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Mortgages Going in Reverse

In today’s tumultuous economy, homeowners are taking a closer look at reverse mortgages to help meet the rising cost of remaining in their homes while enjoying life along the way.

After Mary Falso paid her mortgage and other bills, there wasn’t much left over from her retirement income. The Goodyear, Arizona, woman found herself declining invitations to travel because she felt she needed to save her money in case the water heater broke.

Then she took out a reverse mortgage and used the proceeds to pay off the $110,000 mortgage on her home.

“With $900 more in my pocket each month, if I want to go somewhere, I go somewhere. I don’t have to worry about a thing,” says Falso, 70. “I was a penny pincher. After getting the reverse mortgage, it’s just like somebody took a ton of bricks off my shoulders.”

During this economic crisis, seniors facing shrinking retirement investments or foreclosure may be exploring reverse mortgages. Reverse mortgages can save some from foreclosure, and they may be a long-term solution for those who struggle to pay bills.

But each individual should explore all financial options in consultation with a HUD-certified credit counselor and a family member or advisor whom they know and trust.

If seniors have a large mortgage and little equity, a reverse mortgage can forestall a foreclosure in the short term, but if they have nothing left over after paying off the mortgage, they may still lose their home, says Jeffrey Taylor, a vice president with Wells Fargo Home Mortgage.

“If you’re going to use the reverse mortgage to pay off debt, you better be sure you have other income to pay taxes and insurance,” he says.

Reverse mortgages, which have been around for 20 years, allow seniors to access their home’s equity while living in their homes. Homeowners 62 and older are eligible for reverse mortgages if the house is their primary residence. Those who take out a federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD)-backed reverse mortgage are required to receive consumer counseling from a HUD-approved counselor: the counseling is usually free or offered for a modest fee.

Borrowers choose to take the cash in a lump sum, as a line of credit, in monthly payments or as a combination of these options. Seniors do not have to pay the loan back until they move out or sell their home.

Those who already have a reverse mortgage needn’t worry about declining real-estate values. The loan amount is based on the home’s appraised value at the time of closing, so even if the home’s value drops below the amount of the loan, seniors can remain in their home, says Denise Hubbard, a reverse mortgage specialist with Mortgage Network, Inc.

“If the home should depreciate in the future, it would only affect how much equity remains when the borrower sells, and this is where the HUD mortgage insurance comes in,” says Hubbard. “It in no way affects any monthly payment they receive or their line of credit.”
Consumer Protections

Late last year, the federal government lowered the fees paid by seniors and raised the amount that seniors can borrow against their houses.

Prior to the change, the maximum allowable loan limit varied by region, with more costly areas such as California having higher borrowing limits than states like Alabama. So borrowers with homes of equal value were allowed different-size mortgages, depending upon where they lived, says Meg Burns, director of the HUD office that oversees reverse mortgages.

The new national limit for a reverse mortgage is $417,000 in the continental United States and $625,500 in Alaska and Hawaii.

The amount of equity that a home-owner is entitled to under the program is calculated based on the home’s value, the lending limit, the senior’s age, and interest rates. If there is a mortgage, outstanding tax bills, or liens on the home, they have to be paid with reverse mortgage proceeds first.

The new law also imposed a $6,000 cap on origination fees. Now, lenders can charge 2 percent for the first $200,000 of loan value and 1 percent of any additional loan value. Consumers are still charged 2 percent for Federal Housing Administration (FHA) insurance. These fees are paid when the home is sold. Lenders are required to disclose all fees in writing.

With traditional mortgages, the origination fee is sometimes charged to consumers in the form of a higher interest rate, so the consumer doesn’t see the full origination fee, Burns says. “There’s a misconception that a reverse mortgage is substantially more expensive than a forward mortgage,” she says.

Reverse mortgage specialists invest more than twice as much time in each customer, she adds.

