More Information on Reverse Mortgages


Reverse Mortgages


Under our "system" of paying for long-term care, you may be able to qualify for Medicaid to pay for nursing home care, but in most states there's little public assistance for home care. Most people want to stay at home as long as possible, but few can afford the high cost of home care for very long. One solution is to tap into the equity built up in your home.

If you own a home and are at least 62 years old, you may be able to quickly get money to pay for long-term care (or anything else) by taking out a reverse mortgage. Reverse mortgages, financial arrangements designed specifically for older homeowners, are a way of borrowing that transforms the equity in a home into liquid cash without having to either move or make regular loan repayments. They permit house-rich but cash-poor elders to use their housing equity to, for example, pay for home care while they remain in the home, or for nursing home care later on. The loans do not have to be repaid until the last surviving borrower dies, sells the home or permanently moves out.

In a reverse mortgage, the homeowner receives a sum of money from the lender, usually a bank, based largely on the value of the house, the age of the borrower, and current interest rates. For example, a 70-year-old borrower with a $200,000 house in Westchester County, New York, would be able to receive a maximum loan of $110,723 (based on 2009 figures). The lower the interest rate and the older the borrower, the more that can be borrowed. To find out how much you can get for your house, use the AARP's reverse mortgage loan calculator.

Homeowners can get the money in one of three ways (or in any combination of the three): in a lump sum, as a line of credit that can be drawn on at the borrower's option, or in a series of regular payments, called a "reverse annuity mortgage." The most popular choice is the line of credit because it allows a borrower to decide when he or she needs the money and how much. Moreover, no interest is charged on the untapped balance of the loan.

Although it is often assumed that an elderly person would want to use the funds from a reverse mortgage loan for health care, there are no restrictions–the funds can be used in any way. For instance, the loan could be used to pay back taxes, for house repairs, or to retrofit a home to make it handicapped-accessible.

Borrowers who take out a reverse mortgage still own their home. What is owed to the lender — and usually paid by the borrower's estate — is the money ultimately received over the course of the loan, plus interest. In addition, the repayment amount cannot exceed the value of the borrower's home at the time the loan is repaid. All borrowers must be at least 62 years of age to qualify for most reverse mortgages. In addition, a reverse mortgage cannot be taken out if there is prior debt against the home. Thus, either the old mortgage must be paid off before taking out a reverse mortgage or some of the proceeds from the reverse mortgage used to retire the old debt.

Reverse mortgages are somewhat underutilized now, but financial institutions, sensing an opportunity as the population ages and people live longer lives, are expanding their reverse mortgage programs.

The most widely available reverse mortgage product — and the source of the largest cash advances — is the Home Equity Conversion Mortgage (HECM), the only reverse mortgage program insured by the Federal Housing Administration (FHA). However, the FHA sets a ceiling on the amount that can be borrowed against a single-family house, which is determined on a county-by-county basis. High-end borrowers must look to the proprietary reverse mortgage market, which imposes no loan limits. On October 1, 2008, a new housing law took effect that increases the borrowing level on reverse mortgages. The national limit on the amount a homeowner can borrow is now $417,000. The limit can be increased to $625,000 in areas with high housing costs.

Is a Reverse Mortgage Right for You?

While reverse mortgages look like no-lose propositions on the surface, they also have some significant downsides. First, the closing costs for these loans are about double those for conventional mortgages. Closing costs on a reverse mortgage for the $200,000 home described above would be more than $10,000. These costs can be financed by the loan itself, but that reduces the money available to you.

Reverse mortgage payments also may affect your eligibility for government benefits, including Medicaid. Generally, these payments will not be counted as income as long as they are spent within the same month that they are received. If the funds are not spent, however, they could accumulate and push your resources over the allowable limits for Medicaid or SSI eligibility. In addition, payments from reverse annuity mortgages may be counted as income for purposes of Medicaid and SSI whether or not they are spent within the month they are received. This shouldn't be treated as income, since it simply involves withdrawing equity from one's home, but the state may view it differently since the funds come in a regular monthly check. In any case, you should consult with an elder lawyer in your state if you have any concern about how a reverse mortgage will affect your eligibility for federal benefits.

Also, bear in mind that if your major objective is to safeguard an inheritance for your children, a reverse mortgage may not be a good idea. As soon as the elderly person (or the survivor of an elderly couple) dies, it will be necessary to sell the home and much — if not all — of the sales proceeds will have to be paid to the lender. But if you have a pressing need for additional income and have no close heirs, or if you do not intend to benefit your children or your children don't particularly want to inherit the house, a reverse mortgage can be a way to supplement income, perhaps without jeopardizing Medicaid eligibility.

Reverse mortgages are complex products and borrowers are advised to acquaint themselves with the different options available and then carefully compare competing loan offerings. Following are two outstanding Web sites to get you started in that process:

  • You can learn the basics about reverse mortgages from the AARP's excellent reverse mortgage Web site. The site includes a calculator for estimating the loan for which a borrower would be eligible. Go to:
  • For more details, background information, and supplementary materials, visit the National Center for Home Equity Conversion site at

In addition, the names of FHA-insured lenders are available from the Federal National Mortgage Association (Fannie Mae), (800) 7-FANNIE.