If you’re at or nearing retirement age and looking for a way to generate cash flow, a reverse mortgage can seem like a great idea — especially given all the star-studded ads for them floating around prime-time TV.
And in some cases, a reverse mortgage can be a helpful financial tool to turn much of your home equity into spendable cash, but there are downsides to consider, too.
In this article, we’ll walk through the pros and cons a homeowner would be smart to weigh in order to make an informed decision about the most popular kind of reverse mortgage: the federally insured home equity conversion mortgage (HECM).
Reverse Mortgages 101
Here are the basics of how reverse mortgages work.
A reverse mortgage is a loan offered to people who are 62 or older and own their principal residence outright or have paid off a significant amount of their mortgage. You usually need to have at least 50% equity in your home, and typically can borrow up to 80% of the equity, based on the home’s appraised value.
The lender uses your home as collateral in order to offer you the loan, although you retain the title. The loan and interest do not have to be repaid until the last surviving borrower moves out permanently or dies. A nonborrowing spouse may be able to remain in the home after the borrower moves into a health care facility for more than 12 consecutive months or dies.
Fees and interest on the loan mean that over time, the loan balance increases and home equity decreases.
Pros of Reverse Mortgages
A reverse mortgage offers seniors the opportunity to turn what may be their largest asset — their home — into spendable cash. There are a variety of ways in which this can be attractive.
Many seniors find themselves with a decent amount of their net worth rolled up in their home but without many income streams. A reverse mortgage is a relatively accessible way to cover living expenses in retirement.
Paying Off the Existing Home Loan
While you have to have some of your home loan paid down in order to qualify for a reverse mortgage, any remaining mortgage balance is paid off with reverse mortgage proceeds.
No Need to Move
Those who take out reverse mortgages are allowed to remain in their homes and keep the title to their home the entire time. For established seniors who aren’t eager to pick up and move somewhere new — or downsize — to lower expenses, this feature can be a godsend.
No Tax Liability
While most forms of retirement funding, like money from a traditional 401(k) or IRA, are considered income by the IRS, and are thus taxable, money you receive from a reverse mortgage is considered a loan advance, which means it’s not.
Heirs Have Options
Heirs can sell the home, buy the home, or turn the home over to the lender. If they choose to keep the home, under HECM rules, they will have to either repay the full loan balance or 95% of the home’s appraised value, whichever is less.
Thanks to FHA backing, if the home ends up being worth less than the remaining balance, heirs are not required to pay back the difference, though they’d lose the house unless they chose to pay off the reverse mortgage or refinance the home.
Cons of Reverse Mortgages
As attractive as all of that may sound, reverse mortgages carry risks — some of which are pretty serious.
Heirs Could Inherit a Loss
While heirs may not be forced to pay the shortfall of an upside-down reverse mortgage, inheriting a home in that scenario could come as an unpleasant surprise. Keeping a home in the family is an accessible way to build generational wealth and ensure that heirs have a home base for the future, so the potential for them to lose — or have to refinance — the house can be painful.
Losing Your Home to Foreclosure
Unfortunately, losing your house with a reverse mortgage is a possibility. You’ll still be required to pay property taxes, any HOA fees, homeowners insurance, and for all repairs, along with your regular living expenses, and if you can’t, even with the reverse mortgage proceeds, the house can go into foreclosure.
Reverse Mortgages Are Complicated
As you probably realize this far into an article explaining the pros and cons of reverse mortgages, these loans aren’t exactly simple — and even if you understand the basics, there may be caveats or exceptions written into the documentation.
Before applying for an HECM, you must meet with a counselor from a HUD-approved housing counseling agency. The counselor is required to explain the loan’s costs and options to an HECM, such as nonprofit programs, or a single-purpose reverse mortgage (whose proceeds fund a single, lender-approved purpose) or proprietary reverse mortgages (private loans, whose proceeds can be used for any purpose).
Impacts on Other Retirement Benefits
Although your reverse mortgage “income” stream isn’t taxable, it may affect Medicaid or Supplemental Security Income benefits, because those are needs-based programs. (Proceeds do not affect Social Security or Medicare, non-means-tested programs.)
Costs of Reverse Mortgages
Like just about every other loan product out there, reverse mortgages come at a cost. You’ll pay:
• A lender origination fee
• Closing costs
• An initial and annual mortgage insurance premium charged by your lender and paid to the FHA, guaranteeing that you will receive your expected loan advances.
These can be rolled into the loan, but doing so will lower the amount of money you’ll get in the reverse mortgage.
Reverse Mortgage Requirements
Not everyone is eligible to take out a reverse mortgage. While specific requirements vary by lender, generally speaking, you must meet the following:
• You must be 62 or older
• You must own your home outright (or have paid down a considerable amount of your primary mortgage)
• You must stay current on property expenses such as property taxes and homeowners insurance
• You must pass eligibility screening, including a credit check and other financial qualifications
Is a Reverse Mortgage Right for You?
While everyone interested in a reverse mortgage needs to weigh the pros and cons for themselves, there are some instances when this type of loan might work well for you:
• The value of your home has increased significantly over time. If you’ve built a lot of equity in your home, you probably have more wiggle room than others to take out a reverse mortgage and still have some equity left over for heirs.
• You don’t plan to move. With the costs associated with initiating a reverse mortgage, it probably doesn’t make sense to take one out if you plan to leave your home in the next few years.
• You’re able to comfortably afford the rest of your required living expenses. As discussed, if you fall delinquent on your homeowners insurance, flood insurance, HOA fees, or property taxes, you could lose your home to foreclosure under a reverse mortgage.
There are options to consider. They include a cash-out refinance, home equity loan, home equity line of credit, and downsizing to pocket cash.
A reverse mortgage may be a way to turn your home equity into spendable cash if you’re a qualified senior, but there are important risks to consider before taking one out.
Reverse mortgages are just one of many different mortgage types out there — all of which can be useful under the right circumstances.
SoFi offers a range of tools for both potential and current homeowners, including a mortgage calculator tool and a home loan help center with details on everything from basic real estate terminology to housing market trends by city.
Additionally, check out the mortgage loan options through SoFi, including a cash-out refinance and a home equity loan. Please note, not all loan programs are available in all states.
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