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How to Qualify for a Home Equity Loan

Editorial Note: The content of this article is based on the author’s opinions and recommendations alone. It has not been previewed, commissioned or otherwise endorsed by any of our network partners.

Buying a house is an investment, one that can open opportunities in numerous areas of your life. Not only does it become a home for you and your family, you can also borrow money against the property, creating financial flexibility for a wide range of goals.You can access that flexibility is through a home equity loan (HEL) or home equity line of credit (HELOC).

When you take out a home equity loan, you receive a lump sum that you repay at a fixed interest rate.

With a home equity line of credit, you’re approved to borrow a certain amount, but you don’t need to use it all right away.

If you’re approved for $100,000, you might borrow in increments of $15,000 or $20,000, depending on your needs. Unlike HELs, HELOCs typically come with adjustable interest rates, though there are variations in the product terms you’ll want to compare to ensure you’re getting the best deal for your circumstances.

What it takes to qualify for a home equity loan

There are three key factors that impact your chances of being approved for a HEL or HELOC.

Decent credit. The first is your credit score. Because some lenders are more conservative than others, each will have different credit thresholds for approval.

“Getting a home equity is very similar to getting a mortgage,” Kelly Kockos, senior vice president in home equity product management at Wells Fargo, told MagnifyMoney. Borrowers will likely need at least fair to good credit to qualify for a home equity product, she says.

Substantial equity. The second element that needs to be in place is your available equity, which is determined by your existing mortgage balance and the total value of your home. If you’re approved for a loan or line of credit, the lender will decide how much of your equity you can borrow against. Depending how their products are structured, they may allow you to borrow up to 85% of your available equity. Most lenders won’t go above 85%, according to the Federal Trade Commission.

Tendayi Kapfidze, chief economist at LendingTree, says a good rule of thumb is to have a loan-to-value ratio that’s well below 80% before applying for a home equity product (Disclosure: LendingTree is the parent company of MagnifyMoney). He suggests that if a home is worth $100,000, a mortgage balance of $50,000 would be a healthy ratio for taking out a home equity loan or line of credit. Assuming a lender allows you to borrow up to 80% of your home value and that you meet all other criteria, you might be approved for up to $30,000 to use as you see fit.

Kapfidze says the percentage for which you’ll be approved depends on the lender’s criteria and the relationship you have with them. If you hold other assets with them, they may feel comfortable offering a higher loan or line of credit, he says. But regardless of where you apply, equity below 80% will provide enough of a gap between your remaining mortgage and your home’s value to borrow the money you need.

Low debt. Finally, lenders will take your debt-to-income ratio into account. As with other credit decisions, they’ll look at how much you pay each month on your mortgage, student loans, car payments and credit cards, Kockos says. Keeping these as low as possible will boost your chances of approval because a high debt-to-income ratio may raise red flags about your ability to manage another significant payment.

“If your debt is over 43% of your income, then it’s probably not a good thing for you to take on more debt,” Kockos said.

The benefits of home equity loans and lines of credit

Both HELs and HELOCs provide access to funds and offer a means to cover important expenses.

Kapfidze says that because home equity products are backed by your house as collateral, you’ll often secure better interest rates than you would through a personal loan or credit card. That’s why some consumers will use home equity to purchase cars or pay off student loans, because they’re able to secure better interest rates that way.

Whether you choose a home equity loan or line of credit depends on your particular circumstances.

Depending on how you use your loan, you may qualify for a tax deduction. You may choose to limit your home equity spending based on new tax limitations as well. The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act stipulates that you can only deduct interest paid on a home equity loan or line of credit if you use the funds to renovate, build or purchase the house that secures the loan, according to the IRS.

Who home equity loans are best for: Kockos says that home equity loans make sense for consumers who know they need a set amount of cash right away. If you’re facing a major expense with a set dollar amount — a medical procedure or a roof replacement, for instance — you may want to take out a loan for the exact amount you want to borrow. You can then lock it in at a fixed interest rate and you’ll know what your monthly payments will be for the duration of the loan.

