Q&A: Reverse mortgages have improved but still require caution

Dear Liz: You’ve written about the potential financial flexibility and options for preserving quality of life for seniors by using a reverse mortgage line of credit. I believe there is a great need for much more cautionary advice regarding reverse mortgages.

Someone I know entered into a reverse mortgage and the consequences have been disastrous. She was barely past the minimum age of 62 when she got the loan and took the lump sum option, only to spend it hastily on various purchases and debts.

Having no income other than Social Security, and almost nonexistent savings, she faces many years of figuring out how to pay property taxes and ongoing maintenance costs to avoid foreclosure. So although she has her home, it’s a precarious situation from year to year. She also no longer has an asset that could be used for long-term care or other expenses because the reverse mortgage makes it unlikely the owner will receive any leftover proceeds after paying off the lender.

Answer: You didn’t say when your friend got her reverse mortgage, but the rules for lump-sum payouts have been tightened under the Federal Housing Administration’s Home Equity Conversion Mortgage program.

In the past, borrowers could take 100% of the loan proceeds upfront. Today, only 60% is typically available in the first year. The total amounts that can be borrowed overall have been reduced as well. These changes were meant to shore up the program’s finances, but they also could lead to fewer situations like your friend’s.

That said, people should be extremely careful about encumbering their homes in retirement. Prospective borrowers have to meet with HECM counselors to discuss a reverse mortgage’s financial implications and potential alternatives, but they would be smart to also meet with a fee-only financial planner.

Q&A: The dark side of reverse mortgages

Dear Liz: I have had a reverse mortgage on my condo since 2009, due to financial necessity. The interest rate on my mortgage keeps going up. Could the interest rate be reduced by changing lenders or would there be exorbitant fees involved in the process? My financial standing is not good, and I am in credit card debt. However, I do pay the minimum payment each month on each card. Being retired, I need some guidance on relieving the financial pressure I am currently experiencing.

Answer: Please consult a bankruptcy attorney.

Changing reverse mortgage lenders would indeed involve considerable expense and wouldn’t relieve any financial pressure because you don’t have to make payments on this kind of loan. (For those who don’t know, reverse mortgages allow people ages 62 and older to tap their equity in a lump sum, through a stream of monthly checks or via a line of credit. The debt grows over time, typically at a variable interest rate, but the borrower doesn’t have to make payments. The loan is repaid when the borrower moves out, sells the home or dies.)

If you can pay only the minimums on your credit cards, you probably have more debt than you’ll be able to repay. Some people manage to dig themselves out of such debt, often by working two jobs and dramatically cutting their expenses. They may use a debt management plan offered by a credit counselor to reduce their interest rates. Sometimes they sell their homes and use the equity to pay off the debt.

You can explore these options, of course, but chances are they won’t be a solution for you.

You may not be able to find a job, or have the stamina to work. Selling your home to pay off the debt would leave you without a house in your old age and may leave you without income, if you’re getting monthly checks from your reverse mortgage. If you borrowed a lump sum instead, your debt may have grown to the point where you don’t have much equity left anyway.

Your situation is one of the reasons many financial planners are leery about reverse mortgages. They can be an extremely helpful tool in retirement, but sometimes people use them as a way out of a financial jam without addressing the spending or other issues that got them into the jam in the first place.

Why reverse mortgages are a harder sell now

The millions of Americans who haven’t saved enough money for retirement still have a potential safety net: their home equity. But recent changes to reverse mortgages mean seniors and their families may have tougher decisions to make.

In my latest for the Associated Press, the changes to reverse mortgages that are causing people to think twice.

Q&A: Reverse mortgages have gotten safer and cheaper but aren’t for everyone

Dear Liz: I have been making interest-only payments on a home equity line of credit but starting in January the payments will increase to include principle. I would like to do a cash-out refinance of my first mortgage (I owe about $190,000) to pay off the HELOC (on which I owe $140,000).

My home is worth about $600,000, but my debt-to-income ratio is very high, and I’ve been told I won’t be approved.

I have never been late on my mortgage or credit cards, on which I owe about $30,000. I am working very hard on paying off my debt but my income is low, $25,000 a year.
I am 72, a widow and find it hard to land a good paying job like I used to have. I have to settle for what I can get.

My son and his family live with me and pay $900 rent and half of utilities but those payments are not reflected on my taxes.

The advice I am getting so far is to get a reverse mortgage for about a year, to not take any money from it and instead pay down my credit, then after a year try to refinance again. What are your thoughts on reverse mortgages?

Answer: Reverse mortgages have gotten safer and less expensive but they aren’t a good short-term solution for anyone. All mortgages have costs, and it makes little sense to pay to set up a reverse mortgage if you plan to get rid of it a few months later.

