UNITED STATES

More retired Americans face home foreclosure after refinancing

One third of US homeowners 65 and older were paying a mortgage in 2013, up from 22pc in 2001

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 10 June, 2015, 1:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 10 June, 2015, 1:00am
AP

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Al and Saundra Karp have found an unconventional way to raise money and help save their Miami home from foreclosure: They are lining up gigs for their family jazz band.

They enjoy performing. But it is not exactly how Al, an 86-year-old Korean War veteran, or Saundra, 76, had expected to spend their retirement.

Of all the financial threats facing Americans of retirement age - outliving savings, falling for scams, paying for long-term care - housing is not supposed to be one. But after a home price collapse, the worst recession since the 1930s and some calamitous decisions to turn homes into cash machines, millions of them are straining to make house payments.

The consequences can be severe. Retirees who use retirement money to pay housing costs can face disaster if their health deteriorates or their savings run short. They are more likely to need help from the government, charities or their children. Or they must keep working deep into retirement.

"It's a big problem coming off the housing bubble," said Cary Sternberg, who advises seniors on housing issues at the Villages, a Florida retirement community. "A growing number of seniors are struggling with what to do about their home and their mortgage and their retirement."

The baby boom generation was already facing a retirement crunch: over the past two decades, employers have largely eliminated traditional pensions, forcing workers to manage their retirement savings. Many boomers did not save enough, invested badly or raided their retirement accounts.

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau's Office for Older Americans says 30 per cent of homeowners 65 and older (6.5 million people) were paying a mortgage in 2013, up from 22 per cent in 2001. Federal Reserve numbers show the share of people 75 and older carrying home loans jumped from 8 per cent in 2001 to 21 per cent in 2011.

What's more, the median mortgage held by Americans 65 and older has more than doubled since 2001 - to US$88,000 from US$43,400, the financial protection bureau said.

In markets hit hardest by the housing bust, a substantial share of older Americans are stuck with mortgages that exceed their home's value. In Atlanta, it is 23 per cent of homeowners 50 and older, according to the real estate research firm Zillow. In Las Vegas, it is 26 per cent.

In the worst cases, hundreds of thousands of older Americans have lost homes to foreclosure. A 2012 study by the AARP found that 1.5 million Americans 50 and older lost homes between 2007 and 2011.

In mid-2010, Tod Lindner lost his oceanfront home in California's Marin County. He ran into trouble after the finance company that employed him was acquired and the new owners refused to pay him fees he thought he was owed and which he was counting on.

Lindner had bought the house for US$330,000 in the late 1980s. But he had refinanced to pull out money to invest, swelling the mortgage to US$680,000. Lindner tried to work out a modified mortgage, but his bank foreclosed instead. He and his wife sought bankruptcy protection, rented an apartment and slashed their spending.

"At age 70, I just started working for another company" in banking, Lindner said. "My plan would have been to retire."

Seniors fell into housing trouble in varying ways. Some lost jobs. Some overpaid for homes during the housing boom, thinking they could cash in later.

Some made unwise decisions to pull cash out of their homes to meet unexpected costs, help their children or embark on spending sprees.

Jim, 67, and LaRue Carnes, 63, moved to Sacramento, California, in 1978 and bought a house for US$54,000. For 33 years, Jim worked as a newspaper reporter and editor. They refinanced their mortgage several times and pulled money out of the house and took on higher mortgage payments. "Foolishly, like so many Americans, we used the house as a bank," LaRue said.

In 2011, Jim was laid off, and the couple fell behind on mortgage payments. Three times, they dipped into retirement savings to fend off foreclosure. Eventually, with a US$25,000 grant from a state programme, Keep Your Home California, they negotiated a new mortgage they could afford.

Still, they are struggling. Once a month, they eat free breakfast at a church, bringing home bagels and fruit. They "never thought we would be partaking of such," LaRue said.

Al and Saundra Karp bought their three-bedroom home in North Miami Beach, Florida, for US$77,000 in 1980. They refinanced, partly to pay down credit-card debt, and their mortgage swelled to US$288,000.

Al kept working as a tax accountant into his late 70s. But Alzheimer's disease forced him into retirement.

The couple is getting by on about US$2,500 a month in Social Security and Veterans Administration benefits, plus food stamps and help from their two sons. They stopped paying the mortgage and are fighting foreclosure in court.

To ease the stress and earn some cash, they perform old musical standards as the Karp Family - Saundra on vocals, Al on sax, son Larry on keyboards.

"I'm trying desperately to stay here," Saundra said. As for Al: "He thinks the mortgage is paid. He hasn't got a clue."