These mortgages allow older homeowners to drain the equity in their house without having to sell it or make monthly payments.
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And there are problems.
A new report by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau found that these loans are so different from traditional mortgages that many consumers have trouble grasping how they work. Product changes in recent years and greater choices have only added to consumers' confusion, the bureau says. And mandatory counseling for prospective borrowers often isn't enough to combat misleading mortgage advertisements.
Perhaps more troubling: Borrowers increasingly are taking out these loans at the earliest possible age and in a lump sum. This raises the risk that they could blow through the money early on and won't have it later in life if they fall into dire financial straits.
Besides issuing the report, the consumer bureau also can write regulations on reverse mortgages. It is accepting public comment on these loans until late August.
Reverse mortgages traditionally have been considered a loan of last resort for cash-strapped seniors who have exhausted other resources but want to remain in their homes.
"A reverse mortgage isn't for everyone," says Tom Simonton, housing counselor manager with the Consumer Credit Counseling Service of Maryland and Delaware. But, he adds, the loans can be "a fantastic financial tool."
Homeowners must be at least 62 to qualify. The amount they can borrow depends on their age, the amount of equity in the house and the interest rate on the loan.
They can take the money as a lump sum, a line of credit, a monthly income stream or a combination of these payments.
Borrowers don't make monthly repayments as with a traditional mortgage. Instead, the loan balance, which includes interest, accumulates over time. When the borrower dies or moves, the house is sold and the proceeds are used to pay off the balance.
Homeowners must undergo housing counseling before they take out a federally insured reverse mortgage so they know what they're getting into.
But the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau's recent report, ordered by Congress, makes you wonder if all borrowers understand the risks of these loans. Among the bureau's findings:
•The most common age of new borrowers is 62. Draining equity so early means these borrowers might not have the money if they encounter financial hardship later.
•Borrowers are choosing to take the money as a lump sum about 70 percent of the time. The concern is that homeowners in later years might not have enough cash left to keep up with property taxes and homeowners' insurance. In February, nearly one in 10 reverse mortgage borrowers was at risk of foreclosure for failing to pay taxes and insurance.
•Borrowers who invest the mortgage money could pay more for the loan than they earn on their investments.
•Spouses who aren't co-borrowers on the loan often do not realize they are at risk of losing their home if their mate dies.
•Misleading advertising persists, with marketers wrongly claiming that the mortgages are a government benefit and that borrowers can never lose their home.