The Reverse Mortgage: A Retirement Tool

If you own your own home and are at least 62 years of age, a reverse mortgage provides an opportunity to convert some of your home equity into cash. In the most basic terms, a reverse mortgage allows you to take out a loan against the equity in your home where you do not have to repay the loan during your lifetime as long as you are living in the home and have not sold it.

If you want to increase the amount of money available to fund your retirement, but do not like the idea of making payments on a loan, a reverse mortgage is an option worth considering. However, there are also some risks, costs, and pitfalls to be aware of.

Key Takeaways

  • A reverse mortgage allows older homeowners to convert their home equity value into cash.
  • The home serves as collateral and repayments only are required when the homeowner moves or upon death.
  • Several types of reverse mortgages exist, optimized for different purposes or goals.
  • There are also several different options for how to receive the money from the reverse mortgage.

How Reverse Mortgages Work 

With a reverse mortgage, a lender makes payments to the homeowner based on a percentage of the value in the home. When the homeowner dies or moves out of the property, one of three things can happen:

  1. The homeowner or heirs can sell the home to pay off the loan.
  2. The homeowner or heirs can refinance the existing loan to keep the home.
  3. The lender can be authorized to sell the home to settle the loan balance.

While there are several types of reverse mortgages, including those offered by private lenders, they generally share the following features:

  • Older homeowners are offered larger loan amounts than younger homeowners. More expensive homes qualify for larger loans.
  • A reverse mortgage must be the primary debt against the house. Other lenders must be repaid or agree to subordinate their loans to the primary mortgage holder.
  • Financing fees can be included in the cost of the loan.
  • The lender can request repayment in the event that the homeowner fails to maintain the property, fails to keep the property insured, fails to pay its property taxes, declares bankruptcy, abandons the property, or commits fraud. The lender may also request repayment if the home is condemned or if the homeowner adds a new owner to the property's title, sublets all or part of the property, changes the property's zoning classification, or takes out additional loans against the property.

Mortgage lending discrimination is illegal. If you think you've been discriminated against based on race, religion, sex, marital status, use of public assistance, national origin, disability, or age, there are steps you can take. One such step is to file a report to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau or with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). 

HECM Loans 

Reverse mortgages have been around since the 1960s, but the most common reverse mortgage is a federally-insured home equity conversion mortgage (HECM). These mortgages were first offered in 1989 and are provided by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).

HECMs are the only reverse mortgages issued by the federal government, which limits the costs to borrowers and guarantees that lenders will meet the obligations. The primary drawback to HECMs is that the maximum loan amount is limited.


The FHA-insured maximum claim amount for an HECM in 2022.

Non-HECM Loans

Non-HECM reverse mortgages are available from a variety of lending institutions. The primary advantage of these reverse mortgages is that they offer loans in amounts that are higher than the HEMC limit. One of the drawbacks of non-HECM loans is that they are not federally insured and can be significantly more expensive than HECM loans.

Total Annual Loan Cost on a HECM

Although the interest rate on an HECM mortgage is set by the government, and the origination cost of an HECM loan is limited to 2% of the value of the home, the total cost of the loan can still vary by lender. Furthermore, in looking for a lender, borrowers must consider third-party closing costs, mortgage insurance, and the servicing fee.

To assist borrowers in comparing mortgage costs, the federal Truth in Lending Act requires mortgage providers to present borrowers with a cost disclosure in the form of the total annual loan cost (TALC). Use this number when comparing loans from different vendors; just keep in mind that the actual costs of a reverse mortgage will depend largely on the income options selected.

HECMs Provide Several Income Options

HECM reverse mortgages provide the widest variety of income-generating options, including lump-sum payouts, credit lines, monthly cash advances, or any combination of these.

The credit line is perhaps the most interesting feature of an HECM loan because the amount of money available to the borrower increases over time by the amount of interest. Non-HECM loans offer fewer income options.

Interest Rates on a HECM

The interest rate on HECM reverse mortgages is tied to the one-year U.S. Treasury security rate. Borrowers have the option to select an interest rate that can change every year or one that can change every month.

A yearly adjustable rate changes by the same rate as any increase or decrease in the one-year U.S. Treasury security rate. This annual adjustable rate is capped at 2% per year or 5% over the life of the loan. A monthly adjustable-rate mortgage (ARM) begins with a lower interest rate than the ARM and adjusts each month. It can move up or down 10% over the life of the loan.

