In my work, coming face to face with hundreds of people each year, discussing finances and attitudes about finances, I find it very interesting how people approach potential financial pitfalls and opportunities.
One situation I have often come across quite often is the approach toward real estate ownership and financial risk management. The risks I speak of are common to all people: Death, Divorce, and / or a Loss of Income. One of these things can happen unexpectedly at any time and how you prepare for these events is of critical importance in your and your family's long term financial health. Relating specifically to real estate ownership, what happens to the family home when one of these risks turns into reality. How will the mortgage, taxes, maintenance, fees get paid?
Death - a common answer with a couple is "I'll just sell if Bill dies." or "We'll find a way to make it work." - a poor strategy to be sure and one frought with risks. What if the sale price is below what you need? What if it takes 6, 12, 18 months to sell? Where will you live? Will you be in any state to move and uproot in a time of emotional turmoil? Will you have the financial capacity and physical capability to make the necessary payments are do the necessary maintenance? Life insurance is a more appropriate strategy and the costs of that insurance should be added to the monthly budget.
Divorce - this clearly never happens to anyone and certainly isn't going to happen to the couple in front of me! "We'd just sell and split the proceeds." is the typical answer but this is also full of pitfalls. What if one person is emotionally attached to the property? What if one person wants to sell for much more than the other person and there is a stalemate about the sale strategy (very common)? Will you be in any state to move and uproot in a time of emotional turmoil? The key to managing this risk probably lies in the mate selection process but more practical advice would be that couples shouldn't overextend themselves beyond what either of them is comfortable taking on by themselves if it became necessary.
Loss of Income - Job loss or a disability can happen any time as well and despite the loss of income, the bank, strata, government still wants to be paid all at a time of diminished capacity to meet these demands. The common answer here again is "I'll just sell." but again will you be able to sell? Or more appropriately, will you be able to sell it quickly at the price you want? This is really the key question, since you can always sell your home if price isn't a consideration, but it always is. If you lose your job or become disabled, do you have enough of a financial cushion to make all of the necessary payments for 12 - 18 months or longer? Again, disability insurance can be helpful here but it is no solution for job loss. The best advice to to have a large cushion of savings that you can draw on if necessary. Retirement savings withdrawals are possible as long as you commit to replacing the funds as soon as possible so that you do not derail your long term retirement plans.
My impression is that people are very comfortable with the fact that in the past few years real estate has been an asset with good liquidity and rising prices so these concerns seem unfounded when coming from their financial planner, especially when their friends and family are able to sell their houses quickly and for more than they were asking. The question is, was that normal? Should we expect a much different market in the future with dramatic implications for personal risk management? Many people wonder how they can build up an emergency fund, savings or pay insurance premiums when they are stretched to the limit with mortgage payments. My advice is that you should get out of that situation as fast as possible because you may not be able to sell at the price you need.