Who HELOCs are best for: A home equity line of credit may make more sense if you want access to a certain amount of money but don’t necessarily want to use it all immediately. Unlike with an HEL, you’ll only pay on what you’ve already drawn from a HELOC. Kockos offers the example of using a HELOC to cover home remodeling expenses. You might be approved for $100,000 but you may not pay all of your contractors at once. Instead, you might pay $25,000 to one vendor this month and $10,000 to another next month. If that’s the case, you’d use your credit line as each expense comes up, and you only pay interest on the funds you’ve already drawn.

David Gorman, a division executive at Bank of America, says a home equity line of credit has become increasingly popular among both lenders and borrowers. “You very rarely see home equity loans anymore,” he said.

He attributes this shift to the flexibility of HELOCs. Even consumers who want to lock in a fixed rate can do so on their lines of credit, he explains. If you spend $30,000 of an $80,000 line of credit on roof repairs, you can lock in that $30,000 at a fixed rate to avoid significant interest increases during repayment. This provides some of the security of a home equity loan without sacrificing the benefits of the HELOC.

“It acts almost the same, and they don’t have to take it all out upfront,” Gorman said. “It provides you significant flexibility.”

The risks of home equity loans

The number one risk you must be aware of when you apply for a home equity product is that you’re borrowing against your home, and your lender can foreclose on it if you don’t make your payments.

“You’re risking your house, whereas with other types of loans, you may pay a higher interest rate but you’re not putting your house ‘on the line,’” Kapfidze said. Consumers should be well aware of that risk when applying for a home equity product, he added, but if they go into it with a full understanding of the terms, they’ll find that they are likely to get the best rates through these options.

Knowing that your house is at stake makes it vitally important to think carefully about how you spend your home equity funds. You can use the money however you choose, whether that’s to repair your basement after a flood or take a second honeymoon. However, paying for nonessential renovations or family vacations leaves you with less money to cover emergencies, not to mention with potentially significant debt that could become difficult to repay. Gorman says that Bank of America doesn’t advise borrowers on how to spend their money, but he says that misuse of funds is one of the biggest pitfalls that ensnare consumers.

“Should they actually need the equity in their house for other things down the road, they may no longer have it,” he said.

Shopping for a home equity loan

Look beyond the interest rate. The obvious comparison point when comparing HEL and HELOC offers is the interest rate. However, there are several other factors to consider as well. One is the fee — how much is the lender charging on top of your monthly interest payment? Another is whether there are rate caps in place to protect you against future interest rate spikes. Kockos recommends looking at annual and lifetime rate caps to determine which offers provide the best protection features throughout the life of the loan.

Compare flexibility. Kockos also suggests comparing product flexibility among HELOCs. Some lenders will offer lock and unlock features for their home equity lines of credit. This allows you to secure a portion of your spending at current interest rates but unlock it later if rates drop and you want to secure those instead. If your lender offers a lock and unlock option, be sure to ask how many times a year you’re allowed to use that feature so you’ll know how agile you can be based on rate volatility. Kockos notes that some lenders will offer promotions or discounts on fixed-rate home equity loans, so it’s worth inquiring about those as well.

Consider closing costs. Jorge Davila, vice president of sales, consumer direct and digital mortgage lending at Flagstar Bank, says it’s important to compare post-closing services as well. He recommends comparing when and how you’ll be able to access funds, whether there are mobile management options and whether there are prepayment penalties for your loan or line of credit. Factoring in servicing features along with rates and protections will give you a full picture of what you can expect from working with a lender.

What to do if you don’t qualify for home equity products

From a lender’s perspective, issuing a home equity loan or line of credit is riskier than giving someone a mortgage. Kapfidze explains that the mortgage lender has the first lien, meaning that they’ll be repaid first if you default on your loans. Because the home equity lender has the second lien and therefore carries more risk, their approval thresholds are likely higher. This means that your chances of qualifying for a home equity product may be lower.