Reverse mortgages, for those who don’t know, allow borrowers 62 or over to tap their home equity to get a lump sum, a series of monthly checks or a line of credit. Borrowers don’t have to make payments on these loans, but any debt incurred on a reverse mortgage grows over time and must be paid off when the borrower sells, moves out or dies.

The most common reverse mortgage is the Home Equity Conversion Mortgage, which is insured by the federal government. The HECM loan typically includes upfront and annual mortgage insurance premiums, third party charges, origination fees, interest and servicing fees.

The amount you can borrow is based on your age, prevailing interest rates and the value of your home (the maximum home value considered is $636,150). You’ll find a calculator at www.reversemortgage.org/About/Reverse-Mortgage-Calculator that can help you estimate what you can borrow and the costs.

Normally, people can’t access more than 60% of the borrowed amount in the first year. That’s to prevent them from running through all their equity in a short time. The exception is when the money’s being used to pay off existing loans. You probably would be able to borrow just enough to pay off your current mortgages, but the upfront mortgage insurance premium you would owe would be high: 2.5%, rather than the usual 0.5%.

Another complication is the fact that you have family living with you. You’d need to think through what would happen if you died, had to sell or moved into a nursing home, because that could leave your son and his family homeless if they weren’t able to pay off the mortgage.

A final concern is the fact that you’ve been living beyond your means for quite a while, as shown by the amount of debt you have. Eliminating mortgage payments could help you pay off your remaining debt, but that’s only if you keep your expenses in line with your current income — not what you were able to spend when you had a good job. There’s also no telling how much longer you’ll be able to continue working, which would mean getting by on even less.

Consider meeting with both a nonprofit credit counselor and a bankruptcy attorney to understand your options. You can get referrals from the National Foundation for Credit Counseling (www.nfcc.org) and the National Assn. of Consumer Bankruptcy Attorneys (www.nacba.org), respectively.

Q&A: Why a reverse mortgage might be a good idea for some older homeowners

Dear Liz: I recently retired to a small house I bought 30 years ago. I refinanced four times to get the rate down from 11% to 3.5%. This provided me with a low monthly mortgage (just under $450), but my current 30-year loan won’t be paid off until I’m 92. I’ll be 67 in two months, and just received an inheritance of $400,000 following the death of my parents. My only income is $2,000 a month from Social Security and a monthly pension check of $1,100, although I do have an IRA that should be worth roughly $170,000 by July.

I’m thinking about paying off the $90,000 remaining on my mortgage, which would allow it to be passed on to my sister, nephew (or whomever) without any complicated bank or loan issues. It also would free up that mortgage payment for other household expenses. The house needs some work, such as a new carport, double-pane windows, proper insulation, deck repair and maybe termite work, all of which will probably eat up the better part of $100,000. Is it worth keeping the loan just to maintain the tax deduction or does it makes financial sense to pay it off?

Answer: Keeping a mortgage just for the tax deduction doesn’t usually make much sense. Here’s why: If you’re in the 25% federal tax bracket, you’re getting back only about 25 cents for each dollar in interest you pay. Most homeowners get even less back, and many don’t get any tax advantage from their mortgages at all.

It can make sense, though, to keep a mortgage to preserve liquidity. Younger people, especially, should be wary of tying up most of their net worth in a home if that equity would be hard to tap in an emergency. Home equity lines of credit offer one way to access that equity, although lenders can freeze or reduce those lines on a whim.

Because you’re over 62, you could consider paying off the loan and then setting up a reverse mortgage line of credit.

An FHA-insured reverse mortgage line of credit can’t be shut down once it’s established, as long as you abide by the loan rules (such as paying your property taxes and insurance, and keeping the home in good condition). In fact, the amount you can borrow can increase over time with a reverse mortgage credit line. You don’t have to make monthly principal and interest payments on the money you borrow with a reverse mortgage.

Any amount you borrow will grow over time, typically at variable interest rates, and will have to be repaid when you die, sell or permanently move out of the home. That would complicate leaving the house to your heirs, but if the amount you owe is greater than the home’s worth, your heirs aren’t on the hook for the difference with an FHA-insured reverse mortgage, also known as a Home Equity Conversion Mortgage.

In any case, preserving an inheritance probably shouldn’t be your top priority. You should focus instead on preserving your quality of life and your financial flexibility.

Reverse mortgages have gotten safer and less expensive in recent years, but you would need to exercise discipline not to waste the money you borrow on frivolous purchases. You want that equity to be available for you when you need it, such as for nursing home or other long-term care expenses.

