Friday, September 23, 2016

The Risks of Reverse Mortgages

My last couple of posts, beginning with The Mortgage is Dead; Long Live the Reverse Mortgage, have extolled the virtues of the improved FHA HECM reverse mortgage products. Given that the typical American family has far greater home equity than all other assets combined, making more productive use of that home equity to fund retirement should be a big help to many households.

No retirement strategy is perfect for every household, though, and there are some risks with HECMs that you should understand. Here are a few.

A HECM does not guarantee that you can keep your home.

A HECM guarantees that you can keep your home for as long as you, a spouse or a non-borrowing spouse still live in it. It also guarantees that you can't owe more when you repay the loan than could be recovered by you selling the home at fair market value. HECMs provide the opportunity for you, your estate, or even your heirs to pay off the loan with other assets and keep the home. But, they don't guarantee that you will have the financial means to do so.

We are told by late-night TV commercials that a HECM borrower can never have their loan foreclosed except for three reasons: failure to pay property taxes, failure to keep insurance in force, or failure to maintain the property so long as the borrowers or a non-borrowing spouse live in the home. But, that's really four reasons, isn't it?

Tom Selleck (I think he plays an amazing Police commissioner in Bluebloods, by the way) is reported to say the following:
When you get a reverse mortgage, you are getting a loan. The bank is loaning you money in much the same way as it loans you money when you take a home equity loan. And when you die, the home is still yours to pass on to your heirs.
Some of this is correct. Banks are rarely involved, as I will explain below, but that’s a quibble. When you leave the home, and not necessarily because you died, the home is still yours to pass on to your heirs if you have other assets with which to pay off the loan or your heirs can arrange a new mortgage. The home is, in fact, still yours (or more accurately your estate's) after you die, but the home was collateral for the loan. If you or your estate can’t pay back the loan from other resources, you can’t pass on the home to heirs. It must be sold by your estate to pay back the loan.

Should you decide that you no longer want to live in the home, you will also have to repay your HECM. More importantly, if you are no longer able to afford the house and need to sell it, your HECM loan will also become due and payable. A retiree who loses a spouse, gets divorced, or incurs huge medical expenses, for example, may find the home no longer affordable or perhaps just no longer desirable.

Imagine an executive at an oil company whose wife develops Alzheimer's disease and is bankrupted by the cost of her care. Why might a HECM not enable them to stay in the home? Maybe because they can no longer afford a mansion in a high cost of living area even with no mortgage payments or perhaps they need to access home equity in excess of their HECM credit limit.

Every retirement plan should consider the possibility of a spouse's death, a divorce, spending shocks or any of a number of life-changing events. HECM borrowers should also consider the possibility that these changes might leave their home unaffordable or undesirable and necessitate paying off the loan long before they had planned. Retirees with expensive homes in areas with a high cost of living are at greatest risk of deciding to sell because they will see the largest benefit from selling and relocating.

If you can't repay the loan, you won't be able to keep the home.

A reverse mortgage can be a great idea, but understand the risks.
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A forced repayment can happen at the worst possible time.

Repayment of a HECM loan can be forced by foreclosure, by the borrower’s choice to move, or by the borrower’s need to move when she can no longer afford the home.

In Why Retirees Go Broke, I explained that elder bankruptcies are usually the result of expense shocks and not poor investment results. I referred to Dr. Deborah Thorne's study showing that these bankruptcies are usually the result of multiple interconnected causes – loss of a job or huge medical costs, for example, leading to excessive credit card usage that leads to insolvency.

In Retirement Income and Chaos Theory, I showed how insolvency can result from a downward spiral of continually worsening financial problems. If those interconnected problems also result in a HECM borrower needing to move out of an expensive home to stabilize her finances, her HECM will need to be paid back at the worst possible time – during an ongoing financial crisis – and may accelerate the downward spiral.

As Shelley Giordano pointed out to me, it is also possible that a HECM loan might stabilize the downward spiral and save the retiree’s finances. That would be a rational strategy when there is adequate credit to address the crisis. When the credit is not adequate, the forced repayment might accelerate the spiral.

