A reverse mortgage is a loan that allows homeowners 62...

A reverse mortgage is a loan that allows homeowners 62 and older to convert a portion of the equity in their homes into cash, as long as the home remains their primary residence. Credit: iStock

The Great Recession and stock market rout eviscerated retirement nest eggs, changing the course of retirement planning for millions of people. And while the value of real estate also plunged, many older Americans owned their homes outright, allowing them to use a reverse mortgage to help finance retirement.

A reverse mortgage is a loan that allows homeowners 62 and older to convert a portion of the equity in their homes into cash, as long as the home remains their primary residence. Most reverse mortgages are offered through the Department of Housing and Urban Development and are guaranteed by the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) through a program called Home Equity Conversion Mortgages (HECM).

After getting the loan, you must keep paying real estate taxes, utilities and hazard and flood insurance premiums. The amount you can borrow depends on several factors, including the age of the youngest borrower if the house is co-owned, the current interest rate, the appraised value of your home and whether the rate is fixed or adjustable. The more valuable your home is, the older you are and the lower the interest rate, the more you can borrow. In essence, a reverse mortgage can help retirees convert an illiquid asset -- a house -- into a liquid one that can help supplement retirement income.

As of April 27, there was a big change for the reverse mortgage market. The federal government has decided to make applying for a reverse mortgage more like the process for qualifying for a traditional mortgage. Before the change, reverse mortgages did not require a lengthy underwriting process, but new borrowers will have to meet "financial assessment" tests.

Would-be borrowers must now prove that they paid their real estate taxes, homeowner association fees and other property-related charges on time for at least the past 24 months. They will have to produce documentation, such as tax returns, pay stubs (if they are still working), bank statements and details of assets. Finally, they will undergo a "residual income" analysis that examines their monthly expenses and cash flow.

Those who fall short may be required to fund a "life expectancy set-aside," which would funnel some of the loan proceeds into a separate account, to ensure funding is available for future tax and insurance obligations. This is akin to escrow accounts on conventional mortgages, which are established to pay property taxes and homeowner's insurance.

The set-aside amount is based on a number of variables, including the total of current property taxes plus hazard and flood insurance premiums; the likely increase in tax and insurance costs; the expected average mortgage interest rate; and the life expectancy of the youngest borrower (the younger the borrowers, the higher the potential set-aside amount).

Critics say the new rules will make it more difficult for consumers with low income or poor credit records to obtain reverse mortgages. But that's just the point, according to regulators, who want to prevent defaults by extending reverse mortgages only to qualified borrowers. They note that borrowers with shaky financial situations may be better off selling their homes and using the equity to purchase another home or to rent.

The new rules do not address the cost of reverse mortgages, but you should be aware fees can run 2 to 3 percent of the loan amount. Also remember that reverse mortgage payouts can affect a borrower's eligibility for means-tested benefits programs, such as Supplemental Security Income (SSI) and/or Medicaid.

Fans of reverse mortgages note that the new rules preserve the ultimate benefit of the transaction: Borrowers can still receive a monthly check for life or get a line of credit insured to grow for as long as they live in the home.

If you are serious about a reverse mortgage, consult a registered investment adviser or a lawyer, who can help determine if it is in your best interest.

Jill Schlesinger is editor-at-large for CBSMoneyWatch.com. She welcomes emailed comments and questions.

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