A reverse mortgage is a home loan that provides cash payments based on home equity. Homeowners normally “defer payment of the loan until they die, sell, or move out of the home.” Upon the death of homeowners, their heirs either give up ownership to the home or must refinance the home to purchase the title from the reverse mortgage company. Specific rules for reverse mortgage transactions vary depending on the laws of the jurisdiction.

In a conventional mortgage, the homeowner makes a monthly payment to the lender. After each payment, the homeowner’s equity increases by the amount of the principal included in the payment. In a reverse mortgage, a homeowner is not required to make monthly payments. If payments are not made, interest is added to the loan’s balance. Although the “rising loan balance can eventually grow to exceed the value of the home,” “the borrower (or the borrower’s estate) is generally not required to repay any additional loan balance in excess of the value of the home.” In Canada the loan balance cannot exceed the fair market value of the home by law.

Regulators and academics have given mixed commentary on the reverse mortgage market. Some economists argue that reverse mortgages allow seniors to smooth out their income and consumption patterns over time, and thus may provide welfare benefits. However, regulatory authorities, such as the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, argue that reverse mortgages are “complex products and difficult for consumers to understand,” especially in light of “misleading advertising,” low-quality counseling, and “risk of fraud and other scams.” Moreover, the Bureau claims that many consumers do not use reverse mortgages for the positive, consumption-smoothing purposes advanced by economists. In Canada the borrower must seek independent legal advice before being approved for a reverse mortgage.

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