Some baby boomers are finding homeownership to be less beneficial

The New York Times profiled challenges faced by older homeowners, questions whether ‘aging in place’ means they could be ‘stuck in place,’ and takes reverse mortgages into account

Even homeowners who have paid off their mortgage may be finding that their available equity is not enough to downsize, according to a story published Saturday by The New York Times. The article also notes that reverse mortgages are a potentially valuable tool for seniors in the current housing environment.

Roughly 80% of older adults live in the homes they own, but housing costs and interest rates have combined to create a challenging scenario for some older people seeking to downsize into a more manageable home. The prices for smaller townhouses or condominiums can, in some cases, outweigh the prices for larger single-family homes.

“[T]he traditional notion that a house with a paid-off mortgage can serve as an A.T.M. to help fund retirement living is shifting, economists report. Homeownership no longer is an unqualified benefit for some seniors,” the story explained.

Urban Institute research economist Linna Zhu rhetorically asked if seniors were “aging in place, or stuck in place.” 

According to data from Harvard University’s Joint Center for Housing Studies (JCHS), the share of older adults carrying mortgage debt rose significantly between 1989 and 2022, going from 24% to 41%. During that same period, the typical amount owed on these mortgages rose from $21,000 to $110,000.

These larger mortgage balances, combined with elevated interest rates, have made impacted seniors “cost-burdened,” according to 2023 data from the JCHS, meaning they spend at least 30% of their income on housing costs.

But with rising home prices have also come higher levels of home equity, which recently led Boston College’s Center for Retirement Research (CRR) to reduce “its estimate of the proportion of American households at risk of being unable to maintain their standard of living after retirement,” the Times reported.

The CRR’s so-called “retirement risk index” fell to 39% in 2022, down from 47% in 2019. The organization “bases its calculations on older homeowners tapping their home equity with reverse mortgages,” the Times explained.

A profiled couple obtained a Home Equity Conversion Mortgage (HECM) sponsored by the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) in 2020, which allowed them to “pay off their existing mortgage, afford cataract surgery and complicated dentistry (neither one was covered by Medicare, in this instance), replace a 22-year-old car and upgrade their plumbing, all while keeping their retirement savings intact,” the Times stated.

Zhu of the Urban Institute told the Times that reverse mortgages are “a very effective way to tap home equity,” but product adoption by seniors — as is true with many equity-tapping options — remains low.

Housing researcher Jennifer Molinsky noted that home equity is seen as “a nest egg” for those in later life, but many seniors are hesitant to tap it as a financial resource. Instead, many seniors see it as more of an emergency resource, only to be tapped when no other options exist.

“Besides, accessing home equity isn’t always simple or possible,” the Times stated. “With federally insured reverse mortgages — officially [HECMs] — the upfront costs are high […] and the paperwork substantial. In 2022, only 64,500 older applicants received reverse mortgages through the federal program.”

One researcher said that the situations of older adults could be bettered by “improving and streamlining the federal HECM program, broadening the criteria for refinancing and [home equity line of credit (HELOC)] loans, and encouraging the development of more housing, including homes and apartments suitable for older buyers and tenants.”

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