You would be required to get counseling before applying for a reverse mortgage, but you also should talk to an independent, fee-only financial planner to make sure this approach makes sense.

Q&A: The new reverse mortgage is safer but still expensive

Dear Liz: If you have never written about the new reverse mortgages, please consider it. I’m nearly 90 and this Home Equity Conversion Mortgage sounds too good to be true. Is it? I’ve talked to a broker and a direct lender and attended a two-hour seminar on the subject.

Answer: Reverse mortgages once deserved their bad reputation, but changes to the Federal Housing Administration’s HECM program in recent years have made them safer and less expensive. They’re still not a cheap way to borrow, though, because of significant upfront costs. Using a home equity loan or line of credit is often a better option if you can make the payments.

A reverse mortgage may be an option if you can’t make payments. These loans allow you to tap the equity in your home if you’re 62 or older. The amount you borrow plus interest compounds over time and is paid off when you die, sell or permanently move out. You can get the money as a lump sum, in a series of monthly checks or as a line of credit you can tap.

The older you get, the more you can receive from your home — but you can’t get the money all at once, as you could in the past. If you choose the lump sum option, you can only access 60% of your loan amount the first year. This restriction was put in place to keep you from blowing through your equity too fast.

While reverse mortgages have improved, some of the people touting them have not. Investment salespeople and scam artists sometimes try to push older people into reverse mortgages as a way to come up with cash to invest in their schemes.

You’re required to get counseling from someone approved by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to discuss how reverse mortgages work and how much one may cost you. In addition, consider hiring a fee-only financial planner to give you advice.

Q&A: Reverse mortgage due when borrower dies

Dear Liz: I was laid off from my job this year and decided to move in with my widowed dad in the suburban home that he and my mother purchased outright in 1989. However, over the years they apparently took out a reverse mortgage with a current balance of about $500,000 (the house was recently appraised at $680,000). When my father dies, how much longer can I live in the house? If there is little or no equity left, can I walk away from the house and let the lien holder handle the sale?

Answer: Reverse mortgages, which allow people 62 and older to tap the equity in their homes, are due and payable when the borrower dies, sells the home or moves out. You won’t be expected to vacate the premises the day after he dies, but you typically would have to leave the property within six months. You may be able to get an extension of that time if you’re selling the house or trying to get a loan to pay off the mortgage.

If there is still equity left in the home, it might make sense for you to try to sell it yourself to get the maximum value. Lenders only want to recoup what they’re owed and aren’t required to go to any extra effort to maximize the amount going to the heirs.

If the home is worth less than what’s owed, you can do a “deed in lieu of foreclosure,” which essentially allows you to hand over the keys and walk away. The good news is that you’re not on the hook. Reverse mortgages are non-recourse loans, which means that the lender can’t pursue the estate or the heirs for the balance owed.

Q&A: When elderly parents are in financial trouble

Dear Liz: My in-laws just informed us that they have gone through their retirement fund and soon won’t be able to pay their mortgage. They borrowed against the house they’ve lived in for 30 years and currently owe $325,000. They are devastated, so I am trying to figure out the best way for them to stay in their house in their final years, as they are both 73. They have about $300,000 in equity but do not want to sell. They are willing to sell the house to my wife and me at their current balance. We would make the payments and they remain in the house. When they pass, the house would be ours. They looked into a reverse mortgage but this would cover only the payments, not taxes, insurance or maintenance. What is the best way to do this? Do I get a loan and purchase outright? Do I contact their bank and see if I can assume their loan? Do they quit-claim the home to my wife and me? My wife and I can afford to do this, but we want to make the right financial decision.

Answer: Before you do anything, please consult a tax professional and an attorney with experience in estate and elder law.

It’s unlikely the lender will allow you to assume the loan, so you probably would need to set this up as a sale of the home with you and your wife obtaining a new mortgage.
But their plan to sell the house to you at a below-market value could create gift tax issues and could delay their eligibility for Medicaid, should they need help paying for nursing home care.

There are other risks to your in-laws. Your creditors could come after the home if you lose a lawsuit, for example. You could sell the home without their consent, and you would have a claim on the property if you and your wife split up.

Then there are the risks to you. You say you can afford to make the payments (and presumably pay the taxes, insurance and maintenance as well), but what happens if you lose a job or suffer another financial setback?

All of you need to understand the risks involved, and your alternatives, before proceeding.

A sale of the home or a reverse mortgage may well prove to be a better choice. A reverse mortgage wouldn’t completely eliminate their home costs, but would substantially lower them — whoever winds up paying the bill.

