What's a Reverse Mortgage?

Learn about reverse mortgages, including the upsides—and many downsides—to getting one.


A "reverse mortgage" allows people who are 62 and older to draw upon their home equity to receive a lump sum of money, a line of credit, or monthly income (or a combination of a line of credit and monthly payments). But is taking out a reverse mortgage a good idea? Before getting a reverse mortgage, you should understand how they work and learn the considerable risks associated with them. You also need to watch out for reverse mortgage scams.

Read on to get the lowdown on reverse mortgages including what they are, how much money you can get, as well as the upsides and significant downsides. Once you learn more about this kind of loan, you might think twice about getting one.

Home Equity Conversion Mortgages

The most common type of reverse mortgage is called a Home Equity Conversion Mortgage (HECM). HECMs are FHA-insured, which means the government insures them through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). Mortgage companies sometimes use this fact as a selling point, but this insurance protects the lender—not the borrower. The insurance comes into play if the loan is accelerated (called due) for one of the reasons listed below and the house isn't worth enough to pay back the lender in full through a foreclosure sale or other type of liquidation process. In those cases, the FHA will compensate the lender for the loss.

How Does a Reverse Mortgage Work?

In a regular "forward" mortgage, the borrower gets a lump sum of money from the lender, and then makes monthly payments towards repaying the money, including interest.

With a reverse mortgage, rather than getting a lump sum that has to be steadily paid back, the homeowner typically receives periodic payments from the lender, which become the loan. With a HECM, the lender's payments to the borrower may be in the form of a lump sum (subject to some limitations), monthly payments, or a line of credit you can draw on as needed. You can also get a combination of monthly installments and a line of credit.

When Does the Borrower Have to Repay the Loan?

A lender can call the loan due if:

  • The home is no longer the borrower's principal place of residence. The borrower might still own the property, but live somewhere else most of the time. So, if you move out and let your kids live in the home, or rent the property out, the lender can call the loan due.
  • The borrower moves out due to a physical or mental illness and is gone for more than 12 consecutive months. If your health declines and you have to move into a care facility, like a nursing home, the lender can call the loan due after you’ve been out of the home for more than 12 months.
  • The borrower sells the home or transfers title (ownership) to someone else. If all a borrower sells or transfers title to the property (or transfers his or her beneficial interest in a trust owning all or part of the property) and no other borrower retains title to the home or retains a leasehold that meets certain conditions, the lender may call the loan due.
  • The borrower dies and the property is not the principal residence of at least one surviving borrower. A nonborrowing spouse might be able to remain in the home if specific eligibility requirements are met.
  • The borrower breaches the loan agreement, like by not paying the property taxes, not having homeowners’ insurance on the property, or not keeping the home in a reasonable condition. If you don’t pay the property taxes or homeowners’ insurance (assuming you don't have a set-aside account), fail to keep the property in reasonable shape, or breach any of the other mortgage requirements, the lender can foreclose. A reverse-mortgage lender once initiated a foreclosure after a 90-year-old woman didn't pay the $0.27 needed to get current on her homeowners’ insurance. Reverse mortgage lenders have been known to foreclose on elderly homeowners for relatively minor mortgage violations.

After any of these occurrences, the lender may accelerate the loan (call it due). Generally, if the lender calls the loan due, the borrower—or heirs if the borrower has died—must:

  • repay the loan (or pay 95% of the current appraised value of the property to the lender, whichever is less)
  • complete a deed in lieu of foreclosure, or
  • sell the property (for the lesser of the loan balance or 95% of the appraised value. FHA insurance covers the remaining balance).

Otherwise, the lender will foreclose.

Who Can Get a Reverse Mortgage?

Reverse mortgages are generally available to any homeowner over the age of 62 who has substantial equity in the home. Reverse mortgages don't require a credit or income test. But they do require financial counseling from a HUD-approved HECM counselor, which is some indication of how complicated they are.

To get a reverse mortgage, you also have to:

  • occupy the property as your principal residence
  • not be delinquent on any federal debt, and
  • have financial resources to be able to continue making timely payment of ongoing property expenses, like property taxes, homeowners' insurance, and homeowners' association (HOA) fees.

(To learn more about the restrictions and requirements the government has placed on HECMs, see Reverse Mortgages: Restrictions and Requirements.)

How Much Can You Borrow?

The amount you can borrow is based on your home's value, current interest rates, and your age. Also, there are limits to how much of your home's value you can draw out.

As of 2019, the most money available with a HECM is $726,525. Also, a borrower may get only 60% of the loan at closing or in the first year, subject to a few exceptions.

Upsides and Downsides to a Reverse Mortgage

Reverse mortgages are sometimes worthwhile for someone who doesn't have much cash, is facing expenses, and has a valuable home. Also, HECMs are nonrecourse, which means the lender can’t come after you or your estate for a deficiency judgment after a foreclosure. But for most people, getting a reverse mortgage is a bad idea.

Reverse mortgages have significant downsides:

  • As noted earlier, the lender may call the loan due in any of the above-described scenarios. Reverse mortgage lenders are typically quick to start a foreclosure after a default happens.
  • Reverse mortgages are expensive due to closing costs, interest, servicing fees, mortgage insurance, and other fees.
  • A reverse mortgage could affect your eligibility for Medicaid.
  • By taking out a reverse mortgage, you spend down the equity in the property, which means you won't be able to access it later on to cover costs for things like long-term health care costs, to finance a move, or leave to your heirs. (You can still leave the home to your heirs, but they’ll have to repay the loan. To learn more about options for your heirs and the obstacles they might face, see If I Get a Reverse Mortgage, Can I Leave My Home to My Heirs?)

Before you tap into the equity in your home by getting a reverse mortgage, be sure to explore all of the other options available to you. You might, for example, qualify for a state or local program to lower your bills or you could consider downsizing to a more affordable home.

Getting Help

It's recommended that you proceed extremely cautiously if you're thinking about taking out a reverse mortgage. Reverse mortgages are very complex. HECM counselors have reported that it often takes at least a couple of hours to explain how these mortgages work and cover all of the topics—including costs and consequences—that borrowers need to understand before taking out this kind of loan.

Even after a HECM counseling session, many borrowers still don’t fully comprehend all of the reverse mortgage terms and requirements. Consider also talking to a financial planner, an estate planning attorney, or a consumer protection lawyer to get additional advice about whether a reverse mortgage is right for you, especially if you think you need more information or you don't fully understand the terms of the loan. If you’re concerned about a reverse mortgage foreclosure, consider talking to a foreclosure lawyer in your state.

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