Reverse mortgage: last resort. Such is the mantra of many mainstream news outlets over the last two decades. But while the reverse mortgage industry has faced its share of challenges in terms of public perception over the years, for the first time — perhaps ever — mainstream media may be taking a lasting turn in favor of the product.
One recent headline reads: “Love Them or Loathe Them, Reverse Mortgages Have a Place,” in the same publication (the New York Times) that two years earlier ran this one: “A Risky Lifeline for the Elderly Is Costing Some Their Homes.”
And the Wall Street Journal, in its Wealth Adviser column, penned a story in September about the education that advisers still need on reverse mortgages. (“When the Client Educates the Financial Adviser.”) Bloomberg News also wrote this spring on a reverse mortgage revival in its coverage, “Reverse Mortgages: Take the Longevity View.”
Regardless of whether you subscribe to these publications, it’s difficult to argue that any of these outlets are taking an unfair approach to reverse mortgages. What is more difficult is determining whether there is a marked shift in the response.
Tracking a Shift
Media serves as a prong of the industry’s Extreme Summit effort, launched in 2013 and spearheaded by industry leaders and the National Reverse Mortgage Lenders Association. NRMLA tracks all reports relating to reverse mortgages on a national basis, and tallies the results each month, noting whether a report is positive or negative.
As of July 31, NRMLA had been auditing press for one year. From May through August this year, NRMLA tracked 794 favorable stories against 56 that were unfavorable — a ratio of 14 to 1. For the first four months of the media tracking, the ratio of positive to negative was about 4 to 1. By the end of the 12 months, the year tallied 1120 positive stories and 160 negative. A ratio of 7 to 1.
The stories range from large city newspapers, like the Chicago Tribune, to national dailies, like USA Today, and smaller publications online or in print. As part of the Extreme Summit efforts, NRMLA responds to each negative report — an initiative that has resulted in several op-eds as well as opportunities to educate reporters on reverse mortgage facts.
The numbers appear to speak for themselves, but are the headlines making an overarching impact?
“Among the national press, there has always been a sense that reverse mortgages, and more generally, home equity products, can be done well. But in their minds, there are also the horror stories, and almost every article has to have caveats,” says Chris Mayer, CEO of Longbridge Financial, who was quoted in the most recent New York Times article and has been interviewed in many publications from his position as a professor of real estate at Columbia University. (He also serves on NRMLA’s research advisory board.)
“In the overall tone—if you go through the language in terms of what percentage is positive—I think a higher percentage of the verbiage is positive: highlighting how you can use the product appropriately.”
The Change in Tone
News stories today are being written in somewhat of a new era in reverse mortgages. As of August 4, for the first time, non-borrowing spouses have protections when their spouses become reverse mortgage borrowers.
The “horror stories” are becoming fewer and farther between, and they’re showing up less in headlines, says Teague McGrath, chief creative officer for American Advisors Group.
“There’s definitely a change in the tone and response from the national media,” he says. “I think it’s directly related to the changes last year and this year. They have created a perception of more safety and security.”
AAG is often referenced in news reports that point to its celebrity spokesman Fred Thompson as a part of the company’s reverse mortgage sales strategy. The reports are becoming more balanced, McGrath says.
“This is also attributable in some degree to the industry as a whole generally moving in the direction of retirement planning,” he says.
The efforts of the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) are also being noted by the press. In August, NRMLA counted 20 stories that pointed to AARP pushing HUD on the non-borrowing spouse issue, the rule on which went into effect during the first week of that month.
“The non-borrowing spouse has long been a huge PR issue for the industry,” Mayer says. “I think the policy changes allow reporters to understand they can also write good stories and not have that be the focus.”
How Much Does the Media Matter?
Whether the shift is being detected on the borrower level remains to be seen. As reporter Ron Lieber wrote in his most recent article, those who are regular New York Times readers may still be naysayers when it comes to the product and mainstream use.
But the media also reaches their children—and others—who have influence over product perception.
“There is still the wall of fear when a reverse mortgage is mentioned as an option,” says Brian Cook, reverse mortgage specialist with Federal Way, Wash.-based Alpine Mortgage Planning. “However I believe more people have an open ear to them than ever before, especially the children of senior homeowners that are searching for solutions for their parents. As more and more advisors, as well as the public in general, become aware of the true basic facts, even the simplest of retaining ownership of title, we will start to see the perspective change.”
An important distinction lies in the difference between borrower perception and public perception, and how each is influenced by the media. They are not necessarily one and the same, but there’s an important place for each.
“We have not noticed any significant change in the borrowers perceptions of reverse mortgages. However, we have noticed an uptick in inquiries and questions coming from financial advisors and professionals,” says Mike Gruley of Plymouth, Mich.-based 1st Financial Reverse Mortgages. “Some were early adopters with additional questions, and others are newly interested in learning more about the product. We are encouraged by this, because we feel this is going to be the best avenue for educating borrowers and driving acceptance for this product as an important part of the retirement planning process.”
This edition of the RMD Report is sponsored by national appraisal management company Landmark Network.
Written by Elizabeth Ecker