Housing in the Trump Era

 

The Real Estate Transactions Section of the American Association of Law Schools has issued the following Call for Papers:

Access + Opportunity + Choice: Housing Capital, Equity, and Market Regulation in the Trump Era

Program Description:

The year 2018 marks the 10th anniversary of the 2008 housing crisis—an event described as the most significant financial and economic upheaval since the Great Depression. This year is also the 50th anniversary of the Fair Housing Act, which upended many decades of overt housing discrimination. Both events remind us of the significant role that housing has played in the American story—both for good and for bad.

Of the many aspects of financial reform that followed 2008, much of the housing finance-related work was centered around mortgage loan origination and creating incentives and rules dealing with underwriting and the risk of moral hazard. Some of these reforms include the creation of the qualified mortgage safe-harbor and the skin-in-the-game risk retention rules. But when it came to the secondary mortgage market, little significant reform was undertaken. The only government action of any serious importance related to the federal government—through the Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA)—taking over control of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. This major government intervention into the workings of the country’s two mortgage giants yielded takings lawsuits, an outcry from shareholders, and the decimation of the capital reserves of both companies. Despite Fannie and Freddie having both paid back all the bailout funds given to them, the conservatorship remains in place to this day.

In the area of fair housing, the past several years saw the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs v. Inclusive Communities case whereby the U.S. Supreme Court upheld (and narrowed the scope of) the disparate impact theory under the Fair Housing Act. We also saw efforts aimed at reducing geographic concentrations of affordable housing through the Obama administration’s promulgation of the affirmatively furthering fair housing rule.

Yet, meaningful housing reform remains elusive. None of the major candidates in the most recent presidential election meaningfully addressed the issue in their policy platforms, and a lack of movement in resolving the Fannie/Freddie conservatorship is viewed as a major failure of the Obama administration. Additionally, housing segregation and access to affordable mortgage credit continues to plague the American economy.

In recent months, the topics of housing finance reform and providing Americans with credit (including mortgage credit) choices have been a point of focus on Capitol Hill and in the Trump White House. Will these conservations result in meaningful legislation or changes in regulatory approaches in these areas? Will programs like the low-income-housing tax credit, the CFPB’s mandatory underwriting requirements, public housing subsidies, and the government’s role in guaranteeing and securitizing mortgage loans significantly change? Where are points of possible agreement between the country’s two major parties in this area and what kinds of compromises can be made?

Call for Papers:

The Real Estate Transactions Section looks to explore these and related issues in its 2019 AALS panel program titled: “Access and Opportunity: Housing Capital, Equity, and Market Regulation in the Trump Era.” The Section invites the submission of abstracts or full papers dealing broadly with issues related to real estate finance, the secondary mortgage market, fair housing, access to mortgage credit, mortgage lending discrimination, and the future of mortgage finance. There is no formal paper requirement associated with participation on the panel, but preference will be given to those submissions that demonstrate novel scholarly insights that have been substantially developed. Untenured scholars in particular are encouraged to submit their work. Please email your submissions to Chris Odinet at codinet@sulc.edu by Friday, August 3, 2018. The selection results will be announced in early September 2018. In additional to confirmed speakers, the Section anticipates selecting two to three papers from the call.

Confirmed Speakers:

Rigel C. Oliveri, Isabelle Wade and Paul C. Lyda Professor of Law, University of Missouri School of Law

Todd J. Zywicki, Foundation Professor of Law, George Mason University Antonin Scalia Law School

David Reiss, Professor of Law and Research Director for the Center for Urban Business Entrepreneurship, Brooklyn Law School

Eligibility:

Per AALS rules, only full-time faculty members of AALS member law schools are eligible to submit a paper/abstract to Section calls for papers. Faculty at fee-paid law schools, foreign faculty, adjunct and visiting faculty (without a full-time position at an AALS member law school), graduate students, fellows, and non-law school faculty are not eligible to submit.

All panelists, including speakers selected from this Call for Papers, are responsible for paying their own annual meeting registration fee and travel expenses.

