Q. President Barack Obama obviously lives in the White House, but who actually owns it? Does he have to pay rent? Also, where do all of his Republican challengers live?
A. The 132-room White House is owned by the federal government. The president and his family are tenants, but don't have to pay any rent: Uncle Sam picks up the roughly $13 million a year it takes to maintain it.
Mitt Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts, is clearly the largest property owner among Obama's Republican challengers. He and his wife's holdings include a 5,400-square-foot lakeside home in Wolfeboro, N.H., that's valued at about $10 million, and a more modest two-bedroom townhouse they purchased in a Boston suburb two years ago for $895,000, according to analysts at real estate price-tracking firm Zillow.com.
The Romneys also paid about $12 million for a single-level beachfront home in the swanky Southern California community of La Jolla in 2008, but have already filed plans with local officials to tear it down and build a larger house on the lot after his campaign is over.
Newt Gingrich, the former House Speaker, lives with his wife in a 5,200-square-foot Colonial-style house that they bought for $995,000 nearly 12 years ago in McLean, Va. Despite the long decline in real estate prices, the Gingrich home has been a fairly good investment: It's now worth about $1.3 million, or 30 percent more than its original purchase price.
Rick Santorum, previously a Pennsylvania senator, lives about a half-hour away in Great Falls, Va. He and his spouse purchased their 4,900-square-foot home on five acres for $2 million in 2007, but Zillow estimates that it's now worth about 35 percent less.
Texas Rep. Ron Paul lives in a relatively modest four-bedroom home on a half-acre in Lake Jackson, about an hour's drive from Houston. He put the house up for sale at $325,000 last spring, although Zillow said it was worth about $263,000.
Q. Real estate prices in our area are still pretty weak, so we'd like to rent our house out and then sell it when the market gets better. How can we find a good tenant?
A. Obviously, you'll need to advertise the property and collect as many rental applications as possible. Then check out your two or three most promising prospects at a website such as E-renter.com, (877) 332-0078, where $30 will provide you with an applicant's credit history, eviction report and even a criminal-record check.
Verify the income-related information the applicant lists by asking for recent pay stubs and then by calling his or her employer. Veteran landlords typically want a tenant whose pretax income is at least three times the size of the monthly rent, so he or she won't have too much trouble covering it, as well as a healthy amount tucked away in an easily accessible checking or savings account that can be tapped in case he loses his job or gets hit by unexpected expenses.
Also call the applicant's current landlord, as well as his previous one, to learn more about his past payment history and overall behavior. Even the wealthiest applicants can become nightmare tenants if they don't pay their bills or cause problems for neighbors. One successful rental-property investor I know asks an applicant's previous landlords one simple but direct question: "Would you rent to this person again?"
Once you have chosen the best applicant, make sure you have him or her sign an ironclad rental contract that reflects any quirks in local or state rental laws. You probably can buy one for a modest sum from your nearest apartment association: To find the closest one, call the Virginia-based National Apartment Association at (703) 518-6141 or visit www.naahq.org.
Q. My wife and I finally got around to following your advice by refinancing with a 30-year fixed-rate loan at 4.1 percent, before rates started going up again. Our new monthly payment of $1,208 for principal and interest is almost exactly $100 per month less than our old one. If we take our savings and use it to apply a $100 extra principal-only payment to our new loan each month, how much would we save in interest charges and how much faster would we pay off the loan?
A. You will pay $184,879 in interest charges over the next 30 years if you simply stick to the $1,208 monthly repayment schedule that the lender gave you for the new mortgage. If you instead choose to take the $100 in monthly savings that you will reap by refinancing at today's lower rates, you will pay the refinance loan off in 25 years, 11 months and also reduce your finance charges to $155,928.
That would be a savings of $28,951 in interest, and you'd be able to pay the new loan off more than four years earlier -- perhaps allowing you to retire mortgage-free at 62 and immediately start collecting Social Security benefits, rather than working another three to five years to increase your Social Security income and use most or all of it to make payments on your home loan.
• For the booklet "Refinancing the Right Way," send $4 and a self-addressed, stamped envelope to David Myers, P.O. Box 2960, Culver City, CA 90231-2960.
© 2011, Cowles Syndicate Inc.