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Rent or Own — What's Best for Empty Nesters?

Ask yourself before you make a move ...

Will you be penalized for selling your house?

Do the math to see whether or not you're going to have a capital gain on the sale of your house.

The basic formula: Start with the purchase price of the house, plus fees you incurred when you bought it, such as mortgage points, then add in the cost of all the capital improvements done over the years (new bathrooms, new carpeting, new windows, etc.). That's your "basis." Then take the expected sales price, subtract deductible selling costs (broker commission, fix-up costs, fees, etc.), and subtract the basis from that figure and you've got your capital gain. The rules are explained on the IRS website.

So, let's say you bought your house for $100,000, you put $50,000 into it over the years and you spent $5,000 to fix it up before you sold it. If you expect to sell it for $500,000 and you have to pay a $30,000 broker fee, you can expect a capital gain of $315,000.

If you're single, you can exclude $250,000 of that from being taxed. If you're married or were widowed within two years of the sale and have not remarried, you can exclude $500,000. If your capital gain is more than you can exclude — meaning you'll have to pay a tax — it may be more financially sensible to stay in the house you're in.

Of course, if you're in a situation where your house is worth less than what you paid for it, it may make sense to stay put and wait for its value to rise.

What's your personality?

Renting can sometimes take a strong stomach. Your landlord could get foreclosed on, or leave town and sell your place, or up your rent when it's lease renewal time. Can you live with that kind of risk?

Some states have laws and regulations regarding tenants' rights and rental rates, so look into local rules if you're considering renting.

Of course, owning a home has its ups and downs as well. Although your locked-in mortgage rate won't go up, your property taxes may vary year to year and you may be affected by property value fluctuations in the local market.

Do you want to deal with upkeep?

If you're considering staying where you are, there's probably a great deal of maintenance to do on your home. "Just like a car, the more mileage a house has on it, the more repairs it will need," says Cray. You may be able to postpone the cosmetic things indefinitely, but the basic maintenance that you can't neglect tends to be costly: roof, termite/rot damage, plumbing, furnace. Be honest about whether it's a good idea for you to climb a ladder to clean the gutters or do the heavy landscaping work.

With a rental, all those maintenance chores may be done for you. Negotiate with the landlord and make sure it's reflected in your lease. If you decide to downsize, consider a townhouse, condo, co-op, or retirement community where a maintenance fee covers those kinds of chores.

What do you want from your home?

Some people take great pride in owning a home. They like having a garden and putting their own stamp on the house with custom paint, wallpaper and built-ins, which is something you can't do with a rental. If you're a pet owner, you may have trouble finding a rental that will accommodate Fido.

On the other hand, renting gives you the freedom to pick up and visit your children or grandchildren for a few months between leases and not have to pay the mortgage on a house you're not living in or worry about watering the lawn. Another upside to a rental: If you don't like the neighbors, you can move out once the lease is over.

Leslie Pepper is a freelance writer based in Merrick, N.Y.

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