Q&A: Using your home’s equity to pay off credit card debt is a dumb move

Dear Liz: My ex-husband is a self-employed carpenter who just turned 64. He’s gotten a bit over his head with his credit cards. He tried for a home equity loan since he has plenty of equity and high credit scores. His mortgage lender says he doesn’t make enough money and that he needs a co-signer.

He owes only $50,000 on the house and needs about $40,000 to pay off his bills. Why should he be punished for working hard all these years? This is crazy and stupid. Is a reverse mortgage the way to go for him?

Answer: Possibly, but it’s concerning that he has so much credit card debt. Too often people who tap their home equity to pay off debt wind up worse off in a few years. They don’t fix the problem that caused the debt in the first place, so they continue to overspend — but now they have less of a home equity cushion to fall back on in case of emergency.

That’s especially true with a reverse mortgage. These loans allow people 62 and over to borrow against their home equity without having to make payments or repay the loan until they sell, move out or die. However, any amount they borrow and don’t repay will grow over time, typically at a variable interest rate. People who use reverse mortgages to pay off debt early in retirement can wind up unable to access their equity later, when they may need it more.

The lender isn’t trying to punish your ex for working hard, by the way. It’s saying he doesn’t appear to have enough income to pay his mortgage, cover the new loan payments and take care of his other bills. Your ex may think the lender’s standards are too strict, and it’s true many lenders are more reluctant to lend to the self-employed. He may find another lender that’s more cooperative if he shops around. But that huge amount of credit card debt indicates a serious problem that needs fixing, and another loan may not be the answer.

Since your ex feels comfortable sharing financial details with you, you might suggest that he discuss his situation with a credit counselor (the National Foundation for Credit Counseling offers referrals) and with a bankruptcy attorney (the National Assn. of Consumer Bankruptcy Attorneys). Each can assess his situation and offer different potential options he could consider.

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