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AARP Bulletin

Are Reverse Mortgages Helpful or Hazardous?

Marketed to older adults, the loans both provide and deplete needed income

Running out of money

The sharp rise of troubled loans underscores the economic challenges many of today's retirees face.

In a report to Congress in June, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau warned that borrowers were increasingly using reverse mortgages at younger ages to pay off debt, even before they retire. It also said reverse mortgages "have the potential to become a much more prominent part of the financial landscape in the coming decades," as older workers brace for a shaky financial future.

Despite mandatory financial counseling as part of the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) program, the majority of borrowers in default took proceeds in a lump sum, rather than in monthly installments over a number of years. They did precisely what experts warn against: They relied on the loan to meet basic living expenses, then used up their equity and had nothing left for their remaining years.

"A lot of people thought they had enough socked away, including proceeds from the reverse mortgage," says Sue Hunt, director of reverse mortgage counseling at CredAbility, a nonprofit credit-counseling service based in Atlanta. "But they didn't count on how long they were going to live and they ran out of money."

Annette Richard, 69, was frantically trying to avoid that trauma. She paid north of $18,000 in fees for her reverse mortgage in 2009. She used the proceeds to fix up her home and to supplement her $800-a-month Social Security income. Soon after, she suffered a series of health problems that drained her bank account and left her unable to pay property taxes and insurance.

Now she has put her Fort Lauderdale home on the market and hopes it sells before the original lender forecloses on it. Yet she is among the lucky few. Her home is worth more than her mortgage balance. "I paid off bills, did repairs in the house. I used that money to keep going," Richard says.

Widowed and booted out

Some widowed spouses are also finding themselves in dire situations after taking out reverse mortgages without being told of the risks. Linda McMahon, 66, says she was pressured by her broker to take her name off the deed and process a reverse mortgage in her husband's name only — she was 58 at the time, too young to qualify. Besides, she was told by the broker, she could add her name at a later time.

Her husband died at age 86 in 2009, just as she turned 62. She was never put back on the deed. Worse, the broker failed to disclose that she'd be forced to leave in a year if she didn't pay off the loan balance of $196,000, the total for the equity she borrowed plus fees and interest. After a 2-1/2-year battle with the lender, McMahon lost her St. Croix Falls, Wis., home.

"It was my dream house," she says. "I thought I was going to live there for the rest of my life." McMahon now lives in a small apartment just down the street. "I walk by the house every day."

Betty Cobb fears that she will suffer a similar fate. Like McMahon, she and her husband, Bernese, took out a reverse mortgage on their Florida home of 33 years — solely in his name — without being informed of the risks. At age 80, Bernese is frail and recovering from surgery.

"If something happens to him, what's going to happen to me?" Cobb says. "I'm 64 and disabled. If my husband passes, I can't pay off the reverse mortgage."

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