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Reverse Mortgages Come to the Rescue

By Mary Beth Franklin
Kiplinger's Personal Finance
Sunday, August 9, 2009

Reverse mortgages have been around for nearly 20 years, but it wasn't until the current financial crisis that they caught on. Seniors are turning to these loans to tap the equity in their homes and generate tax-free income to help them ride out hard times.

You can take it with you. A reverse mortgage can be a good option for people who want to relocate or move to a smaller home but don't want to sink all of their cash into a new house or might not qualify for a traditional mortgage.

New rules that took effect in January allow seniors to use a reverse mortgage to buy a new home. Say you own a house in Massachusetts worth $500,000 and you want to buy a $400,000 house in Florida. If you were to sell your house and pay cash for your new home, you'd have just $100,000 left to add to your savings. But if you took a $100,000 reverse mortgage on the Florida house, you'd have twice the amount left -- $200,000 -- to add to your savings.

How it works. You must be at least age 62 to take out a reverse mortgage. Plus, your house (current or future) must be your primary residence, and your mortgage must be either paid off or have a small balance. Unlike a traditional loan, there are no income or credit-score requirements, and you may use the money as you wish. The older you are, the higher the appraised value of your home (up to the maximum federal loan limit) and the lower the interest rate, the more you can borrow.

As part of the economic-stimulus package, Congress raised the reverse-mortgage loan limit to $625,500 through the end of 2009. After that, the lending limit reverts to $417,000, unless Congress intervenes.

You can take your payment as a lump sum, a monthly cash payout, a line of credit held in reserve or a combination of all three. No repayment is due until the last homeowner moves out or dies, at which point the home can be sold to pay off the debt. The loan repayment can never exceed the home's market value (even if it declines), absolving your heirs of any liability.

High fees. You'll pay the usual closing costs, plus loan-servicing fees, an origination fee of up to $6,000 and interest over the life of the loan. Also, you'll pay an initial insurance premium equal to 2 percent of the home's value plus 0.5 percent per month of the mortgage balance.

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