Imagine getting paid for owning a home.

That's what happens with a reverse mortgage, which pays debt-free homeowners, ages 62 and over, a monthly check that is often several times larger than their Social Security earnings, for life.

"It's a loan, but you don't have to pay it back until you're six feet under--and who cares then?" said Mark Reilly, a reverse-mortgage specialist at Cardinal Financial Co., one of the biggest lenders in the Philadelphia area.

Count Marion Muller among the believers. The Warminster, Pa., homemaker retired to Daytona Beach, Fla., in the 1970s. But after a decade as a widow, she found her independent lifestyle threatened by mounting bills. "My roof and windows needed repair," she said, and her 20-year-old car was falling apart. "I don't think I would have been able to hold on," she said.

Her daughter, Carol, suggested a reverse mortgage. Armed with a new line of credit from GMAC Capital, the region's biggest reverse-mortgage lender, Muller hired contractors, bought a new car and was able to stay in her home--without having to make mortgage payments. "I like to be independent. I like to be by myself. And I like the warmer weather," she said.

The American Bar Association likens a reverse mortgage to a home equity loan, with this difference: Instead of getting the money up front and paying it back slowly, the borrower typically gets the money, tax-free, in installments or a line of credit, leaving heirs to repay the loan in a lump sum when the house is sold.

In most cases the debt is limited to the value of the house. But the American Association of Retired Persons warns borrowers to read agreements carefully, because prices as well as features vary greatly.

Maximum payments vary with the loan program, the borrower's age, the home's value and market interest rates. One recent Cardinal borrower, an 88-year-old widow in a $200,000 home, collects about $1,400 a month, Reilly said. Younger borrowers and more modest homes typically get smaller payments.

Those payments, plus interest currently averaging about 6 percent, plus points, plus insurance charges, will be repaid by the borrower's heirs when they sell the house after she dies.

"It's really helpful," Reilly said, "for a lot of folks who are up there in years and who want to put steak on the table instead of a bowl of cereal."

But most seniors are taking a pass. Last year, just 8,000 of the millions of older Americans who own their homes took out reverse mortgages, said Harris Turkel, head of Horsham, Pa.-based GMAC Capital's reverse-mortgage unit, the nation's largest.

"Reverse mortgages allow older homeowners to live better and more independently. But so far, few have [taken advantage of them]," said Turkel, who also serves as treasurer of the reverse-mortgage industry's trade group.

That is despite 10 years of efforts by the Federal Housing Administration, which helps insure many reverse mortgages. While reverse mortgages are slowly gaining a foothold, they have grown slowly compared with second mortgages--marketed recently as "home equity" or "debt consolidation" loans--which are hawked through aggressive television and direct-mail campaigns by hundreds of banks and finance companies.

In part, reverse-mortgage advocates blame the complex nature of the loans. "The sales cycle is lengthy; it takes months and months," said Dave Martin, who heads the reverse-mortgage portfolio at Wilmington's WSFS Financial Corp.

He also blames "negative press" about "unscrupulous" middlemen who charged exorbitant fees for reverse mortgages in the early 1990s, leading to a spate of class-action lawsuits.

WSFS services 1,100 reverse mortgages, acquired when it bought San Francisco-based Providential Co. in the mid-1990s. WSFS and several other lenders, including San Francisco-based Transamerica Group, have stopped offering reverse mortgages in recent years, especially since the giant Fannie Mae mortgage-marketing group has stepped up its efforts to finance such loans.

In the process, Fannie Mae imposed guidelines that lenders say have had the effect of reducing fees, making the loans more attractive to consumers but less profitable for lenders.

"We're in it because it's good for the seniors. We're trying to develop a market with liquidity and stability," said Liz Scholz, director of senior products at the District-based mortgage finance company.

"It's a new market," Scholz said. "It's still evolving. The demographics would suggest there is a lot of potential. But education and marketing still need to happen."