FHA officials prepare for reverse mortgage changes

September 9, 2010 

The Federal Housing Administration isn't talking publicly about it, but the agency may be getting ready to lessen the upfront costs of reverse mortgages for some borrowers.

The agency also, however, may be reducing the amount seniors can borrow from their homes.

In a recent conference call with industry participants, FHA officials said they were finalizing plans to offer a home-equity conversion mortgage with almost no upfront mortgage insurance premium attached, according to the National Reverse Mortgage Lenders Association. The FHA also may tinker with the traditional product in a way that increases the overall borrowing costs.

"HUD is looking at options to provide a lower-priced (home-equity conversion mortgage) option," said Lemar Wooley, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. "We are still working out the details. Our basic plan is to make the product more attractive, while limiting FHA's exposure to risk."

A home-equity conversion mortgages is a federally guaranteed reverse mortgage designed to let homeowners 62 or older tap into the equity in their homes. The loans and accrued interest don't have to be repaid until the owner sells the home, dies or fails to live there for one year, but the loans have traditionally carried significant upfront and annual expenses.

According to conference call participants, home- equity conversion mortgages would be split this fall into a "standard" loan and a "saver" loan.

The saver loan would have an upfront mortgage insurance premium of 0.01 percent of a home's value, but the amount of funds that could be borrowed, known as the principal limit, would be reduced by at least 10 percent, lowering the risk to the FHA, which guarantees the loans. Because a smaller amount could be borrowed, the saver loan could be marketed as an alternative to a home equity line of credit to seniors on fixed incomes who can't make the monthly minimum interest payments required on such lines of credit.

Under the standard loan, the upfront mortgage insurance premium charged by the FHA would remain 2 percent of the property value (or a max of 2 percent of the FHA maximum loan limit of $625,500), and the principal limit would be cut by 1 percent to 5 percent of a home's value, depending on the borrower's age. The upfront mortgage insurance premium would still be 2 percent, said industry participants briefed on the plan.

For both loans, the monthly mortgage insurance premium, which is 0.5 percent of the mortgage balance for a traditional home equity conversion mortgage, would increase to 1.25 percent.

"For someone who needs a chunk of money, but not a huge chunk, we believe this will significantly broaden the appeal," said Peter Bell, president of the National Reverse Mortgage Lenders Association. "They're very smart changes."

The National Council on Aging, which has advocated the development of a more flexible reverse mortgage product for some time, views the coming changes as welcome news that the industry is moving past the one-size-fits-all mentality.

However, the advocacy group also sees potential pitfalls. "The more flexibility there is, the more chance there is to be talked into (something) that doesn't make sense," said Barbara Stucki, vice president of home-equity initiatives for the National Council on Aging.

Beginning Saturday, consumers interested in home-equity conversion mortgages will have to undergo expanded counseling to better understand their options. Stucki urges seniors to take full advantage of those expanded counseling efforts.

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