MortgageReal Estate

Experts: Home equity is key to solving the country’s looming retirement crisis

But many older homeowners are still reluctant to touch it

As Baby Boomers continue to retire en masse without sufficient savings to support their later years, it’s become glaringly apparent that the country is on the brink of a retirement crisis.

Pensions have dwindled, Social Security is insufficient, health care costs are rising and people are living longer than ever before, carrying little resources with them into retirement.

But many older Americans do have one major source of wealth at their disposal: their house. And for some, utilizing their home equity could be the answer to their late-in-life money problems.

That’s why some experts are insisting that reverse mortgages – which allow older homeowners to access their home equity and remain in their homes – are an important public policy that must be preserved for future generations.

Alicia Munnell, director of the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College, said tapping home equity is essential to solving the country’s retirement crisis.

“It’s very clear that for most middle-income people, their house is their largest asset. In the past, they really haven’t touched this asset in retirement, but we are in an environment where Social Security is providing lower replacement rates, and 401(k) plans have modest balances, and the time will come when the only way people will be able to maintain their standard of living will be to tap their home equity.”

The Urban Institute’s Laurie Goodman agreed that reverse mortgages could help millions of Americans achieve a more comfortable retirement.

Goodman pointed out that nearly 37% of senior homeowners are worried about their finances retirement, while many of them are sitting on a mountain of housing wealth – more than $3 trillion.

“Tapping into home equity is a possible solution to the financial strain facing some elderly homeowners,” Goodman said. “The bottom line is that there is enormous untapped housing wealth for this age group and a significant untapped market for the housing finance industry.”

Goodman pointed to an Urban Institute study that revealed there are 920,580 U.S. households headed by someone over 65 that have an annual income at or below $20,000 and a liquid net worth at or below $50,000, but they also at least $100,000 in home equity.

“These folks should be looking at using their home equity to help them manage their finances,” Goodman said. “All together, these less than 1 million household have $208 billion in home equity they could be using.”

But they’re not.

Goodman said reverse mortgages have a number of impediments preventing them from mainstream use, including consumer misconceptions and the loan’s high cost and complexity.

But these issues aren’t the only problems. Goodman said there’s a collective reluctance among older homeowners to utilize home equity.

“Even if all the structural impediments were removed, behavioral and attitudinal barriers would keep many senior homeowners from tapping their housing wealth,” she said.

Munnell agreed.

“It always seemed like a program with a lot of promise… I thought it would one day be routine. But as you know, it’s not,” she said. “The concept is simple, but the execution is not. It’s just been a very difficult path to get people to adopt reverse mortgages as part of their retirement planning.”

Goodman said that even though reverse mortgages have not gained widespread acceptance, they could help both low- and high-income homeowners achieve a more financially secure retirement.  

“For low-income retirees or those who are financially burdened but own substantial housing wealth, tapping home equity could obviate the need to cut spending on essentials, such as food, health and medicine,” she said. “High-income households could leverage equity to modify their homes to improve in-home safety and mobility.”
 

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