Wells Fargo & Co (WFC), JPMorgan Chase & Co. (JPM), U.S. Bancorp (USB): Will Easier Mortgages for Retirees Backfire?

Millions of Americans in or approaching retirement face a scary financial picture, having little in retirement savings and some still facing sizable mortgages on their homes. Yet even those who have planned well for their retirement by building up substantial nest eggs still deal with financial challenges that those who are still working don’t have to face.

One recent move from the government-sponsored enterprises responsible for a large portion of the mortgage market has the best of intentions in trying to make things easier for seniors. By taking into consideration a source of income that has until now been off-limits, however, it’s possible that the move could backfire on retirees by stretching their limited financial resources even further.

Wells Fargo & Co (NYSE:WFC)

The challenge of retiree mortgages
Recently, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac made it a little easier for retirees to get new mortgages or to refinance their existing mortgages. By changing the rules for what a lender can consider as income to include retirement account balances in IRAs, 401(k)s, and similar accounts, the mortgage agencies hope to make it easier for low-income seniors to make beneficial moves like refinancing existing debt to capture low interest rates or moving from a large family home to a more modest home to free up locked-in home equity.

Before the rule change, the problem that retirees faced was that their incomes didn’t necessarily reflect their financial resources. If loan officers only looked at Social Security benefits or traditional pension payments, they might reasonably conclude that a retiree had insufficient income to cover monthly mortgage payments and therefore deny their loans. That in turn prevented retirees from saving money by refinancing and made it difficult to get a mortgage for retirees who wanted to move into a smaller home to save on expenses.

What the rule does is to allow lenders to consider retirement-account balances in offering mortgage financing. Under the rule, the lender discounts the value of your retirement assets by 30% to reflect potential market losses. It then allows lenders to divide that amount over the span of a 30-year mortgage and add it to your monthly income in assessing whether the resulting debt would meet requirements on debt-to-income ratios.

More housing gimmicks?
There’s no doubt that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac have good intentions in trying to facilitate retiree mortgages. In many cases, the benefits of allowing these transactions to go forward greatly outweigh the risks involved.

Unfortunately, those who lived through the mortgage crisis know all too well that good intentions paved the road to the housing boom. A decade or more ago, innovations like interest-only and negative amortization mortgages were designed to help borrowers qualify for loans large enough to help them afford the skyrocketing prices in many hot real-estate markets. Only later did homeowners realize that the assumptions behind those products were flawed, leading to millions losing their homes.