The New Math on Reverse Mortgages

The New Math on Reverse Mortgages

The reverse mortgage has won some new respect.

A decade ago, most financial advisers would roll their eyes at the mention of reverse mortgages, loans that give homeowners an advance on their home equity and allow them to delay repayment until the home is sold. Such products, these advisers used to say, weren’t for their clients, but rather for those who didn’t prepare financially for retirement.

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New safeguards in recent years, however, have led many advisers and researchers to change their minds about reverse mortgages. Indeed, many now are exploring when and how to use them in financial plans.

One important change, the Reverse Mortgage Stabilization Act of 2013, prevents homeowners in most cases from taking all their equity at once—roughly 40% of the total amount that can be borrowed is unavailable until a year after the initial loan. Other recently enacted regulations require homeowners to demonstrate they are able and willing to pay their property taxes and home insurance. And there are new protections for the nonborrowing spouse.

Recent policy changes “should make the product safer for seniors in the future,” says Stephanie Moulton, an associate professor at Ohio State University and co-author of a 2015 paper on reverse mortgages published in the Journal of Urban Economics. Moulton estimates that such changes as limiting how much equity borrowers can extract upfront could cut the default rate on reverse mortgages in half. (In 2014, nearly 12% of reverse-mortgage borrowers in the federally insured Home Equity Conversion Mortgage program were in default on their property taxes or homeowners insurance.)

“Over time, these changes may encourage larger banks to re-enter the market, further increasing the credibility of the product and potentially lowering costs,” Moulton says.

Of course, there are still risks, including spending the proceeds too quickly and suffering losses if the proceeds are invested, as pointed out in a 2015 paper written by Wade Pfau, a professor at the American College of Financial Services in Bryn Mawr, Pa., that favored the use of reverse mortgages in a retirement-income plan under the right circumstances.

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While acknowledging the risks, Moulton says that “one of the advantages of the federally insured reverse mortgage, the HECM, is that the government assumes some of the risk for the borrower.” For example, she notes that HECM borrowers can never end up on the hook for negative equity. If the balance on the reverse mortgage ever grows to exceed the value of the home, the federal insurance covers the difference.

Here’s a look at some of the reverse-mortgage strategies financial planners suggest:

Taking a lump sum

Borrowing enough of the equity in a house in a lump sum to pay off an existing mortgage is one of the most frequent uses of a reverse mortgage, says Moulton. More than 60% of reverse-mortgage borrowers have used the proceeds for this purpose, according to her research. “This actually may be a pretty smart strategy,” she says.

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Moulton cites a recent report by Harvard University’s Joint Center for Housing Studies that found that nearly 40% of seniors age 65 and older carry a mortgage today, a rate that has more than doubled since 1992. “Using a reverse mortgage to pay off a forward mortgage frees up monthly cash flow to a household,” she says. “Essentially it has the same effect on a household budget as receiving a monthly annuity payment.”

But lump-sum borrowing can go wrong. Harold Evensky, chairman of Evensky & Katz/Foldes Financial, a wealth-management firm based in Lubbock, Texas, generally advises against using a lump sum as leverage to increase debt—as a down payment on a second home or vacation home, for instance. “There may be circumstances that justify the strategy, but it’s not something that should be considered without carefully considering the potential risk,” he says. “The risk is overleveraging,” he says—taking on more debt than you can afford to pay off.

And even if that isn’t the case—if the homeowner spends the borrowed money without incurring additional debt, say on a vacation or a car—spending the equity in a home this way deprives the homeowner of a valuable financial cushion, he says.

Opening a line of credit

Increasingly, advisers are suggesting that homeowners establish a line of credit through the HECM program whether they need the money immediately or not, because it can be used in several ways, as the need arises, to protect savings or even increase income in retirement.

A line of credit makes more sense than borrowing a lump sum and keeping it in reserve, says John Salter, an associate professor at Texas Tech University who has co-written papers with Evensky on reverse mortgages. That’s because, due to the intricacies of reverse-mortgage terms, the unused portion of a line of credit grows over the years, giving the homeowner access to more cash.

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Shelley Giordano, chairwoman of the Funding Longevity Task Force, a Washington, D.C.-based industry group that promotes the use of home equity as a tool for retirement income, suggests setting up a reverse-mortgage line of credit as a way of protecting retirement funds from fluctuations in the financial markets.

Here’s the idea: In a bear market, homeowners can borrow funds as needed through the line of credit rather than withdrawing money from their investment portfolios. Withdrawals from a portfolio in down markets lock in losses and leave less money to grow when markets rebound. By borrowing instead, homeowners give the portfolio a better chance to recoup its losses when markets turn around.

Once the portfolio recovers, it can be used to pay off the line of credit, which is then fully available the next time cash is needed in a bear market. Giordano notes an HECM line of credit “cannot be canceled, frozen or reduced regardless of what the home value does in the future.”

An HECM line of credit also can be used as a source of income for those who want to delay applying for Social Security benefits and so increase their monthly payout when they do start taking benefits, Giordano says. After you apply for Social Security, you can stop taking money from the line of credit and, if you want, pay the loan back.

Because income from a reverse mortgage isn’t taxed, experts say an HECM line of credit can also be used—in place of taxable withdrawals from retirement accounts—to avoid tax-bracket creep, as well as the higher Medicare Part B and Part D premiums that can result from higher incomes.

Giordano also suggests using a reverse-mortgage line of credit to pay taxes due on Roth IRA conversions. In the conversion process, distributions from IRAs are taxed as ordinary income, and experts often recommend paying those taxes with funds outside the IRA, because using money from the IRA for that purpose generates even more taxes.

Evensky says the usefulness of reverse mortgages belies the negative impression some people still have of them.

“I believe most criticisms relate to a myopic view of the product that has not been reviewed for decades,” he says. “Unquestionably there can be misuses of the product. But the problem is the use, not the product.”