WASHINGTON (AP) — We've seen the TV ad pitches from celebrities like "The Fonz" Henry Winkler and actor and ex-senator Fred Thompson, touting the benefits of reverse mortgages for older homeowners.
Now U.S. regulators are warning: Don't be fooled. Many ads don't tell the whole story about reverse mortgages.
The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau said Thursday that a study it conducted with older homeowners found they were given the false impression by the ads that reverse mortgages are a government benefit and ensure consumers can stay in their homes for the rest of their lives.
The agency said people should be aware of the risks of reverse mortgages, which are loans for homeowners 62 or older that must be repaid with interest and can deplete seniors' funds.
Seniors taking out reverse mortgages can even lose their homes. About 10 percent of borrowers end up defaulting on their reverse mortgages, according to the agency — roughly double the rate of conventional home mortgages.
A reverse mortgage allows borrowers to receive cash or a line of credit tapping the accumulated equity in their homes. Seniors often take out the loans to help pay off credit card bills or remodel their kitchen. The loan isn't paid down in monthly installments. The loan balance increases and comes due when the borrower dies, moves or sells the home, or defaults on other obligations such as insurance or taxes.
Most of the mortgages are insured by the Federal Housing Administration. But they aren't a risk-free government benefit, a false impression that the CFPB found was given by the reverse mortgage advertising.
Most of the 97 different TV, radio, print and online ads reviewed by the CFPB failed to mention the risks of reverse mortgages, the agency said.
"Or, if they did, they were so buried in the fine print that consumers did not pick up on ... key aspects of the loan," CFPB Director Richard Cordray said in a conference call with reporters. "Indeed, many reverse mortgage ads did not even mention anything about interest rates, repayment terms or other crucial requirements of the loan."
Cordray said the regulators are especially concerned because reverse mortgages are complicated and are marketed to older homeowners, a group known to be vulnerable to deceptive advertising or pitches.
As part of its review, the CFPB interviewed around 60 homeowners aged 62 and older in focus groups and in individual interviews in Chicago, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C.
The trade group representing reverse mortgage lenders said it has a code of ethics and specific guidance for ethical advertising for its members.
"We share viewers' concerns that any advertising should be accurate," Peter Bell, president of the National Reverse Mortgage Lenders Association, said in a statement Thursday. "As an association we are committed to educating consumers about the pros and cons of reverse mortgages, training lenders to be sensitive to clients' needs, and enforcing our code of ethics and professional responsibility."