Can I Refinance?

photo by GotCredit.com

LendingTree quoted me in Can I Refinance? Refinance Requirements for Your Mortgage. It opens,

While there are many reasons to refinance a mortgage, one of the biggest factors at play is whether or not you’ll be able to get a better interest rate. When interest rates drop, homeowners are incentivized to refinance into a new mortgage with a lower rate and better terms because it can potentially save them a boatload of money over the course of their loan.

Not only can refinancing save money on interest payments, but it can lead to lower monthly payments, or be a way to get rid of a pesky primary mortgage insurance requirement once you’ve earned enough equity in your home. Homeowners can also tinker with their repayment timeline when they refinance, choosing to lengthen their loan term or even shorten it to pay off their home faster.

The first question before you refinance your mortgage is simple: Does it make financial sense? Refinancing a mortgage comes with the same closing costs and fees as a regular mortgage, so you must stand to earn more by refinancing than you’ll pay to do it.

If you’ve had the same mortgage rate since the aughts or earlier, chances are you could have much to gain by refinancing in today’s lower rate environment.

The average interest rate on a 30-year, fixed-rate mortgage hit a low point of 3.31% on Nov. 21, 2012 and hasn’t budged all too much since then. Rates currently stand at 4.32% as of Feb. 8, 2018. By comparison, rates were routinely in the double digits in the 80s and early 90s.

Will rates continue on the upward trend? Unfortunately, nobody knows. But rate behavior will very likely play a key role in your decision.

Once you’ve decided refinancing makes financial sense, the next question should be this: What does it take to qualify? That’s what we’ll cover in this guide.

If you hope to refinance before rates climb any further, it’s smart to get your ducks in a row and find out the refinance requirements for your mortgage right away. Keep reading to learn the minimum requirements to refinance your mortgage, how your credit score may come into play and what steps to take next.

Can you refinance your home?

Lenders consider three main criteria when approving consumers for a home refinance – income, equity, and credit.

  • Debt and income.
  • Equity. Equity is important because lenders want to confirm possibly getting their money back out of your home if you default on your mortgage.
  • Credit. Any lending situation will involve a credit check. “They look at your credit score to see if you have the willingness to pay your mortgage back – to see if you’re creditworthy,” said David Reiss, Professor of Real Estate Law at The Center for Urban Business Entrepreneurship at Brooklyn Law School. “Do you have a low credit score or a high credit score? Do you pay your bills on time?” he asked. “These are all things your lender needs to know.”

While the above factors play a role in whether you’ll qualify to refinance your home, lenders do get fairly specific when it comes to how they gauge your income to determine affordability. Since the amount of income you need to qualify for a new mortgage depends on the amount you wish to borrow, lenders typically use something called “debt-to-income ratio” to measure your ability to repay, says Reiss.

Your debt-to-income ratio (DTI)

During the underwriting process for a conventional loan, lenders will look at all the factors that make them comfortable extending you a loan. This includes your income and your debt levels, says Reiss. “Debt-to-income ratio is an easy way for lenders to determine if you have too many debt payments that might interfere with your home mortgage payment in the future.”

To come up with a debt-to-income ratio, lenders look at your debts and compare them with your income.

But, how is your debt-to-income ratio determined? Your debt-to-income ratio is all of your monthly debt payments divided by your gross monthly income.

In the real world, someone’s debt-to-income ratio would work something like this:

Imagine one of your neighbors has a gross monthly income of $4,000, but they pay out $3,000 per month toward rent payments, car loans, child support, and student loans. Their debt income ratio would be 75% because $3,000 divided by $4,000 is .75.

Reiss says this factor is important because lenders shy away from consumers with debt-to-income ratios that are considered “too high.” Generally speaking, lenders prefer to loan money to borrowers with a debt-to-income ratio of less than 43% but 36% is ideal.

