Have you noticed that the reverse mortgage industry seems to be in the middle of closing up its windows and turning the lights out? Last week, Wells Fargo, which accounted for 27% of reverse mortgage originations last year, announced it’s exiting the business altogether. This comes on the heels of a similar decision by Bank of America (16% of 2010 originations) back in February. So in just four months, 43% of the industry has said it’s no longer in the industry. Odd, don’t you think? You can thank-surprise!-the federal government.
Reverse mortgages, as you probably already know, provide a way for home-equity-rich seniors to enjoy a steady retirement income without the hassle and anxiety of selling their homes and moving late in life. Rather, the lender takes title to the house and, in return, sends a monthly payment to the borrower, based on the term of the mortgage and the amount of the borrower’s equity. Then when the borrower finally goes to his Great Reward, the lender owns the home and disposes of it.
They may not be for everyone, but reverse mortgages can provide a great retirement solution to an awful lot of seniors. Or they should, except that the federal government has gotten into the middle of things and mucked everything up.
Reverse mortgages are regulated and guaranteed by the federal government-by HUD and the FHA, in particular. You can’t qualify for one unless you’re at least 62, for instance. Very sensible. Only in its infinite wisdom, HUD has decreed that reverse mortgage lenders can’t even vet the financial background of applicants. Instead, lenders basically had to write a reverse mortgage to whomever wanted one.
You can imagine what’s happened. Principal and interest aren’t the only expenses associated with owning and maintaining a home. There are property taxes, for instance. And homeowners insurance. Sure enough, once the recession hit, financially strapped borrowers (who hadn’t been screened out by the lenders beforehand, remember) couldn’t make those payments. By the terms of the loan, the lenders are on the hook for them, instead.
What had been a reasonably attractive business thus began to turn into a small-scale money pit. Understandably, the lenders don’t want to get into the PR disaster that goes with foreclosing on delinquent 80-year-old grandmothers. Nor have they been able to get the FHA to change its nutty underwriting rules. So the banks took the only option left to them-they left the business altogether.
This is what too often happens when you let the federal government prescribe and micromanage private-business practices: it blows the business up. The hit to Wells and BofA from all this will be de minimis: reverse mortgages count for less than 2% of mortgage originations at both companies. But some people at the banks are going to lose their jobs, and fewer seniors will have an attractive retirement option. It makes no sense.
It makes no sense, in particular, since the people at HUD must be aware of what happens when mortgage lenders relax their underwriting standards. Did they sleep through the past three years?
Reverse mortgages provide a worthwhile solution to a very important need. If the government were smart, it would get out of the way and let lenders write them.
What do you think? Let me know!