Thinking of getting a reverse mortgage? Bad idea. Reverse mortgages sound like a good plan—after all, who wouldn’t want a dream retirement funded entirely by their house! But here’s the truth: Reverse mortgages are major rip-offs.
And you don’t have to take our word for it, either. Here’s what the National Consumer Law Center had to say about reverse mortgages in a 2023 report: “The program was designed to allow older homeowners to borrow against their home equity without the risk of displacement, but reverse mortgages end in foreclosure much more often than they should.”1
Why are reverse mortgages so bad? Let’s take a look by answering some key questions like, What is a reverse mortgage? and How do reverse mortgages work?
The further we dive in, the more you’ll see how a reverse mortgage is nothing more than a predatory program designed to take advantage of you.
What Is a Reverse Mortgage?
A reverse mortgage is a type of mortgage that’s only available to homeowners aged 62 or older who have already paid off a good chunk (or all) of their home’s existing mortgage loan.
Similar to a traditional second mortgage, a reverse mortgage allows eligible homeowners to access their home equity (the value of their home minus what they still owe) in the form of either a lump sum, a line of credit or fixed monthly payments from the lender to the borrower.
Borrowers can only get a reverse mortgage on a single- or multi-family home (or condo) no bigger than a fourplex that serves as their primary residence. Additionally, borrowers can’t have any outstanding federal debts, like unpaid taxes.
How Does a Reverse Mortgage Work?
Getting a reverse mortgage works like a regular mortgage—you apply and then wait for the lender to approve you. Along with the qualifications we just went over, lenders will evaluate your finances to make sure you can afford to pay for other expenses you’ll still be on the hook for, like taxes and insurance.
Also similar to a traditional mortgage, homeowners who take out a reverse mortgage put up their house as collateral for the loan—that means you lose your house if you don’t live up to the terms of the loan.
Can we talk for a second about how risky that is? Why in the world would you want to risk losing your home—the most valuable thing you own—in your senior years? And talk about stress! Try getting a good night’s sleep when the future of your home is up in the air.
How Do You Pay Back a Reverse Mortgage?
Companies who offer reverse mortgages will really play up the fact that if you take one out, you won’t owe monthly payments. That is true. But remember: We’re still talking about a loan here. You may not have to make monthly payments, but you have to pay the lender back eventually. After all, they’ve got to make money somehow.
Here’s how lenders get their money back on reverse mortgages: As long as you keep paying your property taxes, homeowners insurance and other expenses related to your home, you won’t owe the mortgage company anything while you still live in your home. But when you stop living in your home, either because you move out or—yep—die, the balance on your reverse mortgage becomes due in full.
Yes, that means your family will be on the hook for paying your loan back if you die, unless they decide to let the bank have your home. And hey, who wouldn’t want to be part of a program that preys on dead people and their grieving families? (We hope you picked up on our sarcasm there.)
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Oh, and did we mention that interest on your reverse mortgage starts building from the moment you take it out and doesn’t stop until it’s paid back? Reverse mortgages also always come with a bunch of ridiculous fees.
Are you getting the picture? These suckers flat-out stink!
Types of Reverse Mortgages
There are three main types of reverse mortgages you should know about.
1. Home Equity Conversion Mortgage (HECM)
The most common reverse mortgage is the home equity conversion mortgage (HECM). HECMs were created in 1988 to help older Americans make ends meet by letting them tap into the equity of their homes without having to move out.
HECM loans don’t have any restrictions on how you use the money, which means you can use it to pay for bills, home renovations or a trip to Tahiti. Some folks even use an HECM to pay off the remaining amount on their regular mortgage—which is just nuts! And the consequences can be huge.
Also, HECM loans are kept on a tight leash by the Federal Housing Administration (FHA). For example, they won’t let you qualify if your home is worth more than a certain amount—that helps them make sure they get their money back in the end.2
And if you do qualify for an HECM, you’ll pay a hefty mortgage insurance premium that protects the lender (not you) against any losses.
2. Proprietary Reverse Mortgage
Proprietary reverse mortgages aren’t federally regulated like the HECM ones. Instead, they’re offered up by private companies.
And because they’re not regulated or insured by the government, they can draw homeowners in with promises of higher loan amounts—but with the catch of much higher interest rates than those federally insured reverse mortgages.
More cash might sound good, but what it really means is you’re even deeper in debt.
3. Single-Purpose Reverse Mortgage
A single-purpose reverse mortgage is offered by government agencies at the state and local level, and by nonprofit groups too.
Unlike HECMs, single-purpose reverse mortgages put rules and restrictions on how you can use the money from the loan. Typically, they can only be used to make property tax payments or pay for home repairs. (Sorry, you can’t use it on that trip to Tahiti.)
Because of that, the main purpose of these loans is to “help” keep borrowers in their home if they fall behind on costs like home insurance or property taxes, or if they need to make urgent home repairs. And since the money from a single-purpose reverse mortgage has to be used in a specific way, they’re usually much smaller than HECM loans or proprietary reverse mortgages.
Single-purpose reverse mortgages also aren’t federally insured, so lenders don’t have to charge mortgage insurance premiums.
