When Should You Refinance Your Home Loan?
Shirley Anderson-Porisch, Extension Educator — Family Resource Management
Revised February 2015 by Sharon Powell, Extension Educator — Family Resiliency.
Most lenders agree that the greatest gain in refinancing your home occurs when the current interest rate stands at least two percentage points below your existing mortgage loan interest rate and refinancing costs are affordable. If those two conditions exist, you should look into refinancing, which offers potential benefits, depending on your situation. But there are tradeoffs, too, so you'll need to consider a number of factors before deciding whether refinancing is right for you.
Adjusting Your Mortgage Length
When you refinance your mortgage, you’re basically trading in your old loan for a new one with a new interest rate and length, or term. As noted, you should only consider refinancing when interest rates are lower than you’re now paying. That’s because the interest rate on a home mortgage is directly connected to the monthly payment. The lower the interest rate on a home mortgage, the more of your monthly payment goes toward paying down the principal. This means that you can build equity in your home faster than you would at a higher interest rate.
But what about the term? If you refinance at a lower interest rate with a longer-term mortgage, you will reduce your monthly payment. And that may be your chief objective for refinancing. Keep in mind, though, that a longer-term mortgage (even at a lower interest rate) may increase your total interest costs over the years.
On the other hand, refinancing with a shorter-term mortgage may decrease your total interest costs overall because you’ll pay off the loan faster. However, a shorter-term mortgage will likely increase your monthly payment. Again, you need to consider your chief objective for refinancing. If your main goal is to pay off the loan as soon as possible, and you have the extra money to put toward a house payment, a shorter-term mortgage may be for you.
Dealing with an Adjustable Rate Mortgage
Besides lowering your monthly payment or paying off your loan faster, finding an adjustable rate mortgage (ARM) with better terms or switching from an ARM to a fixed- rate mortgage are two other reasons to look into refinancing when prevailing interest rates go down. ARMs pose challenges because monthly payments change when interest rates change, and if interest rates go up, you may not be able to afford the payment.
To prevent a dramatic increase in your payment, you may want to refinance under an ARM with better terms. In this case, be sure to ask the lender about the initial rate of interest, the fully indexed rate, and the rate adjustments you may face over the term of the loan.
Another way to prevent a big payment hike is to switch to a fixed- rate mortgage with a steady interest rate and monthly payment. Many people appreciate the peace of mind and budgeting predictability that a fixed-rate mortgage offers.
When Is Refinancing Not a Good Idea?
In general, refinancing is not a good idea if doing so won’t save you money. According to the Federal Reserve Board, there are three reasons why you might not benefit from refinancing:
- If you have held your mortgage a long time. The longer you have paid down your mortgage, the more of your monthly payment applies to principal and helps build equity. However, if you refinance late in your mortgage term, you’ll “reset the clock” and restart the amortization process so more of your payment will be paying interest (and not building equity) again.
- If your current mortgage has a prepayment penalty. A prepayment penalty is a fee that lenders might charge if you pay off your mortgage loan early, including for refinancing. If you’re seeking refinancing with the same lender, ask whether the prepayment penalty can be waived with a new loan. If you have to pay the penalty, you will increase the time it takes to break even on refinancing — even after accounting for expected monthly savings.
- If you plan to move from your home in the next few years. If you’re planning to move in the near future, the savings you’ll see from lower monthly payments may not exceed the costs of refinancing. Use a break-even calculation to determine whether or not it is worthwhile to refinance.
Other considerations for refinancing include your eligibility to refinance under lender criteria, your credit standing, and the costs associated with refinancing, which might range from three to six percent of the outstanding principal.
A good place to start looking for information and asking questions is with your current lender. But don’t stop there! Check out other sources, too, including the websites listed under “Related Resources” below. Remember — refinancing is an important decision that will affect your financial future. So it's in your best interest to gather as much information as you can about the process.
Federal Reserve Board. (2008). A consumer’s guide to mortgage refinancings.
Owning a Home — Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) — CFPB is here to help you with your home buying process. Just starting out? Learn what to expect and how to get a great deal. About to close? A checklist makes it less stressful.
A Consumer’s Guide to Mortgage Refinancings — Federal Reserve Board — Your home may be your most valuable financial asset, so you want to be careful when choosing a lender or broker and specific mortgage terms
5 Tips: Shopping for a Mortgage — Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System — Know what you can afford, shop around, understand loan prices and fees, know the risks and benefits of loan options, and get advice from trusted sources.