In the example above where your neighbor has a monthly gross income of $4,000, this means he or she may have to get all debt payments down to approximately $1,700 to qualify for a mortgage. ($1,700 divided by $4,000 = .425 or 42.5%).

There are exceptions to the 43% DTI rule, according to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Some lenders may offer you a mortgage if your debt-to-income ratio is higher than 43%. Situations, where such mortgages are offered, include when a borrower has a high credit score, a stellar record of repayment or both. Still, the 43% rule is a good rule of thumb to follow when it comes to traditional mortgages.

Other financial thresholds

If you plan to refinance your home with an FHA mortgage, your housing costs typically need to be less than 29% of your income while your total debts should be no more than 41%.

However, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which oversees FHA loans, also notes that potential borrowers with lower credit scores and higher debt-to-income ratios may need to have their loans manually underwritten to ensure “adequate consideration of the borrower’s ability to repay while preserving access to credit for otherwise underserved borrowers.”

Mortgage broker Mark Lewin of Caliber Home Loans in Indiana even says that in his experience, individuals with good credit and “other compensating factors” have secured FHA loans with a total debt-to-income ratio of 55%.

Of course, those who already have an FHA loan may also be able to refinance to a lower rate with no credit check or income verification through a process called FHA Streamline Refinancing. Your debt-to-income ratio won’t even be considered.

A VA loan is another type of home loan that has its own set of debt-to-income requirements. Generally speaking, veterans who meet eligibility requirements for the program need to have a debt-to-income ratio at or below 41% to qualify. However, you may be able to refinance your home with an Interest Rate Reduction Refinance Loan from the VA if you already have a VA loan. These loans don’t have any underwriting or appraisal requirements.

Equity requirements

Equity requirements to refinance your mortgage are typically at the sole discretion of your lender. Where some home mortgage companies may require 20% equity to refinance, others have much lighter requirements.

To find out what your home is worth and how much equity you have, you typically need to pay for a home appraisal, says Reiss. “Appraisals are typically required because you have to be able to prove the value of your home in order to refinance, just like you would with a traditional mortgage.”

There are a few exceptions, however. Mortgage refinancing options that may not require an appraisal include:

  • Interest Rate Reduction Refinance Loans from the VA
  • FHA Streamline Refinance
  • HARP (Home Affordable Refinance Program) Mortgages

Explaining loan-to-value ratio, or LTV

Loan-to-value ratio is a figure determined by assessing how much you owe on your home in relation to its value. If you owe $80,000 on a home worth $100,000, for example, your LTV would be 80% and you would have 20% equity in your home.

This ratio is important because it can determine whether your lender will approve you for a refinance. It can also determine the interest rates you’ll pay and other terms of your loan. If you have less than 20% equity in your home, for example, you may face higher interest rates and fees when you go to refinance.

Having less than 20% equity when you refinance may also cause you to have to pay PMI or private mortgage insurance. This mortgage insurance usually costs between 0.15 to 1.95% of your loan amount each year. If you have less than 20% equity in your home already, you’re already likely to be paying for this coverage all along. However, it’s still worth noting that, if you refinance with less than 20% equity, this coverage will once again get tacked onto your mortgage amount.

Is 80% LTV mandatory?

Your LTV and equity aren’t the end-all, be-all when it comes to your loan refi application. In fact, Reiss says that lenders he has experience with don’t absolutely require borrowers to have 20% equity or a loan-to-value ratio of 80% — so long as they score high on other measures.

“If you meet the lender’s requirements in terms of income and credit, your loan-to-value ratio doesn’t matter as much — especially if you have excellent credit and a solid payment history,” he said. However, lenders do prefer lending to consumers who have at least 20% equity in their homes.

Reiss says he always refers to 20% equity as the “gold standard” because it’s a goal everyone should shoot for. Not only does having 20% equity in your home when you refinance help you avoid paying for the added expense of PMI, but it can help provide more stability in your life, says Reiss: “Divorce, disease, and death in the family can and do happen, but having equity in your home makes it easier to overcome anything life throws your way.”

