June 28, 2012 at 10:05 AM ET
More Americans are getting reverse mortgages — and that's not a good thing, according the government's consumer finance watchdog.
The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau said in a report released Thursday that reverse mortgages are not being used as Congress intended. It also warned that the program could cost some seniors extra cash or even their homes.
Reverse mortgages sound fairly simple: They allow for homeowners 62 and older to borrow against the equity they’ve built up in their home without selling it. But the CFPB calls these loans “inherently complicated products” that are not easy for the average consumer to understand.
Based on its study of the marketplace, the CFPB concludes that people who consider taking out these loans are “ill-equipped” to understand the costs and risks involved.
“People are quite confused about reverse mortgages,” said Hubert Humphrey III,who heads the CFPB’s Office of Older Americans. “People need to better understand reverse mortgages. What is the best way to use them? What are the risks and what are the costs associated with it?”
It’s called a “reverse” mortgage because rather than pay the lender, the lender pays you. You don’t have to pay back the loan as long as you live in the house, maintain it and pay the insurance and property taxes. The loan must be paid off in full if you move or when you die. That usually means selling the house.
Here’s the part that sometimes gets missed: A reverse mortgage is still a loan – with monthly interest charges, fees and other costs. The borrower does not make interest payments. They are simply added to the loan balance.
Over time, the home equity decreases while the loan balance increases. If the value of that loan exceeds the value of the home, the borrower (or his/her estate) will not receive any money when the house is sold.
Right now, only 2 to 3 percent of the eligible homeowners have a reverse mortgage. But the CFPB predicts these loans could become much more common in the coming decades as baby boomers retire.
Since the 1990s, the proportion of borrowers in their 60s has more than doubled to 47 percent.
Congress directed the CFPB to study the reverse mortgage market as part of the 2010 Dodd-Frank financial oversight law that also established the still-controversial watchdog agency. The study could eventually lead to new federal regulations for the reverse mortgage market.
Drastic changes in the marketplace
The CFPB report points out that the reverse mortgage market has changed dramatically in the last three years. These loans were designed as a way for seniors to get some cash out of their homes to meet retirement expenses. Today, the type of loans offered and the way they are structured are quite different.
Before 2009, most reverse mortgages were adjustable-rate loans. The borrower could choose monthly payments for everyday expenses, a line of credit for major expenses (home repair or medical bills) or a combination of the two.
Now the majority of these loans (70 percent) are fixed-rate, with a lump-sum payment.
“You take out that loan and get all of the money instantly,” Humphrey said. “And yet you have all of your life left to live and you may not have the resources you need when you really need it.”
Other troubling findings
The study concludes that stronger regulation and supervision of reverse mortgage companies as well as enforcement of existing laws may also be necessary. It notes that existing disclosures are “quite difficult” for people to understand. And it points out that there are no specific federal rules prohibiting deceptive advertising of reverse mortgages.
This week, Consumers Union (the advocacy arm of Consumer Reports) called for stricter federal oversight of the reverse mortgage market.
“There may be situations where a reverse mortgage is the appropriate route to take,” Hubert Humphrey III said, “but there are many things that need to be considered before you get to that stage.”
The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.
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