Reverse Mortgages: What Are They, Who Benefits?

What is a Reverse Mortgage

If you haven’t saved enough for retirement, you figure that you can live on the equity you’ve built up. But in real estate, the easy money has been made. Home prices are falling in some cities and flattening in others. For planning purposes, you should assume a return to a more traditional market, with gains in home values roughly tracing the inflation rate. That means your home won’t provide you with much more purchasing power than you have today. What the experts say to do:

Pay Off Your House

Good advice, but fewer people are taking it. Adjusted for inflation, mortgage debt among people 65 and up nearly tripled from 1989 to 2004, says Zhu Xiao Di of the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard University. Financial planners deplore the trend. “Having to make mortgage payments out of retirement savings, pension or Social Security is a huge hit, financially,” says Morgan Stone of Austin, Texas.

If you’ll feel squeezed, downsize to a smaller place. But be realistic, says Kevin Brosious of Wealth Management in Allentown, Pa. After the cost of selling, moving, and fixing up your new home, you’ll have less extra cash than you thought.

Some pre-retirees wonder if it’s worth paying off the mortgage faster if home values are flattening out. Answer: Yes, yes, and yes. Your return on investment equals your mortgage rate-maybe 6.5 percent-regardless of where home prices go.

Consider the Rental Option

In general, it’s better to own than rent. That’s what you’ll learn by checking the “rent vs. buy” calculators at and But if you’re likely to run out of savings, it’s smarter to sell your house, invest the proceeds and move into an apartment, says planner Ray LeVitre of Midvale, Utah. Having the cash for bills trumps all.

Maybe Not a Second Home

Multiple homes are fine if your future income can easily cover the debt. Otherwise, this is no time to borrow. If you want a retirement home, buy it when the great day comes. Planner Ron Rhoades of Joseph Capital Management in Hernando, Fla., says that for every $100,000 you invest in a home, you reduce your cash flow by $7,000 or more in lost income and annual costs.

Be Reverse-Mortgage Smart

Reverse mortgages let you tap your home for cash without having to sell and move. Typically, a bank will lend you 50 percent or more of its value and never ask for monthly payments. Instead, the loan interest and fees are added to your debt. When you move or die and the house is sold, the bank takes its money out of the proceeds. If the loan has grown to more than the house is worth, the bank gets the house but nothing more.

Financial planners hate reverse mortgages for new retirees. That’s because the costs are huge. Fees alone, not even counting interest, could reach $25,000 and more on federally insured loans, says Ken Scholen, AARP’s reverse-mortgage expert. Lenders have gotten away with these charges because there’s practically no competition. Just one product-the FHA-insured Home Equity Conversion Mortgage (HECM)-accounts for almost all the loans on homes of moderate value. The Financial Freedom Cash Account dominates lending on pricey homes. And just one financial entity backs the HECM market-Fannie Mae, which buys these loans from banks and sets the interest rate.

All that’s about to change. Reverse Mortgage of America, a subsidiary of Seattle Mortgage, will soon roll out a lower-cost loan it calls a Lifestyle Plan. Countrywide Mortgage is planning an entry, too. In a pre-emptive strike, Financial Freedom recently cut its own loan costs. And this week Ginnie Mae, which buys mortgages and resells them to investors, is announcing that it will compete with Fannie Mae – a move that’s expected to lower reverse-mortgage interest rates. By the time you retire, these products will look entirely new.

Tips on How to Use Reverse Mortgage Loans:

  • Don’t take a loan now

    • if you can possibly wait. In two or three years, you’ll get better products, more options, and lower fees.
  • Never borrow when you first qualify at 62.

    • The younger you are, the smaller the loan and the higher the dollar cost over time. Besides, reverse mortgages should be kept in reserve-something to turn to at a later age if your savings run short.
  • Choose a loan from Financial Freedom

    • or Reverse Mortgage of America if you want to borrow for only three or four years. You pay higher interest on these loans (8.87 percent for Cash Account versus 6.4 percent for HECM). But because of their lower upfront costs, they’re cheaper over shorter terms. Look at these loans if you own an expensive home and want to tap it for the highest possible income.
  • Choose HECM if you expect to keep the loan

    • for many years. Over time, its lower interest rate makes it more competitive on costs. If you choose a loan with a credit line, HECM will provide you with more long-term borrowing power.
  • Get counseling.

    • Two mortgages that appear identical at the start may run up very different costs, and how would you know? AARP ( or 800-209-8085) will help you find a free government-approved counselor.
  • Beware the hype.

    • Mortgage brokers earn fat fees on these loans. So they’ll urge you to take one now-to finance a cruise, prepay your current mortgage, renovate your house, anything that appeals. But what if you decide to sell and move a few years from now? You’ll have paid huge fees, pointlessly, and slashed your equity

At this time of your life, there’s a simple rule: don’t borrow if you don’t have to! For most of your life, your home has been a financial tool. When you retire, it should be your castle again.

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