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A retiree is reading on a money hammock long chair, with her house toys.
Ben Mounsey-Wood for Money

Patti and Mike M. knew the housing market was hot. So in July, they sold their 5,000-square-foot Chicago-area home for a tidy profit and headed south, leaving snowy winters and an annual $24,000 property tax bill behind.

Ultimately, the pair — both in their late 50s — settled on a smaller home in South Carolina. The move shaved around $3,000 off their monthly housing costs and would allow Mike to retire early — or even now — if he wanted to.

“We sold at a great time,” says Patti, who requested their last name be withheld due to privacy reasons. “We probably got more for the house than we ever would.”

She’s likely right. Home prices have been on a tear lately, rising 18% in just the last year. It has homeowners sitting on unprecedented amounts of equity — about $8.1 trillion of it, in fact. According to Black Knight, the average homeowner gained 11% in tappable equity during just the first quarter of this year.

Though homeowners of all ages can leverage this equity and sell for big profits, it’s baby boomers like Patti and Mike who are uniquely poised for gains. These homeowners have often lived in their homes for decades and, in many cases, paid off their mortgages completely.

"Every single friend of mine, all of their parents are calling me, asking ‘Dana, what should we do?’” says Dana Bull, a real estate agent with Sagan Harborside Sotheby’s International Realty in Marblehead, Massachusetts. “They know they've got a unique opportunity where their properties have appreciated so much to a point that they never even thought possible in their lifetime.”

Are you a baby boomer wondering how to best use your rising home equity? Here are your options.

Sell and ...

Selling is likely first to mind for many older homeowners. According to ATTOM Data Solutions, the average home seller makes a whopping $94,500 in profits these days — up more than $34,000 since just last year.

Those profits can help boomers achieve any number of financial goals, from padding their nest eggs or making investments to buying a new house or even retiring early.

“This age is a sweet spot because they're starting to think about retirement and getting a certain dollar amount in the sale of their home can expedite their retirement,” Bull says. “It can bring them to that next chapter in life and give them financial cushioning that they never thought possible.”

According to a survey from Realtor.com, around 12% of baby boomers plan to sell their homes in the next year — a larger share than any other generation surveyed. Many of those sellers will choose to rent, opting for lower-maintenance apartments or townhomes. Others will buy but downsize, like Patti and Mike, or use the funds to move closer to grandkids or to sunnier locales.

If you choose to buy, agents say proceed with caution: By going this route, you’ll face the same high prices you just capitalized on. Supply is also limited in most housing markets, so you may find yourself with few homes to choose from — not to mention some stiff competition.

“This is a smart time for older homeowners to sell their home — but only if they have a clear plan of where they are going,” says Glenn Phillips, CEO at Lake Homes Realty in Hoover, Alabama. “The challenge is that, while they may get a premium for their current home, they will also pay a premium for their next home while also facing very limited choices. To sell fast without a clear plan could end up being costly over the long term.”

Another option is to rent in a 55-and-up, senior or independent living community. For those not wanting a long-term commitment, options like Brightview — a resort-style senior living community with locations across the East Coast — allow you to stay on a month-by-month basis.

“We know life can change in an instant,” says Denise Manifold, vice president of sales at the company.

Turn your equity into cash — without selling

Selling your house isn’t the only way to capitalize on the hot housing market. You can also tap your equity using financial products like home equity loans, home equity lines of credit (HELOCs) or a cash-out refinance.

These allow you to turn a portion of your equity into cash, which you can then use for virtually anything — medical bills, paying off debts or even aging-in-place renovations on your property.

Going this route also allows you to avoid the potential taxes you’d face on your home sale. For married couples, you’ll pay capital gains taxes on any profits over $500,000. For single homeowners, the threshold is just $250,000.

“Tapping into your home equity for necessary or unexpected expenses can be a great way to create short-term liquidity without having to sell your investments and realize a capital gain or loss,” says Gabrielle Clemens, an accredited estate planner and managing director at Clemens Private Wealth Management in Boston.

“You can use the funds to pay off high-interest credit card debt, remodel your home with features to help you age in place, delay filing for Social Security until you qualify for a higher benefit, buy long-term care insurance, help grandchildren with college tuition or pay the tax bill,” she says.

Still, while useful, home equity loans, HELOCs and refinances all require a monthly payment, something retirees — or anyone on a limited income, for that matter — might be hesitant to take on. If a payment sounds unappealing in your case, you can also look at options like a reverse mortgage or equity-sharing agreement.

With equity sharing, you essentially sell off a portion of your home’s equity, getting a lump sum in return. According to Rachel Keohan, head of marketing at equity-sharing company Hometap, it’s “a great option for accessing their home equity for a variety of uses without taking on debt.” Companies like Hometap gets paid a percentage of profits when the home eventually sells.

Consider a reverse mortgage — but take care

Reverse mortgages may be another route to consider — at least if you’re 62 or older. These work like a mortgage loan, only backward. With these loans, the lender pays you — often monthly, and then collects the total balance plus interest once you die or sell the house.

According to Steve Resch, vice president of retirement strategies at Finance America Reverse, now is a particularly good time to get a reverse mortgage if it suits your goals.

“The proceeds that you can get from a reverse mortgage is determined by the homeowner’s age, the value of the property and the interest rates,” Resch says. “So, we've got record-high home values and record-low interest rates, which means a borrower can really get a tremendous amount of money — much more so than they could just a couple of years ago.”

You can also use a reverse mortgage to buy a new house entirely, something Joshua Ezell, a real estate broker with Breakthrough Real Estate & Property Management in Phoenix, often recommends to his clients.

“Utilizing a reverse mortgage allows a buyer to purchase a nicer or larger home and keep more money in the bank,” Ezell says. “It also has the added benefit of also not having a house payment.”

If you do opt for a reverse mortgage, be careful about how you structure your payments, as there are many choices. You want to avoid running out of proceeds too early. You’ll also need to continue covering property taxes, insurance and other costs, or risk losing the home to foreclosure. Talk to a financial advisor if you’re considering a reverse mortgage of any kind. They can walk you through the full implications and risks of these products, as well as how one may impact your retirement goals.

The time is now

Whatever you decide to do, experts say you should make your move fast. Recent data shows for-sale inventory is rising (at least slightly), and when you throw in slowing demand from burned-out buyers, it seems the red-hot market may soon be cooling off.

“We are seeing people accelerate their plans to take advantage of the market,” says Rick Ruvin, a partner at Falk Ruvin Gallagher Real Estate in Whitefish Bay, Wisconsin. “In many markets, sanity is returning, and the level of competition is softening. Prices tend to rise, plateau and then fall. Many are sensing we are headed into a plateau phase.”

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