For example, having more equity in your home makes it easier to refinance into the best rates possible. Having a lot of equity is also ideal when you have to sell your home suddenly because it means you’re more likely to turn a profit and less likely to take a loss. Last but not least, if you have plenty of equity in your home, you can access that cash for emergency expenses via a home equity loan or HELOC.

“Home equity is a big source of wealth for American families,” he said. “The more equity you have, the more resources you have.”

Fortunately, many households are enjoying greater home equity today, as home values have continued to increase since the housing crisis.

Your credit score

The third factor that can impact your ability to refinance your home is your credit score. When a lender decides whether to give you a mortgage or not, they typically offer the best rates to people with very good credit, or with FICO scores of 740 or higher, according to Reiss.

“The lower your credit score, the higher your interest rate may be,” he said. “If your credit score is bad enough, you may not be able to refinance or get a new mortgage at all.”

The FICO scoring model’s main website, myFICO.com, seems to echo Reiss’ comments. As it notes, a “very good” score is any FICO score in the 740-799 range. If you earn a 740+ FICO, you’re above the national average and have a greater likelihood of getting credit approval and being offered lower interest rates.

Don’t stress about getting a perfect 850 FICO score either. In reality, rates stop improving much once you pass 740.

Fannie and Freddie Visit the Supreme Court

Justice Gorsuch

Fannie and Fredddie investors have filed their petition for a writ of certiorari in Perry Capital v. Mnuchin. The question presented is

Whether 12 U.S.C. § 4617(f), which prohibits courts from issuing injunctions that “restrain or affect the exercise of powers or functions of” the Federal Housing Finance Agency (“FHFA”) “as a conservator,” bars judicial review of an action by FHFA and the Department of Treasury to seize for Treasury the net worth of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac in perpetuity. (i)

What I find interesting about the brief is that relies so heavily on the narrative contained in Judge Brown’s dissent in the Court of Appeals decision. As I had noted previously, I do not find that narrative compelling, but I believe that some members of the court would, particularly Justice Gorsuch. The petition’s statement reads in part,

In August 2012—nearly four years after the Federal Housing Finance Agency (“FHFA”) placed Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac1 in conservatorship during the 2008 financial crisis—FHFA, acting as conservator to the Companies, agreed to surrender each Company’s net worth to the Treasury Department every quarter. This arrangement, referred to as the “Net Worth Sweep,” replaced a fixed-rate dividend to Treasury that was tied to Treasury’s purchase of senior preferred stock in the Companies during the financial crisis. FHFA and Treasury have provided justifications for the Net Worth Sweep that, as the Petition filed by Fairholme Funds, Inc. demonstrates, were pretextual. The Net Worth Sweep has enabled a massive confiscation by the government, allowing Treasury thus far to seize $130 billion more than it was entitled to receive under the pre-2012 financial arrangement—a fact that neither Treasury nor FHFA denies. As was intended, these massive capital outflows have brought the Companies to the edge of insolvency, and all but guaranteed that they will never exit FHFA’s conservatorship.

Petitioners here, investors that own preferred stock in the Companies, challenged the Net Worth Sweep as exceeding both FHFA’s and Treasury’s respective statutory powers. But the court of appeals held that the Net Worth Sweep was within FHFA’s statutory authority, and that keeping Treasury within the boundaries of its statutory mandate would impermissibly intrude on FHFA’s authority as conservator.

The decision of the court of appeals adopts an erroneous view of conservatorship unknown to our legal system. Conservators operate as fiduciaries to care for the interests of the entities or individuals under their supervision. Yet in the decision below, the D.C. Circuit held that FHFA acts within its conservatorship authority so long as it is not actually liquidating the Companies. In dissent, Judge Brown aptly described that holding as “dangerously far-reaching,” Pet.App. 88a, empowering a conservator even “to loot the Companies,” Pet.App. 104a.

