It is possible to unlock capital for a comfortable retirement by scaling down the size of your property and still leave a lasting legacy for your family.

With countries like Portugal, Spain, France, Malta and Cyprus offering such favourable property opportunities in outstanding surroundings, it is not surprising that many Britons choose to retire to their own slice of heaven in the sun. 

Whether you buy your main home abroad or just somewhere to holiday, your house is most likely your biggest asset. It is usually the most expensive item you will ever buy and has the potential to provide a substantial return on your initial investment over time. Many also view their home as a lasting legacy to secure the financial future of children and other heirs.

However, there are risks in relying on bricks and mortar as the source of your wealth. After all, you cannot fully realise the financial benefits of a property while you are still living in it. Also, as far as investments go, property can prove very costly to maintain.

Done with careful planning, downsizing your home could find the balance between securing a comfortable retirement today and a sizeable legacy for future generations.

Size does matter

Generally, the larger the property, the more expensive it is to run. In addition to mortgage payments, rates and household bills, more generous estates may require cleaning and gardening staff, plus building and pool maintenance costs. These expenses can add up to a relatively high ongoing burden, particularly for more than one property. If you are retired with a reduced or limited income, regular costs like these can be especially draining on your resources. 

On the flipside, larger properties can provide leveraging opportunities; you could borrow a greater proportion against the value of the house, for example, through equity release. While this can free up extra cash, like any debt arrangement this comes with costs and risks. 

For many retirees – who are looking to shed debt and leave something behind for children and grandchildren – more borrowing is not the answer. 

Affording retirement 

As life expectancy increases, it is sensible to consider the affordability of retirement over the long term. Wherever you retire, you need to make sure your pensions, savings and investments are enough to sustain the lifestyle you want for as long as you need. Will your existing wealth stretch to ten, twenty, even thirty years of retirement living?

Many British retirees find themselves in an ‘asset rich, cash poor’ situation – owning a considerable amount of ‘physical’ wealth like property, but with substantially less disposable income. Expatriates, for example, often hold on to UK property in addition to their overseas home, whether for sentimental reasons or as part of their investment portfolio. 

While bricks and mortar can be a solid investment, it locks your money away in a highly ‘illiquid’ way. If you want to access your capital, you may not be able to sell property easily or for an acceptable price. Investment funds, on the other hand, spread risk across a range of different assets that may include property alongside equities, bonds, etc. Unlike property, if you require small amounts of cash you can just sell the amount you need, not the whole investment.

See our article 'Look beyond property to unlock investment potential'

Releasing your capital

Downsizing your property can help maintain your existing lifestyle while increasing your accessible wealth. It needn’t be a compromise for space. Many find that once children have flown the nest, a smaller home can suit their needs better – not only when it comes to bills – and still be big enough for the family to visit.  

It also needn’t be a compromise when it comes to investment growth. The extra capital released can be reinvested in alternative investment structures that are more tax-efficient for your country of residency and offer more flexibility. Ask your adviser, for example, about arrangements that let you take a regular income or hold investments in multiple currencies. 

Reducing taxation

Downsizing can also reduce your tax liability. Wherever your home is, stamp duty and capital gains tax charges generally increase with the property’s price tag, and higher-value homes can also tip you over the threshold for wealth tax, where applicable: 

  • Portugal – Portuguese property attracts annual wealth taxes of between 0.4% and 1% if valued over €600,000 (€1.2 million if jointly owned), regardless of where you are resident. 

  • France – Owning real estate assets worth over €1.3 million attracts annual wealth taxes of between 0.5% and 1.5% in France (over an €800,000 allowance). For French residents, this applies to worldwide real estate, including UK property.

  • Spain – You usually attract wealth taxes of between 0.2% and 3.5% if the combined value of your Spanish property and other assets exceeds €700,000. Although Spanish residents can receive a €300,000 main home allowance, worldwide assets – including UK property – would be counted to assess liability.

Wealth tax rates seem relatively low, but when applied to property values this can add thousands to your tax bill. Reducing the amount of tax payable can help make your money go further in your lifetime and maximise the value of your legacy. 

Ultimately, when making sure your family are looked after when you are gone, do not forget your own needs. Take personalised, professional advice to achieve a diversified portfolio to suit your unique aims and circumstances. Your home can still be your castle, but a smaller one could make the most of your retirement years and still look after the next generations.

See more financial planning tips for expatriates

Tax rates, scope and reliefs may change. Any statements concerning taxation are based upon our understanding of current taxation laws and practices which are subject to change. Tax information has been summarised; individuals should seek personalised advice.