United States: Reverse Mortgage Redux

This is not a money management blog but what we increasingly find is that many divorce clients simply "trusted" that their resources would be sufficient to carry them through retirement. The great awakening comes when they discover they are now splitting what looked like a comfortable retirement and that their ability to make up for lost time has been lost amidst the sands of time.

So today, lawyers need to help clients be creative, and based on an article in the March 22 Wall Street Journal, there is reason to take a second look at a device invented a few years ago called the reverse mortgage. When first introduced, they were disparaged as a kind of sleight of hand trick. The number of them issued spiked just after the Great Recession but then eased off as the economy (or at least the stock markets) recovered.

A reverse mortgage is what it sounds like. You have equity in a home that is essentially a trapped asset. A reverse mortgage involves your pledge of that equity to a lender who gives you your own trapped money. The true economist would dismiss this as absurd. If you need cash out of your home, don't pay anyone fees or anything else to tap it; just sell, downsize and take the cash from the settlement proceeds. That's why economics is called the dismal science.

The problem with today's older divorced couples is that they want everything to stay the same. Sure, it's only you living in the house that once held three or four. But you like it, you like the neighborhood, and besides, moving means dealing with 30 years of accumulated things that you call treasures and your child dismiss as "crap" when they come for Thanksgiving.

I typically advise clients that they should at least consider downsizing. The response is the same. A longing look like I told them they need to put the dog down unless his health improves and either a testy "Maybe next year" or even more challenging "Must I?" In the end, we assess matters and give clients options. No pets have met their demise on my watch but I have told several clients that unless they reduce their housing costs in the near term, they may need to consider a shorter life.

Reverse mortgages can be a way to ease the pain. At their worst, people borrow them to speculate. This is pure foolishness. But the mortgage in reverse can be a very effective tool, especially to cover late life rainy days. The best example is a sustained down market. If you are retired and drawing $4000 a month while getting $2,000 in social security, when the market tumbled, your $4,000 is coming out of a measurable smaller pool. If you had $300,000 in retirement and drew $3,000 a month in January, 2008 you had 100 months of retirement assuming no increase in value and no inflation. Your draw was 1%. By late Fall, your $300,000 was now $150,000 which mean your pool had halved and your draws were 2% a month. The market quickly shot back up to 11,000 but if the trough had been sustained and you didn't halve your expenses, you were burning retirement fast.

If you had a line of credit associated with a reverse mortgage, you could have reduced the impact on your portfolio by drawing on your home equity. Then you would have had more on hand to ride the market back to some form of equilibrium even though your home equity would have been reduced. There was a time when home prices could be said to keep pace with the market. But that is not a recent trend. A tract home in the Philadelphia region with 3,000 square feet sold in July, 2008 for $400,000. Six years later it sold for $420,000 and it today draws estimates for $410-425,000. Had you known in Fall, 2008, you could have borrowed $100,000 in home equity; stuck it in a Dow index fund and today your $100,000 would be worth $251,000. But, alas, that would require speculation.

But there are good times to draw on home equity. You sit, happily in your crap filled house burning through $3,000 a month of retirement. The roofer tells you "It's time for me to get $20,000." That roof can come out of home equity much more readily than an investment portfolio because the house is not really gaining value.

Now for some of the trickier strategies; tricky but solid if done in the right way. You are on a fixed income. You have $300,000 in equity but $200,000 in mortgage debt. The monthly mortgage of $200,000 plus $600 a month in real estate taxes is really crimping your ability to see the grandkids. Why not take a reverse mortgage on the equity to service the real mortgage you owe. This cuts expenses while leaving your investment portfolio intact. Yes, your real estate portfolio is going to decline but that wealth right now is trapped in housing and not really increasing.

Another strategy. We are told that if you delay drawing on Social Security from ordinary retirement to age 70, the monthly benefit payable rises by 7% a year. That's a pretty solid return and it's guaranteed unless you conk out along the way. But, you may look at the pension and retirement money you now have and say, I can't really make it to 70 without tapping my social security. Why not consider a reverse mortgage to fund the "gap" of payments you might otherwise get if you applied early or at normal retirement age.

Your employer lays you off in December 2015. Because you are not a kid it is going to take time to find a job, which means that your 2016 income will be low. Financial planners will suggest that the off-year is a prime time to convert a traditional IRA to a Roth because your income will be low. But you do still have to pay the tax on the conversion. Why not take that out of a reverse mortgage to cover the taxes.

Typically, reverse mortgage payments come without tax because the payment is not income but a reduction in home equity. You are effectively getting your own money. Federal regulations now make it so that a steep decline in home equity such that the amount you took out exceeds the equity does not open the door to liability on your part. So this is now a tool and not a toy. It can be abused but it has options that can make your retirement far more comfortable.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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