Making a Move

My wife and I are in the process of moving to a new home—and it occurs to me that the process of changing homes is a lot like changing recordkeepers. Here’s how.

Know What You’re Looking For

We’ve made about a half dozen moves during our 37-year marriage—all driven by work, anchored by commuting concerns, and—in all but the first and last—school considerations. However, this particular move (my wife swears it’s the last one) literally started with a blank sheet of paper and a “so where would you like to live” conversation. Several conversations, actually. For this move, our high-level priorities involved climate (we’re not fans of snow, hurricanes, wildfires, or earthquakes), ready access to good healthcare (we’re not getting any younger), and proximity to cultural activities/things to do (we’re not THAT old). Indeed, with no particular ties to our current residence, and no external anchoring factors like grandchildren to consider (those with four legs don’t really “count”), we had a quick “oceans or mountains” discussion—and agreed on the latter.

Having established that high-level target, we then proceeded to look for specific houses—and that’s where things got tricky, in no small part because of the current “fluidity” in the real estate market. That said, the house we bought in 2011 to accommodate us, three kids and four dogs (that’s not a typo) was way more than the two of us (and just two dogs) now require. The multiple flights of stairs in our home that were once “interesting” were now a potential concern (particularly as they required scaling every time our dogs wanted to answer nature’s call). Oh, and there was the matter of price. 

That said, we had a geographic target, some guardrails for housing considerations, and while the latter in particular certainly limited our field of consideration(s), it made it easy(er) to conduct preliminary searches online—and ultimately to provide guidance to our realtor.

Effectively—and prudently—searching for a new recordkeeper requires a similar discipline. Simply pushing out a sample RFI or RFP with no clear idea of what you’re looking for (or looking to fix) will likely only confuse, complicate, and extend the process—and in all likelihood leave you with nothing but a general frustration. That means knowing what you like (and don’t) about your current situation, and doing just a bit of blue-skying as to things you’d really like to be able to consider. Who knows, that could be possible, even with your current provider… but you might need to ask.

Don’t Rely on the Marketing Brochures (or the Flowery RFP Responses)

As our targeted area was several hundred miles away, we did a LOT online (following the aforementioned driving around part), and relied pretty heavily on Zillow, where we found lots of good information about the properties, and generally speaking dozens of photographs. That said, it was pretty obvious that the written descriptions were almost pure marketing—flowery hyperbole that, from time to time, was good for a laugh if nothing else. 

The pictures did play a role in our reviews—until we discovered that while a picture may be worth a thousand words, the chosen angle and lens can make a room (or yard) look bigger than it is—and a neighbor’s home…vanish. Indeed, our own listing—though pictures were taken on a cloudy day, were “brightened” via photoshop. A picture may be worth a thousand words—but it pays to see things with your own two eyes. 

As for recordkeeping “homes,” one can hardly blame marketing/sales for putting their offerings’ best promotional foot forward in any commercial endeavor. In fact, those materials may well make statements or performance claims that are 100% accurate, and even understated. But—as was the case with our visualizations, I wouldn’t take any at face value without some level of validation.

Consider a Site Visit

As I noted, our previous moves had all been driven by considerations such as my commute, and we often had to make decisions based on distance and economics, rather than an appreciation for the characteristics of the community. Oh, we'd driven around with a realtor, and done some research online—but we never had (or at least felt we had) enough time to really get to experience what it would be like to live there.

While we were somewhat familiar with our targeted area (eastern Tennessee), that was mostly as tourists, and we hadn’t really had a chance to experience the surrounding communities—where we would actually live. So, earlier this year we made it a point to go spend some time driving around and getting a sense of the various communities. In the process we were able to rule out some as being too remote, others as being too built up, and still others that looked considerably different in person than they did on paper. We weren’t ready to make a decision yet, but having gotten a feel for the realities “on the ground,” it allowed us to better focus our online considerations later.

Admittedly, site visits to providers aren’t always instructive.[i] Let’s face it, however linear and production-flow oriented it may be, this business doesn’t generally lend itself to an assembly line visualization—and walking past row after row of (nearly) identical cubicles might not tell you a lot, however eloquent your guide(s). There is, however, something to be said for actually seeing the place where the “sausage” is made, to see how folks get along, to see the environment in which they operate.   

Hire a Professional ‘Inspector’

Some (perhaps all?) states require an inspection of the property by a licensed inspector. That said, the inspectors we’ve hired over the years have been distressingly inconsistent in the quality and thoroughness of their review (ditto the realtors we’ve engaged, but that’s a story for a different time)—and, generally speaking, (much) less discerning (it seems) than those engaged by the individuals buying OUR house(s). 

That said, this last round our inspector did a world-class review of a property that we’d likely have purchased absent his findings. He went places we didn’t (and in some cases, couldn’t), brought to our attention things I hadn’t considered—and in that process not only documented potential issues, he also noted which were minor and those that would require significant expenditures. Now, admittedly that’s what he was SUPPOSED to do—but we’ve paid more only to have others do less (and then later paid more to remedy the issues they should have identified). It saved us time and money, and I am thrilled that he also did the inspection on the house we chose next. 

There’s a lot that goes into making a change in providers, and it requires information and expertise that most plan sponsors don’t have, and don’t really have an opportunity to become expert in. Change can be difficult, but a change that makes a bad situation worse, or that belies the promises in the marketing brochures and sales pitch—well, that can be a nightmare—albeit one that frequently doesn’t manifest itself right away. All the more so in view of the fiduciary responsibility—and personal liability—for decisions that aren’t in the best interests of plan participants and beneficiaries.

In sum, you’re not required to be an expert in such matters—but ERISA requires that, if you’re not, you engage the services of those who are. And that’s an essential element in “making a move” to a new home—or deciding not to.

- Nevin E. Adams, JD

 

[i] Failing that, there’s something to be said for the perspective of experts who HAVE made that visit—and/or the references of current (and preferably EX) clients. 

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