Is it OK to retire with a mortgage?

Amy Fontinelle

By Amy Fontinelle
Amy Fontinelle is a personal finance writer focusing on budgeting, credit cards, mortgages, real estate, investing, and other topics.
Posted on Jul 9, 2020

The conventional wisdom is that you should pay off your mortgage before you retire. Yet many in their senior years do not, choosing instead to retire with a mortgage.

According to a study by Harvard University, 46 percent of homeowners aged 65–79 had mortgage debt in 2016, with a median balance of $77,000. Some 26 percent of owners age 80 and over also had mortgages, with a median debt of $43,000 Indeed, in just the years from 2007 to 2016, the share of households in their 80s and over with mortgage debt jumped by 16 percentage points.1

Not having to put part of your retirement income toward a monthly mortgage payment in retirement will certainly make it easier to meet your other expenses. But is it really so bad to have a mortgage payment during retirement?

“The logic behind the rule of thumb is that your income will go down in retirement, so it would be helpful if your monthly expenses went down significantly as well,” said David Reiss, a law professor who specializes in real estate and consumer financial services at Brooklyn Law School in New York.

But if your income from Social Security and a pension (if you have one), and to some extent your assets (the nest egg you plan to draw on for additional retirement income), will be sufficient to make your monthly mortgage payment and meet your other expenses in retirement, there is no real reason that you have to get rid of the mortgage, he said. (Related: Will your 401(k) be enough?)

The key is that keeping your mortgage during retirement should be part of a plan and not a response to a crisis.

More homeowners are retiring with a mortgage

More homeowners are retiring with a mortgage than a decade earlier, according to Harvard’s research. And they’re less likely to have their homes paid off because they’re purchasing later in life, making smaller down payments and tapping equity for other purchases.1

There are two potential problems with carrying a mortgage during retirement: less accumulated net wealth and the possibility of foreclosure if a retiree can’t make his or her mortgage payments. Foreclosure is harder to recover from when you’re older because you may not be able to return to the workforce to compensate for the loss and because you’re more likely to have health problems or cognitive impairments.

Having less accumulated net wealth is a problem, especially if most of your wealth consists of your home equity, which is less liquid than stocks, bonds and cash. Foreclosure can be a serious problem if it happens to you.

Some retirement-age homeowners who haven’t paid off their mortgages undoubtedly would rather be debt free but couldn’t afford to retire their home loan sooner. But others might be putting the money that could have gone toward extra mortgage payments to a better use. ( Related: Building your financial pyramid )

Paying off the mortgage before retirement makes sense for some

“Having no mortgage payment is certainly good, and if the homeowner is likely to just blow the money anyway, it's a good choice — sort of a forced savings account that pays dividends in the form of no housing payment,” said Casey Fleming, a mortgage advisor with C2 Financial Corp. and author of “The Loan Guide: How to Get the Best Possible Mortgage”. Paying off the mortgage before retirement is a great choice for undisciplined savers who are likely to be on low fixed incomes in retirement and for people who are financially responsible but very conservative.

For many near-retirees, the decision to pay off the mortgage before retiring is more emotional than financial. One emotional component of the decision is the desire to be debt free. The other is the desire to get a safe return on investment. If you pay 4 percent interest on your mortgage balance each year, then paying off your balance is the same as earning a 4 percent annual return on an investment — not bad for a risk-free return, especially in today’s low-rate environment.

Your return from paying off your mortgage before retirement is lower if you’re still getting the full tax deduction for your mortgage interest. Say your marginal tax bracket in retirement will be 25 percent. That means your effective mortgage interest rate is 3 percent. That’s the real risk-free return you get from paying off your mortgage.

You could earn a lot more by investing in stocks, especially within a tax-advantaged retirement account such as a 401(k) or IRA. But you’d be taking on more risk.

Mortgage in retirement: Emotional and financial benefits

There are also emotional reasons to not pay off the mortgage. If paying off the mortgage would mean seriously depleting your savings, you might feel more comfortable keeping that money in your bank or brokerage account than tying it up in your home.

“Paying off the mortgage at retirement is rarely beneficial,” said Certified Financial Planning™ professional David M. Williams, director of planning services for Wealth Strategies Group in Cordova, Tennessee. Your home equity is unavailable for retirement cash flow and ultimately goes to your heirs. “Maintaining and managing a mortgage may actually improve retirement cash flow,” he said.

