Interest rates have been in their narrow range for some time now, after hitting record lows in late 2012. The average 30 year fixed rate hit 3.31% that year according to Freddie Mac’s weekly mortgage rate survey.
You may not be able to find a 3.31% rate today (at least without paying additional fees), but you can still get very close considering the recent few decades of interest rates. Many homeowners have taken advantage of lower rates and refinanced their mortgages to enjoy lower monthly payments, but there are still more who, for whatever reason, haven’t decided whether or not a refinance makes sense.
There are ways to know whether a refinance is a good idea, and it’s not always about the interest rate. Here are some basics to keep in mind when considering a new mortgage:
Interest Rate & Payment
This is the most common reason people refinance. When mortgage rates fall, homeowners soon see solicitations from mortgage lenders announcing the new opportunity to lower their monthly payments. While that certainly makes sense in many cases, it’s not the right solution for everyone, every time. You may have heard it’s a good idea to refinance if rates are say, 1.00% below what you currently have, but the rate is only part of the equation. If you have a 30-year fixed rate of 5.00% and rates fall to 4.00%, then that so-called “rule of thumb” would kick in. But that’s not the only consideration when evaluating a possible refinance.
Instead, you must first weigh the difference in monthly payments compared against the fees associated with getting the new mortgage, then determine how long it would take to recover those closing costs. Let’s look at a basic example. Let us suppose that you have a mortgage balance of $200,000 and a 30-year fixed rate at 4.00%. That puts your current monthly principal and interest payment at $954 per month.
Now imagine interest rates have fallen to 3.25%. The new monthly payment would fall to $870, for a monthly savings of $84 each month. That’s an attractive number, but how much will it cost to get that lower rate? Let’s say that lender fees are $1,000, and other third party charges add up to $3,000 for a $4,000 total. If you divide the monthly savings into the closing costs you get 47.62, or almost 48 months to recover those fees with the lower payment. Is that too long?
Possibly. Some think a recovery term of two to three years makes the most sense, and if you’re going to own the property for at least that long, then a refinance might be a good idea. When refinancing a mortgage because rates are lower, you must also consider the costs involved.
Note: It is also important to consider the costs of re-amortizing (or starting over) on your loan term. These details are not covered in this particular article –however here is a brief: If you are two years into a 30-year loan and refinance into another 30-year loan, you are resetting the 30-year period, meaning you have 30 more years to pay your new amount compared to just 28 years of paying the older mortgage payment.
To reduce costs, it is a popular option to obtain a lender credit at the time of closing. Mortgage companies are typically willing to increase your interest rate in exchange for lower closing costs. Using the example from above, if you increased the new rate from 3.25% to 3.50%, the monthly payment would still be $56 lower. At the same time, the lender would provide you with a credit of $2,000, or 1% of the loan amount. In this instance, the time it would take to recover your closing costs will be under three years, or 35 months- certainly a more attractive option.
If you are wondering how this works, you are not alone. In the same fashion that you can lower a 30-year fixed rate by paying discount points, you can also select to increase your interest rate and have the lender pay some of your costs in the form of a lender credit. Mortgage lenders have no preference on which option you take – so explore your options before making a final decision.
Changing Loan Terms
Another popular reason to refinance is to shorten the term of an existing loan. Reducing the term of a mortgage loan saves a considerable amount of interest, yet it also typically increases the monthly payment. Most borrowers opt for a 30-year fixed mortgage due to the lower monthly payments, even though it will take twice as long to completely pay off the balance.
Continuing our example from above, a $200,000 mortgage with a 30-year fixed rate of 3.50% will require a payment of $898 while a 15-year loan at 3.25% will require a payment of $1,405 per month. While the difference in monthly payment may be significant, so is the impact on how quickly the loan is paid down. Just five years into these loans, the principal balance remaining on the 15-year loan is nearly $36,000 lower, when compared to the 30-year loan option ($179,394 on the 30-year loan compared to $143,814 on the-15 year).
Sometimes the jump in payment between a 30-year fixed rate to a 15-year is too great, so much so that a borrower may not qualify for the shorter-term loan. Fortunately, there are other options that many may not know about. Mortgage lenders typically also offer fixed-rate terms of 10, 20 and 25 years. Compare these options if you want to shorten the term without dramatically increasing your monthly payment.
ARM to Fixed
Adjustable rate mortgages, or ARMs, offer lower introductory rates and can be attractive for buyers who don’t expect to finance a property for the long haul. Most ARM loans begin with fixed rates, which are in place for a period of time ranging between three to 10 years. After this fixed period, the interest rate can vary on an annual or semi-annual basis.
Refinancing an ARM or a hybrid takes the uncertainty out of future mortgage payments. ARMs can offer lower, “teaser” rates compared to fixed-rate products, but because they can and will change at some point, if fixed rates are low and the home owner intends to own the property for the foreseeable future, it is likely a wise decision to refinance.
When NOT to Refinance
One of the worst reasons to refinance a mortgage is to pull out cash. Refinancing an existing mortgage requires closing costs, but borrowers typically pay for these with the equity in their home, while simultaneously putting some extra cash in the bank or using it for other purposes.
Refinancing for the sole reason of pulling out cash is a bad, expensive idea. If you are in need of extra cash, a home equity line of credit or second mortgage may be a better option as they are much less expensive overall.
Let’s review the $200,000 30-year loan at 3.50% from above. After five years, the amount of interest paid is $33,279. At first glance it seems like a good idea to refinance and lower the monthly payments if possible. By refinancing into another 30-year loan, you’ve lost that $33,279 and extended your loan back to its original loan term, effectively changing your original 30-year loan into a 35-year mortgage!
Important Note: In some instances, particularly those that involve low mortgage interest rates and a long-term outlook, a refinance into a longer-term loan could be an advanced and strategic financial planning decision. This is not intended to be financial advice – however, each situation is unique and you should discuss this option with your advisor in detail.
While the majority of homeowners will consider interest rate as the guiding light towards the appropriateness of a refinance, there are many other considerations worth evaluating. Take your time and consider both the short term and longer-term impacts of your refinance decision.