For example, if you have a $100,000 HECM line of credit and incur a $100,000 medical expense, the HECM might well stabilize and save your financial situation. If the spending crisis costs $200,000 it may not stop the spiral and, in fact, may force you to sell the home and trigger repayment. Given that you already have a crisis on your hands, repayment might simply accelerate the downward spiral.

The tax implications of a reverse mortgage aren't all clear and even the clear issues are complex.

Funds borrowed from a HECM are considered loans and not taxable income. That much seems clear. How you will be taxed should you borrow more than the fair market value of your home and take advantage of the non-recourse character of HECM loans is less certain, as are eligible tax deductions. That uncertainty is risk.

Taxes aren't deductible until you leave the home because that’s when they are paid. While the HECM protects you from having to repay more of the loan than the sale of your home will bring, a non-recourse loan doesn’t protect you from taxes. If your line of credit grows beyond your home’s fair market value, you might end up with a sizable capital gains tax.

Dr. Barry Sacks and his co-authors wrote a paper entitled Recovering a Lost Tax Deduction (link below) that explains how to capture the potential interest deduction. (If nothing else, it will convince you that the tax implications are complex.) Tom Davison wrote an excellent overview of the tax implications of reverse mortgages at his Tools for Retirement Planning blog (link below), though I think he would readily admit that it is not a complete treatment of all issues.

Your risk isn’t so much that the tax law is uncertain (it is a bit uncertain) but that the laws are so complex that you will borrow a HECM loan without understanding the potential impact of taxation. Even if you have difficulty understanding the taxation of HECMs, it is important to recognize its uncertainty and complexity when making your decision to borrow. Uncertainty and complexity are risks.

Tax and estate planning on this topic are in order to take advantage of the opportunities and to avoid leaving your heirs a possible nightmarish tax issue. I’ll leave this point with a quote from Wade Pfau’s excellent new book, “How to use Reverse Mortgages to Secure Your Retirement”, available at Amazon.
A more complex area relates to eligible deductions for reverse mortgages. These taxation issues are still relatively untested and not fully addressed in the tax code. Researchers Barry Sacks and Tom Davison have recently been exploring deeper into the tax code to better understand these aspects. Individual cases vary, so a tax professional with reverse mortgage experience should always be consulted.” (Emphasis mine.)
Just because your reverse mortgage can't be foreclosed doesn't mean you can't lose money.

Some argue that a HECM line of credit is essentially risk-free due to its lenient repayment terms. Who cares if you run up a HECM line of credit when you don't really have to repay the loan or the interest and fees until you die?

Borrowing from a HECM is not risk-free. As I pointed out above, that works great if the rest of your finances go well, but when your finances collapse (see Why Retirees Go Broke for a list of reasons this can happen) and you need or want to sell the home, those lenient terms disappear. The loan becomes due and payable.

Even retirees who are able to stay in the home for the rest of their lives spend real wealth. The loans they borrow reduce future potential consumption. Once you spend the money from the line of credit your wealth has decreased in the same way as spending from any other resource. A HECM line of credit won't be foreclosed so long as you meet the four conditions but spending from it does reduce your wealth, just like any other form of credit.

Borrowing to invest is imprudent for most retirees, especially when their home is the collateral.

AARP, FINRA and most economists and financial planners warn that a household should not use home equity to invest in the stock market. Risking your home to invest in volatile assets is a bad bet. After retirement it becomes a worse bet because the borrower no longer has a stream of job income from which to make the loan payments. Retirees should not rely on good investment results to repay loans. With a HECM and an investment portfolio, poor investment results alone may not force you to leave the home but they may leave you unable to eventually pay off the loan and keep the home in your estate.

Borrowing early in retirement may limit your options later in retirement.

Some strategies like borrowing from a HECM to pay taxes on a Roth conversion or to help delay claiming Social Security payments require borrowing early in retirement. Doing so might cut off important options later in retirement that might be even more beneficial.