The D.C. Circuit’s test for policing the bounds of FHFA’s statutory authority as conservator—if one can call it a test at all—breaks sharply from those of the Eleventh and Ninth Circuits, which have held that FHFA cannot evade judicial review merely by disguising its actions in the cloak of a conservator. And it likewise patently violates centuries of common-law understandings of the meaning of a conservatorship, including views held by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (“FDIC”), whose conservatorship authority under the Financial Institutions Reform, Recovery, and Enforcement Act of 1989 (“FIRREA”), served as the template for FHFA’s own conservatorship authority. Judge Brown correctly noted that the decision below thus “establish[es] a dangerous precedent” for FDIC-regulated financial institutions with trillions of dollars in assets. Pet.App. 109a. If the decision below is correct, then the FDIC as conservator could seize depositor funds from one bank and give them away—to another institution as equity, or to Treasury, or even to itself—as long as it is not actually liquidating the bank. The notion that the law permits a regulator appointed as conservator to act in a way so manifestly contrary to the interests of its conservatee is deeply destabilizing to our financial regulatory system. (1-2)

We shall see if this narrative of government overreach finds a sympathetic ear at the Court.

Improving the 30-Year Mortgage

Wayne Passmore and Alexander von Hafften have posted Improving the 30-Year Fixed-Rate Mortgage to SSRN. The abstract reads,

The 30-year fixed-rate fully amortizing mortgage (or “traditional fixed-rate mortgage”) was a substantial innovation when first developed during the Great Depression. However, it has three major flaws. First, because homeowner equity accumulates slowly during the first decade, homeowners are essentially renting their homes from lenders. With so little equity accumulation, many lenders require large down payments. Second, in each monthly mortgage payment, homeowners substantially compensate capital markets investors for the ability to prepay. The homeowner might have better uses for this money. Third, refinancing mortgages is often very costly. We propose a new fixed-rate mortgage, called the Fixed-Payment-COFI mortgage (or “Fixed-COFI mortgage”), that resolves these three flaws. This mortgage has fixed monthly payments equal to payments for traditional fixed-rate mortgages and no down payment. Also, unlike traditional fixed-rate mortgages, Fixed-COFI mortgages do not bundle mortgage financing with compensation paid to capital markets investors for bearing prepayment risks; instead, this money is directed toward purchasing the home. The Fixed-COFI mortgage exploits the often-present prepayment-risk wedge between the fixed-rate mortgage rate and the estimated cost of funds index (COFI) mortgage rate. Committing to a savings program based on the difference between fixed-rate mortgage payments and payments based on COFI plus a margin, the homeowner uses this wedge to accumulate home equity quickly. In addition, the Fixed-COFI mortgage is a highly profitable asset for many mortgage lenders. Fixed-COFI mortgages may help some renters gain access to homeownership. These renters may be, for example, paying rents as high as comparable mortgage payments in high-cost metropolitan areas but do not have enough savings for a down payment. The Fixed-COFI mortgage may help such renters, among others, purchase homes.

The authors acknowledge some drawbacks for Fixed-COFI mortgages that can make them unattractive to some borrowers:

What do homeowners lose by choosing Fixed-COFI mortgages instead of traditional fixed-rate mortgages? First, they cannot freely spend refinancing gains on non-housing items. When mortgage rates fall, homeowners with Fixed-COFI mortgages automatically pay less interest and pay down the mortgage principal more. Second, they can no longer “win the lottery” played with capital markets investors and lock in a substantially lower rate for the remainder of their mortgage. With Fixed-COFI mortgages, homeowners trade the option of prepayment for faster home equity accumulation. We believe that many households may prefer Fixed-COFI mortgages to traditional fixed-rate mortgages. Furthermore, we believe that many renting households without savings for a down payment may prefer Fixed-COFI mortgages to renting. (4)

American households rely too much on the plain vanilla 30-year fixed rate mortgage for their own good. Papers like this give us some reasonable alternatives that might be better suited for many households.

