Avoid nightmare on retirement street: Pay off your mortgage

This article appeared in the Globe and Mail on November 11th, 2012 and was written by Robert McLister.

Just a few decades back, many thought it unthinkable to still be paying a mortgage during retirement. But a growing minority are now doing just that.

Whereas our parents paid off their mortgage in roughly 12 years on average, about one in four homeowners are now carrying a mortgage into retirement. In fact, retirees are accumulating debt at three times the average pace.

Aversion to debt has clearly waned. Almost one-quarter of baby boomers say paying off their mortgage by retirement is “not very important” or “not at all important.” And more than half of Canadians expect to carry a mortgage into their golden years.

“My philosophy is to not carry any debt into retirement,” says retirement expert Gordon Pape. “But people today have a very casual attitude about it.”

So, just how big of a problem are mortgages in retirement? After all, places like Switzerland – which rivals Canada for the world’s strongest banking system – have 100-year “generational” mortgages. (What a way to get back at your kids!) And in a number of other prosperous European countries, interest-only mortgages – with theoretically infinite amortizations – are commonplace.

The threat posed by having a mortgage in retirement depends, not surprisingly, on the borrower’s income, savings, debt and other living expenses.

Statistically speaking, if you’re a typical married couple over 65, the latest government figures show that you take home about $46,000 combined each year. The median retiree’s mortgage is about $87,000. That implies a $411 monthly payment on a standard five-year fixed rate mortgage. That’s about 11 per cent of the typical retiree’s after-tax income, something that is easily tolerable.

On average, mortgages in retirement aren’t sending people to the poor house. Where it could get dicey, Mr. Pape says, is when interest rates rise. For a sizable minority without financial breathing room, “There is potential for real trouble down the road.”

For many single or lower income seniors, carrying a mortgage can be like walking in a minefield. All it takes is one misstep or personal crisis to explode your budget and fall behind on debt payments.

A couple relying 100 per cent on Old Age Security, for example, will earn a maximum of $26,800 annually in Ontario. In this case, that “typical” $411 mortgage payment would account for 18 per cent of their income. While unlikely anytime soon, a three percentage point interest rate hike would bump that to 25 per cent. Then you have to add in the property taxes, maintenance and all the other home ownership costs.

It’s bad enough assuming they just have the average-sized retiree mortgage. If they’re closer to the average Canadian mortgage of $170,000 and their income is in the lower third of the population, then well over half of their income would be consumed by home ownership costs. That is simply unmanageable and unfortunately there is no data on how many people are in this boat.

Apart from the cost, it’s often tougher to get approved for a decent mortgage in retirement. If your earning power has waned and you’re carrying even an average debt load, your ability to tap home equity for cash could be limited. Qualification challenges could even reduce your options to switch lenders or port your mortgage to a different house.

Even the “mortgage of last resort,” a reverse mortgage, could be off the table if you’re not old enough and/or you have an existing mortgage that’s more than 25-40 per cent of your home value.

So that brings us to the next question: what solutions do seniors have?

One is to work longer. Our neighbourhood butcher is still employed at 89 and that may not be so unusual going forward. Many Canadians expect to work past 65. They’re working 3.5 years longer than a decade ago and only 30 per cent anticipate being fully retired at age 66.

“If you have to work a few years past your retirement target date, do it and get rid of debt,” says Mr. Pape.

Another option for mortgage-holders is to get a fixed rate with a five-year term or longer. That protects those on fixed incomes from payment hikes. If you’re facing an underfunded retirement and you have a mortgage, “I would lock in a low rate while you still can,” he recommends.

You could also extend your amortization to 30 years. That maximizes cash flow in retirement and lets you make extra payments when you’re able. Couple this strategy with a home equity line of credit (HELOC) and you’ll get an emergency source of cash for unforeseen events like medical expenses or income loss. A “readvanceable” HELOC also lets you re-borrow any extra pre-payments if absolutely necessary, which lessens the cash flow risk of making them.

Despite these tips, the goal isn’t to manage a mortgage in retirement. It’s to avoid a retirement mortgage altogether. And to do that, you’ll need to start young.

The chilling truth is that there are just over 9.3 million Canadians age 55 and over and 43 per cent of them say they haven’t saved enough for retirement. But by 55, time is running out. A Statistics Canada study in 2009 found that people in their 70s spend only five per cent less than they did in their 40s. It takes years of saving to replace that kind of income and dispose of a mortgage.

By now, you’ve probably sensed that being pro-active is key. But many people haven’t been. As many as one in three say they plan to live off the equity in their homes. That’s a gamble in any real estate market. But if you’re retiring in the next decade and relying on uncertain home price appreciation, it’s especially risky. You need diversified savings and you need that mortgage out of the way.