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Real Estate

Here’s What You Need to Know about Home Equity Loans

A home equity loan allows homeowners to borrow against the equity they have in their home, or the difference between what they owe on their home and what their home is worth.

Home equity documents

So, you need some money – and a lot of it. Maybe you have medical bills to pay, or college tuition bills for your children. Maybe you need to update, renovate or make repairs to your home. Whatever the reason, you’ve been wondering whether a home equity loan is right for you. Such a loan could let you borrow a large amount of money, and because it would be secured by your home, it’d be easier to get than a personal loan.

But, before you call your mortgage broker, you need to know the ins and outs of these financial products. What are home equity loans, and how do they work? What are the pros, cons and alternatives? And what are the best ways to protect yourself and your family when you take out a home equity loan? Read on to learn the answers to these questions, and more.

What is a Home Equity Loan?

A home equity loan is basically a type of mortgage. Like the mortgage you took out when you purchased your home, a home equity loan is secured by the home itself.

Homeowners can and do use home equity loans to fund repairs, updates, renovations and improvements to the home. If you use a home equity loan to fund certain home improvements, you may be able to deduct the interest from your taxes. However, once you have the money, you can do whatever you want with it – pay for your kids’ college, start a business, or buy a second property, for example.

How Do Home Equity Loans Work?

A home equity loan usually allows you to borrow between 80 to 85 percent of the difference between what you owe on your home and what it’s worth. For example, if your home is worth $300,000, and you owe $100,000, you should be able to borrow up to 80 to 85 percent of the difference – or about $160,000 to $170,000.

However, a home equity loan is a second mortgage, and it’s structured just like a purchase mortgage. You’ll have to put in an application and your lender will assess your ability to repay the loan. You’ll pay closing costs, and your home will secure the loan. You’ll make monthly payments over a fixed number of years, but your interest rate should be fixed for the life of the loan. Home equity loans are amortized, which means that each payment will reduce both some of the interest and some of the principal of the loan.

Pros and Cons of Home Equity Loans

Home equity loan benefits

Like any other loan product, home equity loans have their pros and cons. It’s generally pretty easy to get a home equity loan, because they’re secured by your home. Interest rates are typically much, much lower than they are for credit cards, personal lines of credit and personal loans, and if you’re currently paying a low mortgage rate, you don’t have to jeopardize that with a cash-out refinance. Payments are the same every month, so they’re easy to fit into your budget, and closing a home equity loan is faster than a cash-out refinance.

However, home equity loans can be inflexible – you have to take a lump sum of money at once, which can be inconvenient if you need to use the cash incrementally, such as for college tuition payments or a renovation project. You’ll pay interest on the money even if you’re not currently using it. Home equity loans can also represent significant debt, and they come with closing costs and fees. Of course, because your home secures the loan, you could lose your house if you don’t pay it back.

Alternatives to Home Equity Loans

As an alternative to traditional home equity loans, many banks now offer home equity lines of credit, or HELOCs. Instead of receiving a lump sum in a specific amount, you can get approved for a maximum amount of available credit, and just borrow what you need against that amount. A HELOC offers more flexibility if you need to spend the money incrementally, or if you otherwise need to borrow multiple times. That way, you only pay interest on the money you actually spend. You may even be able to make smaller monthly payments in the beginning.

Cash-out refinances are another option for homeowners who find that their home is worth much more than they owe. This involves taking out a mortgage for more than you owe and pocketing the difference. It’s a good idea if you need a large sum of money for renovations, home improvements, college tuition, or other expenses, and it can be especially beneficial if you’re able to secure a lower mortgage rate.

How to Protect Yourself and Your Family When Taking a Home Equity Loan

A home equity loan can be a wonderful tool, but a wise homeowner uses caution when wielding it. Just as with a mortgage, you should shop around for the best rates before choosing a lender.

Before you take out a home equity loan, make sure you understand the terms. Don’t borrow more than you can pay back, and don’t sign up for high monthly payments that are unsustainable. If you choose a HELOC instead of a home equity loan, be careful; some HELOCs require the borrower to borrow a minimum amount, whether they need it or not. Of course, you could still make such an arrangement work for you, as long as you have the discipline to pay back the difference between what you need and the minimum loan amount.

Most importantly, don’t treat your house like an ATM. It can be tempting, especially with a HELOC, to just keep borrowing money. Your home should be a means of building wealth, and continually borrowing against your home equity undermines that. Use your home equity in ways that can help you grow or protect yours and your family’s wealth (such as by funding improvements, renovations, repairs, or the purchase of more property) or your potential to create wealth (such as by funding higher education, or starting a business).

If you’re a homeowner, you could be sitting on a source of cash to cover major expenses in the form of your home’s equity. But, while home equity can be a great resource, it’s vital to know exactly what you’re getting into with a home equity loan, so that you don’t end up regretting a second mortgage.

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