Thursday, June 30, 2011

Throwing Your House into Reverse: Not a Mortgage for Everyone

American dream or not, the games you may have once played with financing your home are not available for the vast majority of homeowners. And there is no doubt that this a good thing, a lesson learned that was far too painful but often, those tales are. But there is another game afoot in the world of mortgages, even as the largest lenders pull the plug on the process: the reverse mortgage.

Most of us don't envy those who are toying with this option. We know two things about these folks: one they own quite a bit of their house, referred to as equity and two, these homes are owned by cash-strapped people older than 62.

The reverse mortgage is a rather simple product with relatively simple goals. Because those who are considering this option are often older and in possession of much of the house they live in. This pool of cash is a very tempting option to a fixed income or one where retirement savings no longer is able to keep up with the cost of living. There are a variety of reasons they may need to tap this cash in their homes from medical bills to simply poor money management.

So the concept of tapping some of that equity is quite appealing. A reverse mortgage essentially gives you the money that your house is worth. Ron Lieber recently visited this topic in the New York Times explaining "reverse mortgages begin with a lender that is willing to pay you instead of you paying the bank. How much you get depends on your age, prevailing interest rates and the amount of equity you have in your home. The payout may also depend on whether you choose a lump sum, a line of credit, a regular payment for as long as you live or a regular payment for some fixed number of years."

The problem is getting a lender to do that. Many of the biggest banks have pulled away from offering the product, not because they don't think it is a good idea. But because those they lend the money to tend to fall behind on key elements of the loan agreement: paying taxes and keeping the house in sale-able condition. Aside from a check with the feds, there is no credit check on the applicants.

So banks, seeing the issue of foreclosing on granny because she opted for the lump sum payout and failed to keep current on those obligations have decided the bad PR will come with too steep a price. So enter the second and third tier lenders who will, without a doubt fill the void.

This could create several issues. The first would be fewer loans or on the flip side, loans that revert back to why this type of mortgage got its bad rep in the first place. Fees will be higher in a space with fewer competitors. Elderly will sign more complicated documents that will force them to maintain a fund for emergencies - which on the surface isn't a bad thing but could turn turn out to require higher funding balances than needed, leaving the reverse mortgager with less cash for the effort.

Another issue might be in how your heirs feel about the whole process. Often, parents,who may have mentored their children on the subject of money and financial prudence and who now find their finances in need of some review, may not be willing to or may be too embarrassed to ask for help. If there is no dialogue, the whole process might come as a surprise for kids who thought that house would eventually become part of the estate. And once these second and third tier lenders begin the process of foreclosing, it is often too late for the children to step in to help.

There are some key things to consider here. The first is what options do your parents have? Can they downsize? If not, can you talk to them about the options? Often this conversation needs to happen but it also needs to approached with great care and consideration. But once the barrier has been breached, you can move to include yourself in their financial affairs before it is too late.

This is also some tricky water to navigate. But the effort is worthwhile. If they need the money, and many older Americans will, attempt to get them to allow you to help budget the funds. In the future, HUD will probably set rules about creditworthiness and because many older Americans have little or no recent credit history, this might prove an obstacle at a time when they are already facing one too many. Helping them build some creditworthiness will enable them to be in a better position - with your help - to get the best deal possible.

Once you have gained their trust, you can include your input with their financial planners, with their attorneys and possibly with their medical doctors, all of whom may not be able to tell you what their clients or patients are deciding. You can take control of the vital payments that need to be made and keep things in good financial order.

So this summer, take a moment when visiting your parents or grandparents and have the discussion. And while you are at it, consider a plan to pay off your mortgage as well. (You can find recent articles about this topic here.)

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