Reverse mortgages giving regulators some concerns

Reverse mortgages, under the radar for most of their 20-year existence, are getting new attention from cash-strapped consumers who want them and wary regulators who worry about the possible fallout.

The mortgages let seniors tap the equity they've built up in their homes, basically allowing them to cash out the value of their house while still living in it. In other words, the bank pays the borrower instead of the other way around, and that's an attractive idea in an economic recession.

New legislation has capped some of the associated fees and expanded which houses can qualify for reverse mortgages. The ease of access is another selling point, since the loans don't have any credit or income requirements – which can be hard for a retired person to fulfill since they're no longer pulling in a paycheck.

But critics say the mortgages, though just a niche of the larger industry, are a ticking time bomb and have some parallels to subprime mortgages: They are complex and hard to comprehend, and they may be useful for a small number of sophisticated borrowers who understand the risks but dangerous for those who don't.

Doris Simmons, 69, of Indian Trail, says she carefully considered the downsides of a reverse mortgage and decided it was her best option when the recession started to hurt her business.

She's heard all the objections, like the critics who say you can usually get more money by selling your house. "Not in today's economy," she replies, and she doesn't really want to move anyway. Her house has been in the family for 50 years and brings memories of her children.

She's a little bothered that the reverse mortgage will probably prevent her from leaving the house to her heirs, but "it's better than defaulting and losing it."

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