The Good, the Bad and the Ugly of Using Your 401k to Buy Your First Home


The combination of a tumbling stock market, where 401k holders watched the value crumble, and the decline of home prices has made it an attractive time to take the leap into buying a first home. Rather than watch their stocks, bonds, mutual funds and other investments continue to lose value, many first time buyers have cashed out all or some of their 401k and used it toward the down payment or for covering other costs.

Like any major financial decision, using a 401k to buy your first home has some good, some bad and some ugly things you need to be aware of.

The Good
• Great deals on purchases. The good news is that real estate prices have fallen to the point where you can find better deals and there’s a wider selection than in the recent past. It may even mean that you can buy a co-op or condo that you were never able to afford before the decrease in value.
• Upside appreciation. This also means that when real estate values return to normal that you’ll probably profit when you sell (assuming you sell for more than you paid and what you owe on the mortgage).

The Bad
• Loss of income. When you decrease the value of your 401k account, the lower principal balance means you have less money from which to earn interest, dividends and appreciation.
• Depletion of nest egg. Since the purpose of a 401k is to provide income for your retirement years, when you spend this money now, it’s not going to be available for tomorrow.

The Ugly
• Tax penalties. The ugliest part of early withdrawal from a 401k is that good old Uncle Sam hits you with tax penalties can really hurt—and it diminishes the amount you wind up with when you make a withdrawal.
• Fees. The investment firm that manages your 401k may also charge you a penalty or fee for liquidating the investments early, which may leave you with even less money than you anticipated.

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