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Reverse Mortgage Pros and Cons
Before you go and sign the papers on a reverse mortgage (again, horrible idea), weigh the pros and cons:
Reverse mortgages really only have two “pros.”
- You get some cash. Reverse mortgages give you access to some cash you can use to pay for living expenses or, in some cases, anything your heart desires.
- There are no monthly payments. You won’t owe the mortgage company a dime until you move, sell your house or die.
But let’s not act like that cash is falling out of the sky. It’s not a gift, it’s a loan. By definition, that means a reverse mortgage is debt. And you may not have to pay it back right away, but someone will eventually—and that someone could be one of your family members after you die.
There are plenty of these. Are you ready to roll your eyes?
- You could lose your home. This one’s the kicker. Lots of reverse mortgage lenders will try to sweet talk you into believing this isn’t possible. But what do you think will happen if you use up all the money from your reverse mortgage and start missing bills like your property taxes or homeowners insurance? Or if you have to move to a nursing home or assisted living facility and can’t afford to make payments on your reverse mortgage. (Remember: You’ll start owing payments on a reverse mortgage if you move.) Here’s a spoiler: You’ll lose your home. Plain and simple.
- You’ll pay lots of fees. Reverse mortgages are loaded with extra costs. Some of the biggest are the origination fee, mortgage insurance premium, closing costs and servicing fees. All those costs add up quickly—we’re talking close to $10,000.
- You could be getting roped into a scam. Reverse mortgages stink, but most lenders are legit. There are some bad guys out there, though. The reverse mortgage industry has had problems with scams and fraud over the years and, if you’re not careful, you’ll wind up as the latest victim.
- The interest will add up quickly. Even though you don’t pay monthly payments on a reverse mortgage, your lender will start charging you interest the moment you take it out—and that interest will compound until the loan is repaid. So if you take out a $175,000 reverse mortgage at 6% interest on a $300,000 house and you don’t pay it back for 25 years, you (or your family) will owe a whopping $260,000 in interest on top of the $175,000 you borrowed. No thanks!
- You’ll likely owe more than your home is worth. Advertisers promoting reverse mortgages love to spin the old line: “You will never owe more than your home is worth!” That is a complete lie. Let’s go back to the scenario we just looked at where you owe $260,000 in interest on a $175,000 loan. Add those two numbers together, and the total amount you’d owe comes out to $435,000—for a $300,000 home.
- You could leave your family a huge mess. We’ve talked several times about how it’s very possible to not owe your lender a dime on a reverse mortgage until you die. Well, if you do bite the dust before paying off your loan, your family will have two options: Pay back the entire amount you owe, or give up your home to the bank. Is that really the sort of situation you want to leave your family in when you die? Is that what you want your legacy to be? We’ll answer that for you: Heck no!
Alternatives to Reverse Mortgages
Literally anything would be better than taking out a reverse mortgage. (Okay, maybe not robbing a bank or committing tax fraud.) But seriously, if you’re strapped for cash, there are better options than these horrible programs.
First, you can get a job if you need money and you’re physically able to work. If you’re in your 60s and struggling to make ends meet, keep working as long as you can. Also, take full advantage of any retirement plans available to you and max them out—some plans, like the 401(k), let you contribute extra money in your 50s and beyond so you can catch up if you’re behind on retirement savings.
Having a good investment professional on your side is key to making the right retirement planning decisions, and you can find one in your area through our SmartVestor program.
Another good idea: Sell your house and downsize to something smaller that you can pay cash for. That way, you can access the equity on your home without getting screwed by a reverse mortgage, and it could be a big boost to your financial situation. Think about it: If you own a home worth $350,000 and you have $250,000 in equity, you could sell your home, buy a smaller one for $225,000, and have $25,000 left over to put aside for emergencies or invest in retirement—and you’d have no house payment!
If you’re ready to downsize, you can start the process by connecting with one of our RamseyTrusted real estate agents in your area. They’re top-notch pros who our team has vetted to make sure they’ll serve you with excellence.
No matter which alternative you choose, avoid getting a reverse mortgage at all costs. Don’t let anyone convince you it’s your only option! Even if you’re getting started late in the game, you don’t need to risk losing your home to fund your retirement. You still have control of your financial situation.
- Take the option of a reverse mortgage off the table. You don’t have to mortgage your home to pay bills when you retire.
- Work with a SmartVestor Pro to plan for retirement.
- If you need extra money, go back to work or consider downsizing your home with the help of a RamseyTrusted real estate agent in your local area.
Frequently Asked Questions
Can anyone take out a reverse mortgage?
No. You must be at least 62 years old with a fully- or mostly-paid-for home. Most lenders will also assess your financial situation to make sure you can pay for your other home-related expenses, like taxes and insurance.
When do you have to repay a reverse mortgage?
You’ll have to pay back your reverse mortgage in full if you move out of your home or sell your home. If you die before either of those things happen, your family will either have to pay back your loan or forfeit your home to the bank.
Is a reverse mortgage a good idea?
Getting a reverse mortgage is a terrible idea. You’ll owe a boatload of fees and interest, you could leave your family with a huge mess on their hands, and—worst of all—you could wind up losing your home.