Carrie Schwab Pomerantz

With all the news about the housing crises, loan defaults and home foreclosures, borrowers are definitely becoming aware of the pitfalls of overextending themselves. I'm continuously receiving questions about the best way to approach a mortgage and how handling debt, particularly mortgage debt, fits into an overall financial plan.

One question that seems to be coming up more frequently is whether or not a reverse mortgage makes sense for older homeowners who want to increase their cash flow. Apparently, reverse mortgages - first introduced in 1988 - are becoming increasingly popular. According to an AARP study, consumer awareness is up and the median age for borrowers is down from 76 to 73. And as the boomer generation reaches 62, the age of eligibility, the market for reverse mortgages is expected to increase dramatically.

On the surface, a reverse mortgage can seem like a low-risk way for homeowners to tap into their equity for retirement needs, long-term care costs, or even to avoid foreclosure. Dig a little deeper and you'll find that there are many factors to consider, from high fees to family inheritance issues. If you or someone you're close to is thinking about a reverse mortgage, I strongly suggest you start with these general facts and carefully consider the pros and cons before making a decision.

THE UPSIDE

A reverse mortgage is a loan against your home that you don't have to pay back as long as you live there. Instead of making payments to a lender, the lender pays you. Since the money you receive is a loan, not income, it's income tax-free.

The amount you qualify for depends on your age (you must be at least 62), the interest rate and, of course, the equity you have in your home. Other factors include the location of your home and the borrowing limits set by vendors. But all things being equal, the older you are when you take out the loan, the more money you can receive.

You can take the cash from a reverse mortgage in a lump sum, monthly payments, a standby line of credit or a combination of all three, and you don't have to repay the loan as long as you live in the house. If you move - whether you sell or keep your home and rent it out - or when you die, the reverse mortgage loan must be paid off. However, the amount owed, including interest, will never exceed the value of the house. If there's any money left over, say your house appreciates faster than the cost of the reverse mortgage, you or your estate can keep the difference.

Sounds pretty good so far, right? So what's the catch?

THE DOWNSIDE


Carrie Schwab Pomerantz

Carrie Schwab Pomerantz is a Motley Fool contributor.

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