A large HECM balance might complicate a decision later in retirement to downsize or move to a retirement home, necessitating paying back the loan. A HECM line of credit might be more valuable late in retirement to pay long-term care expenses than borrowing earlier in retirement to avoid taxes or delay claiming Social Security benefits.

Retirees who borrow early run the risk of needing the funds later in retirement even more. In What's the Deal with Reverse Mortgages, Shelley Giordano discusses the value of borrowing later in retirement not only to allow the line of credit from a mortgage taken out earlier to grow but also because many issues like where you will live may become more settled as you age.

Large banks have exited the reverse mortgage business.

This issue is not solely one for reverse mortgages. An article in the August 20, 2016 issue of The Economist describes it as follows:
The trouble is that, in America, the banks are only part of the picture. There is a huge, parallel structure that exists outside the banks and which creates almost as much credit as they do: the mortgage system. In stark contrast to the banks it is very badly capitalised. It is also barely profitable, largely nationalised and subject to administrative control.
After the housing crash, the federal government moved to shore up big banks and increase their capital requirements, but those changes don't apply to the non-bank portion of the mortgage market where most reverse mortgages are held. Mortgages of all types may be riskier than we realize.

Tenure payments last the life of the mortgage, not the life of the retiree.

Tenure payments from a HECM are a lot like a life annuity from an insurance company, but they are quite different in important ways. The HECM tenure payments will go away when the borrowers move out of the home or the mortgage is foreclosed.

Once the mortgage is paid off, it may be difficult to find a replacement source for tenure income. That won't be a problem if it is your estate that is paying off the HECM, but it might be one if you are forced to repay the mortgage earlier than planned and were counting on a lifetime of income from the HECM tenure payments.

An annuity guarantees income for life no matter where you live. HECM tenure payments are not portable. The risk is that you will plan to live in the home for the rest of your life but will not be able to, or that you will change your mind.

Tom Davison points out that HECM tenure payments have a mitigating feature. Unlike life annuities, HECM tenure payments will return any unused equity when the loan is repaid. Pfau’s new book compares tenure payments and annuities in Chapter 8, The Tenure Payment as an Annuity Alternative. There are distinct advantages and disadvantages to each.

The credit line growth feature could be limited in the future.
The growing-line-of-credit feature of HECM adjustable rate mortgages is a unique and powerful feature, so much so that one wonders if it is too good to be true over the long term. AARP's Policy Guide recommends that HUD "should prohibit the use of reverse mortgages as a portfolio hedge for wealthy individuals and should eliminate the credit line growth feature of adjustable-rate HECM loans where borrowers choose a line-of-credit payout.”

The present seems to be a nearly ideal time for HECM adjustable-rate mortgages. The program contains what I consider to be a loophole based on the assumption that borrowers wouldn’t typically take out a HECM reverse mortgage and not borrow from it for decades. Combine that with the current low-interest rate environment and you have the potential for some huge future benefits that the program probably didn’t consider.

For these reasons, most of the HECM experts with whom I spoke suggested that the loophole is likely to be closed at some point in the future. Some of the strategies currently suggested for HECMs in retirement would be far less attractive if that loophole were closed or interest rates rise, as they likely will.

This is perhaps my most important point: these risks are not reasons that retirees should avoid HECM loans; they are reasons that retirees should plan.

They’re reasons to learn about HECMs, prepare for taxes, and understand the reverse mortgage’s role in your retirement plan. I'm suggesting that you shouldn't run out and borrow a HECM reverse mortgage without understanding the complexities and probably not without some professional guidance. That may well be worth the effort for many households.

No retirement product is perfect for every household but if we understand both the risks and benefits then we can incorporate them into a retirement plan that exploits the advantages while mitigating the risks.

In my next post, I'll discuss when spending home equity as a last resort is the best resort.

Once again, I need to thank several people for discussing the issues in this post including Wade Pfau, Shelley Giordano, Ron Heath, Jim Dean, Jim Veal and Mary O'Keeffe. (I should point out that none of us are in full agreement regarding HECMs, yet, but if we were, this wouldn't be fun. The disagreements are enlightening.) 

