If you're an older homeowner and are ready to say goodbye to mortgage payments, you might consider letting your home's equity finish off your loan.
A reverse mortgage would allow you to tap your equity to pay off your traditional mortgage.
When used appropriately, reverse mortgages can be a useful financial tool for seniors, said David Johnson, an associate professor of finance at the Maryville University in St. Louis.
"Years past, financial planners didn't view reverse mortgages as a planning tool," said Johnson, who co-authored a study discussing the growing importance of reverse mortgages in retirement.
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"It was viewed as a last resort, and they assumed that the only people that do reverse mortgages are people that are desperate," he said. "Clearly that's not the case, and I think they are starting to view it differently now."
One of the most common reasons homeowners get a reverse mortgage is to pay off their existing mortgaged so they have more income to work with, said Maggie O'Connell, who runs ReverseMortgageStore.com.
"They already have this debt on the house, so instead of making their mortgage payments, they are just paying it out of their equity before they leave the home," she said.
To qualify for a reverse mortgage, the homeowner must be at least 62 years old and have sufficient equity in the house. The size of the loan depends on the value of the home, the age of the youngest borrower and how much is owed on the house. The owner must pay property taxes and insurance.
With reverse mortgages, homeowners have three options for cashing out equity:
–– Receive monthly payments.
–– Get a lump-sum payment.
–– Maintain a line of credit.
Many homeowners are conservative and want to eliminate their mortgage payments, but they also like having the credit line available, said Beth Paterson, executive vice president of Reverse Mortgages SIDACin St. Paul, Minn.
"Maybe they don't need the money right now, but down the line they might have a medical emergency, so it's good for them to have the option," she said.
That was the case with Barbara Hiebert after her husband died. Their house was mortgage-free, but she knew her retirement income wasn't enough to cover some of her expenses, including medical emergencies. She decided to get a reverse mortgage and didn't access the money until she had no other option.
"I rely on it only when I need it," she said.
She was grateful to have the funds at her disposal when she fell and faced costs of more than $10,000 during her at-home recovery.
"I had people come in for three hours in the morning and at night," she said. "It was expensive. I couldn't have afforded it without the reverse mortgage."
Some seniors are confused about the process and worry that once they get a reverse mortgage, they'll no longer own the house, Johnson said.
"After they get a reverse mortgage, they still have title," he said. "They can still do anything they want."
Once the homeowner dies, the heirs are given the option to pay off the loan and keep the house or sell it to pay off the loan.
If the house sells for more than the amount owed, the heirs receive the remaining balance. If the loan balance is bigger than the home's value, the bank takes all the proceeds, but the balance of the loan does not have to be repaid.
One of the common fears about reverse mortgages is that they are too costly, but they are no more expensive than conventional mortgages, said Peter Bell, president and CEO of the National Reverse Mortgage Lenders Association.
"It's still going to be accruing interest on the house the same way as a conventional mortgage," he said. "The question is whether you are going to be making those monthly payments now or let that be paid off later."
Borrowers also are required to pay for mortgage insurance when they get a reverse mortgage. As with the interest, the mortgage insurance costs are paid with equity. The insurance protects lenders (not borrowers) from losses.
Because the homeowner isn't making monthly payments to cover upfront costs, interest and mortgage insurance, the equity in the house can quickly shrink as the loan balance grows over time.
It's crucial that seniors receive the required counseling before getting a reverse mortgage.
"For consumers, the most important thing they can do is to become educated on how it works," Johnson said. "A reverse mortgage is not the solution for everybody, but clearly it's an option for many people, and the more information they know, the better they can understand how the product works and they can make an informed decision."
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