However, if you still need access to a large sum of money, you may qualify for a cash-out refinance. In this case, you would refinance your current mortgage for a higher dollar amount that includes the remaining balance on the loan plus additional funds you can use for renovations and other needs. The difference between the two is what’s available for spending. Kapfidze notes that consumers can see higher interest rates on their refinanced mortgages than on their existing mortgages, so it’s important to be aware of the additional costs you’ll incur before pursuing this option.

Making the right home equity decision

The first step in applying for a home equity loan or line of credit is meeting with lenders. They can explain the qualification process so you’ll know exactly what to expect. But you’ll also want to dig into the specifics of their offers and get a sense of what it will be like to work with them. As with a mortgage, you may be repaying this loan over decades, so you want to make sure their terms and support options work for your needs. The right lender can help you determine how much to borrow and how to maximize the opportunities associated with home equity borrowing.

Advertiser Disclosure: The products that appear on this site may be from companies from which MagnifyMoney receives compensation. This compensation may impact how and where products appear on this site (including, for example, the order in which they appear). MagnifyMoney does not include all financial institutions or all products offered available in the marketplace.

Casey Hynes
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Casey Hynes is a writer at MagnifyMoney. You can email Casey here

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How to Refinance Your Mortgage to Save Money and Consolidate Debt

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Refinancing your mortgage, which is the process of paying off your existing home loan and replacing it with a new loan, can save homeowners money. But before you consider a mortgage refinance, you should understand how much it costs and what the process entails.

In this guide, we’ll explore how to refinance a mortgage, how much it costs to refinance and how to decide whether you should refinance at all. We’ll also discuss the refinancing process and offer comparison-shopping tips.

How to refinance your mortgage

Before we cover the steps you need to take to refinance a mortgage, we first need to understand the different refinance options available. Below is a table of the types of refinances and the process involved for each in refinancing your mortgage.

Types of mortgage refinances

Refinance Type

How Does It Work?

Cash-outA way to borrow against your available equity. You take out a new mortgage with a larger balance than your existing loan and pocket the difference in cash.
Limited cash-outThe refi closing costs and fees are financed into the new loan, and you may receive a small amount of cash — not to exceed 2% of the loan amount or $2,000, whichever is lower — when the closing documents are reconciled.
No cash-outAlso called “rate-and-term” refinance. You refinance your existing loan balance to improve your loan terms by securing a lower mortgage rate or switching mortgage types, for example. You can either pay your closing costs and fees out of pocket or finance them into your new loan.
StreamlineA refinance with limited documentation and underwriting requirements. The goal is to lower your monthly mortgage payment. Streamline refinances are available on government-backed mortgages through the FHA, USDA and VA.

Step-by-step guide to shopping for a mortgage refinance

Before you start shopping for a new mortgage, arm yourself with knowledge. First, check mortgage refinance rates in your area online.

What Mortgage Amount Do you Need?
Calculate Payment Secured

on LendingTree’s secure website

It’s good to know what the best rates are, but it’s even better to know if you’ll qualify for them. About six months before you plan on applying for a refinance, pull a copy of your credit report from each of the three major credit reporting bureaus — Equifax, Experian and TransUnion. Review your reports for accuracy and dispute any errors you find. You’ll also want to access your credit scores to see where you stand.

Aim for a score of 740 or higher to qualify for the lowest mortgage rates. You can still qualify with a lower credit score, but the lower your score, the higher your interest rate will be.

Choose your rate type
Decide which rate type works for you. For example, do you have an adjustable-rate mortgage and want to switch to a fixed-rate mortgage? Mortgage rates might be lower now, but eventually they’ll increase. If you have a 5/1 ARM, your mortgage rate is fixed for the first five years, but will adjust annually thereafter. Unless you know with certainty you can afford your monthly payments when your rate starts rising, or you aren’t planning to stay in the home for long, an ARM is risky.

If you don’t want to gamble with your monthly mortgage payment, stick with a fixed-rate mortgage. Your rate will be locked in for the life of your loan.

Gather multiple quotes

As with most shopping endeavors, the best way to find the best price is to get quotes from multiple mortgage lenders in your area.