Denise Hubbard, who has sold reverse mortgages for 15 years, often spends months with a customer who ultimately decides it’s not for them. “It’s a labor-intensive program,” says Hubbard, of Laconia, New Hampshire. “For those who have been in it as long as we have, it is a labor of love.”

But like any occupation, there are a few who tarnish everyone’s image. The new law adds regulations intended to help protect seniors from unscrupulous salespeople.

Historically, some predatory lenders sold seniors other financial products, such as annuities, that they didn’t need. The new law doesn’t fully protect seniors, says Peter H. Bell, president of the National Reverse Mortgage Lenders Association. “It doesn’t stop informal collaboration of two different individuals from two separate companies.”

Cautions Burns, “Never borrow money to invest in something else.”

How It Works

When a senior applies for a reverse mortgage, the first step is education because these mortgages are more complex than traditional mortgages. Seniors’ income and credit scores are not factors in determining whether they can get a reverse mortgage.

Seniors are encouraged to discuss the concept with spouses, adult children, financial advisors, and lawyers, says Bruce McClary, a certified financial specialist with ClearPoint Financial Solutions.

“There are a number of options you should look at before you go into a reverse mortgage,” McClary says. “It should not be done hastily.”

The next step is meeting with a counselor. There, McClary says, the consumer should disclose his or her entire financial picture. A reverse mortgage is considered an option for those facing long-term budgetary strain, but generally not for someone with a short-term need. (However, seniors with terminal illnesses have used reverse mortgages to pay for in-home care so they can die at home.)

Consumers may want to consider liquidating other assets before choosing a reverse mortgage. “It is a last resort,” he says.

On the other hand, says Taylor, from Wells Fargo, with the stock market at record lows, seniors may not want to sell stocks to pay the taxes or fix the roof.

Steve Boland, who directs Bank of America’s reverse mortgage business, says each case is different, and seniors should explore all their options. “Our job is to advise that this definitely isn’t for everyone,” he says.

While more than 90 percent of reverse mortgages are HUD-sponsored, Home Equity Conversion Mortgage (HECM) loans, some are not. HECMs, which are seniors’ safest option, are insured by the Federal Housing Administration (FHA), which is part of HUD.

Seniors are encouraged to shop around for a lender. Reverse mortgage lenders who are members of NRMLA, the trade association, agree to ethics and professional standards, says Bell.

Many of those who get a reverse mortgage are like Mary Falso, who is divorced and has no living children. They have enough in their retirement savings to live on, but they worry that they won’t have enough saved if something goes wrong, so they avoid travel or deny themselves simple pleasures like taking their grandchildren out for ice cream and buying flowers for their yard.

“That’s the nice thing,” she says. “When friends invite her out, now I can say okay.”

When Not to Get a Reverse Mortgage

While each individual’s circumstances are different, experts agree a reverse mortgage is ill-advised if seniors are getting it for the following reasons.

* To loan another person money.
* To start a business or help someone else start a business.
* To invest in the stock market, gamble, or purchase risky financial products.
* When the financial need is short term and temporary.
* When you have other assets that you can liquidate if you need funds.
* If you only plan to stay in the home for three years or less.

Additional Resources

To gain a better understanding of the fundamentals of how reverse mortgages work and to help you decide if the financial option works for you, visit the following websites for more information.

• Go to hud.gov and search for “reverse mortgages” or call 1-800-CALLFHA

• Go to www.nrmla.org, the National Reverse Mortgage Lenders Association

• Go to aarp.org and use their Reverse Mortgage Calculator to help determine how much cash you could get.

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  • J. Nip

    This comment is inundone regard to January 2009 issue Going In Reverse. I am currently dealing with this issue and its a mess. If you need money please go through a lawyer/or trusted financial person to see if there are other possiblities than reverse mortgage. If your heirs do not want the house after you die it is a real hassle to get paperwork resolved. The lender does it on their own terms and time. And after all its no fault of the heirs just trying to tie up loose ends after the death of a loved one. Think twice before signing on the line once you do it cannot be cancelled.