Q: It appears to me that those people in your last column who are doing it tough, scrimping to stay afloat, are suffering unnecessarily. I find it hard to believe that living costs in all small towns are horrendously high.

I can only speak for my own small town of Kawerau, which is a pretty, well run town. The couple could move here and buy a decent house for $200,000 or less, which would allow them to get rid of the mortgage and give them upwards of $75,000 in the bank.

No longer paying the mortgage would give them another $350 a week to spend. The supermarket is a New World, the public library is free, as are the swimming baths - geothermally heated in winter.

I have just seen a house for sale in the centre of town, from where they could walk to the shops, for $112,000. What more would they want? There are so many places like this in this country.

A: Yes, I'm sure the cheaper housing in small towns can more than make up for other higher costs.

I hope last week's correspondents think again about getting out of Auckland. I know many other retired people are doing just that and really enjoying it.

Doing it tough

Q: Loved your recent article about getting a home on $30,000. Very inspirational. I actually emailed it to a lot of my friends who have been struggling for years to buy a house and having a ton of excuses for not being able to, despite being in the $60,000-plus [earnings] bracket.

There are a lot of people - not just in Auckland, not just in NZ but worldwide - living below their means, working extra hours and not taking flash holidays to put on Facebook, so they can save up over years to buy a house.

I am on $45,000 after tax, but work six days a week, sometimes 12-hour shifts to get it. I live in Auckland on a $600 fortnightly budget which has allowed me to save $29,000 for the last few years, but it was less in previous years due to being on a lower income.

Flatting helps keep rent costs down; living close to work keeps transport costs down; shopping in bulk, buying value brands and cooking at home helps the grocery bill. Little inconveniences equal big savings over time.

A: Well done with your budgeting, and I'm glad the woman's letter inspired you. That was the general idea.

But take care about being too judgmental about your friends. See the next letter.

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Unrealistic example

Q: Sorry for my curtness, but you're telling us that the woman who saved for a house on $30,000 a year has no family, no extra expenses related to children or work. She can get overtime without worrying about the psychological or financial costs of childcare while she works so hard for something considered a basic for human survival.

She (and presumably her partner) can afford to rent a smaller place because there's only two of them. She has no student loan or any expenses related to tools, etc for work. Without any of those things standing in her way it still took her 20 years. This is a ridiculous example. Good on her - but life happens differently for everyone.

So, so sick and tired of the fringe example, not representative of everyone (because nobody can be), putting out there that, because they can do it, it can be done. Yeah, sure, under some pretty restrictive and often unrealistic circumstances.

If anything her example goes to show how many sacrifices you have to make to achieve a survival goal.

I want my family to be able to participate in sports and other things deemed socially normal. We don't go to cafes or the movies, we wear clothes even when they have holes in them. We don't go to the zoo or anything costing more than $30 a pop per fortnight for four people. But my sons participate in two extracurricular activities a week because they need to for their social and cognitive development at this stage.

Goals of survival: 1. Shelter; 2. Water; 3. Food. You can look it up if you like.

Please stop touting unrealistic stories like this. It increases stigma against anyone who doesn't sacrifice everything for an overpriced piece of land and dwelling.

A: Last week we had a retired couple unhappy about the Q&A. Now it's a young family.

And I take your point. I've often thought that stories of successful people who rise above humble beginnings are mixed blessings. They inspire some people but discourage others who feel judged for not doing so well.

This situation is similar. Some can save for a house deposit while others find it impossible. And nobody would deny that it's harder when you have children. You can't put their upbringing on hold while you ruthlessly cut back spending.

So - as with the retired couple last week - I apologise for upsetting you. And good on you for doing what sounds like a great job of raising your sons.

Stash the dividends

Q: As you said in last week's column, reinvesting dividends is a simple and painless way of growing a portfolio.

We have 16 shares or Smartshares funds in our portfolio, and 8 of them are set up to reinvest the dividends in additional shares. The rest don't offer the reinvestment option but pay the dividends into our bank account in sums ranging from $50 to $400.

To prevent this income from just being absorbed into household expenditure I immediately transfer the dividend into one of our two KiwiSaver funds - done in minutes with a few clicks of the mouse through internet banking. I would imagine most KiwiSaver funds would allow you to do this.