There are two primary criteria for you to consider. The first, of course, is interest rates. The second is fees, which can eat into your savings.

It’s easy to take the path of least resistance and refinance with your current lender, which may offer you lower fees than their competitors. But the interest rates offered by your current lender may be higher than what’s available with other lenders. Get outside quotes to use as leverage for negotiations.

Or maybe your lender is offering you lower fees and interest rates than the competition, but the rate is still higher than you’d like it to be because of a less-than-perfect credit score. While doing so doesn’t have a high success rate, you can try negotiating for a lower rate based on customer loyalty.

Prepare your documents

Gather these commonly required documents before approaching your lender to ensure the application process goes as smoothly as possible:

  • Personal information: Be prepared with your Social Security number, driver’s license or other state-issued ID, and the addresses you have lived at for at least the past three years. Lenders are required to verify your identity before lending you any money or allowing you to open any type of financial account.
  • Accounting of debts: Statements for any outstanding credit card balances or loans you may have, including your current mortgage.
  • Proof of employment and income: Last two to three months’ worth of pay stubs, employer contact information, including anyone you’ve worked for in the past two years, W-2s and income tax documents for the past two years and/or additional documentation of income for the past two years for self-employed individuals, including schedules and profit/loss statements.
  • Proof of assets: A list of all the properties you own, life insurance statements, retirement account statements and bank account statements going back at least three months.
  • Proof of insurance: This generally refers to homeowners insurance and title insurance.
  • Additional documents: If you receive income from disability, Social Security, child support, alimony, rental property, regular overtime pay, consistent bonuses or a pension, be sure to provide documentation for these income sources as well.

There may be additional documents required depending on your lender, but checking off this list is a great start.

Apply for the refinance

Once you’ve done your homework and gathered all your information, apply for the refinance with the lender you’ve selected.

How long does it take to refinance a mortgage?

The full process of being approved for a mortgage refinance typically takes between 20 and 45 days if you submit your paperwork in a timely manner. It will require hard pulls of your credit reports and scores, along with the submission of personal documentation.

Approval
A loan officer will look over your paperwork, which will hopefully end in approval. You’ll then be sent documents to review. It would be wise to do so with a lawyer, which is an additional fee you’ll want to consider as part of your refinancing costs.

Closing
If everything checks out and you agree to your new loan terms, then it’s time to finalize the deal with your mortgage closing. If you didn’t finance your closing costs and fees as part of your new loan, you’ll pay for them at closing time. Depending on the lender, you’ll sign your documents in person, through postal mail or online. After the paperwork is processed, your current mortgage will be paid off and your refinanced mortgage will take effect.

Should you refinance your mortgage?

There are many reasons you might consider refinancing your mortgage. For example, interest rates could have dropped significantly since you first bought your house. You may also have a growing list of home repairs that need to be addressed, or high-interest credit card or student loan debt to consolidate, and a refinance can help you achieve those goals.

But are any of these good reasons to refi? To decide, you need to factor in the cost of refinancing a mortgage, along with some other considerations. We’ll weigh the pros and cons of refinancing for various goals below.

Refinancing to lock in a lower mortgage rate

Mortgage interest rates have been historically low for a while. As of mid-September 2019, the average interest rate on a 30-year fixed-rate mortgage was 3.56%, according to Freddie Mac’s Primary Mortgage Market Survey. During the same week in 2018, the average rate was 4.6%. If your original mortgage rate is higher than 4%, it might make sense to explore your refinance options, since a lower interest rate can save you money over time.
See the table below for an illustration of how a lower interest rate can reduce the overall cost of your mortgage.

 Existing mortgageNew mortgage

Loan amount

$290,921.36$290,921.36

Years remaining on term

28 years30 years

Interest rate

5%4%

Monthly payment
(principal and interest)


$1,610.46$1,388.90

Total interest paid
(over 30 years)


$279,767.35$209,083.75

Let’s say you’re refinancing a 30-year mortgage you undertook two years ago, and you now qualify for a mortgage rate that’s a full percentage point lower than your current rate — you’re going from 5% to 4%. Although a refinance will mean it will take longer to pay off your loan, the trade-off is the money you’ll save. Based on the table above, your new mortgage rate would lower your monthly payment by $221.56 and cut down your interest payments by more than $70,000 over the life of the loan.

