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Fred Thompson's Employer Comes Under Fire on the Hill

Douglas Graham/CQ Roll Call File Photo
Collins, the top Republican on the Senate Appropriations panel overseeing mortgages, is concerned about the risk senior citizens face when they take equity out of their homes to pay for living expenses. “We see these ads on television and it sounds like it’s the best thing since sliced bread, and yet I’m hearing that there are a lot of problems,” she said.

Collins pointed to a particular worry about situations with couples where one member is the sole mortgage-holder and that person dies, leaving the widow or widower in the predicament of having to pay back the mortgage upon the death of the spouse.

In response, Donovan noted that HUD’s position is that in many cases spouses should be “signed on the mortgage for the financial integrity of the program” — which is to say that both people should carry a joint mortgage to avoid the sudden shock to the system of having to pay back the lender. He added that work was being done by the administration to ease some of the burden by allowing “a sale through the estate or [ensuring] there are other ways to recover short of foreclosure.”

But to go further, he said, would require the sort of exhaustive rule-making that could take 18 months or so. Buried deep within HUD’s budget is a request for congressional action, and a HUD spokesman said April 12 that the department was exploring several specific policy changes aimed at making the reverse mortgage insurance program more stable, including imposing new limits on the amount of equity that can be drawn out of the home upfront, effectively reducing the amount of money actually loaned out.

In specific response to Collins’ line of questioning, Donovan conceded that the FHA could take additional steps to make sure prospective borrowers knew what they were getting themselves into.

“This is an issue that does need work and clarification. We are asking for legislative language that would clarify this in our budget,” Donovan said. “But we’ve also made sure that in the counseling that we require that this is a much more clear focus when seniors are making a decision about whether to take a reverse mortgage or not.”

Donovan added that more stringent oversight and better information had cut the default rate in half in recent years on the more recently originated loans. HUD says it may also push for “a statutory change to clarify the rights and responsibilities of the non-borrowing spouse on a HECM loan” in marriages where only one person is named on the mortgage.

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