When you consider the extraordinary number of people that are already (or will soon be) eligible for reverse mortgages, their $4 trillion in latent home equity, and the financial anxiety affecting senior citizens, you would think that the reverse mortgage business would be booming. While growth over the last decade has been impressive, however, 2010 was a fairly disappointing year, with only 100,000 new reverse mortgages issued. What’s holding the industry back? In one word: culture.

The statistics would certainly seem to suggest that Americans are comfortable with debt. Though this is undoubtedly the case, most borrowers nonetheless look forward to being debt-free. That is especially true when it comes to borrowing for a home, and there is a negative connotation associated with being a mortgage slave. After 30 years (perhaps more if the mortgage was refinanced) and hundreds of thousands of dollars in interest, being debt-free would be cause for celebration (and maybe even a ritual mortgage burning) by even the most stoic homeowners.

To then commit to obtaining a new mortgage might take more than some glossy brochures and a clever sales pitch. Why go through all of the aggravation of borrowing money to purchase a home and dutifully repay that loan, simply to undo all of that work with a fresh loan? After all, there is a certainly a tremendous amount of pride (not to mention security) in owning one’s home – the most fundamental possession – outright.

In addition, people naturally become more conservative as they age, and that is especially true when it comes to finances. Due to its costs and the fact that it represents an obligation, a reverse mortgage entails the assumption of risk. Those that have recently retired or are nearing retirement are not naturally inclined to take risks with their finances. In that sense, the only demographic that is eligible for the reverse mortgage is also perhaps the least likely to take advantage of it.

Finally, more than with any other possession, there is a great sense of personal nostalgia and connection attached to one’s home. Having lived in the same home long enough to repay a mortgage also means that many of one’s major life memories are associated with that home. By obtaining a reverse mortgage, a borrower must accept the strong possibility that the property will one day be sold to repay it. In other words, a reverse mortgage represents a sort of death knell for one’s home.

On the other hand, there may also exist the possibility that the home will need to be sold at some point anyway (either for financial reasons or simply because one’s heirs no longer wish to keep it), which means that this shouldn’t be a factor in obtaining a reverse mortgage. In addition, while there is something to be said for wanting to remain debt-free after repaying one’s primary mortgage, there is still a huge pool of eligible reverse mortgage borrowers that have yet to (or are unable to) repay their primary mortgages, and for whom financial conservatism isn’t realistic.

It is these borrowers that are best suited to obtaining reverse mortgages, and to whom the reverse mortgage industry should be spending the brunt of its time trying to convince.

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