How much does it cost to refinance a mortgage?

The savings sound promising, but hold your enthusiasm. Don’t forget to answer this key question before moving forward: How much are the closing costs to refinance a mortgage?

A refinance comes with closing costs and fees that could range from 3-6% of the new loan amount. Charges usually include escrow and title fees, document preparation fees, title search and insurance, loan origination fees, flood certification and recording fees. On a nearly $291,000 mortgage, these expenses could add up to more than $8,000 or more.

In order to truly save money through refinancing, you’ll need to determine your break-even point, which is the amount of time it will take for your monthly payment savings to cover the costs you paid for the refinance. Using the numbers above, we would need to divide the estimated closing costs — let’s just use $8,000 in this example — by the $221.56 monthly payment savings. The math tells us it would take about 36 months — or three years — to break even. If you don’t plan on staying in your home for at least three years or longer, you should probably keep your existing mortgage.

Refinancing to lower your mortgage payments

If you’re thinking about refinancing to lower your monthly mortgage payments, you should understand that while you’ll pay slightly less every month, the amount you pay over the life of your loan will increase.

Refinancing simply to lower your monthly payment can be dangerous during the first five to seven years of paying off your current mortgage. That’s because interest charges are not spread out evenly over the course of your loan — they are front-loaded. That means for those first several years, you’re paying more toward interest than your principal loan balance. In the meantime, you’re building very little equity. If you refinance during this time frame, you’re starting the clock over and delaying the opportunity to establish equity.

Revisiting our previous example, let’s say instead of refinancing your 30-year, $300,000 mortgage after a couple of years, you waited until you were 10 years into the loan to refinance. Your goal is to lower your monthly mortgage payment, but in order to get the payment as low as you want, you extend your loan term by 10 years and start over with a new 30-year mortgage.

On your existing mortgage, nearly $600 of your monthly payment goes toward paying down your principal by year 10. If you were to start over, the amount you’d pay toward principal drops down to less than $400 for the first few years.

Refinancing to make home improvements

Some homeowners choose to pay for home improvements by refinancing a mortgage, especially if they don’t already have the cash on hand.

Cash-out refinance

One way to do that is through a cash-out refinance, which is when you borrow a new mortgage with larger balance than your existing mortgage. The difference between the two loans is given to you in cash. That available cash comes from the equity you’ve built from paying down your existing mortgage.

A cash-out refinance could work for you if you have built a significant amount of equity in your home. Most lenders limit the maximum loan-to-value ratio — the percentage of your home’s value that is financed through your mortgage — for cash-out refinances to 80%.

Choosing a cash-out refinance could make more financial sense than borrowing a personal loan or putting repairs on a credit card, since refinance interest rates are typically lower than those alternatives.

HELOC

Another option is to borrow a home equity line of credit (HELOC). This functions similarly to a credit card; you have a line of credit up to a set amount and only pay for what you borrow, plus interest. However, because a HELOC is secured by your home, interest rates are typically much lower than on credit cards. However, rates are generally variable and not fixed, which could cause problems later if you’re carrying a large balance on your HELOC and interest rates go up.

HELOCs usually have a draw period, when you’re allowed to borrow against the credit line, and a repayment period, when you can no longer borrow and are only repaying what you owe. During the draw period, the required minimum payments usually just cover the interest, but during the repayment period, you’ll have to make principal and interest payments that will likely be much higher than your interest-only payments — especially if your outstanding balance is high.

Either way, you should be cautious. Making an upgrade for the sake of functionality is one thing, but making an upgrade for the sake of luxury is another. If you’re thinking about tapping your equity to pay for a major project that may not boost your home’s value, it might not be wise to do so. If the luxury is something you really want, don’t finance it — save up for it.

