loan refinancing unless you are in absolute financial distress. If you do choose to take equity from your home, have a plan to ensure you will be better off in the long term. One example of this would be to pay off high interest debt, like a credit card.
Blakes does not recommend using companies who promise to improve your credit or consolidate your debt. Those companies may charge exorbitant fees for services that individuals may be able to do on their own with guidance, support, and discipline, she says. Always consult the Better Business Bureau’s ratings if you decide to use one of these companies. There are also not-for-profits that offer similar help.
She also discourages clients from putting their personal financial information online through budgeting software or apps. Be wary of any service being offered for free; the company may be selling pieces of your information to marketers. Read all terms and conditions carefully before using online services.
In general, Blakes advocates taking a proactive and careful approach to your money.
“I think people overlook the level of risk they take if they have not put a proper financial plan in place,” she says.