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4 Ways to Tap Your House for Cash

Even in a down market, you can safely unlock your equity

Back when the housing market was soaring, many Americans thought of their homes as piggy banks that they could crack open at will, whether for renovating a kitchen or funding a retirement.

See also: When it pays to move.

The Great Recession put an end to that party, and in most of the country the housing market has yet to return to its pre-2007 heights. Meanwhile, many older Americans are coping with roughed-up investment portfolios, low fixed-income yields, and soaring medical expenses. That makes home equity — the ownership built up through mortgage payments and appreciation of your property — a tempting target to tap for cash. And there's a lot of it still locked up in our houses. Eighty percent of Americans over age 65 are homeowners, not renters — a considerably higher rate than for most other age groups, finds the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard University. Total mortgage indebtedness among seniors has risen recently; still, 65 percent of over-65 homeowners were mortgage-free in 2009, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Owning your home debt-free offers security and flexibility. But squeezing cash out of it comes with big risks — especially if you take on debt with a reverse mortgage or home equity line of credit (HELOC) that reduces your control of the property. Before signing anything, call a professional financial planner, accountant, or attorney who can help protect your interests.

With those caveats in mind, read on for four ways to transform the roof over your head into cash in your hand.

Next: A small move can pay big dividends. >>

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