Refinancing to consolidate debt

You might be tempted to use a cash-out refinance to pay off credit card balances or other high-interest debt. With mortgage interest rates hovering near historic lows, taking this route may seem like a good idea. After all, rolling your debt into a mortgage with a 4% interest rate is better than paying it off at 15% interest or higher, isn’t it?

Credit cards

There are some instances where rolling your credit card debt into a mortgage refinance can be advantageous. For example, if you’re in a dual-income household and you lose a spouse without adequate life insurance, you may find yourself in a financial bind.

In this scenario, if you have credit card debt in your own name and suddenly can’t afford to pay the monthly bills, refinancing your mortgage and cashing out a portion to pay off your debt may be one of the few feasible options.

Let’s say you owe $20,000 in credit card debt at a 15% interest rate. If you pay off that balance over the next five years, you’ll pay more than $8,500 in interest. However, if you add that same balance to a mortgage with a 4% interest rate, although you’re increasing your loan amount, you’ll likely pay less interest than if you kept the debt on your card.

Outside of scenarios similar to the one mentioned above, refinancing your mortgage to consolidate credit card debt often doesn’t get to the root cause of the issue. If you had a spending or cash flow problem prior to your mortgage refinance, you’re likely to end up in debt again. But this time, you’ll have a bigger mortgage to handle on top of the extra debt.

Instead of borrowing a bigger mortgage to get rid of your credit card debt, consider applying for a balance transfer credit card. Though these cards come with balance transfer fees, they can be as low as 3%, and you only have to pay them once. Many cards include an initial 0% interest offer on balance transfers for the first 15 months or longer. Because there is a deadline on the 0% interest period, you’ll likely find the motivation to pay the debt off quickly and build better financial habits along the way.

Student loans 

If you have student loan debt that could take decades to repay, refinancing your mortgage to access the cash you need to pay off that debt could potentially be a smart idea.

Fannie Mae, one of the two mortgage agencies that buy and sell mortgages from lenders that conform to their guidelines (the other agency is Freddie Mac), has a “student loan cash-out refinance” option that allows borrowers to refinance their mortgage and cash out a portion of the new mortgage to pay off student loans.

Let’s say you owed $30,000 on your home and had $20,000 in outstanding student loan debt. You would take out a new $50,000 mortgage, with $20,000 of it paying off your debt.

Going this route could make sense if the interest rate on the refinance is less than the interest rate on your student loans. Additionally, if you sell your home, the proceeds should take care of the portion of your mortgage that was dedicated to paying off your loans.

The drawback of refinancing to consolidate or pay off debt is that not only do you increase your mortgage balance — you lose your available equity. Be sure to weigh the pros and cons before tapping your equity.

The bottom line

A mortgage refinance can save you money, cut down on your interest payments or give you access to cash, but be sure you’re clear on why you’re refinancing and whether it makes sense.

If you’re refinancing to extend your loan term by several years and dramatically lower your mortgage payments, or remodel your kitchen to something of a chef’s dream, reconsider. But if you’re looking to snag a lower mortgage rate on a loan for which you’ve built significant equity, refinancing may be beneficial.

Before signing on any dotted lines, reach out to your loan officer, ask questions and run the numbers.

Advertiser Disclosure: The products that appear on this site may be from companies from which MagnifyMoney receives compensation. This compensation may impact how and where products appear on this site (including, for example, the order in which they appear). MagnifyMoney does not include all financial institutions or all products offered available in the marketplace.

Crissinda Ponder
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Crissinda Ponder is a writer at MagnifyMoney. You can email Crissinda here

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How to Rebuild Equity on an Underwater Mortgage

Editorial Note: The content of this article is based on the author’s opinions and recommendations alone. It has not been previewed, commissioned or otherwise endorsed by any of our network partners.

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There are some things you can’t control as a homeowner, such as natural disasters, neighbors or the direction of home values. If these happen to take a nosedive, you could watch the equity you’ve built in your home disappear.

