Reverse Mortgage Lowdown

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Athene quoted me in Is a Reverse Mortgage Right for You? It opens,

Experts weigh the pros and cons of this loan—to help you make a smart choice.

For homeowners age 62 and older who have a significant amount of equity (appraised value minus mortgage balance) in their homes, a reverse mortgage can seem like an attractive option. Simply put, a reverse mortgage allows you to convert a portion of the equity in your home into cash, without having to sell your home. But this type of loan isn’t right for everyone. Here’s help determining if a reverse mortgage is the smart choice for you.

Pros: A reverse mortgage is a loan against your home equity, which you can take as a lump sum payment, a monthly payment, or a line of credit. The loan is paid off when you no longer live in the home. “It allows a homeowner to access home equity in the present in order to supplement current income,” says David Reiss, a professor of law at Brooklyn Law School who teaches residential real estate courses.

Consider this loan if you would like to stay in your current home and

  • Have lived in your home for a long time and plan to use the equity to supplement Social Security and other investment income streams
  • Have other assets and are not using this as a loan of last resort
  • Might not be able to access the cash you need in emergencies

Cons: These loans aren’t cheap, says Scott Withiam, housing counseling supervisor at American Consumer Credit Counseling, Inc. Plus, the industry that sells them has been under scrutiny from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau for deceptive practices. “The reverse mortgage industry has had more than its share of shady operators who are drawn to all that equity that seniors have amassed,” says Reiss. “Homeowners considering a reverse mortgage should make sure to review the terms of the transaction with someone whose financial judgment he or she trusts.”

Risky Reverse Mortgages

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau released a report, Snapshot of Reverse Mortgage Complaints:  December 2011-December 2014. By way of background,

Reverse mortgages differ from other types of home loans in a few important ways. First, unlike traditional “forward” mortgages, reverse mortgages do not require borrower(s) to make monthly mortgage payments (though they must continue paying property taxes and homeowners’ insurance). Prospective reverse mortgage borrowers are required to undergo mandatory housing counseling before they sign for the loan. The loan proceeds are generally provided to the borrowers as lump-sum payouts, annuity-like monthly payments, or as lines of credit. The interest and fees on the mortgage are added to the loan balance each month. The total loan balance becomes due upon the death of the borrower(s), the sale of the home, or if the borrower(s) permanently move from the home. In addition, a payment deferral period may be available to some non-borrowing spouses following the borrowing spouse’s death. (3, footnotes omitted)

The CFPB concludes that

borrowers and their non-borrowing spouses who obtained reverse mortgages prior to August 4, 2014 may likely encounter difficulties in upcoming years similar to those described in this Snapshot, i.e., non-borrowing spouses seeking to retain ownership of their homes after the borrowing spouse dies. As a result, many of these consumers may need notification of and assistance in averting impending possible displacement should the non-borrowing spouse outlive his or her borrowing spouse.

For millions of older Americans, especially those without sufficient retirement reserves, tapping into accrued home equity could help them achieve economic security in later life. As the likelihood increases that older Americans will use their home equity to supplement their retirement income, it is essential that the terms, conditions and servicing of reverse mortgages be fair and transparent so that consumers can make informed decisions regarding their options. (16)
Reverse mortgages have a number of characteristics that would make them ripe for abuse: borrowers are elderly; borrowers have a hard time refinancing them; borrowers can negatively affect their spouses by entering into to them. Seems like a no brainer for the CFPB to pay close attention to this useful but risky product.