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Reverse mortgage holders can be hit hard by equity slump

Right in time for Halloween comes a topic right out of the ghoul's guide to mortgage lending: reverse mortgages, which a growing number of Tampa Bay homeowners consider to be little better than foreclosures in disguise.

Reverse mortgages are loans that let older homeowners convert accumulated equity into cash. Instead of you making payments to the bank, the bank makes payments to you.

Celebrities like Robert Wagner — no longer a Hollywood pretty boy but a grizzled oldster — plug the service on TV.

Over the years, homeowners slowly deplete their equity until the house essentially belongs to the bank. In a perfect world, owners time the cash-outs to their life spans. Who cares if Bank of America gets the oak cabinets if you're already getting your angel wings?

But almost no one counted on the biggest housing crash since the Great Depression, least of all Melly Rush of Inverness.

The 73-year-old retiree took out a reverse mortgage in 2006, paying $11,000 in fees for the privilege of cracking into what seemed to be a sizable home equity nest egg.

The lender appraised her three-bedroom, two-bathroom house at $168,000. Rush owed $30,000 on the original mortgage. Feeling flush, Rush and her husband, Richard, tapped tens of thousands of dollars to repair the roof and hook into city water.

Guess what happened? She's probably "upside down" on a mortgage that should have lasted a decade. Bank statements still list the home's value at $168,000, but Rush isn't foolish enough to believe it. She assumes the house is worth tens of thousands less. Her real equity is probably tapped out, though the bank will let her continue to borrow against the inflated $168,000 value.

To add insult to injury, Bank of America retroactively placed her home in a flood zone, tripling her insurance rates. That money comes off the top of the couple's fixed income. Robert Wagner is no longer their favorite celebrity pitchman.

If real estate values had continued to rise, or even flattened, the Rushes wouldn't curse their decision. But few reverse mortgage holders counted on the market meltdown. And the deal is restrictive in ways they didn't fully understand when they signed the papers in 2006.

A friend shy of retirement age got nailed when her much-older husband died. People under 62 don't qualify for reverse mortgages. Absent her age-appropriate husband, the widow's been forced to vacate.

Other friends of the Rushes consider their reverse mortgage ideal. They remodeled their kitchen, took a dream cruise. But in their friends' case, the reverse mortgage money was supplemental, not their main nest egg.

The Rushes shouldn't have to fear homelessness. Reverse mortgages let you live in your house even if the equity's exhausted. But they will have to pay their property taxes and insurance premiums.

There's the rub. The couple's not sure they can afford their recently tripled flood insurance that's costing them more than $3,000 annually.

In three short years, the couple has gone from owing $30,000 on a $168,000 home to feeling like a tenant of Bank of America. Before you rush into a reverse mortgage, let Melly Rush's word echo through your cranium: "We don't own our home anymore."

Reverse mortgage holders can be hit hard by equity slump 10/29/09 [Last modified: Thursday, October 29, 2009 9:09pm]

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