Reverse Mortgage Reality Check

As Congress debates its tepid “reforms” of the financial industry, Wall Street has invaded Capitol Hill in what CNN described as a “lobbyists swarm.” What I know about the legislation gives me absolutely no confidence that it will make the market a safe place to put my retirement savings–or what’s left of them, after the recession. Seniors have already suffered most from the 401K long con, and the thought of getting anywhere near Wall Street makes me sick to my stomach.

Given how much money many elders have lost, I suspect those of us lucky enough to own homes that aren’t already mortgaged to the hilt are thinking about a “reverse mortgage” as a means toward future security. I know I’m seeing more and more ads where smiling oldsters talk about how their reverse mortgage took a load off their minds. This, of course, makes me highly suspicious; it all sounds too much like yet another con, replete with hidden fees and rip-offs, just like everything else the banking industry has come up with.

Fortunately, Saul Friedman recently wrote a comprehensive report on reverse mortgages. A former reporter for the Detroit Free Press, Friedman writes the “Gray Matters” column that used to run in Newsday and now appears on the excellent blog about aging called Time Goes By. Friedman, whose judgement I trust completely, has a reverse mortgage himself; he has investigated the hidden pitfalls of this type of financing, and also knows that it matter what kind of reverse mortgage you get.

For anyone even considering this move in their financial futures, Friedman’s article on reverse mortgages is most definitely worth reading.

So here’s some welcome news for older Americans who own their homes and can use some extra income and cash. The up-front costs for many FHA-guaranteed reverse mortgages have gone down, which means the possible proceeds will go up by as much as $10,000.

I’m referring to the most popular and safest reverse mortgage, the Home Equity Conversion Mortgage, fondly known as the HECM. It is the safest for the lender as well as the homeowner-borrower because it is backed, insured by the Federal Housing Administration which has never defaulted on a mortgage that it has guaranteed.

Indeed, of all the mortgages that have fallen on hard times, or have been the subject of scandalous behavior by bankers and investors, the HECM has been largely untouched by these troubles. Last year, the Department of Housing and Urban Development raised to $625,000 the value of a home that could qualify for a HECM.

There’s much, much more to Friedman’s piece, which needs to be read in full. But here’s his summing up:

All in all, then, HECMs are a good deal if you intend to remain in your home for at least five years; otherwise you’ll be saddled with the closing costs that will eat up the proceeds you get.

To sum up HUD’s guide to HECMs:

  • You must occupy your home (condo, or co-op) as your principal residence
  • There are no income, credit or health requirements
  • Social Security and Medicare benefits are not affected
  • You keep title and may sell it at any time
  • You may use HECM proceeds to buy a second, vacation home as long as the loan on the first home is paid
  • And of course, no repayments as long as you occupy the home.

Still it would be wise to shop for a provider who may be able to arrange the loan and lead you through the process. HUD requires that each borrower undergo counseling by an approved agency (cost is $125). The counseling of the National Council on Aging, is even better and free. Call 800-510-0301.

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