Friday, March 6, 2020

Low Rates Spur Refinances, Caution is Advised

Many people may see super low interest rates on mortgages and think about a refinance. I spent an entire chapter in my 2010 book, "Don't Panic" about the math behind a refinance and that sometimes, a refi isn't as good as it looks. Mortgage interest is "front loaded." This means you pay the bulk of the interest in the first 10 years of the loan. When you refinance you often end up paying MORE interest even if your rate and payment is lower.

I am not saying that a refinance is "bad" but rather a refinance should be carefully thought out, especially if the homeowner is taking out cash. I have done many mortgage refinances over the decades with numerous properties. I have done them wrong and I have done them right. One should be cautious of what they use the money for when doing a refi. I absolutely DO NOT recommend taking cash out of a primary residence to fund things like cars, boats, or vacations. This is always a bad idea.

I am also very cautious about taking cash out of a primary residence to consolidate short term debts. If the debts are manageable the homeowner may be better off just whacking those debts down with heavy payments. The only thing that hurts a consumer more than a high rate of interest is a long term of payment. So a car payment at 7% interest with 3 years to go is better left alone than refinancing that debt over 30 years and taking valuable and secure equity from your home. Lets say the car was 0 down, $40,000 originally financed at 7% for 6 years. If the car is halfway through the loan cycle, the bulk of the interest is already paid. The balance is down to $16,408 after three years. There is only $1,100 remaining in interest on the loan. Refinancing that $16,408 over 30 years even at 4% will cost the debtor TEN TIMES as much interest! $11,792 in interest over 30 years. If money is tight and the car payment has gotten difficult to manage, it is often possible to refinance the car.

I am a strong proponent of using mortgage cash to improve the property. That doesn't mean buying furniture by the way. Remodel the kitchen, put in new landscaping, new siding and paint, etc. This improves the value of the house and thus helps to maintain the homeowners equity position despite increasing the balance owed. If the homeowner uses credit cards to purchase the home improvements, then refinances to pay that short term debt off, that works fine. Doing the improvements up front will at least result in a better property appraisal and possibly a lower rate on the new mortgage due to a potentially lower LTV.

Typically a cash out refinance will cost the homeowner either up front fees or a higher interest rate. Often that rate can be 1/4 to 1/2 percent which adds up to thousands of dollars over the life of the loan.

Ultimately if a homeowner intends to stay in the house for more than 5 years and can improve the rate of interest by a full percentage point, a refinance makes good sense particularly if doing a rate and term loan with no cash out.

Remember that every situation is unique and I am only suggesting that careful thought and study goes into the refinance decision. Furthermore find a local loan professional you can sit down with and go over the facts and figures. Don't do something as important as a mortgage with some shady online firm that teases you with a seemingly low rate. Mortgage rates are simply not that far apart in the real world. Mortgages are traded on wall street and investors are not paying a very big spread so when one bank shows a rate that is 1/2 percent lower than most others, you WILL be paying for that somewhere in the fee tree! There is absolutely NO FREE LUNCH in the lending business, no matter what the sleazy spokesperson says. Mortgages are highly complex devices and as such it is easy to "pull the wool over the eyes" of even the most brilliant people.

When I refinance a house, especially my primary residence, I look at more than just the rate. I look at what my current principal payment is each month at the time of refi, what the new principal payment will be, how much total interest did I add to the end of loan. Why am I concerned about principal reduction? Because home equity is the VERY reason buying is better than renting. When a home owner erodes the equity in the home, they erode the value of ownership, it should not be taken lightly.

Remember that when someone refinances a house they are in a loan already and they have paid that loan down to some extent. If someone is 5 years into a mortgage and they refi at 30 years they are postponing the eventual payoff by another 5 years. That adds total interest to the mix. When I do a rate and term refi, I also calculate the amount of time the new lower payment takes to cover the expense of doing the loan. If the loan fees are $3000 and I am saving $100 per month then I recover those fees after 30 months. If I refi the house again or sell it in less than 30 months I lost money on the refi! A good loan officer will go over these types of details with every prospect and that is worth far more than any slight difference in rate one might pay at a less quality firm.

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