The Pros and Cons of Investing in a Vacation Home

“It is less expensive to stay in hotels in various destinations than it is to upkeep a home, including the hidden expenses of caretaking, overall operations of a home and property taxes,” she cautions. “However, for those that are able to enjoy it, it is definitely worth The Pros and Cons of Investing in a Vacation Home

Your home will always be one of your best investments, but a vacation home may not be.

By Jeff Brown | Contributor

For the winter weary, February is the perfect month to head for the beach or slopes. And many vacationers have the same thought: “Gee, wouldn’t it be great if we owned a place like this?”

With improvements in the economy and housing market, the second home that seemed out of the question a few years ago may now be within reach. But is it a good idea as an investment?

Experts in real estate, personal finance and taxes urge some hard thought before taking the plunge. A second home can produce a wonderful family tradition or turn into a stress-inducing money pit.

A second home is best viewed as a luxury item, not an investment or cheap vacation option, says Alison Bernstein, founder of the New York relocation consulting firm Suburban Jungle.

“It is less expensive to stay in hotels in various destinations than it is to upkeep a home, including the hidden expenses of caretaking, overall operations of a home and property taxes,” she cautions. “However, for those that are able to enjoy it, it is definitely worth it.”

Sales figures for 2015 aren’t in yet, but 2014 was stunning, with the most vacation home sales since 2006, according to the National Association of Realtors. Sales of more than 1.1 million units in 2014 exceeded 2013 sales by more than 57 percent. Rising home prices and stock market gains stoked a market flooded with baby boomers nearing retirement, the association says. The median vacation home sold for $150,000 to a buyer with $94,380 in annual household income.

The upside is clear: Decorate as you like, leave your clothes and toys, and use the property whenever you want – maybe even retire there someday. And if you have unlimited use, you needn’t gnash your teeth over every rainy day. Many buyers imagine gathering the extended family – the generations building memories together.

On the other hand, a second home is unquestionably a financial burden. Even if you can pay cash to avoid mortgage costs, there are property taxes, insurance and maybe association fees. Maintenance costs can be high if you must hire a pro for every little job you’d do yourself at home. All those costs are likely to rise over time.

Then there are headaches, such as making trips or hiring someone to prepare the home for the season or close it up afterward. Doing chores yourself can take the fun out of a getaway.

As an investment, a vacation home is uncertain. The housing crisis of a few years ago showed how dangerous real estate investments can be. Since a vacation home, unlike a primary residence, is not a necessity, prices can plunge when demand evaporates in an economic downturn.

“Though you may have equity in the second home, you should not look to it as a proper investment for your future retirement because you may not be able to access the equity quickly when you need to,” says Melinda Kibler, certified financial planner with Palisades Hudson Financial Group in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

One vacation destination can be very different from others, so experts urge deep research on factors like price trends, the pace of new building, and access to interstates, airports and amenities like beaches, ski slopes, restaurants and natural wonders.

“You should talk with real estate agents and definitely speak with other property owners in the area,” says Mark Buckalew, senior vice president of D.A. Davidson & Co. investor group in Pocatello, Idaho. “You can look on Zillow at historic prices. Don’t just rely on the person trying to sell you the property.”

In 2014, 30 percent of vacation homebuyers paid cash, the Realtors’ association says. Though mortgage rates are low these days, it’s generally harder to qualify for a loan on a second home than for a primary residence. You might need a down payment of 20 percent or more, even though 10 percent or less might be enough to buy a full-time home. A higher down payment reduces the lenders risk if the borrower defaults, which is considered more likely with a second home.

“Second home loans generally require more money down and a better credit score than owner-occupied home loans,” says John Lazenby, a real estate agent and president of Orlando Regional Realtor Association. “Of course, lenders look carefully to ensure that second-home buyers are financially capable of paying two mortgages, and [they] have formulas to calculate for shortages in expected rental income.”

Many vacation home shoppers plan to rent the property out part of the time to offset costs, and this has become easy with sites like Vacation Rentals by Owner and Airbnb. Fees for such services are much lower than those of rental managers, who may charge commissions as high as 25 percent.

Keep in mind, though, that rental income is highest and most dependable during the “high season” months you’d most want to use the property yourself, like winter in Florida.

Mortgage interest and property taxes are deductible on the federal return regardless of whether you rent. If you do rent, insurance, maintenance and even some heating, phone and cable charges can be deductible. But the rules are tricky.

“If you use the property for the greater of 14 days or 10 percent of the time rented, you are considered to have used the residence personally and must allocate expenses between the rental income and personal use,” says Allen Falke, a tax attorney with Mirick O’Connell law firm in Massachusetts. Many of the expenses apportioned to personal use will not be deductible.

That’s just an example, as the rules have many twists and turns. Also, some deductions are not allowed for taxpayers subject to the alternative minimum tax, and profits from selling a second home are taxed as capital gains.

Since you don’t know for sure how much rental income you could earn or how many expenses will be deductible, consider buying only if you can afford the property without these considerations.

For many people, even if the finances are acceptable, the vacation home decision hangs on personal issues: Given all the responsibilities, will this really make you happy? Do you want to vacation in the same place year after year? Will your kids and grandkids really come as often as you hope? Will your stomach churn with every late-night call from a renter? Can you live with financial setbacks without kicking yourself for buying the property?

“If you’re going to have friends and family join you, you want to make sure it’s easy and inexpensive for everyone to visit,” says Jim Moran, director of sales at Victory Ranch, a vacation destination in Utah.

“Buyers should also consider their stage of life and that of their children to ensure they are going to be able to actually use the home the amount they are envisioning for many years,” Lazenby says. “For example, a family with young children may find that their use of the home declines as the kids become immersed in sports.”

Bottom line: A vacation home is a long-term commitment. For many buyers, the payoff is well worth it, but if your dreams don’t come true, you could be stuck with high costs and responsibilities for years.