(Submitted by Elozor Preil) Interest costs are a drain on any financial plan, so it’s understandable that consumers would seek to minimize them. For many, this means finding the lowest interest rate and/or the shortest loan term. But there are other options, especially for home mortgages. And in specific circumstances, what at first appear to be higher-cost or riskier loans may be cheaper and provide additional economic benefits.
The primary advantage from these alternative mortgage arrangements is improved cash flow; lower monthly payments put more money under personal control. When monthly savings can be invested to produce returns greater than the costs of borrowing, these alternatives merit serious consideration.
Here are two alternatives to fixed-rate mortgages that are seeing a resurgence in the US market.
Adjustable-rate mortgages, or ARMs, have monthly payments that fluctuate as interest rates go up or down. Most ARMs have an initial fixed-rate period, typically five to seven years, during which the rate doesn’t change, followed by rate changes occurring at preset intervals. New interest rates are typically calculated by adding a fixed margin to a financial benchmark, such as the London interbank offered rate (LIBOR). While currently comprising less than five percent of all mortgages in the United States, the adjustable-rate format is so common overseas that the phrase “adjustable” isn’t even used; they are just called “mortgages.”
One of the attractions of an ARM is that the initial interest rate will generally be lower than a comparable fixed-rate loan. And if interest rates are lower when the fixed-rate period ends, future monthly payments will decline as well.
But interest rates are unpredictable, and currently near historic lows. If they climb during the mortgage term, the total interest costs in an ARM might far exceed those in a conventional fixed-rate mortgage. Even though most ARMs have caps that limit how much a monthly payment can increase during an interval, the aggregate costs could significantly exceed a fixed-rate mortgage locked in at today’s rates.
In this arrangement, a borrower’s monthly payments reflect only the interest charged each month on a fixed-rate loan; there is no amortization, so the balance doesn’t go down. After a specified period, usually five to seven years, the borrower must either refinance the property, pay the balance in full or begin an amortized payment schedule (resulting in significantly higher monthly payments).
Interest-only loans are less common, and rarely advertised; borrowers may have to ask if interest-only options are available, and meet higher eligibility standards. Compared to conventional mortgages, interest-only borrowers must have lower debt-to-income ratios, higher credit scores and larger down payments.
Because monthly payments do not reduce the loan balance, lenders may charge a higher interest rate. But even at a higher rate, the interest-only monthly payment may be substantially less than a fixed-rate payment of principal and interest.
Long-Term Financial Certainty vs. Short-Term
Cash Flow. For borrowers, a fixed-rate mortgage offers financial certainty—in monthly payments, the costs of borrowing and when the loan will be paid off. The other options, not so much. An adjustable-rate mortgage, taken to its conclusion, will still pay off the mortgage. But the cumulative interest costs will only become evident as rates increase or decrease. Interest-only loans are a temporary transaction, with only one certainty: The borrower knows that another transaction—a sale, a payoff, a refinance—must occur when the interest-only period expires.
Besides the monthly cash-flow advantages, other factors play a part in determining if alternative mortgage arrangements are desirable. In the context of their larger financial objectives, the current home may not be an integral asset for every homeowner. For example:
A Home as a Temporary Residence. For homeowners who anticipate moving within a few years, the “what-ifs” of an ARM’s changing interest rate, or the need to refinance an interest-only loan are non-issues; the house will be sold, and the mortgage paid off. At the beginning of the term, the monthly payments in a fixed-rate mortgage are predominantly interest and pay down very little principal. If the property is sold within a few years of its purchase, there won’t be a significant reduction in the mortgage balance. Perhaps it’s better to take the guaranteed lower payments from an ARM or interest-only mortgage, and save the difference.
A Home as a Subsidized Rental. Under current tax law, mortgage interest is deductible for many households. In some instances, this deduction can make owning cheaper than renting, especially for families with children, where the primary options are buying or renting a single-family home. In a fixed-rate mortgage, the interest deduction declines over time as more of each payment goes to principal. Although the monthly payment will probably be lower, the full amount can be deductible for the entire period of an interest-only mortgage.
When a homeowner anticipates selling the property (after the children are grown, at retirement etc.) the mortgage format to use might hinge on which strategy projects to deliver the most cash at the time of sale. If the monthly savings from an alt-mortgage can earn more than the cost of borrowing on a fixed-rate loan, the math favors the ARM or interest-only format. These “extra” savings can deliver additional financial benefits as well, such as increased liquidity and diversification. (And remember, even with no pay-down of principal, rising property values can increase a homeowner’s equity.)
Of course, this discussion is a waste of time if the borrower doesn’t save the difference. A March 27, 2017, Wall Street Journal article cautioned that alternatives to fixed-rate mortgages work best with “disciplined” borrowers. If an adjustable-rate or interest-only mortgage is the only way to make a home purchase affordable, it may be an indication that it really isn’t. Alt-mortgage strategies work best for those who have savings and the discipline to save more.
This article was prepared by an independent third party. Material discussed is meant for general informational purposes only and is not to be construed as tax, legal or investment advice. Although the information has been gathered from sources believed to be reliable, please note that individual situations can vary. Therefore, the information should be relied upon only when coordinated with individual professional advice.
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