Gene Reynolds Realty

Length of your Mortgage


15-Year, 30-Year, or a Biweekly Mortgage?

In the past, the 30-year, fixed-rate mortgage was the standard choice for most homebuyers. Today, however, lenders offer a wide array of loan types in varying lengths--including 15, 20, 30 and even 40-year mortgages.


Deciding what length is best for you should be based on several factors including: your purchasing power, your anticipated future income and how disciplined you want to be about paying off the mortgage.


What are the benefits of a shorter loan term?
Some homeowners choose fixed-rate loans that are less than 30 years in order to save money by paying less interest over the life of the loan. For example, a $100,000 loan at 8 percent interest comes with a monthly payment of around $734 (excluding taxes and homeowner's insurance). Over 30 years, this adds up to $264,240. In other words, over the life of the loan you would pay a whopping $164,240 just in interest.


With a 15-year loan, however, the monthly payments on the same loan would be approximately $956--for a total of $172,080. The monthly payments are more than $200 more than they would be for a 30-year mortgage, but over the life of the loan you would save more than $92,000.


What are the advantages to a 30-year loan?
Despite the interest savings of a 15-year loan, they're not for everyone. For one thing, the higher monthly payment might not allow some homeowners to qualify for a house they could otherwise afford with the lower payments of a 30-year mortgage. The lower monthly payment can also provide a greater sense of security in the event your future earning power might decrease.


Furthermore, with a little bit of financial discipline, there are a variety of methods that can help you pay off a 30-year loan faster with only a moderately higher monthly payment. One such choice is the biweekly mortgage payment plan, which is now offered by many lenders for both new and existing loans.


Biweekly mortgages
As the name implies, biweekly mortgage payments are made every two weeks instead of once a month--which over a year works out to the equivalent of making one extra monthly payment (compared to a traditional payment plan). One extra payment a year may not sound like much, but it can really add up over time. In fact, switching from a traditional payment plan to a biweekly mortgage can actually shorten the term of a 30-year loan by several years and save you thousands in interest.


If you're interested in a biweekly payment plan, make sure to check with your lender. In many cases, lenders also offer direct payment services that automatically withdraw funds from your bank account, saving you the trouble of having to write and mail a check every two weeks.


Making extra payments yourself--do it early!
Another way to pay off your loan more quickly is to simply include extra funds with your monthly payment. Most lenders will allow you to make extra payments towards the principal balance of your loan without penalty. This is especially attractive to homebuyers who are concerned about their future earning power, but still want to be aggressive about paying off their loan.


For example, if you had a 30-year loan, you might decide to send the equivalent of one or two extra payments a year (which could shorten the overall length of the loan by many years). But if your financial situation suddenly took a turn for the worse, you could always fall back on the regular monthly payment.


One important note, though, is that if you do decide to send extra funds, make sure to do it EARLY in the life of the loan. This is because most home loans are calculated in such a way that the first few years of payments are almost entirely interest, while the last few years are mostly applied towards the principal balance. Thus, you can get the most bang for your buck by making the extra payments early in the life of the loan.


Saving for the Down Payment

Saving funds for a down payment should be part of an overall program to get your finances in order prior to shopping for a home. This includes rounding up financial records, examining your spending habits, and setting a budget you can live with. Remember, too, that the down payment is not the only up-front expense. An allowance for closing costs should also be included in your savings budget.


How much is required?
The down payment is usually expressed as a percentage of the overall purchase price of the home, and varies depending on the lender, the type of financing and amount of money being lent. In the past, the typical down payment was 20%, but in recent years lenders have been willing to offer conventional financing with as little as 3% down. U.S. Government financing programs, such as those offered by the Dept. of Veterans Affairs (VA) or the Federal Housing Administration (FHA), also require minimal down payments.


Private mortgage insurance
Typically, if your down payment is less than 20% of the purchase price, lenders will require you to carry PMI, or private mortgage insurance. This insurance protects the lender in case of loan default, and usually involves an up-front payment at closing, as well as a monthly premium. However, once you have paid off 20% of the loan, you can request the policy be canceled. Some lenders cancel the premium automatically, while others require you to make a request in writing.


Gifts
If you are having trouble saving enough money, many lenders will allow you to use gift funds for the down payment--as well as for related closing costs. The gift may come from family, friends or other sources, but remember that lenders usually require a "gift letter" stating the gift doesn't have to be repaid. In addition, some lenders will also require you to pay at least a portion of the down payment with your own cash. Thus, if you plan to use gift money to purchase your house, ask your lender about their policies regarding gifts.


