The down payment required for a home purchase is the most important barrier to homeownership. Tapping a 401(k) account is a tempting method of meeting the requirement. Alternative approaches include a second mortgage, which is another source of needed funds, and mortgage insurance, which reduces the down payment required.
As an illustration, say you want to buy a house for
Whether you take funds from a 401(k) to make a down payment should depend on whether the costs and risks of doing so are less unfavorable than the alternatives.
The general rule is that money in 401(k) plans stays there until the holder retires, but the
A withdrawal is very costly, however. The cost is the earnings you forgo on the money withdrawn, plus taxes and penalties on the amount withdrawn, which must be paid in the year of withdrawal. The taxes and penalties are a crusher, so you should avoid withdrawals at all costs.
A far better approach is to borrow against your account, assuming your employer permits this. You pay interest on the loan, but the interest goes back into your account, as an offset to the earnings you forgo. The money you receive is not taxable, so long as you pay it back.
The advantage of the 401(k) as a down payment source is that the cost is probably lower than the alternatives. The cost of borrowing against your 401(k) is only the earnings foregone. (The interest rate you pay the 401(k) account is irrelevant, since that goes from one pocket to another). If your fund has been earning 5 percent, for example, you will no longer be earning 5 percent on the money you take out as a loan, so that is the cost of the loan to you. In contrast, the cost of mortgage insurance is the mortgage rate plus about 5 percent. The cost of a second mortgage today would be even higher, assuming it is available at all.
Both mortgage insurance and second mortgages impose a payment discipline on the borrower. Failure to make the required payment constitutes a default, which can result in loss of the home. In contrast, most 401(k) borrowers are on their own in repaying their loan. While some employers may require an explicit repayment plan, most do not, which leaves it to borrowers to formulate their own repayment plan.
The temptation to procrastinate in repaying 401(k) loans is powerful, and if the borrower is laid off or quits voluntarily, it could be extremely costly. The loan must be paid back within a short period of employment termination, often 60 days. If it isn't, the loan is treated as a withdrawal and subjected to the taxes and penalties that are imposed on withdrawals.
If you switch from one employer to another, a 401(k) account can usually be rolled over into a new account at the new employer, or into an IRA, without triggering tax payments or penalties. However, loans against a 401(k) cannot be rolled over.
Borrowers who feel burdened by the need to repay a 401(k) loan may be tempted into another self-defeating practice, which is to make the loan repayments more manageable by reducing new contributions to their fund. This is shortsighted, and in cases where employers match 401(k) contributions, the cost of the shortsightedness goes out of sight.
There is one risk that is lower on borrowing from a 401(k) account than the alternatives. The 401(k) borrower has more equity in her house, and is therefore less vulnerable to a decline in real estate prices that result in negative home equity. Negative equity may make it difficult to sell the house and move somewhere else. National declines in home prices are rare, however.
Caption: Drawing money from your 401(k) is pricey. The cost is the earnings you forgo on the money withdrawn, plus taxes and penalties on the amount withdrawn, which must be paid in the year of withdrawal. A better approach is to borrow against your account.