Now senior homeowners can have their house and sell it too

Ralph and Peg Jones have just found out they don't have to move after all. While their retirement income isn't enough to pay all the bills of owning their own home, they do have a substantial equity in their house of 23 years. Simply, what they've done is put the house to work for them so they don't have to pull up stakes.

The couple discovered the Fouratt Senior-Equity Plan, which allows a senior homeowner (age 65 and over) to enjoy an added lifetime income generated from the accumulated equity in his home.

The best part is that the couple can stay put. Ralph can stop worrying about the continual financial drain, while Margaret can stop fretting about moving to a mini-housing unit with no place for the grandchildren to sleep or play.

The plan is an attempt to refine and improve the ''reverse annuity plan'' and other special programs designed to help senior citizens. Basically, it works this way:

A senior citizen (or couple) sells a home to an investor-buyer, who then leases it back to the original owners. The agreement states that the seller can lease and reside in the house as long as he desires, with the buyer assuming all responsibility for property taxes, fire and liability insurance, and major maintenance.

The buyer makes a 10 percent down payment and then executes a ''promissory note'' (with interest) in favor of the senior seller. The note, to be paid off over a 10- to 15-year period, is secured by a trust deed or mortgage on the house.

Because of the relatively low down payment and short amortization (payout) period, monthly payments to the senior are quite substantial. After the sale-leaseback transaction, the senior seller pays rent to continue residing in the house. But payments on the note, received by the senior, are usually about twice the amount of rent payments.

As an important part of the original transaction, the investor-buyer purchases a single-premium annuity for the senior seller which guarantees continuance of the same monthly payments to the senior after the purchase note has been paid off.

In other words, the annuity makes it possible for the senior to receive the same monthly income for the rest of his life, whether or not he resides in the home. Of course, when the senior moves out of the home, he no longer makes rent payments, but he continues to receive the same monthly income from the annuity.

A couple of key points:

* The investor-buyer purchases the property at a husky discount from its current market value.

* The property's value and the amount of rent payments are determined by an independent appraisal.

''We have seen a significant amount of interest in the plan during the brief time we have offered it,'' says Silvio DiLoreto, owner of Sunset Company, Realtors, one of the brokers now representing the plan.

''The immediate problem is lack of understanding and education,'' Mr. DiLoreto points out. ''Once investors and elderly homeowners discover and understand the plan, it will probably snowball. Then its credibility will rise and many more people will want to know about it.''

DiLoreto's firm, based in Santa Barbara, Calif., offers the plan in Ventura and Santa Barbara Counties. ''Most of the interest so far is from homeowners rather than investors,'' he says.

One of the firm's most recent listings is a senior's home appraised at $121, 000, although the sale price will be $88,935. The total down payment, plus annuity premium payment, will be $18,894.

The total monthly payment to the senior will be $940, and the monthly rent payment $440. Thus, the net amount to the senior while residing in the home will be $500 a month. In this case, the promissory note will be paid off in 13 years and 10 months, at which time the annuity payments take over.

A wide variety of investors have expressed interest in the idea, including individuals and institutional investors. Most recently, pension funds have shown active interest, says Mr. DiLoreto.

''On the down side, the senior homeowner should be aware that he will no longer benefit from equity buildup in the form of value appreciation after entering into this contract,'' DiLoreto points out. ''But on the other hand, the senior will enjoy a degree of permanent financial security that far outweighs the disadvantages for most seniors.''

The plan, developed by the Fouratt Corporation, a real-estate firm, started in Carmel, Calif., where it is still based. So far it has only been offered in the Monterey-Carmel area of northern California and two southern California counties.

Even so, the budding plan is significant because it documents the type of creative planning now taking place to provide solutions for financial problems facing today's senior citizens.

Any such plan should be investigated thoroughly, however, before a commitment is made. It's wise for any senior considering a new financial plan to consult with his accountant, attorney, or other knowledgeable business adviser.

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