Earnest money
Buyers are usually required to deposit earnest money with the seller when they make an offer. If the offer is accepted, the earnest money is then credited towards the down payment. The amount varies widely depending on the seller and local custom, but be prepared from the outset to have funds earmarked for this purpose.


Don't forget closing costs
In addition to the down payment, you will also need to save for additional fees associated with the loan. Known as closing costs, these charges cover items such as title insurance, documentary stamps, loan origination fees, the survey, attorney's fees, etc. When you submit your loan application, lenders are required to supply you with a good faith estimate of your closing costs.

Some buyers are surprised by the amount of the closing costs, which can easily run into the thousands of dollars. Remember, though, that closing costs can be negotiated with the seller. For example, you may agree to pay the full asking price in exchange for the seller paying all the allowable closing costs.


Closing Costs

The bundle of fees associated with the buying or selling of a home are called closing costs. Certain fees are automatically assigned to either the buyer or the seller; other costs are either negotiable or dictated by local custom.


Buyer closing costs
When a buyer applies for a loan, lenders are required to provide them with a good-faith estimate of their closing costs. The fees vary according to several factors, including the type of loan they applied for and the terms of the purchase agreement. Likewise, some of the closing costs, especially those associated with the loan application, are actually paid in advance. Some typical buyer closing costs include:

  • The down payment
  • Loan fees (points, application fee, credit report)
  • Prepaid interest
  • Inspection fees
  • Appraisal
  • Mortgage insurance
  • Hazard insurance
  • Title insurance
  • Documentary stamps on the note
  • Seller closing costs


If the seller has not yet paid for the house in full, the seller's most important closing cost is satisfying the remaining balance of their loan. Before the date of closing, the escrow officer will contact the seller's lender to verify the amount needed to close out the loan. Then, along with any other fees, the original loan will be paid for at the closing before the seller receives any proceeds from the sale. Other seller closing costs can include:

  • Broker's commission
  • Transfer taxes
  • Documentary Stamps on the Deed
  • Title insurance
  • Property taxes (prorated)
  • Negotiating Closing Costs


In addition to the sales price, buyers and sellers frequently include closing costs in their negotiations. This can be for both major and minor fees. For example, if a buyer is particularly nervous about the condition of the plumbing, the seller may agree to pay for the house inspection.

Likewise, a buyer may want to save on up-front expenditures, and so agree to pay the seller's full asking price in return for the seller paying all the allowable closing costs. There's no right or wrong way to negotiate closing costs; just be sure all the terms are written down on the purchase agreement.


Prorations
At the closing, certain costs are often prorated (or distributed) between buyer and seller. The most common prorations are for property taxes. This is because property taxes are typically paid at the end of the year for which they were assessed.


Thus, if a house is sold in June, the sellers will have lived in the house for half the year, but the bill for the taxes won't come due until the following year! To make this situation more equitable, the taxes are prorated. In this example, the sellers will credit the buyers for half the taxes at closing.


Adjustable-Rate Mortgages

Adjustable-rate mortgages (ARMs) differ from fixed-rate mortgages in that the interest rate and monthly payment can change over the life of the loan. ARMs also generally have lower introductory interest rates vs. fixed-rate mortgages. Before deciding on an ARM, key factors to consider include how long you plan to own the property, and how frequently your monthly payment may change.


Why choose an adjustable-rate mortgage?
The low initial interest rates offered by ARMs make them attractive during periods when interest rates are high, or when homeowners only plan to stay in their home for a relatively short period. Similarly, homebuyers may find it easier to qualify for an ARM than a traditional loan. However, ARMs are not for everyone. If you plan to stay in your home long-term or are hesitant about having loan payments that shift from year-to-year, then you may prefer the stability of a fixed-rate mortagage.


Components of adjustable-rate mortgages
Adjustable-rate mortgages have three primary components: an index, margin, and calculated interest rate.


Index
The interest rate for an ARM is based on an index that measures the lender's ability to borrow money. While the specific index used may vary depending on the lender, some common indexes include U.S. Treasury Bills and the Federal Housing Finance Board's Contract Mortgage Rate. One thing all indexes have in common, however, is that they cannot be controlled by the lender.


Margin
The margin (also called the "spread") is a percentage added to the index in order to cover the lender's administrative costs and profit. Though the index may rise and fall over time, the margin usually remains constant over the life of the loan.


Calculated interest rate
By adding the index and margin together, you arrive at the calculated interest rate, which is the rate the homeowner pays. It is also the rate to which any future rate adjustments will apply (rather than the "teaser rate," explained below).


