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Sorry to burst your bubble, but owning a home won’t fund your retirement

A disturbing number of people are building their retirement plans on a weak foundation – their homes.

Years of strong price gains in some cities have convinced some people that real estate is the best vehicle for building wealth, ahead of stocks, bonds and funds. Perhaps inevitably, there's now a view that owning a home can also pay for your retirement.

Don't buy into the group-think about home ownership being the key to wealth. Except in a few circumstances, the equity in your home won't pay for retirement. You will sell your home at some point in retirement and use the proceeds to buy your next residence, be it a condo, townhouse, bungalow or accommodation at a retirement home of some type. There may be money left over after you sell, but not enough to cover your long-term income needs in retirement.

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Read also: The latest retirement obstacle: Even thirtysomethings are still living at home

In a recent study commissioned by the Investor Office of the Ontario Securities Commission, retirement-related issues topped the list of financial concerns of Ontario residents who were 45 and older. Three-quarters of the 1,516 people in the survey own their own home. Within this group, 37 per cent said they are counting on increases in the value of their home to provide for their retirement.

The survey results for pre-retirees – people aged 45 to 54 – suggest a strong link between financial vulnerability and a belief in home equity as a way to pay for retirement. Those most likely to rely on their homes had larger mortgages, smaller investment portfolios, lower income and were most often living in the Greater Toronto Area. They were also the least likely to have started saving for retirement or have any sort of a plan or strategy for retirement.

The OSC's Investor Office says the risk in using a home for retirement is that you get caught in a residential real estate market correction that reduces property values. While housing has resisted a sharp, sustained drop in prices, there's no getting around the fact that financial assets of all types have their up and down cycles.

But even if prices keep chugging higher, you're limited to these four options if you want your house to largely fund your retirement:

-Move to a more modest home in your city;

-Move to a smaller community with a cheaper real estate market, probably located well away from your current location;

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-Sell your home and rent;

-Take out a reverse mortgage or use a home equity line of credit, which means borrowing against your home equity.

A lot of people want to live large in retirement, which can mean moving to a more urban location and buying something smaller but also nicer. With the boomer generation starting to retire, this type of housing is in strong demand and thus expensive to buy. Prediction: We will see more people who take out mortgages to help them downsize to the kind of home they want for retirement.

Selling your home and renting will put a lot of money in your hands, but you'll need a good part of it to cover future rental costs. As for borrowing against home equity, it's not yet something the masses are comfortable doing. Sales of reverse mortgages are on the rise, but they're still a niche product.

Rising house prices have made a lot of money for long-time owners in some cities, but not enough to cover retirement's full cost. So strive for a diversified retirement plan – some money left over after you sell your house, your own savings in a tax-free savings account and registered retirement savings plan, and other sources such as a company pension, an annuity, the Canada Pension Plan and Old Age Security.

Pre-retirees planning to rely on their home at least have the comfort of knowing they've benefited from years of price gains. Far more vulnerable are the young adults buying into today's already elevated real estate markets. They're much less likely to benefit from big price increases than their parents were, and their ability to save may be compromised by the hefty mortgages they're forced to carry.

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Whatever age you are, your house will likely play some role in your retirement planning. But it's no foundation. You have to build that yourself.

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About the Author
Personal Finance Columnist

Rob Carrick has been writing about personal finance, business and economics for close to 20 years. He joined The Globe and Mail in late 1996 as an investment reporter and has been personal finance columnist since November 1998. Rob's personal finance columns appear in The Globe on Tuesday and Thursday, and his Portfolio Strategy column for investors appears on Saturday. More

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