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Creating retirement income from home equity (July 2021)

According to Statistics Canada there were, as of July 2020, just under 7 million Canadians over the age of 65. While the age at which an individual retires can vary a lot (from “Freedom 55” to those who are still working in their 70s), it’s reasonable to assume that a significant percentage of those 7 million Canadians is fully or partially retired. It’s also a reasonable assumption that retirement looks a lot different for them than it did for their parents.

First, as life expectancy continues to increase, current retirees (many of them baby boomers) can expect to spend a greater proportion of their life in retirement than their parents did. According to StatsCan figures, Canadians who are currently age 65 have an average life expectancy of about 20 years. Second, the financial picture for current retirees is likely to be different. Many of their parents benefitted, in retirement, from an employer-sponsored pension plan which ensured a monthly payment of income for the remainder of their lives. Today such pension plans, and the dependable monthly income they provide are, especially for those who spent their working lives in the private sector, more the exception than the rule. Where, however, baby boomers have the “advantage” over their parents in retirement, it’s in the value of their homes. Increases in residential property values over the past quarter century and, especially, the last decade in nearly every market in Canada have meant that for many Canadians who are retired or approaching retirement, their home — or more specifically, the equity they have built up in those homes — is their single most valuable asset.

While having a home which has greatly appreciated in value may provide a sense of security, what it doesn’t provide is an income. Most retired Canadians are eligible to receive Canada Pension Plan and Old Age Security payments and, while those two programs provide the “backbone” of retirement income in Canada, they are almost never enough on their own to provide for a comfortable life in retirement. The maximum combined CPP/OAS income for 2021 (not including federal or provincial/territorial supplements) is about $22,000 — not enough to provide more than a very basic standard of living, if that. Most retirees also have private retirement savings, usually through registered retirement savings plans (RRSPs), but once again, the amount saved by many Canadians through RRSPs falls short of what will be needed to generate a reasonable income over their remaining lifetime, especially where a retirement can last for twenty years or more, and when inflation over that time period is taken into account. Many retired Canadians are, in effect, “house rich and cash flow poor”.

In many cases, those approaching retirement opt to sell their current home — sometimes in order to move to a smaller, easier to maintain dwelling and sometimes simply to free up the capital represented by their accumulated equity. However, while selling and downsizing is the option chose by many retirees, not everyone wants to, or can, leave the family home at retirement. There are many situations in which moving and downsizing isn’t desirable or even possible. Especially for those living in smaller centres, where the types of available housing may be limited, downsizing or choosing to rent could mean having to move to another community. Moving and leaving behind friends and other social supports is difficult at any age, and especially difficult when it coincides with a major life change like retirement. As well, it’s increasingly the case, and especially over the past year, that adult children “boomerang” back to the family home after finishing their education. In many cases, such adult children are unable to find long-term employment or remuneration from available employment isn’t sufficient, or sufficiently secure, for them to take on the financial obligations of their own home, even as a tenant. Finally, in the 2021 real estate market many homeowners have found that, while it is relatively easy to sell a property, finding another one to purchase can be a lot more difficult. For a variety reasons, then, it may be that retirees need to stay, or choose to stay, in the current family home. Where that is their choice, and the only factor creating pressure for them to sell that home is the need to free up equity to create or increase cash flow during retirement, there are other options available.

One of those options which is currently receiving a lot of attention is the reverse mortgage. Reverse mortgages are better known, more widely used and have a much longer history in the U.S. than they do in Canada. However, such financial vehicles are now being advertised and promoted on a regular basis in the Canadian media, and it’s likely that by now most Canadians have at least heard of them.

Simply put, taking out a reverse mortgage allows individuals to obtain a sum of money based on the value of their home and the equity which they have accumulated in that home. It’s also possible, using a reverse mortgage, to structure the receipt of funds in different ways. The homeowner can choose to receive a lump sum amount, or can opt to receive a series of payments which will provide a regular income stream, or some combination of the two. And, with a reverse mortgage, no repayment of the funds advanced is required until the death of the homeowner, or until he or she leaves or sells the home.

When described in those terms, a reverse mortgage can sound like the perfect solution to a cash-strapped retiree. The ability to ease cash flow worries while remaining in one’s own home with no requirement to make any payments at all can sound like the best of all possible worlds. And it’s certainly true that taking out a reverse mortgage can make sense for retirees who are house rich but cash or cash-flow poor. But, as with all financial strategies, it’s necessary to understand both the benefits and the potential costs and risks of getting a reverse mortgage.

The potential downsides of a reverse mortgage start with the basic costs of obtaining one. Setting up a reverse mortgage involves a number of costs for the homeowner, including the need to have one’s property appraised, a set-up fee and interest rates which are higher than those charged for traditional mortgages. There will also be closing costs, and the homeowner will be required to obtain independent legal advice, and to pay the cost of obtaining such advice.

Once the reverse mortgage is taken out, interest will, of course, be levied on all amounts provided, and will accumulate from the time the funds are first advanced. Total interest costs can add up very quickly and reach significant amounts by the time the debt is eventually to be repaid, usually out of the proceeds from the sale of the house. And, of course, every dollar of funds advanced and interest levied eats away at the amount of equity which the homeowner has built up, on a dollar-for-dollar basis.

In order to obtain a reverse mortgage, the homeowner must be at least 55 years of age, and the amount which can be obtained through any reverse mortgage is limited to 55% of the current value of the home. And, where there is already a mortgage or other form of loan secured by the home (as is increasingly the case for retirees), the reverse mortgage lender will require that any such indebtedness first be paid off with the funds received from the reverse mortgage.

The major benefit of a reverse mortgage for many retirees is that they are not required to make payments while living in the home, putting much less of a strain on cash flow. Offsetting that benefit, however, is the fact that the interest rate charged on a reverse mortgage is usually higher than that which would be levied under a traditional mortgage or other similar financial products. As well, under the terms of many such arrangements, a prepayment penalty is levied when the homeowner moves or sells the house within a few years of obtaining the reverse mortgage — the exact time frame will depend on terms provided by the particular lender.

Many retirees who obtain a reverse mortgage do so with the thought that the debt will not need to be repaid until after their death when the house will be sold. However, it’s necessary to consider the possibility that the homeowner/retiree will need to move from his or her home at some point in the future to an assisted living facility. Care in such facilities does not come cheap, and in many cases, the retiree must shoulder all or a part of the cost of such care on an out-of-pocket basis. If the retiree is counting on his or her home equity to pay for such care, it’s necessary to consider the extent to which the reverse mortgage will reduce that accumulated home equity and consequently the funds available to pay for needed care.

For those who are considering whether a reverse mortgage is the right solution for them in retirement, Canada’s Financial Consumer Agency suggests getting answers from prospective lenders to the following questions:

  • What are all the fees?

  • Are there any penalties if you sell your home within a certain period of time?

  • If you move or die, how much time will you or your estate have to pay off the loan’s balance?

  • When you die, what happens if it takes your estate longer than the stated time period to fully repay the loan?

  • What happens if the amount of the loan ends up being higher than your home’s value when it is time to pay the loan back?

More information on reverse mortgages, in general, can be found on the FCAC website at

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