Home Equity Loans and Equity Lines of Credit (HELOC)



How Home Equity Loans and HELOCs Compare
      Home Equity Loan   HELOC
  Disbursement Lump-sum amount Revolving credit line for a preapproved amount; contract may require a minimum draw at closing
Repayment Fixed monthly payments Typically interest-only payments during the draw period, followed by full monthly payments
Interest Rates Usually fixed Generally adjustable, though banks may cap your rates or offer a fixed rate for a specific period of time
Points Lenders may charge upfront “points” that lower your interest rate Does not use points
Closing Costs Similar to a first mortgage; typically 2–5% of the loan amount If applicable, closing costs tend to be smaller than those of one-time loans
Pros Predictable repayment costs Flexibility to draw on credit line whenever you need it; no interest payments on money you don’t need
Cons Usually higher interest than HELOCs because of fixed-rate feature; lack of flexibility Some borrowers may be tempted to use loans for nonessential purchases
Best For One-time needs where you know exactly how much you need Situations where you need access to funds at different times

Why Take Out a Second Mortgage?

Homeowners can use their home equity loan or HELOC for a wide range of purposes. From a financial planning standpoint, one of the best uses of the funds is for renovations and remodeling projects that increase the value of your home. This way, you may increase available equity in your home while making it more livable.

You can also use the money to pay off other high-interest rate debt in an alternative type of debt consolidation. This could be especially helpful for paying off high-rate credit card balances. You’re effectively replacing a high-cost loan with a secured, low-cost form of credit.

Of course, you can also borrow to fund an overseas vacation, a new sports car, or possibly your child’s education. Whether it’s worth eroding your equity is up to you and something to which you’ll want to give some serious thought.

Equity Loan Tax Deductions

Tapping your equity for home renovation projects has another advantage. The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) lets you write off some of the interest on home equity credit as long as you itemize deductions.

Before the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 (TCJA), taxpayers were able to deduct interest on up to $1 million of mortgage debt, and there were no restrictions on the usage for deductions. The TCJA instituted new limits and restrictions, which run through the end of 2025.

As of 2020, couples can deduct the interest on up to $750,000 of eligible mortgage debt (or up to $375,000 if you file separately) if the debt is used on the home. The deductions can be applied for first mortgages, second mortgages, home equity loans, and home equity lines of credit if the debt is used to “buy, build, or substantially improve” the home against which it was secured. 

Home Equity and HELOC Pros and Cons

Even if property values stay flat or rise, every new loan stretches your budget. If you lose your job, for example, it’ll be harder to keep current on your payments. Because a new lender has another lien on your home, there’s a greater chance that you could face foreclosure if you fall behind for a long enough period.

Pros

  • Lower cost than many other types of loans

  • The ability to borrow a relatively large amount of cash

  • Potential tax breaks if you use the funds on the home

  • The safety of fixed interest rates on home equity loans

Cons

  • When you use your home as collateral, you shrink the amount of equity in your home

  • If the real estate market takes a dip, those with higher combined loan-to-value (CLTV) ratios run the risk of going “underwater” on their loan

Home Equity Loans vs. Refinancing

Second mortgages aren’t the only way to tap the equity in your home and get some extra cash. You can also do what’s known as a cash-out refinance, in which you take out a new loan to replace the original mortgage. When your new loan is bigger than the balance on your previous one, you pocket the extra money. As with a home equity loan or HELOC, homeowners can use those funds to make improvements to their property or consolidate credit card debt.

Refinancing does have certain advantages over a second mortgage. The interest rate is generally a bit lower than that of home equity loans, and if rates have dropped overall, you’ll want your primary mortgage to reflect that.

Drawbacks of Refinancing

Refis have drawbacks too. You’re taking out a new first mortgage, so closing costs tend to be much higher than HELOCs, which typically don’t have steep upfront fees. And if refinancing means you have less than 20% equity in your home, you may also have to pay private mortgage insurance (PMI). PMI can usually be canceled when a borrower reaches 20% home equity.

Overall, it doesn’t hurt to have your loan officer run the numbers for each option, so you can better understand which one is best for your situation.

Getting a Loan

Loan options and fees vary significantly from one lender to the next, so it pays to shop around. In addition to traditional banks, you can also reach out to savings and loans, credit unions, and mortgage companies. You may also want to use a mortgage broker, who essentially does the shopping for you and gets paid by the lender.

In general, don’t just talk to one lender. Most borrowers like to get at least three quotes. This is where a mortgage professional can help in comparing offers. If you already have multiple accounts at a bank, ask about better rates or special promotions for existing customers.

Shopping for a loan from a traditional lender—a bank or mortgage company—depends on the amount you’re seeking. Generally, for loans under $100,000, a small community bank or credit union will offer the best deal. For larger loans ($150,000 or more), talk to local and national banks along with mortgage brokers.