In fact, more than 5 million homeowners are “seriously underwater” on their mortgages — meaning the amount of debt attached to their home is at least 25% higher than the home’s value, according to the latest data from ATTOM Data Solutions, a property research firm. If you’re one of these homeowners, don’t despair. There are ways to rebuild the equity on an underwater mortgage. In this guide, we’ll explain what it means to have a mortgage underwater and how to rebuild the equity you’ve lost.

What is an underwater mortgage?

An underwater mortgage is a loan with an outstanding balance that exceeds the value of the home it secures. This is also referred to as having negative equity or being upside down on your mortgage.
There are a few ways that a mortgage can become underwater:

  • Significant drop in home values
  • Multiple loans taken out against a home, and the total balance is higher than the home’s value
  • Monthly payments not covering the interest due on a mortgage (negative amortization), and the balance owed grows instead of shrinks

If you tried to sell your home while it’s underwater, the sales proceeds likely wouldn’t be enough to pay off your mortgage, which would leave you on the hook for the remaining balance. You’d also have a hard time refinancing your mortgage, since you need to have some equity available for a refinance in many cases.

How to tell when my mortgage is underwater

If your current mortgage balance is higher than your home’s current market value, then your mortgage is underwater.

For example, let’s say your home was worth $250,000 when you first bought it, and you took out a $200,000 mortgage with a 4% interest rate. Five years later, the economy takes an unfortunate tumble and home values drop by an average 40%, giving your home an approximate $150,000 value.

Based on your loan’s amortization schedule, the outstanding balance you’d owe in year five would be about $180,000. That leaves you with $30,000 in negative equity.

Negative Equity in Your Home

Estimated Home Value in Year 5

$150,000

Estimated Mortgage Balance in Year 5

$180,000

Available Equity

-$30,000

If you find yourself in a situation similar to the one described above, there are options available to help you rebuild your home equity, which we’ll discuss in the next section.

How do I rebuild equity?

Just because your mortgage is underwater doesn’t mean it has to stay that way. There are ways to start rebuilding the equity you might need to fund other financial goals.

Pay down your mortgage as usual

The most straightforward option is to continue to pay down your mortgage as you normally would. Perhaps the housing market will recover, leading to an eventual rise in home prices. Either way, as long as you’re submitting your mortgage payments in full and on time, you’ll pay it off on schedule.

You can help speed things along by paying extra toward your principal balance. There are several ways to tackle this, which might include adding a couple hundred dollars — or whatever amount is comfortable for you — to your mortgage payment each month.

Another option is to make biweekly payments instead of monthly payments. This can add up to one extra payment each year. That’s because there are 52 weeks in a year and you’d make 26 half payments, which equals 13 full payments.

Be sure to ask your mortgage lender or servicer to direct any extra money you pay on your loan toward your principal balance (not interest).

Modify your mortgage

If you’re experiencing a temporary hardship on top of your underwater mortgage and are struggling to keep up with your mortgage payments, you could benefit from a mortgage modification.

A modification is when your lender changes the original terms of your mortgage to make it more affordable for you. Changes might include:

  • Extending the number of years you have left to repay your mortgage
  • Lowering your mortgage interest rate
  • Reducing your outstanding principal balance
  • Switching your mortgage rate type from adjustable to fixed

Eligibility requirements vary, so it’s best to contact your lender for more information about how to modify your loan.

Recast your mortgage

Another way your lender can make tweaks to your existing mortgage is by recasting your mortgage — especially if you’ve recently come into a financial windfall.

A mortgage recast involves paying a lump sum of money toward your outstanding principal balance. Your lender then recalculates your monthly mortgage payments based on the lower principal balance, but your mortgage rate and term length stay the same.

You’ll need to pay at least $5,000 — sometimes more — to recast your mortgage, and you might also be charged a recasting fee, up to $500. Check with your lender for more details and requirements.
Conventional loans typically qualify for mortgage recasting, but not government-backed loans, such as those insured by the Federal Housing Administration (FHA loans) or Department of Veterans Affairs (VA loans).

