Reverse Mortgage vs. Home Equity Loan vs. HELOC: An Overview

If you are a homeowner and at least 62 years old, you may be able to convert your home equity into cash to pay for living expenses, healthcare costs, a home remodel, or whatever else you need. This option is a reverse mortgage; however, homeowners have other options, including home equity loans and home equity lines of credit (HELOCs).

All three allow you to tap into your home equity without the need to sell or move out of your home. These are different loan products, however, and it pays to understand your options so you can decide which is better for you.

Key Takeaways

  • Unlike a first mortgage, where you make monthly payments to the lender, with a reverse mortgage the lender pays you.
  • Eventually, a reverse mortgage lender sells the home to recover monies paid out to the homeowner, with any remaining equity going to them or their heirs.
  • A home equity loan involves a single lump-sum payment that is repaid in regular installments to cover the principal and interest (which is usually at a fixed rate).
  • Like credit cards, HELOCs let you draw on your line of credit when you need it and only pay interest on what you use.
  • All three debt instruments have advantages and disadvantages that homeowners need to take into consideration to determine which one is right for them.

Reverse Mortgage

A reverse mortgage works differently than a forward mortgage—instead of you making payments to a lender, the lender makes payments to you, based on a percentage of your home’s value. Over time your debt increases—as payments are made to you and interest accrues—and your equity decreases as the lender purchases more and more of it.

You continue to hold title to your home, but as soon as you move out of the home for more than a year, sell it, or pass away—or become delinquent on your property taxes or insurance or the home falls into disrepair—the loan becomes due. The lender sells the home to recover the money that was paid out to you (as well as fees). Any equity left in the home goes to you or your heirs.

Study carefully the types of reverse mortgages and make sure you choose the one that works best for your needs. Scrutinize the fine print—with the help of an attorney or tax advisor—before you sign on. Reverse mortgage scams often target older adults seeking to steal the equity of your home. The FBI recommends not responding to unsolicited advertisements, being suspicious of people claiming they can give you a free home, and not accepting payments from individuals for a home you did not purchase.

Note that if both spouses have their name on the mortgage, the bank cannot sell the house until the surviving spouse dies—or the tax, repair, insurance, moving, or selling-the-house situations listed above occur. Couples should investigate the surviving-spouse issue carefully before agreeing to a reverse mortgage.

There can be other drawbacks, too, including high closing costs and the possibility that your children may not inherit the family home. Interest charged on a reverse mortgage generally accumulates until the mortgage is terminated.

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).

Home Equity Loan

Like a reverse mortgage, a home equity loan lets you convert your home equity into cash. It works the same way as your primary mortgage—in fact, a home equity loan is also called a second mortgage. You receive the loan as a single lump-sum payment and make regular payments to pay off the principal and interest, which is usually a fixed rate. But unlike a reverse mortgage, you don't have to be 62 to get one.

Home Equity Line of Credit (HELOC)

With a home equity line of credit (HELOC) you have the option to borrow up to an approved credit limit, on an as-needed basis. In that regard, a HELOC functions more like a credit card.

With a standard home equity loan you pay interest on the entire loan amount, but with a HELOC, you pay interest only on the money you actually withdraw.

The fixed interest rate on a home equity loan means you always know what your payment will be, while the variable rate on a HELOC means the payment amount varies.

Currently, the interest you pay on home equity loans and HELOCs is not tax-deductible unless you use the money for home renovations or similar activities on the residence that secures the loans. Before the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017, interest on home equity debt was all or partially tax-deductible. Note that this change is for tax years 2018 to 2026. 

In addition—and this is an important reason to make this choice—with a home equity loan, your home remains an asset for you and your heirs. It’s important to note, however, that your home acts as collateral, so you risk losing your home to foreclosure if you default on the loan.

Key Differences

Reverse mortgages, home equity loans, and HELOCs all allow you to convert your home equity into cash. However, they vary in terms of disbursement and repayment, as well as requirements, such as age, equity, credit, and income. Based on these factors, here are the key differences among the three types of loans.

Disbursement

  • Reverse mortgage: monthly payments, lump-sum payment, line of credit, or some combination of these
  • Home equity loan: lump-sum payment
  • HELOC: as-needed, up to a pre-approved credit limit—comes with a credit or debit card or a checkbook

Repayment

  • Reverse mortgage (deferred repayment) loans are due as soon as the borrower becomes delinquent on property taxes or insurance or under other certain circumstances.
  • Home equity loans involve monthly payments made over a set amount of time with a fixed interest rate.
  • HELOCs involve monthly payments based on the amount borrowed and the current interest rate.

Age and Equity Requirements

  • Reverse mortgage: must be at least 62 and must own the home outright or have a small mortgage balance.
  • Home equity loan: no age requirement and must have at least 20% equity in the home.
  • HELOC: no age requirement and must have at least 20% equity in the home

Credit and Income Status

  • Reverse mortgage: no income requirements, but some lenders may check that you can make timely and full payments for ongoing property charges, such as property taxes and insurance,
  • Home equity loan: a good credit score and proof of steady income sufficient to meet all financial obligations
  • HELOC: a good credit score and proof of steady income sufficient to meet all financial obligations

Tax Advantages

  • Reverse mortgage: none, until the loan terminates
  • Home equity loan: for tax years 2018 through 2025, interest only tax deductible if the money was spent for qualified purposes—to buy, build, or substantially improve the taxpayer’s home that secures the loan
  • HELOC: same as for a home equity loan

Special Considerations

Reverse mortgages, home equity loans, and HELOCs all allow you to convert your home equity into cash. So how to decide which loan type is right for you?

In general, a reverse mortgage is considered a better choice if you are looking for a long-term income source and don’t mind that your home will not be part of your estate. However, if you are married, be sure that the rights of the surviving spouse are clear.

Either a home equity loan or a HELOC is considered a better option if you need short-term cash, will be able to make monthly repayments, and prefer to keep your home. Both have considerable risks along with their benefits, so review the options thoroughly before taking either action.