A: That's a great idea. And I think all KiwiSaver funds would readily accept small contributions like that.

Other readers can ask their provider how to do it. If it's not easy, I suggest they switch to another provider.

While we're at it, people who sometimes have other extra income can do the same, transferring that to their KiwiSaver account. It adds up over the years.

Commission structure

Q: Quick question - I am about to sell my house and loved the article on the commission structure in the March 3 Weekend Herald. However, I just need to clarify.

If we can start with $900,000 and our house is "worth" in the range of $800,000 to $950,000, what would you recommend the commission structure be - aside from the standard 3.95 per cent for the first $200,000 and 2 per cent thereafter?

A: You're probably not the only one who is not quite clear about my suggestion. So here's a guide:

Step 1: Meet with three or four agents to discuss listing your house. Ask them about their marketing, and how much they expect you'll get for the house.

Then ask how their commission is structured - which will probably be something like what you've outlined. And ask how much you would pay them if the house sold at the expected price.

Step 2: When you've chosen your agent or agents, tell them you would like to structure the commission differently.

Let's say they had said they expected to sell for $900,000. The commission - under your standard formula - would be $21,900. Tell them that if they sell at that price, they will get the same $21,900.

But if they sell for more, for every dollar over $900,000 they get 10 per cent extra. Say they did brilliantly and you sold for $1 million. They would get $21,900 plus 10 per cent of $100,000, which is $10,000. Their total commission would be a fat $31,900.

Under the standard formula they would have got $21,900 plus just 2 per cent of $100,000, which is $2000 - bringing their total to just $23,900.

But if they sell for less, for every dollar under $900,000 they get 10 per cent less. Say the sale price ended up being only $800,000. They would get $21,900 minus 10 per cent of the $100,000 shortfall. That's $21,900 minus $10,000, or $11,900.

Under the standard formula it would have been $21,900 minus $2000 - a total of $19,900.

Point out how much more they will get if they do well for you - while acknowledging that if they do poorly they will get a lot less.

Step 3: To encourage them, consider offering a bonus of, say, $1000 over and above their commission, regardless of the price they sell at.

Step 4: Write to tell us all how it went.

Sell it yourself

Q: In 2004 I contacted three agents for quotes to sell my small two-bedroom flat. The two men came back with similar packages which included $5000 for marketing and a percent off their commission rate.

The woman, from a lesser known company, offered me free marketing (as good, if not slightly better than the men) and a sliding commission rate which paid her well for a high sales figure. I was impressed. She worked my property every weekend for two months and achieved well above our expectations. Win, win.

In 2015 I decided to sell my ugly, 200sq m brick and tile large apartment which was handy to the motorway, beach, shops.

Agents quoted $25,000 to $40,000 (from two cocky Devonport-based characters) as their commission to sell my home in the region of $800,000. (I had studied the rising market long and hard.) But they reckoned I was dreaming, and would only get $750,000 at the most.

I sold via Trade Me myself for $920,000, (could have asked for more but I like to leave fat for others). I could not resist calling the Devonport characters to gloat over my success. Their comment, "you sold it too cheap!"

It is worthwhile selling your property yourself.

A: It certainly seems so in your case. It's more work, of course, but the savings can be big.

There's lots of advice on the internet on how to sell your own property. Try www.tinyurl.com/SellBySelf, which is info from the Citizens Advice Bureau.

Interesting, too, to note the variations in marketing costs for a seller.

A note to other readers: I don't really need more stories of how you did when you sold your house, thanks - unless they are really unusual. But here's one last appeal to real estate agents to tell us why it's better to list with only one agent. Otherwise I will keep recommending everyone lists with several.

Mary Holm is a freelance journalist, a director of the Financial Markets Authority and Financial Services Complaints Ltd (FSCL), a seminar presenter and a bestselling author on personal finance. Her website is www.maryholm.com. Her opinions are personal, and do not reflect the position of any organisation in which she holds office. Mary's advice is of a general nature, and she is not responsible for any loss that any reader may suffer from following it. Send questions to mary@maryholm.com or Money Column, Private Bag 92198 Victoria St West, Auckland 1142. Letters should not exceed 200 words. We won't publish your name. Please provide a (preferably daytime) phone number. Sorry, but Mary cannot answer all questions, correspond directly with readers, or give financial advice.