Can Seniors Get Mortgages? Should They?

photo by Bill Branson

TheStreet.com quoted me in Can Seniors Get Home Mortgages? Should They? It reads, in part,

Senior citizens can and are getting approved for mortgages, and we are not talking reverse mortgages or home equity lines of credit, but – in many cases – 30-year fixed loans. Even when the borrower might be 85 and the actuarial probability of making it to the end of the loan term is nil.

The federal government is blunt: age cannot be used to discriminate against applicants for home loans. Capacity to repay is a factor – for seniors and every other borrower – but a lender cannot turn down an applicant just because he is 65…or 75…or 85. And loans are getting made.

Which raises the other question: is it wise for the borrower? Bankers can take care of themselves, but seniors need to ask: should I be borrowing a lot of money on a house at my age?

In Vancouver, Wash., Dick Kuiper – who said he is “approaching 70,” as is his wife – “just purchased a new home last year and got a 30 year mortgage at just under 3%, and we both believe this was a brilliant move.”

“We first made sure we made a large enough down payment so we would always have positive equity in the home,” Kuiper elaborates. “With that calculated, we looked at the alternatives, either pay in cash – which would naturally come out of our savings – or take out a mortgage. We looked at what we could get by putting the same amount of money into a retirement annuity with a downside guarantee. That annuity pays a minimum of 5% for life and currently is paying in the 8% to 9% range. Do the math. We’d be crazy to pay cash for the house.”

Kuiper’s right. For his wife and him, it made no sense to pay cash for a house – not when mortgage rates are breathtakingly low.

Case closed? Not at all.

Ash Toumayants, founder of financial advisors Strong Tower Associates in State College, Pa., said that in his experience few seniors ever want another mortgage in retirement after they settled up on their first one. “Most are excited when they pay it off and don’t want another one,” Toumayants says.

Another fact: to get a mortgage, a senior has to demonstrate to a lender a capacity to repay. Age cannot be used against a senior, but lack of cashflow can. And many seniors just have sizable trouble qualifying for a mortgage. “The trick is whether they have enough income to qualify or not,” said Casey Fleming, a mortgage expert in Northern California who said that he right now is working on a loan for an 85-year-old client.

Brian Koss, executive vice president of Mortgage Network, an independent mortgage lender in the eastern U.S., elaborated: “For seniors thinking about getting a mortgage, it’s all about income flow. If you have a consistent source of income, and a mortgage payment that fits that income, it makes sense. Something else to consider: if you have income, you have taxes and a need for a tax deduction. With a mortgage, you can write off the interest.”

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But then there is an ugly issue to confront. Is the senior arriving at this purchase decision on his own steam? Brooklyn Law professor David Reiss explained why that needs to be asked. “Seniors should discuss big financial moves with someone whose judgment they trust (and who does not stand to benefit from the decision). Elder financial abuse is rampant.”

Reiss added: “What has changed in their financial profile that is leading them to do this? Is someone – a relative, a new friend – egging them on or leading them through the process?” Reiss is right in the caution, and that’s a concern that has to be satisfied.

Foreclosure Body Count

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Case Western’s Matt Rossman has posted Counting Casualties in Communities Hit Hardest by the Foreclosure Crisis (forthcoming in the Utah Law Review) to SSRN. The abstract reads,

Recent statistics suggest that the U.S. housing market has largely recovered from the Foreclosure Crisis. A closer look reveals that the country is composed not of one market, but of thousands of smaller, local housing markets that have experienced dramatically uneven levels of recovery. Repeated waves of home mortgage foreclosures inundated certain communities (the “Hardest Hit Communities”), causing their housing markets to break rather than bend and resulting in what amounts to a permanent transition to a lower value plateau. Homeowners in these predominantly low and middle income and/or minority communities who endured the Foreclosure Crisis lost significant equity in what is typically their principal asset. Public sector responses have largely ignored this collateral damage.

As the ten-year mark since the onset of the Foreclosure Crisis approaches, this Article argues that homeowners in the Hardest Hit Communities should be able to deduct the damage to their home values caused by the Crisis from their federal taxable income. This means overcoming the tax code’s usual normative assumption that a decline in a home’s value represents consumed wealth and, thus, is fully taxable. To do so, this Article likens the rapid, unusual and enduring plunge in home values experienced by homeowners in the Hardest Hit Communities to casualty losses – i.e. damages to personal property caused by a sudden force like a storm or a hurricane – which are deductible. The IRS and most courts have insisted this deduction is limited to physical damage. This Article carefully dissects the law and principles underlying the deduction to reveal that the physical damage requirement is overbroad and inequitable. When viewed in the larger context of other recent tax code interventions that allow those who have experienced personal financial harm due to a crisis to reduce their income tax base accordingly, home value damage in the Hardest Hit Communities actually fits comfortably within the concept of a casualty loss.

Notwithstanding its normative and equitable fit, the casualty loss deduction poses several administrative challenges in its application to the Foreclosure Crisis. This Article addresses each challenge in turn, explaining the extent to which the Treasury Department and the IRS, through administrative action and/or a careful application of case law precedent, can resolve it. The Article also identifies and grapples with the distributional reality that the casualty loss deduction, in its current form, provides a small or no return on lost home equity for a sizable number of low and middle income homeowners, which would make it a problematic method of recovery for homeowners in the Hardest Hit Communities. To make the deduction a better and more equitable fit under the circumstances, this Article identifies two, larger-scale modifications the federal government could adopt: (i) changing the method by which a casualty loss is valued for damage caused by the Foreclosure Crisis and/or (ii) lifting the floors and limits Congress has over time imposed on the deduction, as it has done for those taxpayers most heavily impacted by several recent hurricanes and droughts.

The article offers a creative response to ameliorate an aspect of the foreclosure crisis. Rossman concludes, “Once these homeowners are considered equally worthy of claiming a casualty loss, the question then shifts to how the IRS, the Treasury Department and/or Congress can best adapt and address the administrative and distributional challenges attendant to utilizing the casualty loss deduction in this context. These challenges are not insurmountable barriers, but rather issues to be carefully considered and strategically addressed.” (67)

I can certainly imagine some of those challenges, such as how to reliably identify a “permanent transition to a lower value plateau,” but articles of this type are just what we need as we try to figure out how to address housing crises of this magnitude.  While there was a big gap between the housing crises of the Great Depression and the Great Depression we can be sure that there will be another such event at some point in the 21st century.