Adjustment periods and teaser rates
Because the interest rate for an ARM may change due to economic conditions, a key feature to ask your lender about is the adjustment period--or how often your interest rate may change. Many ARMS have one-year adjustment periods, which means the interest rate and monthly payment is recalculated (based on the index) every year. Depending on the lender, longer adjustment periods are also available.


An ARM can also have an initial adjustment period based on a "teaser rate," which is an artificially low introductory interest rate offered by a lender to attract homebuyers. Usually, teaser rates are good for 6 months or a year, at which point the loan reverts back to the calculated interest rate. Remember, too, that most lender will not use the teaser rate to qualify you for the loan, but instead use a 7.5% interest rate (or calculated interest rate if it is lower).


Rate caps
To protect homebuyers from dramatic rises in the interest rate, most ARMs have "caps" that govern how much the interest rate may rise between adjustment periods, as well as how much the rate may rise (or fall) over the life of the loan. For example, an ARM may be said to have a 2% periodic cap, and a 6% lifetime cap. This means that the rate can rise no more than 2% during an adjustment period, and no more than 6% over the life of the loan. The lifetime cap almost always applies to the calculated interest rate and not the introductory teaser rate.


Payment caps and negative amortization
Some ARMs also have payment caps. These differ from rate caps by placing a ceiling on how much your payment may rise during an adjustment period. While this may sound like a good thing, it can sometimes lead to real trouble.


For example, if the interest rate rises during an adjustment period, the additional interest due on the loan payment may exceed the amount allowed by the payment cap--leading to negative amortization. This means the balance due on the loan is actually growing, even though the homeowner is still making the minimum monthly payment. Many lenders limit the amount of negative amortization that may occur before the loan must be restructured, but it's always wise to speak with your lender about payment caps and how negative amortization will be handled.


How Much Can You Afford?

Understanding how much you can afford is one of the most important rules of home buying. Depending on your individual situation, your budget can affect everything from the neighborhoods where you look, to the size of the house, and even what type of financing you choose.


Bear in mind, however, that lenders will look at more than just your income to determine the size of the loan. Likewise, you may find that there are some creative financing options that can help boost your purchasing power.


Loan prequalification vs. preapproval
One of the best ways to determine your budget is to have your real estate agent or lender prequalify you for a loan. Prequalification is different from preapproval, because it is only an estimate of what you'll be able to afford. On the other hand, preapproval is a more formal process where a lender examines your finances and agrees in advance to loan you money up to a specified amount.


What factors are important to lenders?
Banks and lending institutions will use several criteria to determine how much money they'll agree to lend. These include:

  • Your gross monthly income
  • Your credit history
  • The amount of your outstanding debts
  • Your savings--or the amount of money you have available for a down payment and closing costs
  • Your choice of mortgage (i.e. 30-year, FHA, etc.)
  • Current interest rates


Two important ratios
Lenders also use your financial information to figure out two, very important ratios: the debt-to-income ratio and the housing expense ratio.


Debt-to-income ratio
Many lenders use a rule of thumb that the amount of debt you are paying on each month (car payment, student loan, credit card, etc,) shouldn't exceed more than 36 percent of your gross monthly income. FHA loans are slightly more lenient.


Housing expense ratio
It is generally difficult to obtain a loan if the mortgage payment will be more than 28 to 33 percent of your gross monthly income.

Down payments make a difference


If you can make a large down payment, lenders may be more lenient with their qualifying ratios. For example, a person with a 20 percent down payment may be qualified with the 33 percent housing expense ratio, while someone with a 5 percent down payment is held to the stricter 28 percent ratio.


Other ways to improve your purchasing power

Gifts
If you're having trouble saving money, many lenders will allow you to use gift funds for the down payment and closing costs. However, most lenders require a "gift letter" stating the gift doesn't have to be repaid, and will also require you to pay at least a portion of the down payment with your own cash.


Negotiating Closing Costs
Through negotiation, some sellers may agree to pay all or most of your closing costs (for example, if you agree to meet their full asking price). If you choose to try this, make sure to ask your real estate agent for advice.


Loan Programs
Many local governments have special loan programs designed to help first-time homebuyers. Loans may be available at reduced interest rates, or with little or no down payments. Check with your local housing authority for more information.


Loan Types
Some homebuyers choose Adjustable Rate Mortgages (ARMs) because of low initial interest rates. Others opt for 30-year loans because they have lower monthly payments than 15-year loans. There are significant differences between different loans, so make sure to discuss the pros and cons of different loans with your agent or lender before making a decision.