As with traditional mortgages, mortgage brokers can often offer the best deals on home equity loans because of their relationships with multiple lenders and investment pools. For loans between $100,000 and $150,000, “you just have to shop,” says Casey Fleming, mortgage broker and author of “The Loan Guide: How to Get the Best Possible Mortgage.”

Don’t be fooled by low teaser rates. Have the lender send the documentation that shows the interest rate and closing costs for your specific loan. With home equity loans, upfront fees can be steep, usually anywhere from 2–5% of your loan amount.

Negotiating Fees

Many of the fees a lender tries to charge aren’t set in stone. Some lenders, for example, are willing to bend on origination fees, which cover the commission paid to the loan officer or broker. If they require you to pay points on your loan, they may be willing to haggle on that, too. But you have to ask. 

Lenders may offer several options when it comes to locking in a fixed interest rate on your HELOC. The longer the period of time in which you get a fixed rate, the higher the interest rate will usually be. Still, there’s also less risk on your part if rates go up, so think carefully about which terms work best for you. 

In general, you’ll get the best terms if you have a history of steady employment and an excellent credit score. As with any mortgage application, it’s a good idea to check your credit reports ahead of time and make sure they’re free of errors. For this reason, it may also be worth considering employing a credit monitoring service as a means of keeping this information safe.

Backing Out of a Loan

To avoid serious heartache later on, be sure to look over all the loan documents carefully before signing on the dotted line. You do have some recourse if you realize you’ve made a mistake, as long as you act quickly. There’s a federally mandated three-day cancellation rule that applies to both home equity loans and HELOCs, but you have to notify the lender in writing. That notice has to be mailed or filed electronically by midnight of the third day (not including Sundays), or it’s void.

When You Can’t Pay Back Your Loan

Sometimes, even if you’re granted a loan, you may encounter financial problems later on that make it difficult to pay it back. Though losing your home is a risk if you can’t pay back your home equity loan or line of credit, it isn’t a foregone conclusion. However, even if you can avoid losing your home, you will face serious financial consequences.

If the real estate market takes a dip, those with higher combined loan-to-value ratios run the risk of going “underwater” on their loan.

Help From the Mortgage Lender

Most mortgage lenders and banks don’t want you to default on your home equity loan or line of credit, so they will work with those struggling to make payments. It’s important to contact your lender as soon as possible. The last thing you should do is ignore the problem. Lenders may not be so willing to work with you if you have ignored their calls and letters offering help for months.

When it comes to what the lender can actually do, there are a few options. Some lenders will offer certain borrowers a modification of their home equity loan or line of credit. Modifications can include adjustments to the terms, the interest rate, the monthly payments, or some combination of the three, to make paying off the loan more affordable. (Note that extending the term of the loan will lower the monthly payments, but it may mean you pay more in the end.)

Government Help Due to COVID-19

There is some protection if you are struggling to pay your mortgage due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. The Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021 has provided over $46 billion to the U.S. Treasury Emergency Rental Assistance (ERA) program. These funds are still being distributed to those in need under the America Rescue Plan with ERA2, the program’s expansion.

The National Low Income Housing Coalition provides a searchable list of all the programs available on its website. Some states have instated moratoriums of their own. You can consult the Treasury’s list of rent relief programs for your state to become familiar with your options.

The government has also encouraged all loan servicers to help prevent foreclosures via mortgage modifications and other relief options. Please check with your mortgage service provider—or the company that receives your mortgage payments—to determine if your mortgage loan qualifies for the moratorium program.

Beware of Fraud

Because the documents checked for obtaining a HELOC are fewer than those for a regular mortgage—and because there’s an extended period in which you can borrow funds—criminals can, unfortunately, use HELOCs to rob you. Thieves may be able to fraudulently acquire these accounts and siphon out thousands of dollars by stealing identities and fooling lenders.

Here’s how it happens. Criminals get your personal information through public records. Next, they establish a HELOC internet account and manipulate the customer account verification process in order to get funds, which of course they never repay. Some thieves may also hack into existing accounts. Identity-theft experts have found that victims learn about the crimes only when the financial institution calls them about the late payment, they receive written notification of late payment, or a marshal shows up at their home to evict them.

Anyone with equity in their home could become a victim, especially homeowners with good credit and older adults who’ve paid off their mortgages (because lenders often readily approve their applications). To reduce your risk, watch your HELOC statements closely and follow your credit reports for any inaccurate information.

The Bottom Line

There may come a time in your life when access to extra cash becomes a necessity. If so, a second mortgage can be a compelling option. Because it’s secured against the equity value of your home, lenders may be willing to offer rates that are lower than for most other types of loans.

However, the extra loan payment that comes with a home equity loan or HELOC should be factored into your monthly budget. Also, it’s important to note that a second lien is placed on the home by the bank. As a result, if you’re unable to make the payments, your home could be at risk for foreclosure.



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