Homeowners who need to take out large loans should look no further than their own properties. Home equity loans, often referred to as second mortgages, are a realistic solution to finding the funds, as your home’s equity will be used as collateral when you borrow money. According to an October 2018 Mortgage Monitor Report by Black Knight Inc., Americans have an estimated $5.9 trillion in tappable equity from mortgage properties at their disposal.
Here’s a closer look at what these loans are, how they work and how they’re being affected by the current housing environment. Despite rising interest rates and new tax law reforms, they’re still a relatively safe way for you and your family to get the money you need.
How does a home equity loan work?
Just like the majority of mortgages on the market today, home equity loans usually have a fixed interest rate, which means you’ll pay the same amount in interest over the life of the loan. However, these rates tend to be higher than you would find with a traditional mortgage.
“Interest rates tend to be higher because the loan is in second position,” said Robert E. Tait, a senior loan officer with Allied Mortgage Group in Pennsylvania. “The bank is assuming a greater amount of risk because you’re more likely to pay your initial mortgage first if something happens to your income.”
As of the time this was written, the rates advertised through the LendingTree platform ranged from 4.25% to 6%, depending on how much is borrowed. LendingTree is the parent company of MagnifyMoney.
Home equity loans operate similarly to traditional mortgages where the loan term is concerned. They are paid on a fixed amortization schedule, or loan term, that’s usually 10, 15, 20 or 30 years in length.
Similarly, when you make a payment each month, you’re paying down a portion of both the principal and the interest. In this case, it’s important to continue making your payments because your home is collateral. If you stop paying, the lender can foreclose on your home.
“These days, most home equity loans are really inexpensive,” Tait said. “The lender is paying a very small processing fee, people are moving toward electronic appraisals and most of the time, there’s no need for title insurance.”
However, Tait cautioned that although an electronic appraisal is cheaper, the value of the home may come in lower. If that happens, you can always elect to have a traditional appraisal done, but you’d have to pay for it.
In addition to the upfront costs, there are also taxes to think about. In the past, homeowners were able to deduct the interest paid on home equity loans, regardless of where the money was spent. These days, though, the process is a little different. Since the passage of the 2017 tax reform law, interest from a home equity loan can only be deducted if the funds are used to buy, build or substantially improve the home that secures the loan.
Why would you take out a home equity loan?
Because home equity loans are paid out in one lump sum, they can be an appealing solution to a variety of high-cost situations, such as making home improvements, paying off medical debt or financing your child’s education.
However, even though these loans tap into the equity in your home in exchange for payment, they have the benefit of remaining separate from your mortgage. This allows you to keep the mortgage’s current terms, as well as the progress you’ve made in paying it off.
“Interest rates five or 10 years ago were lower than they are today,“ Tait said.
“A lot of the time, you’ll see people who have been in their homes for a while at those low interest rates, but they’ll want to tap the equity in their home to help pay for college. A home equity loan lets them still keep those low rates while getting the money that they need.”
As for whether that benefit has changed in the face of today’s rising interest rates, experts believe there’s still benefit to be had.
“Interest rates are less of a slam dunk than they were a few years ago,” said Kevin Leibowitz, CEO and mortgage broker at Grayton Mortgage Inc. in New York. “But they’re still fairly low from a historical prospective. You’re still paying less than you would for a personal loan of the same value.”
Qualifications for getting a home equity loan
For the most part, qualifying for a home equity loan is a lot like applying for your first mortgage. Just as if you were seeking a traditional mortgage, the lending company will look at a variety of factors, including your employment information and your credit score.
“As a rule of thumb, you need to have two years of W-2s that show stable or increasing income, a credit score of at least 620 and a debt-to-income ratio of 43% or less,” Leibowitz said.
However, for home equity loans, there’s one additional factor that has to be evaluated. Lenders also look at the amount of equity that you have in your home because it helps them decide the amount they’ll let you borrow.
For reference, your home equity can be calculated by taking the appraised value of your home and subtracting the balance on your current mortgages.
Before you start thinking about how much money you have at your disposal, however, know that lenders don’t let you borrow against the full amount of equity you have in your home. The amount you can borrow is typically limited to 85% of your equity.
Additional costs of home equity loans
Though home equity loans may be getting less expensive, keep in mind that the exact fees that you’ll be charged will vary by lender. Some may waive fees as part of their offerings, while others will not.
In general, you should be prepared to pay between 2% to 5% of the loan’s value in closing costs. Below is an explanation of what these costs cover.
Some lenders may charge a fee for the initial tasks required to approve your loan, such as running a credit check. These fees, ranging from $25 to $150, may be used simply to ensure that the borrower doesn’t go away.
As mentioned earlier, in order to find out how much equity you have in your home, the lender must first find out your home’s fair market value. This is done by ordering an appraisal, which can cost between $300 to $400. Sometimes, automated or “drive-by” versions are used, rather than the traditional in-person method.
Some lenders charge a fee to prepare all the documents related to closing. Usually, a lawyer or other financial specialist will complete this task.
A title search is used to discover the rightful owner of the property so that when you take possession, you can rest assured that you own the property outright. It’ll cost around $75 to $100.
Tips on finding the best loan for you
“Your first call should be to whoever holds your first mortgage to see if there’s a program available to you,” Leibowitz said. “The approval process will likely be easier, and you may get better terms than you would see with some of the larger lending institutions.”
However, regardless of where you do your shopping, do your own research, including gaining an understanding of all loan documents.
“Research the terms of the loan in full — not just the interest rates — before you sign anything, Tait advised. “A lot of times, I see people who are obsessed with getting the lowest interest rate and cheapest fees.”
“I like to say an eighth of a point won’t change your lifestyle, but what could is accidently getting into the wrong product. Make sure you understand exactly what you’re agreeing to before signing on the dotted line.”
Finally, be sure to look into the lender, as well.
“Bottom line,” Tait said, “engage with a person who you trust, who’s been referred to you. Do your research. Talk to them. Get comfortable with who you’re going to use.”
Is a home equity loan right for you?
Taking out a home equity loan is a big decision, but if you’ve cared for your home and worked hard to pay it off, the equity you’ve built may just be one of your most valuable assets. In addition, this type of loan’s fixed interest rate and repayment schedule make it an attractive choice for those who need a lump-sum payment to take care of expenses.
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