Refinance your mortgage

Although the Home Affordable Refinance Program (HARP) — a government-sponsored initiative that helped nearly 3.5 million homeowners refinance their mortgages — has expired, there are other programs available that provide similar assistance.

Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the two major agencies that buy and sell mortgages to and from lenders that follow their guidelines, created new initiatives as HARP was ending to address those homeowners who were underwater on their conventional mortgages or have high loan-to-value (LTV) ratios. An LTV ratio is calculated by dividing your loan amount by your home’s value. Revisiting the underwater mortgage example above of a home worth $150,000 with a $180,000 mortgage balance, the LTV ratio is 120%.

Fannie Mae’s high LTV refinance option offers homeowners with an LTV ratio above 97% the opportunity to refinance their mortgage. Homeowners must be current on their mortgage payments and benefit from at least one of these options:

  • A reduction in the principal and interest portion of their monthly payment
  • A lower interest rate
  • A shorter loan term
  • A more stable mortgage, such as a switch from an adjustable-rate to a fixed-rate loan

There is no maximum LTV ratio for fixed-rate mortgages, but adjustable-rate mortgages (ARMs) have a 105% LTV maximum. The existing mortgage must be Fannie Mae-owned.

The Enhanced Relief Refinance mortgage offered by Freddie Mac also requires homeowners to be current on their mortgage payments and have an LTV ratio that is higher than allowed for a standard refinance. The maximum LTV ratio allowed for ARMs is 105%; there’s no maximum for fixed-rate loans.

Homeowners must benefit from a shorter loan term, lower principal and interest payment, lower mortgage rate and/or a move from an ARM to a fixed-rate mortgage.

If you have a government-insured mortgage — FHA, USDA or VA loan — you may be able to take advantage of a streamlined refinance, which typically has a limited credit documentation and underwriting process. Additionally, you may not need an appraisal to verify your home’s value.

  • FHA: FHA borrowers applying for a streamlined refinance must be current on their mortgage payments and benefit from at least a 5% reduction in their monthly payment amount. You may also qualify if you’re switching from an ARM to a fixed-rate mortgage or shortening your loan term.
  • USDA: Borrowers with USDA loans may qualify for the streamlined assist refinance option if they have little to no equity and are current on their payments. The benefit must come from a monthly mortgage payment that’s at least $50 lower than the existing amount.
  • VA IRRRL: The VA Interest Rate Reduction Refinance Loan program helps homeowners with VA loans by lowering their mortgage payment through a reduced interest rate. Guidelines require a minimum 0.5% rate reduction.

Other options for underwater homeowners

If you’re ready to walk away from your home or simply can’t afford it anymore, consider one of the avenues below:

Home sale

You could attempt to sell your home, with the understanding that you likely won’t make enough profit to pay off your mortgage. If you have a hefty savings account, you can use some of those funds to pay the difference between the amount your home sale covers and your outstanding loan balance.

Short sale

Another option is a short sale, which allows you to sell your home for a price that is less than the outstanding balance on your mortgage. Additionally, your mortgage lender may forgive your remaining mortgage debt. Keep in mind that your credit score will take a hit with this option — it could drop by 100 points, according to FICO.

Deed in lieu of foreclosure

A deed in lieu of foreclosure, also known as a mortgage release, is the process of voluntarily transferring the ownership of your home to your lender. In exchange, you may be released from your mortgage payments and debt. This option also prevents you from going into foreclosure.

Similar to short sales, a deed in lieu of foreclosure negatively impacts credit scores.

The bottom line

You may feel helpless if you’re dealing with an underwater mortgage, but you have options. If you’re able to manage your monthly payments as they are, it may be best to continue paying down your loan as usual, making extra payments whenever possible. But if you’re struggling or simply want to reduce your payment amount, consider a loan modification or a refinance.

Be sure to discuss your available options with your mortgage lender or servicer, and remember that maintaining on-time payments will help your case.

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Crissinda Ponder
Crissinda Ponder |

Crissinda Ponder is a writer at MagnifyMoney. You can email Crissinda here

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