Doing a cash-out refinance might make sense, especially with relatively-low average mortgage rates. Low rates can be achievable if you have excellent credit and are willing to shop around. Rates will typically vary according to geographic region as well.

Cashing out your equity gives you more money to work with in retirement. A home equity loan or line of credit would also accomplish that goal, but you’ll likely pay a higher interest rate. Any of these loans will let you make use of your home equity instead of just living in it. If possible, apply well before you retire; many people will find it easier to qualify based on their working income than based on their retirement income and assets.

Fleming said continuing to make regular monthly mortgage payments but investing any excess income you would otherwise use to pay off your mortgage can be a good option for disciplined savers who are good at investing and for people who are uncomfortable without a lot of money in savings. The key is to invest in secure, long-term, high-yield investments that will give you a nest egg for making your mortgage payments in retirement.

These investments might include low-cost Standard & Poor’s 500 stock index funds or dividend-paying stocks from blue-chip companies: the same things you’re likely already investing in for retirement. Keep in mind, though, that all equity investments involve risk.

Getting rid of your mortgage payment in retirement with a reverse mortgage

Besides doing a cash-out refinance or getting a home equity loan or line of credit, there’s another way to tap your home’s equity for retirement income: a reverse mortgage.

Some reverse mortgage lenders advertise getting rid of your monthly mortgage payment as a reason to take out a reverse mortgage. Why keep working to make your mortgage payment when you really want to retire, or retire but struggle to get by because of your mortgage payment? They present a reverse mortgage as a solution. Whether it is or not depends upon individual circumstances. (Related: The pros and cons of reverse mortgages)

A reverse mortgage, also called a home equity conversion mortgage (HECM), turns the equity from your primary residence into a stream of monthly payments from the lender to the homeowner. The homeowner makes no payments to the lender, and the homeowner remains the home’s title holder. If the homeowner passes away, the lender sells the home to pay off the reverse mortgage. Any excess proceeds go to the homeowner’s estate, but if the amount owed is more than the home is worth, the lender has no recourse — they can’t go after you or your family for the balance. If the homeowner moves out and sells the home, the proceeds go first to toward repaying the reverse mortgage; if there is anything left, the homeowner keeps the balance.2

You must be at least 62 and have enough equity in your home to qualify for a reverse mortgage. You also must continue making property tax and homeowners insurance payments for as long as you live there (if you don’t, the lender can foreclose, just like they can with a regular mortgage). The amount of money you can receive from an HECM depends on how much your home is worth, how old you are, what interest rate you can get and what fees are associated with the loan. The more your home is worth, the older you are and the lower the interest rate and fees, the higher your proceeds. You can either get a single lump sum at closing to pay off your existing mortgage, or if your existing mortgage has a low balance, you can get a smaller lump sum to pay off your loan plus a line of credit to draw on in the future, if and when you need it.

Getting a reverse mortgage is an option for someone who needs to generate an income stream from their home equity, but means someone else has control of your asset and has set out the terms of how you can use it, diminishing your flexibility and liquidity, said Lisa M. LaMarche, co-founder of Milestone Wealth Advisors in Greenville, Delaware.

And a big knock on reverse mortgages is that to account for the interest that will accrue on the loan over the years plus the loan’s closing costs, the money you receive up front might only be half or less of what your home is worth.6 Reverse mortgages also limit your flexibility.

“With a reverse mortgage, your debt increases over time due to the interest on the loan,” said Jim Adkins, founder and CEO of Strategic Financial Associates, a financial planning, investment advisory, and wealth management firm in Bethesda, Maryland. “And if you change your mind or wish to move due to health reasons, proceeds from the sale of the property will go to the bank in order to pay off the reverse mortgage, leaving little or no money for yourself. Although it may seem counterintuitive, keeping a mortgage payment during retirement can potentially provide you with more freedom and flexibility in the long run.”

Many people opt to consult with a financial professional about their retirement plans, including the possibility of supporting mortgages or investigating reverse mortgages.

More from MassMutual…

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Maximizing retirement income

A retirement roadmap

This article was originally published July, 2016. It has been updated.

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1 Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University, “Housing America’s Older Adults,” Oct. 16, 2019.
2 U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, “Frequently Asked Questions about HUD's Reverse Mortgages,” HUD.gov.

The information provided is not written or intended as specific tax or legal advice. MassMutual, its employees and representatives are not authorized to give tax or legal advice. You are encouraged to seek advice from your own tax or legal counsel. Opinions expressed by those interviewed are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Company.