Reverse mortgage: what to consider

Dear Liz: All my friends have said I should get a reverse mortgage to be able to live more comfortably and still stay in my house. I would think our greedy banking system would give you only 50% of value and have a high interest rate that would chew up the remaining value. What is your advice on the merits of this option?

Answer: A reverse mortgage program that lets you tap too much of your home equity wouldn’t be in business very long.

Reverse mortgages allow people 62 and older to borrow against the value of their homes without having to make payments on the debt. Instead, the amount they owe typically increases over time because interest is charged on the loan, and that adds up. Lenders get paid back when the owner moves out, sells the house or dies. If the house is worth less than the debt, the lender (or more often the insurer) suffers a loss.

Too-generous lending standards have already caused trouble for previous iterations of the Home Equity Conversion Mortgage, the federally insured option most often used by borrowers. Too many borrowers grabbed big lump sums up front, straining the program’s reserves and leaving the borrowers with few options if they ran into hard times later. Defaults rose as borrowers failed to pay their property taxes and insurance premiums as required.

The Federal Housing Administration, which insures HECMs, has tightened the rules so that borrowers can access less of their equity upfront. Fees also have increased.

How much you can borrow using a HECM depends on your age, the home’s value and current interest rates. Interest rates for lump-sum withdrawals are fixed, while those for lines of credit you can tap over time are variable.

You’ll certainly get a better (or at least less expensive) deal if you borrow 60% or less of your home’s value. The mortgage insurance premium for loans below that level is 0.5% of the home’s appraised worth under the new federal government rules that go into effect Monday. Those borrowing more than 60% face a premium equal to 2.5% of the home’s value. That’s in addition to a 1.25% annual mortgage insurance premium.

There’s no getting around the fact that these are expensive and complex loans. They’re usually not a great choice for people who have other assets to tap. They also can prove a land mine for people who drain their home equity too early and wind up with no resources later in life. On the other hand, they can provide a more comfortable retirement for those who would otherwise be strapped for cash, particularly if the borrowers opt for a steady stream of monthly payments rather than the upfront lump sum.

If you are considering a reverse mortgage, you should talk to a fee-only financial planner who is familiar with the program and who can review your other alternatives.

Are sons plotting–or genuine?

Dear Liz: I read your response with interest regarding the two sons in their 60s who were pressuring their parents into taking a reverse mortgage, according to a neighbor who wrote to you about the situation. You may be correct that the sons are trying to get an early inheritance, but you may also be very wrong. The sons may feel well off enough that they don’t need an inheritance and that the money would be better spent by the parents to enjoy their remaining years.

As a reverse mortgage loan officer, I’ve had seniors who are not cash-poor and house-rich go on extended vacations, purchase income properties, buy long-term healthcare policies and fund a research and development project for an invention, to name a few uses. I even know someone who bought a Ferrari, which had been a lifelong desire.

Reverse mortgages are no longer considered to be a loan of last resort. They are, in fact, a source of tax-free cash used in a variety of ways such as preserving and prolonging taxable cash assets, and for seniors who don’t need cash to live on, they may be used by their financial planners for arbitrage purposes.

By the way, I did like your reference to elder care attorneys. Many seniors think it’s a waste of time or way too expensive, but I frequently refer my clients to them as well. They are almost always able to justify the expense in the savings they produce for their clients.

Answer: While there can be many reasonable uses of reverse mortgages, remember that the parents in this case are in their 90s. This may not be a time in their lives when they’re longing for adventure travel, hot cars and investment real estate. It’s certainly not a time in life when they could buy affordable long-term care policies.

There could, however, be another explanation, as the following reader outlines:

Dear Liz: I just read your column about the neighbor’s concern that an elderly couple was being pressured by their sons to get a reverse mortgage. I am glad you mentioned the possibility of fraud by the sons. The elderly are vulnerable and need advocates.

The concerned writer needs to consider another option. Maybe the elderly couple is not doing as well financially as they portray. I was once a concerned neighbor to an elderly widow. As a ploy to remain independent, she was not always upfront about how well (or not well) she was doing. In her case it was health issues that she would hide or downplay (money was not an issue). Though all the neighbors cared and looked out for her, we did not have all the facts that the family had and the family was not aware of all we knew. The concerned neighbor should reach out to the sons. Hopefully the sons are looking out for their parents’ best interests and the neighbor can assist the sons in that common goal.

Answer: Your neighborhood is to be commended for trying to help an elderly person in poor health. Intervening in a financial matter, however, could be fraught with peril and lead to an ugly confrontation with the sons. That’s why directing the parents to an elder law attorney — one affiliated with the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys at http://www.naela.org — probably would be a better course. The attorney could better protect the parents against potential financial abuse while assessing whether they might need more help than they’re letting on.