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29 Jun 2019

Pension or property: where should you invest your money?

Understand the pros and cons of buying a home versus saving into a pension

The UK population is ageing and by 2050 almost a quarter of people will be 65 or over, according to new data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS).

With average life expectancy rising, the way you choose to invest your money could have life-changing consequences when the time comes for you to retire.

Owning a home has traditionally been seen as a reliable investment, with the phenomenal rise in house prices over recent decades enabling many people to fund their retirements by selling up and downsizing, or investing in buy-to-let.

However, with house price growth stagnating in recent months, can investing in property really beat saving into a pension?

For first-time buyers, the challenge of saving for a deposit while also putting money into a pension is particularly acute - especially when many face the prospect of a 10-year wait to save enough mortgage deposit.

Whether you're a first-time buyer or a home mover, we explore the pros and cons of investing more heavily in pension or property below.

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Is your property's value guaranteed to grow?

The current UK average house price is £228,903, 1.4% higher than the same time last year, according to the most recent UK House Price Index.

This can vary greatly depending on where you live, though. Property values are never guaranteed to grow and a wide range of factors could affect your home's value over time.

As well as the condition your home is kept in and changes in your neighbourhood, things like the state of the economy or political uncertainty caused by serious events like Brexit could affect its value. Read our story what does Brexit mean for house prices? for more.

The graph below shows how much annual house prices have changed in the UK from January 2006 to April 2019.

The annual growth rate has slowed since mid-2016 but has remained generally under 5% since 2017.

Should you view your home as your pension?

Some people choose not to save into a pension, instead saying that 'their house is their pension'. Relying on your home for retirement income, however, can be problematic.

If you don't save enough for retirement but have built up a lot of equity in your home (or paid off your mortgage entirely) you could downsize to a smaller property.

However, some people find downsizing quite difficult in reality, especially those who've lived in their homes for a long time. Adjusting to a smaller living space can also cause issues.

On top of that, the cost of selling a house can be quite high, and the amount of stamp duty you'd have to pay on the new home can run into thousands of pounds.

What's the alternative?

The other option is using equity release - where you borrow money against your home while still living in it.

This can be an expensive option, though, and could also make a significant dent in your descendants' inheritance. It's really important to seek independent financial advice before releasing cash from your home this way.

What if my home isn't worth enough to fund my retirement?

For some people, selling their home may not provide enough income to cover their whole retirement.

Facing an income shortfall during your retirement years can be exceptionally challenging and while some people may be able to use their state pension entitlement to close the gap, others may have to consider deferring their retirement to a later date.

Will your pension fund grow?

The other, more obvious means of funding your retirement, is with a pension. But is it a no-brainer?

As with all investments, the rate at which your pension fund grows is likely to fluctuate over time. In 2018, for example, average pension fund slowed by 6.2%, whereas in 2017 it increased by 10.5%.

The graph below shows how the growth in pension funds has changed over time. Note that it doesn't refer to changes in the value of the funds - a 20% drop in growth could still represent a fund that is gaining value.

A number of factors could affect your pension pot, from the value of the assets your pension is invested in, to economic conditions and even political events.

Richard Ealing, head of pensions at comparison site Moneyfacts, told Which?: 'The value of a pension fund will be determined by the underlying assets it's invested in, for example, equities, gilts and bonds.

'Other factors that could have an effect on pension fund growth include things like the economic environment, political uncertainty, new government policy and more.'

Keep an eye on your pension

While pension fund growth is likely to vary, it's really important to keep an eye on how it performs to make sure that you're on track to get the retirement income you need.

'Reviewing pension funds on a regular basis is so essential to identify weak or consistently underperforming funds,' said Ealing.

If your pension fund has been losing money while similar funds are performing positively, alarm bells are likely to ring and it is vital that you check the make-up of the fund to identify why it is not performing,' he said.

Property or pension: where should you put your money?

In 2012, the government introduced auto-enrolment, a scheme where employees are automatically enrolled into a workplace pension to help them save for retirement.

While it's compulsory for employers to enrol eligible workers onto the scheme, it is possible for employees to opt out of the scheme.

This may seem tempting, especially if you're saving hard for a property deposit and retirement is a long way off, but you risk creating a significant shortfall in your retirement income.

So what's the answer?

The key to unlocking your financial goals is striking the right balance between your short-term savings objectives (which might be a housing deposit, home improvements etc) and long-term goals, such as retirement.

We spoke to Steve Webb, director of policy at insurance provider Royal London, who said: 'It's hard for young people on a tight budget to save for a house deposit and save for their retirement at the same time.

'In general, simply staying in a workplace pension is a good idea because your employer and the government are effectively making half the contribution for you.'

The other key thing, according to Webb, is to review how much you're saving when you get a pay rise.

He added: 'If you set up a direct debit to get money out of your current account and into a savings account before you're tempted to spend it, this can help you build up a savings pot.

'You can then allocate the money between short-term emergency spending, goals such as a house deposit and longer-term saving.'

Check our guide on retirement planning at different ages for tips and advice on how to work out if your pension savings are on track.