Reverse mortgages are loans available to people age 62 or older that enable homeowners to convert a portion of the equity built up in their primary residence into cash. Retirees often use reverse mortgages to pay medical bills or to supplement their retirement income.

Unlike a conventional mortgage, where the borrower makes monthly payments to the lender, a reverse mortgage loan takes some of the equity in the home and turns it into fixed monthly payments to the borrower.

With a reverse mortgage, the homeowner retains the home’s title. The payments received are not usually taxable and shouldn’t affect Social Security or Medicare benefits.

Read on to learn more about how reverse mortgages work:

Types of reverse mortgages

There are three types of reverse mortgages:

Single-purpose reverse mortgages

Backed by some state or local governments or certain non-profit agencies, single-purpose reverse mortgage proceeds must be used for a specific purpose, such as home repairs or property taxes. As a result, they are usually taken in smaller amounts, making them the least expensive type of reverse mortgage.

Proprietary reverse mortgages

Also called jumbo reverse mortgages, proprietary reverse mortgages are backed by private lenders or banks. These products are meant for homeowners with highly-valued homes and are not insured by the FHA. Interest rates on these are higher, although fees may be lower.

Federally-insured reverse mortgages

The most popular reverse mortgage variant is also known as a home equity conversion mortgage (HECM). These are backed by the Department of Housing and Urban Development or the Federal Housing Authority (FHA). The borrowing limit for a home equity conversion mortgage is based on the borrower’s age and the home’s value. They can have a fixed or adjustable interest rate.

What are the common risks and limits of reverse mortgages?

Reverse mortgages have many rules, limitations, and risks, so they are unsuitable for everyone.

Here are some important things to know or consider before you apply for one:

  • It would be best if you remained in your home.
  • If you still have a mortgage, you must have enough equity in your home to pay off your outstanding loan balance.
  • All homeowners listed on the reverse mortgage paperwork must be at least 62 years old.
  • The FHA must approve your home. As a result, typically, only single-family homes qualify for reverse mortgages.
  • Origination fees associated with reverse mortgages tend to be much higher than those of conventional mortgages—sometimes tens of thousands of dollars. These fees are typically rolled into the loan.
  • If you live with someone and they aren’t on the reverse mortgage paperwork, they could be evicted if you die. Eviction is also possible under other circumstances, such as moving out of the home for more than one year.
  • If you plan on selling the house or moving out, you only have six months to repay the reverse mortgage. This applies even if moving into an assisted living facility or nursing home.

Can your spouse stay in the home if you die?

In most cases, a borrower’s spouse must be a co-borrower on the reverse mortgage to remain in the house should the borrower pass away. Otherwise, your spouse is considered a “non-borrowing spouse” and may have to leave the home.

When the reverse mortgage is assigned for home equity conversion mortgages, it determines if a non-borrowing spouse can stay.

If the reverse mortgage was assigned on or after August 4, 2014, a non-borrowing spouse may remain in the home after the borrower’s death, provided that:

  • They have the legal property title;
  • They were married to the borrower from the time the mortgage was assigned until the time of your death;
  • They were specifically named as the non-borrowing spouse on the reverse mortgage contract at the time of assignment;
  • The home is their current principal residence–and has been since the time the reverse mortgage was assigned
  • They continue to fulfill the reverse mortgage’s obligations, such as keeping up with home maintenance and paying property taxes and homeowners insurance on a timely basis.

The lender may foreclose on the home if the reverse mortgage was assigned before August 4, 2014. However, they may allow a non-borrowing spouse to remain in the home by assigning the mortgage to them, provided they meet certain requirements.

Can I add my spouse as a co-borrower on an existing reverse mortgage?

Depends on your lender. You may have to refinance to a new reverse mortgage to add your spouse as a co-borrower. Unfortunately, you will likely have to pay those costly fees again if you take the refinance route.

What happens if my home is passed as an inheritance?

If you wish to pass on your home to your children or other non-spouse beneficiaries, they will have about 30 days following your death to decide what they want to do with the property. Some lenders may allow them more time.

To keep the home, the lesser of the reverse mortgage balance or 95% of the home’s appraised value must be paid off. As a result, many heirs must take out a new mortgage on the house to pay off an existing reverse mortgage.

The sale proceeds will be applied to the outstanding reverse mortgage balance if the home is sold.

Get professional advice before applying

While they can be beneficial under the right circumstances and help retirees stay in their homes longer, reverse mortgages can be difficult to understand and risky. Many reverse mortgage lenders are known for aggressively selling to older homeowners.

That’s why, if you’re considering one, you should get an outside opinion first to confirm that a reverse mortgage is right. Depending on your financial situation, there may be better options available. A professional financial advisor can help you decide if a reverse mortgage is right for you, which of the three available types is best, and help protect you from hidden fees or unnecessary limits.

If you’re not working with a financial advisor or are looking for a second opinion about your financial plan, we can help. Request a no-cost, no-obligation consultation with a member of our nationwide advisor network today!

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Alli Thomas

Alli Thomas has worked in the financial services industry for nearly 20 years, with a focus on retirement-related investing. She began her career as a FINRA-licensed participant-services call-center associate at Vanguard, and then moved to Principal Financial Group, where she worked closely with employers, assisting with retirement plan set-up and design, selecting appropriate plan investment offerings, and maximizing employee participation through targeted education campaigns and enrollment meetings. Alli has also worked as a qualified 401(k) administrator and registered investment advisor for several small investment firms. She now writes about all things investment- and finance-related, leveraging her extensive experience and passion for retirement planning to help investors make well-informed financial decisions.

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