For many people, a home is one of their largest assets. Also, because most people don’t pay cash to buy their home, they need to get a mortgage to finance the purchase. Even though a mortgage is typically 15, 20, or 30 years, that doesn’t mean everything stays the same during that time. What might be a great interest rate at the time of purchase could be considered a high interest rate just a couple years later. This is why millions of Americans choose to refinance their mortgage when interest rates go down. What’s important to keep in mind, though, is that there are many factors besides the interest rate that a homeowner should consider before refinancing. There are seven key considerations that one should review before applying for a refinance.
To help me understand what’s happening in the mortgage market, I reached out to my friend Phill Becraft. Phill is a mortgage advisor with Guild Mortgage and has more than a decade of experience in the greater Seattle area. Phill was able to provide insights into some of the key considerations outlined below.
- Your Credit Score
- Refinancing Costs
- Home Equity
- Debt-to-Income Ratio
- Rates vs. Term
- Private Mortgage Insurance
- Break-Even Point
1) Your Credit Score
One of the biggest factors that lenders consider when evaluating an application is a borrower’s credit score. While current interest rates are at historic lows, that doesn’t mean everyone will qualify for these low rates. It’s helpful to know what your score is beforehand so that you’re not surprised when you apply for a refinance. A general guideline for getting the lowest mortgage interest rate is having a credit score of 760 or higher.
Tip from Phill Becraft:
“Online credit check companies are a great tool for consumer lending products, but in the end, they are a for-profit business. Don’t be surprised when a mortgage lender pulls your credit and it’s different by 20–30 points. Mortgage lenders use a more complex FICO scoring system for their reports to supply to their investors. It’s called FICO Score 9, and it’s on a different level than what is used at the online credit check companies.”
2) Refinance Costs (closing costs)
All borrowers should keep in mind that refinancing is not free. Even when lenders offer a “no-cost” refinance, that just means the rate will be higher to cover the costs of the refinance. Typically, a borrower should be prepared to pay 2%–6% of the total loan amount to refinance. That 2%–6% range should make it obvious that not all lenders are the same, and oftentimes it pays to shop around. If you’re worried about out-of-pocket costs, many lenders allow closing costs to be wrapped into the new loan—but you need to have enough equity in your home for this option to work.
Tip from Phill Becraft:
“If you refinance with your current loan servicer, you may not need to reestablish/rebuild an escrow account to ensure your property taxes and insurance are paid. This can lower your upfront or financed loan costs.”
3) Home Equity
If you want to refinance, then you should confirm that your home is worth more than the mortgage amount. The more the better, but a good target is at least a loan-to-value (LTV) amount of 80% or better. In other words, you should try to have at least 20% equity built up in your home.
Quick example: Home Value = $500,000 | 80% LTV = $400,000 | 20% Equity = $100,000
If your home is worth less than your current mortgage, that is considered “underwater.” When a home is underwater, your refinancing options are limited. Most conventional lenders won’t refinance a mortgage if the home is underwater, but a homeowner may be able to qualify with a government program. It’s always best to check with your lender first.
Another reason to have 20% equity is figuring out if you will be required to pay private mortgage insurance (PMI). We’ll discuss this more in a later topic.
Tip from Phill Becraft:
“Many conventional loans make you keep mortgage insurance for the first 24 months regardless if you have enough equity (20%+). Sometimes it’s best to look at a refi to get an updated appraisal to better your LTV or equity position.”
4) Debt-to-Income Ratio
Just because you currently have a mortgage, it doesn’t mean you can simply refinance into a new one. Lenders have not only increased their standards for credit scores, they’ve also become more stringent when it comes to your debt-to-income ratio. Ideally, your monthly house payments should be under 28% of your gross income, and overall debt-to-income should be less than 36%. This means you need to calculate how much your other monthly obligations are, such as car payments, credit card bills, student loans, and other credit lines when figuring out your total debt-to-income ratio. Having a steady job history, a high income, and some money saved are all helpful attributes, and some lenders may allow your debt-to-income ratio to go into the 40%+ range, but you shouldn’t count on that.
