How do reverse mortgages work?

HotbotBy HotBotUpdated: July 8, 2024

Introduction to Reverse Mortgages

A reverse mortgage is a financial product designed for homeowners aged 62 and older, allowing them to convert part of the equity in their homes into cash. Unlike a traditional mortgage where the homeowner makes payments to the lender, in a reverse mortgage, the lender makes payments to the homeowner. This can provide seniors with a steady stream of income during retirement. Understanding the intricacies of reverse mortgages can help potential borrowers make informed decisions.

Eligibility Requirements

To qualify for a reverse mortgage, homeowners must meet several criteria:

  • Age: All borrowers on the loan must be at least 62 years old.
  • Primary Residence: The home must be the homeowner's primary residence.
  • Home Equity: Significant equity in the home is required, typically at least 50%.
  • Financial Assessment: Borrowers must undergo a financial assessment to ensure they can maintain the property, pay property taxes, and cover homeowners insurance.

Types of Reverse Mortgages

There are three main types of reverse mortgages:

Home Equity Conversion Mortgage (HECM)

The most common type of reverse mortgage, insured by the Federal Housing Administration (FHA). It offers various payout options, including a lump sum, monthly payments, or a line of credit.

Proprietary Reverse Mortgages

Private loans offered by individual lenders, typically for higher-value homes. They are not insured by the FHA and may offer larger loan amounts than HECMs.

Single-Purpose Reverse Mortgages

Offered by some state and local government agencies and nonprofit organizations. These loans are for a specific purpose, such as home repairs or property taxes, and usually have lower costs.

Loan Disbursement Options

Homeowners can choose from several disbursement options for their reverse mortgage, depending on their financial needs and preferences:

  • Lump Sum: Receive the entire loan amount at once.
  • Monthly Payments: Regular payments over a set period or for as long as the borrower lives in the home.
  • Line of Credit: Withdraw funds as needed, up to a pre-determined limit.
  • Combination: Mix of the above methods to best suit the homeowner's financial situation.

Repayment of the Loan

The reverse mortgage loan becomes due and payable when any of the following conditions occur:

  • The borrower passes away.
  • The borrower sells the home.
  • The borrower moves out of the home for more than 12 consecutive months.
  • The borrower fails to maintain the property, pay property taxes, or keep homeowners insurance current.

Once the loan is due, the homeowner or their heirs must repay the borrowed amount plus interest and fees. This is typically done by selling the home. If the home sells for more than the loan balance, the remaining equity goes to the homeowner or their heirs. If it sells for less, the FHA insurance covers the difference, protecting the borrower or their heirs from owing more than the home's value.

Costs and Fees Associated with Reverse Mortgages

Reverse mortgages come with several costs and fees, which can be rolled into the loan amount:

  • Origination Fee: Covers the lender's processing costs, typically between $2,500 and $6,000.
  • Mortgage Insurance Premium: Paid to the FHA for HECMs, this protects both the borrower and the lender.
  • Third-Party Fees: Includes appraisal, title search, and other closing costs.
  • Servicing Fees: Ongoing fees for managing the loan, typically $30 to $35 per month.
  • Interest: Accrues on the borrowed amount, added to the loan balance over time.

Pros and Cons of Reverse Mortgages

Like any financial product, reverse mortgages have their advantages and disadvantages:


  • Financial Flexibility: Provides additional income for retirees, helping cover living expenses or unexpected costs.
  • No Monthly Payments: Borrowers do not need to make monthly mortgage payments.
  • Non-Recourse Loan: Borrowers or their heirs will never owe more than the home's value when the loan is repaid.


  • Costs and Fees: Reverse mortgages can be expensive due to various fees and interest charges.
  • Reduced Home Equity: Borrowing against home equity reduces the amount available for heirs.
  • Complexity: Reverse mortgages can be complicated, making it essential for borrowers to fully understand the terms and conditions.

Common Misconceptions About Reverse Mortgages

Reverse mortgages are often misunderstood, leading to misconceptions that can deter homeowners from considering them. Here are some common myths debunked:

Myth: The Lender Owns the Home

In reality, the homeowner retains title and ownership of the property. The lender merely has a lien against the home, similar to a traditional mortgage.

Myth: Heirs Will Be Left With Debt

Reverse mortgages are non-recourse loans, meaning the loan balance cannot exceed the home's value at the time of repayment. Heirs can sell the home and keep any surplus equity or choose to repay the loan and keep the home.

Myth: You Can Be Forced Out of Your Home

As long as the borrower meets the loan obligations, such as maintaining the property and paying taxes and insurance, they can live in the home for the rest of their life without making mortgage payments.

Alternatives to Reverse Mortgages

Before committing to a reverse mortgage, homeowners should explore other options:

  • Home Equity Loan or Line of Credit: These products allow homeowners to borrow against their equity with potentially lower costs, but require monthly payments.
  • Downsizing: Selling the current home and purchasing a smaller, more affordable property can free up equity and reduce living expenses.
  • Conventional Mortgage: Refinancing into a new mortgage with better terms may provide the needed funds.
  • Government Assistance Programs: Various federal, state, and local programs offer financial assistance to seniors.

Is a Reverse Mortgage Right for You?

Reverse mortgages can be a valuable financial tool for some seniors, providing additional income during retirement. However, they are not suitable for everyone. Factors to consider include the homeowner's financial situation, future plans, and the desire to leave an inheritance. Consult with a financial advisor and a HUD-approved reverse mortgage counselor to thoroughly evaluate if a reverse mortgage aligns with your needs and goals.

When considering a reverse mortgage, it is crucial to weigh all aspects and potential outcomes. The choice to proceed is deeply personal and should be made with careful consideration of both current financial needs and long-term objectives.

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