How Reverse Mortgages Can Help: A Case Study

Almost half of seniors aged 70 and older who have a credit card don’t pay off their balance in full each month, but reverse mortgages can help with that problem. Revolving credit card debt drops when seniors take out reverse mortgages, University of Michigan researchers found.

Foreclosures and debt payment delinquencies also become less common, according to "How Home Equity Extraction and Reverse Mortgages Affect the Credit Outcomes of Senior Households," at least in the three years after the reverse mortgage is taken out. Seniors who experienced a credit shock in the two years before taking out the reverse mortgage benefited most. (The researchers defined a "credit shock" as a credit score drop of at least 25 points.) These seniors might not have qualified for another type of home equity loan because of their credit; qualification for a reverse mortgage doesn’t depend on a senior’s credit score.

The study found that reverse mortgage borrowers reduced their credit card debt more than borrowers who took out other types of home equity loans (closed-end home equity loans, home equity lines of credit (HELOCs), and cash-out refinancings. The upfront sums and increased monthly cash flow provided by reverse mortgages helped seniors pay down their credit card debt.

According to the study, seniors who initially withdrew $10,000 using a reverse mortgage reduced their credit card debt by $2,364 in the first year after borrowing that sum. Additional borrowing resulted in minimal additional debt pay-downs: for every additional $10,000 withdrawn up front, seniors paid off another $166, and for every additional $100 in monthly cash flow the reverse mortgage generated, seniors paid off an additional $45 in debt for the whole year. 

It’s worth noting that the Michigan study covers borrowers who took out a reverse mortgage between 2008 and 2011, a uniquely precarious period in recent financial history. A similar study conducted during a period of economic prosperity might have different findings.

Seniors considering a reverse mortgage as a solution to credit card debt should evaluate whether the amount of home equity they will lose in reverse mortgage fees and interest is worth it in terms of the amount of credit card interest they will save. This is a complex calculation that is best performed by an accountant or financial planner. A reverse mortgage counselor may not be knowledgeable enough to answer this question.

What Are Good Alternatives to a Reverse Mortgage?

A HELOC, home equity loan, or cash-out refinance offers much lower fees and competitive rates for those who qualify for them. Selling a car that is no longer needed and taking advantage of local transportation programs for seniors can also be a great source of cash for seniors.

Can Borrowers Lose Their Home with a Reverse Mortgage?

Yes. Borrowers can lose their home to foreclosure with a reverse mortgage for several reasons. The most common source of foreclosures on a home with a reverse mortgage is failure to keep the property in good repair or to pay property taxes. Additionally, if only one spouse is on the reverse mortgage and that spouse passes or moves out, the remaining spouse would be on the hook to pay the balance due or leave.

How Can I Protect Myself from Reverse Mortgage Scams?

The reverse mortgage process is relatively complex with a lot of unfamiliar terms, which make this strategy ripe for scammers. The Federal Bureau of Investigation recommends protecting yourself from reverse mortgage scams by ignoring unsolicited advertisements, not signing anything you don't fully understand, and seeking out your own reverse mortgage counselor directly.

The Bottom Line

Taking out a loan against your home is a big decision that will affect your current finances and the estate that you leave to your heirs. There are substantial costs involved, including loan origination, servicing, and interest.

You also need to remember that, with a reverse mortgage, your debt increases over time due to the interest on the loan. If you change your mind about the loan, or need to move out of the property due to health reasons, proceeds from the sale of the property are used to pay off the reverse mortgage. Depending on the size of the loan and the value of the property, there may be little or no money remaining after the loan is repaid.

Before taking out a reverse mortgage, you should research the topic thoroughly, compare costs from a variety of lenders, and read all disclosure documents. While investing the proceeds from a reverse mortgage is generally not advisable because of the need to recoup the costs of the loan plus the interest, the income from a reverse mortgage may provide an opportunity to refocus other elements of your investment portfolio. Before assuming the mortgage, consider the cash flow the reverse mortgage will provide and review the implications this new source of income will have on your overall investment strategy.

Article Sources

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  1. U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. "How the HECM Program Works."

  2. U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. "FHA Announces New Single Family Title II Forward and Home Equity Conversion Mortgage Limits for 2022."

  3. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. "Reverse Mortgage Loans."

  4. Michigan Retirement Research Center. “How Home Equity Extraction and Reverse Mortgages Affect the Credit Outcomes of Senior Households.”

  5. Reuters. “Column: Debate on Safety of Reverse Mortgages for U.S. Seniors Heats Up.”

  6. Federal Bureau of Investigation. "Reverse Mortgage Scams,"