In particular, I want to thank Tom Davison for a marvelous three-and-a-half hours of discussion at a coffee shop on his way to catch a flight and to Wade for publishing a book this week that felt like it was intended specifically for me.


How to use Reverse Mortgages to Secure Your Retirement” by Wade Pfau, available at Amazon.

AARP Policy Book on HECMs.

What's the Deal with Reverse Mortgages by Shelley Giordano, available at Amazon.

Tax Deductions and Reverse Mortgages: August 2016 Update by Tom Davison.

Recovering a Lost Tax Deduction, Barry Sacks, et. al.

Comradely Capitalism: How America accidentally nationalised its mortgage market, The Economist, August 2016.


  1. An excellent "cons" post to the "pros" posts Dirk. You state many times that the loan needs to be paid off. I think you should clarify how that is done ... paid from "cash" to repay the loan just like any other loan, or paid from selling the home (and either having no equity remaining; or the balance of equity over loan balance at closing). The first repayment method, you still have the home, but no cash. The second repayment method you don't have the home anymore because you sold it, and possibly some excess equity, if there is any, paid to you. As with anything else ... once you "buy" something that has value, how do you "sell" it. Sell in this case is repayment. Unfortunately, there isn't much out there that talks about unwinding these except assuming that's the estate's problem. Good job bringing in the cons!

    1. Larry,

      I think Shelley Giordano's book explains this pretty well and it's hard to cover everything in a blog post or two, but I probably should explain this a little better.

      There are actually several ways the loan could "unwind."

      At death, the executor of your estate could pay off the loan from your other assets, a portfolio for instance, and pass title to the heirs. If you are paying off the mortgage before death, you could do the same. Both of these assume there are other assets belonging to the estate available to repay the loan.

      Presumably, the heirs could also tell the executor that they don't want the home and would prefer to receive those "other" assets, like the stock portfolio, instead. The estate could satisfy the loan repayment by selling the home and pass the other assets to the heirs instead of the home.

      Most people won't have other assets to pay off the loan when they leave the home. They probably assumed from the beginning that they were spending their home equity in lieu of passing it to their heirs. (If that is the plan, communicate it to your heirs so they aren't surprised at the end – one of the major gripes about reverse mortgages.) But, there are still options.

      One option is for the estate to put the house on the market, sell it, pay off the loan (which can't exceed the proceeds of the sale) and return any excess funds to the estate. If you move out prior to death, you can do this instead of your estate. I believe you have a year to sell it, given various extensions available.

      Another option is available if the heirs want to keep the house but the estate can't pay off the loan. The heirs can buy the house at 95% of appraised value by arranging a conventional mortgage of their own.

      Still another option, referred to as "Deed in Lieu" (of Foreclosure), allows the owner to sign some paperwork and turn over ownership of the home to the mortgage company thereby avoiding the foreclosure process. You would only do this, of course, if there were no equity left in the home. In that case, the mortgage company would presumably be the one to sell the home and that step would no longer be your problem. I believe this option may eliminate the ability to deduct interest paid, though, and that can be a substantial deduction.

      I have had some discussions about leaving the problem to the estate and it does appear that could get ugly.

      Does that answer the question?


    2. Yes, Shelley's Book does cover things well. Chapter 6 mentions the prepayment in full, as well as simply making periodic payments. Other options are to skip making any payments, making a final balloon payment, or having the equity in the home repay the loan (owner, heirs or estate can do this).

      Chapter 7 also discusses wrapping up at "loans end." I was simply observing that there are ways of "getting out of the loan" ... and the risks you point out are all reasons one would need to.

      Of course, you are absolutely correct - the risk is that something unplanned for happens at the same time you have few or no choices, and then end up worse off than before. This said - isn't that a risk in life we all may face ... ending up worse off due to unforeseen bad things happening? Some of us are lucky enough not to have bad things happen at all. Others of us are lucky, until the moment luck changes. Still others have no luck at all. (The luck theme going back to your two posts you link to at the very beginning of this post).

