Fewer Elderly Paying Off Mortgages

Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON -- Ask Norm Edelen how old he'll be when his last mortgage payment is due, and he doesn't miss a beat. The answer: 100.

Not that he's troubled by the likelihood that his housing debt will last longer than he will: "It doesn't bother me at all," the 74-year-old San Bernardino resident said. "It's not something I ever thought I would live to complete."

Welcome to a new era in home borrowing, where long-term mortgages and home equity loans are taking their place alongside AARP cards and pension checks as never before. About 25% of all Americans over age 65 have yet to pay off their home loans, up from 11% in 1983, according to a Boston College analysis of Federal Reserve Board data.

For many older homeowners, such as Edelen, the decision to carry housing debt deeper into their twilight years is by choice. They see their homes -- rather than savings accounts -- as piggy banks that can be tapped through home equity loans or refinancings to provide ready cash.

But the trend also reflects sober realities, including lifestyle changes from an earlier, more debt-averse era.

People who marry or remarry in middle age often find themselves making down payments on a home at a stage in life when their own parents had already paid off the mortgage. Others are able to pay off their mortgages, but opt to refinance to help make ends meet in retirement -- pushing their debt deep into old age.

A sure-bet housing market has limited the downside risk. Soaring home prices have boosted the equity people have in their homes, and low interest rates have often allowed them to tap this equity without raising their monthly payments.

"As long as you can still find a job at an older age, as long as the housing market remains strong, it's not a terrible thing," said Zhu Xiao Di, a senior research analyst at Harvard University's Joint Center for Housing Studies. "But if bad things happen [economically], it could be a problem."

He added: "Whether this is alarming -- or people are just smarter than we thought -- I don't know."

If home values plunge or interest rates soar, for example, many homeowners could be faced with a squeeze. They would find it difficult to unload the property and shift into something smaller and cheaper, as older homeowners often seek to do. Older workers could be forced to delay retirement, if they are able.

In such a worst-case scenario, bankruptcies and foreclosures would rise, and some experts even fear that cutbacks in spending by older consumers could take a toll on the U.S. economy.

"You could begin to have a downturn," said Dimitri B. Papadimitriou, president of the Levy Economics Institute of Bard College in New York, who fears that older people could suffer particularly in such an episode. "I don't have a lot of optimism down the line."

For people nearing retirement, paying off the loan was once viewed as a rite of passage that freed up cash each month and strengthened a household's ability to handle the unpredictable costs of old age, such as for healthcare.

But increasingly, it is a milestone that people do not expect to reach. A new AARP national survey, for example, found that among workers 55 and older with mortgages, about half doubted that they could pay them off before they retired.

Christopher Cruise, a former mortgage broker who now trains people who write home loans, recalled the fading tradition of the "mortgage-burning" party, in which newly debt-free homeowners invited their friends over and ignited the old mortgage in a joyous blaze of freedom. Younger loan agents often have never heard of the tradition, he said.

"One hundred percent of the people I teach in their late 20s or 30s have no idea what a mortgage burning is," Cruise said. "This whole attitude of paying off the mortgage and owning the home free and clear is disappearing from the country."

Norm Edelen recalled the disruption in his own life that put him in the housing market around his 70th birthday -- and the very good outcome that has resulted from his investment.

Edelen, a former television writer and Los Angeles police officer, had decided "to get out of the rat race" and moved with his wife to her home island of St. Thomas, where they built a property management business. But a series of hurricanes pounded the island economy, and they returned to Southern California in the late 1990s.

At first, Edelen tried to reconnect with television, but the response was negative. "That's pretty much a who-you-know business, and most of the people I knew were either dead or retired."

Retirement was not an option, however. The Edelens had a young son, and their savings and pension income were not enough to ensure the sort of future they yearned for. To build wealth for his family's long-term security, Edelen wanted a piece of Southern California real estate, however modest.

