Up for the quarter, down for the year? See what's happening with home affordability in our latest "Income you need to buy a home in the top 50 metro areas".

Up for the quarter, down for the year? See what's happening with home affordability in our latest "Income you need to buy a home in the top 50 metro areas".

Got debt? Your home equity can help

empty-wallet Are your credit card bills and other obligations keeping you up at night? If you are a homeowner with some equity, a home equity loan or home equity line of credit to consolidate your debt could be a savvy move to get you on firm financial footing again.

When you consolidate your debt via your home equity, you take out a home equity loan to get a lump sum of cash. You then use the cash to pay off your consumer debts, so the home equity loan -- often referred to as a second mortgage -- effectively replaces your various consumer loans.

However, consolidating your debt with your home equity is no silver bullet. It will not magically make your debt disappear, nor will it put you in a better financial position if you have bad spending habits that you don't get under control. What it can do is lower your overall monthly obligations, providing some breathing room in your budget.

If you're not certain how much equity you might have in your home, you can estimate your available home equity using HSH's KnowEquity Tracker calculator.

4 reasons to use home equity for debt consolidation

Here is what debt consolidation with home equity financing can do for you:

  • Make things simple.

    You will be replacing several monthly payments with one, making repayment easier to manage and late fees a thing of the past.

  • Slow the growth of existing debt.

    Interest rates on second mortgages are typically far lower than consumer credit rates, since your mortgage is secured by your home as collateral. A lower interest rate means your existing balance won't be growing as quickly.

  • Reduce monthly payments.

    Whether through a lower interest rate or a longer repayment period, you can lower what you pay each month toward your consumer debt. (Debt consolidation will not necessarily reduce the interest paid over the lifetime of the loan, however. In fact, it is important to note that debt consolidation can cost you as much or more in total repayment costs, particularly if you stretch out the repayment period.)

  • Change variable-rate "revolving" debt into fixed-rate "amortizing" debt.

    Credit card debt is open ended, revolving credit and rising interest rates can lengthen the period for you to totally pay off your debt. A home equity loan has a fixed-rate and fixed term, so you'll know exactly when your debt will be retired and the total interest cost.

Example: home equity loan vs. credit card debt

Let us say you have $25,000 in credit card debt at 18 percent interest, and you are currently paying $400 a month on that debt. A credit card payoff calculator shows that it would take over 15 years to pay off that debt. In the course of repayment, you'd pay more than $49,000 in interest.

If instead that $25,000 were owed on a home equity loan at 8 percent for 15 years, a mortgage calculator shows that your monthly payment drops to $239, and the total interest paid over the 15 years would drop to nearly $18,000.

If you needed to reduce your monthly payments even further, you could choose a home equity loan with a 20-year repayment period. Your monthly payments on the debt would fall to $209 per month, but the longer payback period means your interest payments increase to over $25,000, so your savings aren't nearly as great, although your monthly payment is still chopped in half compared to the required payment on your credit card.

To become debt free the fastest, you could lower your interest rate with the home equity loan and keep paying the original $400 monthly payment. It would take just six years and 10 months to pay off your debt. Accelerating the repayment of what you borrowed will not only make you debt free sooner, it can also lower your total interest cost even further. Can't or don't want to swing the entire $400 in this example? Send $300, which preserves some budget flexibility but still pays down the debt more quickly.

Depending on your situation and market conditions, you may be able to get a longer repayment term by doing a cash-out refinance of your existing first mortgage. It's possible that you may be able to lower your first mortgage's interest rate and get cash to pay off your outstanding debts, and all at a lower total monthly payment than you have now. However, this method can be costlier than securing a home equity loan or line of credit, and extending your debt repayment over as long as 30 years will likely raise the total amount of interest you'll pay.

Avoiding the debt consolidation trap

Some advertisements make it seem so easy to fix your credit problems by consolidating debts with a home equity loan. But even the best home equity loan in the world will not tackle what got you into debt in the first place. A successful debt consolidation outcome requires you to change your spending and borrowing behaviors. Consolidation makes your debt easier to pay off, as long as you stop outspending your income.

If spendthrift ways are at the root of your debt, try the following strategies as you consolidate debt using a home equity loan:

  • Limit your credit card use. Cancel your cards if you can't stop overspending, or keep only one for emergencies and have someone you trust hang onto it for you. Some debt experts even recommend going to a cash-only budget for at least a time to help you move away from credit card use for routine items.
  • Get professional help. Find a reputable credit counseling service which can help you learn to budget and become accountable for your spending choices. Avoid any agency that wants to put you into a debt management plan (you do not need it if you are doing it yourself with the home equity loan) or push you into debt settlement, especially if they want a large sum of debt repayment money from you upfront. What you are looking for here is free or low-cost education and counseling.
  • Set up automatic payments. To reduce temptation, automate as many of your bills as possible. Arrange your checking account so that your first and second mortgages are paid automatically each month. Also, set up direct deposit and an automatic transfer of money to savings as well.

When a home equity loan is not an option

Not everyone has enough equity in their home or good enough credit to qualify for a home equity loan. In that case, try these solutions:

  • Call your creditors. Many creditors will lower your interest rate in exchange for you freezing your accounts and not using them. Then set up automatic monthly payments from your checking account. Redirect any extra funds toward the account with the highest interest rate until it is paid off. Then, tackle the next highest, and so on.
  • Enter a debt management plan. A debt management plan (DMP) from a credit counselor might be a good solution for you. Before signing up, understand how much of your monthly payment will go to your creditors, and get in writing how long it will take for you to become debt free.
  • Weigh the bankruptcy option. If your debts cannot be paid through a DMP in five years or less, consider talking to a bankruptcy attorney. A Chapter 13 plan is like a DMP, except it is the bankruptcy court that has the authority to lower your payment to a manageable level. In five years, your debt is discharged even if you could not pay it all off.

This article was updated by Keith Gumbinger.

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