Reverse mortgages have gotten more than their fair share of both good and overwhelmingly negative press coverage, so it’s no small wonder most investors and seniors are confused about what they even are. As retirees face longer life expectancies, many outlive their personal savings or Social Security plans, face mounting medical costs, and find life generally costs more than they’d planned for. A reverse mortgage may seem like an enticing way to solve many problems at once, but of course, you should never dive into any financial “solution” without understanding it well.
Today, let’s clear up some of the misunderstandings that make the world of reverse mortgages seem more mysterious than it is. We’ll talk about what a reverse mortgage really is, how this cashflow option can help certain secure seniors, which drawbacks to consider, and what to keep in mind when deciding if you’d personally like to exploit the reverse mortgage in your own real estate investing strategy. Making the best decision will require you to have lots of information. Let’s start with the basics and work our way out to the kinds of details you’ll want to ask about down the road.
A reverse mortgage is a type of loan specifically available to seniors over age 62 and federally insured. It gets its name from its unique ability to allow you to borrow against the equity stored within a home already. Those of you who own outright or are close to doing so may have even gotten marketing calls from institutions that issue reverse mortgages, particularly after your 62nd birthday.
Some of the basics to know about reverse mortgages include these rules:
Well, first, only those over 62 get access to reverse mortgages at all. But beyond this, there are reasons certain seniors may want a reverse mortgage. There are still other reasons that are unique, or made all the more pressing, if the senior considering a reverse mortgage is also a real estate investor.
Any senior experiencing cash flow issues, whether they’re as a result of an investment gone awry, out-living or under-projecting retirement savings, medical costs, the difficulty of living on fixed income, or any other reason, may consider a reverse mortgage if they’re eligible. If you have high amounts of equity in your home or own it outright, this loan option offers flexible disbursement options, meaning you don’t have to borrow the full value you can. Just take what you need.
Many seniors find this solution helpful when they have a definite, short-term need that a definite amount of cash to fix. If your need is more about your long-term budget, try to put a number on what you need for say, one year. Coming up with this type of metric will help you and anyone assisting with your financial planning determine your exact cash need, thus helping figure out what a good conservative loan amount for you might be.
Nobody would be getting reverse mortgages if there weren’t very real benefits for some seniors. The biggest issue to keep in mind as you learn about this tool’s benefits is whether they outweigh the drawbacks discussed later in your own personal situation.
You may find that answering questions about your status and goals honestly saves you lots of time, and fees, on having to pay a lawyer to review the basics. They’re your advisor, not your teacher. Lawyers are all-too-happy happy to teach, just understand that you don’t need to pay for this service.
Investors may choose to accept the loan as one single lump sum, in monthly installments, or even as a line of credit. This amount of control the borrower has in this regard is greater than most loans. Borrowers may choose the most conservative option that will serve their needs, a luxury not typically afforded to those seeking loans.
No doubt, very little cash can be converted into a great degree of comfort if you’re smart about it. If you just want to live out your golden years comfortably, you can do so and even plan to pay your mortgage off while you’re still living. We’ll discuss below why to always account for reverse mortgages in your estate plan, but for now, if you want to live it up, a reverse mortgage is an option.
The reverse mortgage has an interesting set of rules regarding interest. On the plus side, you’re not charged interest while you continue to live in the reverse-mortgaged home as your primary residence. Interest is also capped on the first $100,000 worth of debt.
There isn’t a financial option we’re aware of that’s all “pros” and no “cons.” Let’s break down the downsides of reverse mortgages.
Sadly, not all mortgage providers are ethical. Those targeting seniors may attempt to exploit their clients perceived lack of sharpness or assume you won’t do your due diligence. To this, we say prove them wrong. Vet your company before considering a loan, and have someone you really trust who understands every word read the fine print. This could be a CPA, financial planner, family member working in the industry, or even another investor you know who’s successfully used a reverse mortgage and knows what to look for. You’re looking for anything that sales reps haven’t disclosed,terms you don’t agree to, or red flags of any sort. These are immediate cues to shop around and look elsewhere. Not all lenders will offer good terms, even if you’re lucky enough to only ever deal with the ethical ones (and few of us are so fortunate). Be on the lookout for inflexibilities as well as poor terms. For instance, reverse mortgages are often difficult to refinance, a fact that makes them less than optimal choices for some. See if this will be the case with your loan, and even ask your salesperson to see how honest their answer is compared to what their literature states. Any time a salesperson’s word vastly differs from a written offer, be skeptical.
If you fail to make an estate plan or somehow account for a way to pay your debt immediately in the event of your death, your reverse mortgage may be subject to probate. Your heirs, which for most people are their family and loved ones, don’t get to touch an estate while it’s being probated by the courts. If you die with a debt, it gets passed on, just like your assets and earnings do. So your heirs will be able to pay debts from your estate, but let’s just say the worst-case scenarios around this issue are heartbreaking, lengthy, frankly exquisitely boring yet brutally legalistic affairs.
If you decide to pursue a reverse mortgage, you can offset this downside by minimizing your loan to what you’re certain you can pay directly from your estate and updating your estate plan to account for the reverse mortgage. This way, your attorney’s already involved and can give additional personal advice on how to address your situation. Often, you can make plans to avoid estate planning surprises--simply remembering to is the most difficult part.
Our suggestion is to take care of this detail immediately if you end up seeking the loan. You may pay it off while alive or pre-arrange for your estate to make payments, but be advised interest will likely rise if you wait and let your beneficiaries pay off the debt.
Suppose you take out a substantial loan against your home’s equity because of its perceived safety. If you’re unfortunate to pass away before making payment or fail to update your estate plan, your heirs may be unable to inherit the home with the reverse mortgage until the loan is paid off in full. If you lack the funds in your estate, that could mean one less asset for your heirs, or at least a substantial barrier to receiving their full inheritances.
Some seniors who take out reverse mortgages later find it difficult to secure additional lending elsewhere. A reverse mortgage is fairly easy to obtain if you meet the qualifications, but it doesn’t necessarily “look good” to traditional hard lenders. This can be problematic for investors who rely on good terms to make their deals profitable.
As long as you understand the deal you’re going to sign, you should be able to intelligently decide whether the reverse mortgage will help you, particularly if you’ve got pros to help you make the judgment call. Even a close network of fellow REIs, homeowners, and smart borrowers with experience in reverse mortgages can be a valuable source of information, as can educational resources like this very online article. Learn what you can, shop smart, be skeptical. Professional advice, planning ahead, and practicing due diligence can keep you from becoming a horror story.
Scott Royal Smith is an asset protection attorney and long-time real estate investor. He's on a mission to help fellow investors free their time, protect their assets, and create lasting wealth.
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