Foreclosure Alternatives


Realtor.com quoted me in 3 Foreclosure Alternatives: What to Do Before Your Mortgage Goes Underwater. It opens,

Maybe you’ve missed a couple of monthly mortgage payments. Maybe a notice of default from your lender is looming right now. You understand the severity of the situation, but what most homeowners don’t know is that foreclosure is not the only option you have when you’re no longer able to afford your house.

The first step for anyone in risk of foreclosure is to get in contact with your lender. This shows that you are aware of the problem and committed to finding a solution—and trust us, that will go a long way. The earlier you reach out, the greater shot you have of amicably rectifying the problem.

After you speak with your lender, your lender will lay out your options, including the foreclosure alternatives that you might be able to take advantage of. Let’s take a closer look at some of the alternatives so you—and your credit history—don’t suffer the ultimate blow.

1. Standard sale or rental

If your home is currently valued at more than you owe and if you are up to date on your mortgage payments (but you anticipate that paying your mortgage could become a problem), you can hold out as long as possible for a buyer.

You can also try to rent out the home to cover the mortgage payments until the house sells, says Carolyn Rae Cole, a Realtor® with Nourmand & Associates. In the end, virtually all homes eventually sell—it’s just about pricing.

2. Short sale

When a home has fallen in value and is priced so low that there isn’t enough equity to cover the mortgage, you might have the option to conduct a short sale. It’s also known as going “underwater.” This means the lender agrees to accept less than the amount the borrower owes through a sale of the property to a third party.

A short sale works like this: A specialist brokers a deal with the mortgage lender to sell the home for whatever the market will bear. If the amount of the sale is for less than what’s owed on the mortgage, the lender gets the money from the sale and relinquishes the remaining debt. (This means you won’t owe anything else.) In a short sale, the lender usually pays for the seller’s closing costs. A traditional sale takes about 30 to 45 days to close after the offer is accepted, whereas a short sale can take 90 to 120 days, sometimes even longer.

Sellers will need to prove hardship—like a loss of primary income or death of a spouse—to their lender. In addition to explaining why they’re unable to make mortgage payments, sellers will have to provide supporting financial documents to the lender to consider for a short sale.

3. Deed in lieu of foreclosure agreement

A deed in lieu of foreclosure is a transaction between a lender and borrower that effectively ends a home loan. Essentially both parties agree to avoid a lengthy foreclosure proceeding by the borrower voluntarily turning over the home’s deed to a lender, says professor David Reiss of Brooklyn Law School
. The lender then releases the borrower from any further liability relating to the mortgage. However, if the property is worth significantly less than the outstanding mortgage, the lender may require the borrower to pay a portion of the remaining loan balance.

You might be eligible for a deed in lieu if you’re experiencing financial hardship, can’t afford your current mortgage payment, and were unable to sell your property at fair market value for at least 90 days.

Bottom line: This agreement is a negotiated solution to a bad situation—borrowers who have fallen behind on their payments are going to lose their house and the lender is not getting paid back in full.

Retiree Real Estate Mistakes

Realtor.com quoted me in 5 Major Mistakes That Retirees Make With Real Estate. It opens,

You’ve worked hard year after grueling year and, finally, retirement is on the horizon. There’s nothing ahead for you but lazy days of relaxation and idle time to pursue those back-burner hobbies. Hey, you’ve earned it!

But if you haven’t planned ahead, those golden years could be full of stress—fraught with unknowns and major decisions to be made. And one of the biggest, most stressful aspects of retirement is, you guessed it, real estate.

Do you downsize? Buy a second property so you can make like snowbirds and fly south for the winter? Keep the home where all your family’s memories were made? While there’s no one-size-fits-all solution, there are some general pitfalls to avoid.

Here are five of the biggest real estate mistakes experts see retirees make.

1. Failing to ‘audit’ the situation

It might come as a surprise, but many retirees forget to assess their current real estate situation to make sure it meets their future needs, according to David Reiss, professor of law at Brooklyn Law School.

