What Is a Reverse Mortgage?

You've probably heard of reverse mortgages from the ads on TV, the radio, and in print. Many people don't really know what they are, so if you're one of them, don't fret. These financial products have been around in the United States when a Maine-based bank released its first reverse mortgage in 1961. They were put under the purview of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) in 1987.

reverse mortgage is a loan that works a little differently than a traditional mortgage. It allows homeowners who are 62 or older to borrow money by using their homes as security to back the loan. It is often used to pay off current mortgages, help pay health care expenses, or supplement current income. Once a reverse mortgage is established, repayment is typically not required until you die, move, or sell your home.

There are three types of reverse mortgage loans available to homeowners. These are the single-purpose reverse mortgage, federally insured reverse mortgage, and proprietary reverse mortgage. This article outlines some of the basic features of each type of reverse mortgage.

Key Takeaways

  • Reverse mortgages provide individuals aged 62 and over with income in the form of a loan using the equity in their homes.
  • The three types of reverse mortgage loans are single-purpose reverse mortgages, federally-insured reverse mortgages, and proprietary reverse mortgages.
  • Single-purpose reverse mortgages, which are offered by state, local, and nonprofit agencies, are the cheapest and least common form of reverse mortgages around.
  • Home equity conversion mortgages are federally insured products that are backed by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
  • Proprietary reverse mortgages are used by homeowners whose homes are appraised at high values.

Single-Purpose Reverse Mortgages

A single-purpose reverse mortgage is offered by state, local, and nonprofit agencies. It is the least expensive process option for a reverse mortgage loan, partly because it's backed by the government and other nonprofits. As such, homeowners can expect to pay less in interest and fees for a single-purpose reverse mortgage than for a home equity conversion mortgage or a proprietary reverse mortgage.

This kind of loan is the least common among the three types and isn't available in every state. It works a little differently than home equity loans, which can be used for any purpose. Single-purpose reverse mortgage lenders restrict how the proceeds can be used. As the name implies, homeowners can only use them for a single, lender-approved item, such as necessary repairs to the home or property taxes.

But while equity loans or lines of credit (LOCs) require monthly installment payments, single-purpose reverse mortgages don’t have to be repaid until the home’s ownership changes, the borrower moves to a different primary residence, or the borrower passes away. These loans also become due if borrowers stop maintaining homeowners insurance on the property or if the city condemns the property.

Mortgage insurance, fees, and interest reduce the amount the homeowner can borrow in a single-purpose reverse mortgage.

Home Equity Conversion Mortgages

Home equity conversion mortgages (HECMs) are federally insured, which means they are backed by HUD. This type of loan is likely to be more expensive than a traditional home loan and comes with high upfront costs. It is the most widely used reverse mortgage because it carries no income limitations or medical requirements, and the loan can be used for any reason.

Counseling is required before applying. This ensures that the homeowner is fully aware of the costs, payment options, and responsibilities involved. Interested parties are also informed about any nonprofit or government-issued alternatives, as long as they're eligible. There is a charge for the counseling session, which can be paid from the loan proceeds.

After the counseling session, you find out how much you can borrow with a HECM. Your age, the value of your home, and current interest rates determine how much you can borrow. Those who are older and have higher equity are provided with more money. It is also important to owe as little as possible on the home to receive the best results.

Once the loan is established, you can choose between several payment options, A term option that allots monthly cash advances for a specific time while a tenure option pays monthly advances for as long as the home is your primary residence. You can also choose a credit line that lets you draw from the account at any time or a combination of this credit line coupled with monthly payments. You can change your payment option for a low fee if your situation ever changes.


The average fee for a home equity conversion mortgage counseling session.

Proprietary Reverse Mortgages

Rather than being backed by the federal government, proprietary reverse mortgages are backed by private lenders. They benefit homeowners who want more money and whose homes are appraised at higher values. This means you may qualify for a proprietary reverse mortgage if your property is worth more than the 2021 lending limit of $822,375 for federally backed HECMs.

People whose mortgage balances are low qualify for more funds. Counseling is sometimes required before applying, which can help provide a comparison between the costs and benefits of a proprietary loan and a HECM. Payment works the same way as the HECM option, which means you can choose a lump sum or series of monthly payments.

Because proprietary reverse mortgages are not federally insured, they do not have up-front or monthly mortgage insurance premiums (MIPs). That means you can probably borrow more. Whether this makes it better than a HECM depends on the lender's interest rate and how much they're willing to advance based on the home's value to compensate for the lack of mortgage insurance.

Make sure you investigate both if you’re considering a proprietary reverse mortgage. Compare the interest rates and fees from several proprietary reverse mortgage lenders and gather quotes from several HECM providers to see which option gives you the best deal. Your age—and how far above HECM limits your home’s value is—will also influence which one will be the better deal.

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).

The Bottom Line

Reverse mortgages are financial products that are designed to provide homeowners who are 62 or older with a form of income by using the equity in their homes. They can come in handy when your financial situation changes and when your living expenses increase.

Although there are some perks that come with reverse mortgages—notably the fact that they can provide you with regular income without having to pay them back until you die, move, or sell your home—make sure you do your homework. And explore the alternatives, such as home equity loans and lines of credit before you commit to anything.

But remember, since your home is likely worth a high value (one reason to go after a proprietary mortgage), you may also want to consider whether downsizing to something smaller would accomplish your goals and leave you with more equity.