Tip from Phill Becraft:
“Childcare costs are not considered when looking at debt-to-income ratios. Also, some lenders can eliminate monthly liabilities like auto loans with less than six payments left.”
5) Rate vs. Term
Getting the lowest possible rate doesn’t always make the most financial sense. Many people looking to refinance put a lot of emphasis on the interest rate, but it’s also important to know the cost of getting lower rates. Make sure you pay attention to the refinancing points that are paid to get a mortgage at a lower interest rate. These points are either wrapped into the closing costs or added to the principal of your new loan.
Another way to get a lower interest rate is choosing a mortgage with a shorter term. A 20-year mortgage will typically have a lower interest rate than a 30-year mortgage. If your goal is to reduce your monthly payments, choosing a shorter-term mortgage will most likely result in a higher monthly payment. If your goal is to lower your monthly payment and pay off your mortgage faster, then you can refinance into a loan with a lower rate and the same term, but keep making the same amount you were paying on the previous mortgage. Let’s use an example:
Original Mortgage: $300,000 | 4.00% | 30 Year Term | Monthly Payment = $2,387
Refinanced Mortgage: $300,000 | 3.50% | 30 Year Term | Monthly Payment = $2,245
In the original mortgage above, the minimum payment of $2,387 is made every month for 30 years until the loan is paid off. Say you refinance into the new mortgage at 3.50%, but instead of making the new minimum payment of $2,245, you keep making the previous mortgage payment from the original loan, $2,387 per month. This strategy “feels” like your monthly payment hasn’t changed, but now your loan will be paid off in approximately 27 years instead of 30 years! You can save 3 years of mortgage payments by simply lowering your interest rate and sticking with your original monthly payment.
It’s important to note this simple example does not take into account closing costs, refinance points, or how long you’ve been paying into the original mortgage, but you should get the point that you can make payments above your minimum monthly payment. This strategy also allows you to reduce your monthly payments back down to the minimum amount during times that are financially challenging.
6) Private Mortgage Insurance
Most lenders require a borrower to have at least 20% equity in their home, otherwise private mortgage insurance (PMI) is required. Lenders will calculate your loan-to-value ratio during a refinance to ensure the mortgage amount will not exceed 80% of the home’s value. The costs for PMI vary and are typically 0.25%–2% of the loan balance per year. This means the higher the mortgage amount, the higher the PMI costs. For many homeowners, putting 20% down at the time of purchase is a big hurdle, so it’s not uncommon for PMI to be added to a mortgage. As home values increase, refinancing may be a way to eliminate PMI and get a mortgage at a lower interest rate. The opposite is also true, though. If your home has decreased in value, a lender may require PMI on a refinanced mortgage if the LTV exceeds 80%.
Tip from Phill Becraft:
“Did you know there are many ways to pay mortgage insurance? Gone are the days of monthly payments! You can choose “split” or “single” paid premium options with most mortgage brokers. Choose a small lump sum down and finance less each month (split) or just pay the single premium up front and don’t have any monthly MI costs!”
7) Break-Even Point
If you are considering refinancing your mortgage, you should at some point ask yourself, “Is it worth it?” This question cuts to heart of making this decision. Ultimately, you need to calculate if the costs to do the refinance will be paid off eventually by the monthly savings.
For example, if your refinance costs are $12,000 and you end up saving $400 per month, then it will take 30 months to “break even.” This means you should plan on staying in your current home for at least another two and half years, or you won’t end up saving anything by refinancing your mortgage.
Hopefully these seven considerations have given you enough “food for thought” to realize refinancing a mortgage is complex, and it’s not just about getting the lowest rate. Before you make the decision to start the process, I encourage you to speak with a professional who can help assess your financial situation and determine if now is the right time to refinance your mortgage. Here at Merriman, a Wealth Advisor can assist you with this decision as part of our financial planning process. Reach out today if you have any questions.
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