“Most people are on autopilot when it comes to their home: ‘It has worked for me up to now, so I assume that it will work for me going forward,’” Reiss says. “The mistake they make is that they do not realize that their future selves are very different from their current selves.

“As we age, our ability to do all sorts of physical things worsen—shoveling, climbing ladders—decreases,” he adds. “So it makes sense to assess your housing situation at regular intervals.”

Even if you plan on keeping your home, there are questions you should ask yourself: Should you make adjustments to your home so you can age in place? Does it make sense to refinance into a 15-year mortgage in order to pay off what you owe more quickly while paying a lower interest rate? Should you access some of the equity that’s built up in the house in order to supplement your retirement income?

“All of these options have pros and cons,” Reiss says. “It’s worth talking them through with someone whose financial judgment you trust.”

Retired With A Mortgage

photo by Katina Rogers

U.S. News & World Report quoted me in Rethinking a Mortgage While Retired. It opens,

It’s one of the cardinal rules of retirement planning: pay off the mortgage before quitting work. Giving up your income while still supporting a big debt can mean chewing away at your retirement savings way too fast, and can leave you in a tight spot if something goes wrong.

But paying off a mortgage years early is easier said than done, and the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College says way too many pre-retirees are too far behind schedule, largely because of borrowing before the housing bust and financial crisis.

On the other hand, some experts say carrying low-interest debt into retirement is not always such a bad thing, especially if it means leaving money in investments that perform well.

“In 2013, almost 40 percent of all households ages 55 and over had not paid off their mortgages, up from 32 percent in 2001,” the Center reports, citing a study using data from the Federal Reserve’s Survey of Consumer Finances in 2013. “These borrowers were also carrying a lot more housing debt by 2013.”

“I’ve been advising clients for over 20 years and on just an anecdotal level, I can tell you that more clients are retiring with mortgage balances than in years past,” says Margaret R. McDowell, founder of Arbor Wealth Management in Miramar Beach, Florida.

A.W. Pickel III, president of the Midwest division of AmCap Mortgage in Overland Park, Kansas, says many baby boomers traded up as their families grew, then took second mortgages to help fund college costs.

In the years before 2008, homeowners were encouraged to take out big loans when home values appeared to be soaring, the center says. They bought expensive homes or tapped home value through cash-out refinancing or home equity loans, it says.

When home prices collapsed, millions were left “underwater” – owing more than their homes were worth – and were unable to get out from under because they could not sell for enough to pay off their loan. McDowell believes many homeowners also concluded their home was not the rock-solid asset they’d thought, so they felt it unwise to pour more money into it by paying down the mortgage early.

So many just hung in there. By taking on too much debt, and monthly payments so large they could not afford extra payments to bring it down, they left themselves with too much debt too late in the game.

The center says “that 51.6 percent of working-age households were at risk of having a lower standard of living in retirement,” largely because of mortgage debt.

“In recent years, U.S. house prices have started to really improve, to the benefit of homeowners and retirees,” the center says. “But it’s difficult to predict whether the other factor that has reduced retirement preparedness – more older households with big housing debts – was a boom-time phenomenon or represents the new normal.”

But is the situation really as dire as it seems? David Reiss, a professor at Brooklyn Law School in New York City, thinks it may not be.

“According to the National Association of Realtors, the median sales price of an existing home increased from $197,100 in 2013 to $232,200 in October of 2016,” he says. “That is a roughly 15 percent price increase and about $40,000 of additional equity for the owner of the median home.”

Many homeowners who were underwater may not be any longer.

Also, he adds, it’s not necessary to be absolutely debt free at retirement so long as income is large enough to cover expenses and leave a cushion.

“Often, paying off a mortgage gets a retiree where he or she needs to be in terms of that balance, but it is not always necessary,” he says.

The key, he says, is to not be underwater. Once the remaining debt is smaller than the home value, the homeowner is better able to sell. One option is downsizing, selling the current home, then using cash from the sale or a new, smaller mortgage to buy a cheaper home. A less expensive home will also likely have lower property taxes and maintenance costs.