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In the first quarter of 2017, United States seniors had an estimated $6.3 trillion locked up in home equity.

That's trillion with a "t."

For a growing number of Americans in their golden years, tapping some of that real estate equity may be the difference in a care-free retirement and a cash-flow crunch.

And for those seniors who find themselves house-rich and cash-poor, these reverse mortgages — what the government calls Home Equity Conversion Mortgages (or HECMs) — can be a godsend, creating liquidity that can reward years of dutiful mortgage payments.

The borrower owes nothing on the loan until the house is sold, generally once the last surviving homeowner permanently moves out of the house or dies.

The Federal Housing Administration, which insures the loans, has three stipulations for reverse mortgages:

The loan is based on the age of the youngest borrower.

Homeowners are required to get consumer counseling and education before a reverse mortgage is approved.

Borrowers must live on the property as a primary resident.

Experts say the reverse mortgage industry remains tiny compared to conventional "forward" mortgages. In Chattanooga, less than 3 percent of those eligible — generally seniors 62 years old or older with at least 50 percent equity in their residence — have taken advantage of a reverse montages, according to Nathan Guerrero, of Mortgage South.

Mortgage South, an independent lender with offices on East Brainerd Road, is a local leader in reverse mortgage origination, churning out about 50 reverse mortgage contracts a year — and more than 1,000 since the product became legally viable in Tennessee in the 1990s — Guerrero says.

"Our typical customer has Social Security, a small pension and some money put back for retirement," Guerrero says. Modern reverse mortgages are flexible products that can create an income stream for the life of the occupant. For example, Guerrero says a 74-year-old homeowner with a house appraised at $180,000 could qualify for $659 a month for life.

Only a portion of home equity can be tapped for income, he explains. The amount available depends on the homeowner's age, the appraised value of the home, prevailing interest rates and lending limits set by the government.