      I really like Shelley's book too!

    3. Indeed, "unforeseen bad things happening" is a risk we all face. But, we don't all plan for that. I'm suggesting that we think about what will happen when our plan fails. Don't assume that everything will work out fine and you won't have to repay your loan until you die, for example. Think about what might happen if you had to repay sooner. You might make a different choice. That's planning.

      Thanks for the comment!

    4. Mr. Frank,

      In the purest sense on a nonrecourse mortgage, the mortgage can be paid in full by the borrower with cash or by transferring title in the collateral (the home) to the note owner. There is no right to just pay back the fair market value of the home as Mr. Cotton states in the following: "It also guarantees that you can't owe more when you repay the loan than could be recovered by you selling the home at fair market value." If that were true borrowers could pay the lower of the fair market value of the home or the balance due on the loan and still own the home after payoff.

      Lenders do not want to own the property so they provide means of selling the home through an agreed sales price called a short sale. If the borrower or estate sells the home independently of such an agreed price, they run the risk of the lender seeking recourse for failure to abide by the terms of the loan.

      It is false that the estate always inherits the home. Many times homes are held in a general living trust or in a special such trust, thus upon the death of the grantor, the ownership of the home continues in the name of the trust. Title could also be in a life estate naming the remaindermen who inherit title directly. There are many ways to make this work but planning with a competent estate planner is essential especially if an heir can effectively utilize interest deductions following the death of all borrowers. But remember contingent plans are needed since either the tax situation of heirs can change or heirs can predecease the passing of borrowers.

      Mr. Cotton states: "The heirs can buy the house at 95% of appraised value by arranging a conventional mortgage of their own." To be clear the loan only requires repayment and does not mandate the source of that repayment. Also heirs cannot buy the home through paying 95% of the fair market value of the home. If an heir pays off the loan without holding title to the home before payment is made, the lender will mostly likely refuse payment. If the lender accepts payment, then the heir owns the loan, not the home. The lender never holds title if the loan is active and technically in the due and payable status. If the lender holds title due to payoff of the loan either through foreclosure or transfer of title in lieu of foreclosure, they will not sell the home to anyone without meeting all of their internal REO requirements.

    5. Jim, thanks for the great discussion this afternoon.

      To summarize, regarding "If that were true borrowers could pay the lower of the fair market value of the home or the balance due on the loan and still own the home after payoff." Of course, you're correct. I should have been more specific and noted that I was talking about repayment at the end of the loan. Another way to say this is that the HECM is a non-recourse loan, so the only asset that can be pursued by the lender to satisfy the loan is the home itself. If that isn't enough to cover the loan, the lender should be made whole by MIP insurance.

      And you are also correct that borrowers who hold the home in a trust will avoid it passing through probate. I assumed most of my readers don't hold their home in a trust, although it is much more common in California. I should add that if your home will not be left to the estate you should discuss this with an estate attorney. It's more complicated than the home passing through the estate as in my explanation.

      And lastly, though it is widely stated that heirs can buy the house at 95% of appraised value by arranging a conventional mortgage of their own, Jim points out that this option is at the discretion of the lender and that HUD generally discourages dealing with related parties.

      I appreciate the information. Thanks!

  2. Thanks for the thorough, unbiased information.

    I REALLY don't want to leave a mess for my children, which is why, after reading a lot about the HECM incl. your fine post above, I am not going to take on this mortgage. Indeed, my plan is that within a few years (am in upper 60s) I will sell my paid-off home and rent. That way no real estate complications for the kids.
    My income planning comprises Social Security, 2 lifetime SPIAs bought a few years apart (good payouts), and income from portfolio. The first two are sufficient at this time.

    Simpler is better for me; those risks of complexity & uncertainty would give me a stomach ache.

    1. I think that is a perfectly reasonable plan. Most of the HECM strategies don't make sense unless you plan to stay in the home for quite some time and selling-to-rent frees up home equity without the hassle and cost of a loan.

      Thanks for writing!