FA Center: How homeowners can use reverse mortgages for retirement income

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Seniors in the U.S. are sitting on a record $7.19 trillion in housing wealth, according to the National Reverse Mortgage Lenders Association. While not historically part of a well-balanced retirement plan, tapping this home equity can be a cost-effective way to help fund retirement.   

In fact, with the Case-Shiller U.S. National Home Price Index at an all-time high, securing access to home equity plays a dual role of generating income and hedging against a potential correction in the housing market.

When seeking additional retirement income, some retirees may seek to downsize, move to an area with a lower cost of living, or use assets from a retirement account. Yet many may not want to sell their home or other investments.

One solution is a reverse mortgage, which offers homeowners over 62 years old (over 60 in some states) flexible ways to use their home equity to help meet retirement goals. 

Understanding reverse mortgages

In the past, reverse mortgages were typically a last resort. Today’s reality is drastically different: Homeowners and financial advisers can view a reverse mortgage as part of a holistic retirement plan. 

While individual needs and situations differ, one of the key drivers behind a reverse mortgage is to provide an annuity-type payment or to eliminate an existing mortgage payment — both of which increase household cash flow. This additional cash flow can be used to pay for expenses, in-home care or other long-term needs, and to help keep retirement income at a level where assets are not depleted.

Moreover, a reverse mortgage can provide an alternative revenue source when stock investments are underperforming, so people don’t have to sell stock at reduced values. This “managing the sequencing of returns” dynamic has been well documented by academics and should be a variable in overall retirement thinking. 

To be clear, reverse mortgages aren’t suitable for everyone, and a number of important factors need to be taken into account. One key consideration includes how long a potential borrower plans to remain in their home. While many retirees plan on aging in place, one-in-three baby boomers say they intend to move at some point in retirement, and others may consider assisted living or renting rather than owning. For situations like these, shorter-term funding needs may be more effectively met with traditional financing, including HELOCs, due to the costs of securing a reverse mortgage.   

Read: Thoughts on simple annuities, reverse mortgages and working in retirement from Jane Bryant Quinn

Of note, interest rates on reverse mortgages can be comparable to traditional mortgages, but there may be substantial closing costs due to the upfront Federal Housing Administration (FHA) mortgage insurance premium. Those costs are 2% of the home value (up to $726,525). So, a home with a value of $500,000 would result in an insurance premium of $10,000. The insurance is what makes some reverse features possible — most notably that there are no required principal or interest payments while living in the home, or that the borrower or heirs will never owe more than the value of the property. When sized up, if these benefits are not of value to the borrower, traditional financing that does not include this insurance premium makes more sense. 

For baby boomers who do plan to age in place, a reverse mortgage’s benefits may be of immense value. The cost of insurance amortized over a 20- to 30-year period can be a reasonable value proposition when considering not only those benefits, but others, such as the opportunity to have a line of credit that grows and compounds over time, regardless of what happens to the value of the property. For example, that $10,000 insurance premium, spread over 25 years, equates to just $400 annually (before financing costs).    

Reversing misconceptions

Still, misconceptions about reverse mortgages are prevalent, including that the bank owns the house. Just like any other mortgage, the borrower retains title to the property so long as they are honoring the loan obligations including paying property taxes, insurance and maintaining and living in the home. 

While it is possible to accrue a substantial amount of debt over the long-term, reverse mortgages are required to be non-recourse loans, which means when the borrower dies and property is sold, the estate will never owe more than the value of the property. 

The Home Equity Conversion Mortgage (HECM) — insured by the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) — has a line of credit option whereby available proceeds grow and compound over time. This provides ongoing access to capital, regardless of the value of the property. 

With 79% of U.S. baby boomers owning a home, combined with all-time highs in housing prices and home-equity levels, retirees and those nearing retirement now can rethink how to leverage their home to meet retirement goals. Financial planners too can bring reverse mortgages into the retirement toolkit, paying close attention to the trade-offs and risks in using this form of home equity over other options.

Stephen Resch is vice-president of retirement strategies at reverse-mortgage lenderFinance of America Reverse.

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