His comeback began with a minimum-wage, part-time job with the San Bernardino County Department of Aging and Adult Services. When the county offered him a full-time job assisting social workers, he jumped at it.

In 2001, Edelen borrowed $63,000 -- the full amount of the purchase price -- to buy the two-bedroom condominium he had been renting with his wife. It needed fixing up, but he was delighted to make the purchase. Closing in on age 70, he had made the transition from renter to homeowner.

"I had to build up some equity somewhere," he said of his home in a San Bernardino landscape of pine and palm trees, east of Mt. Baldy. "Affordable real estate is one of the best ways to build up equity. That's a given for me."

Between his wages and the couple's pension income, the Edelens are able to make the $600 monthly payment, and the strategy has paid off. Their unit recently was appraised at $255,000. "I got my equity," he said.

Despite the chance for such rewards, traditional wariness toward debt is alive and well. Many older people prefer to own their house free and clear, and pass on unencumbered property as an inheritance to their children.

"I hear it all the time," said Judi Martindale, a financial advisor in San Luis Obispo. "People grew up with the idea that they'd reach their goals in life when the house was paid for."

More than before, however, financial planners are weighing such considerations against others, including the potential tax benefits of holding a mortgage.

Many workers can no longer count on a pension, or even on working until the traditional retirement age of 65. By refinancing, cash-strapped retirees can unlock the equity in their homes for living expenses.

"You can't buy groceries by taking your deed of trust to the grocery store," said Margie Mullen, a financial advisor in Los Angeles. "You have to have money in the bank."

The trend could pose particular hazards for baby boomers and other workers who are younger than Edelen, experts say. Among those aged 55 to 64, half owed money on their homes in 2004, up from 37% in 1989.

Although the level may have stabilized recently, the size of their debt has surged -- from $596 billion in 2001 to more than $1 trillion in 2004, according to the Federal Reserve Board's most recent Survey of Consumer Finances.

A growing share of the debt is in the form of adjustable-rate mortgages that are poised to rise along with interest rates and potentially could soar, making payments much more burdensome. For borrowers in the decade before the traditional retirement age of 65, such adjustable debt jumped from 16% in 2001 to 21% in 2004, according to figures compiled by Boston College.

Health issues and workplace layoffs often derail the careers of older workers, research has shown. In a growing number of cases, "these people are facing a payment that could increase significantly," said Alicia H. Munnel, a Boston College economist.

Even a fixed monthly payment can be a burden, as Aaron Dugais found out. The 56-year-old speaks lovingly about the home on the Palmdale cul-de-sac he bought with his wife 10 years ago.

"This is our first home," he said. "To say I'm proud of it would be an understatement."

But the experience of home ownership has not been easy. After Dugais took out a mortgage on the $114,000 house, a rare skin disease interfered with his ability to run mail-processing machines for the U.S. Postal Service.

"I started taping my fingers because there would be little cuts, and by lunchtime my hands would look like ground beef," he recalled.

Dugais was forced into disability, swapping an annual salary of about $28,000 for a disability benefit of $12,000, he said. The family took out a second mortgage, which added to the monthly bills.

They have made it work largely on the wages of his wife, Helen, who also is a postal employee. But a couple of years ago she was in a serious car accident, costing her several months of work, and the future again grew cloudy.

Helen Dugais is back on the job, but the household budget remains extremely tight, and the family is a month behind on the mortgage, Dugais said in a recent interview.

Dugais was in his 40s when his illness emerged, but his ordeal underscores a reason that older people traditionally have fled from debt: If a borrower's ability to repay becomes compromised, it can be especially difficult to bounce back.

"It's been one thing after another, and we're trying to play catch-up," he said. "When will it ever end?"

Dugais would like to find a job he could do inside the house. In the meantime, he is praying that the debt, which costs more than $1,100 a month, doesn't swallow up his family.

"It's still a dream come true," he said of the beige stucco house on the cul-de-sac. "Till the day I die, I will fight for this home."

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