Why Refinance?
There are lots of reasons you might want to refinance, but most people fit into one (or more) of the basic four categories. Most people want to reduce their monthly payments; some want to consolidate outstanding debt, such as combining a first and second mortgage into a new first mortgage; some want to tap builtup equity in their homes, and some just want to get out of a mortgage product that they don't like, or that's costing too much  going from an ARM to a fixed rate mortgage, for example.
Whatever group or groups you fit with, there are certain rules that you must follow to reach the goal desired. Straying from some of these basics can end up not only costing time, but could end up costing more money in the future.
2% Rule of Thumb?
The traditional refinance rule of thumb  that you must get an interest rate at least 2% below the interest rate you currently have  is often wrong. Why? Waiting for a two percent difference from your rate to show up in the marketplace can actually cost you money. For some people, as little as onehalf of one percent can be enough, if all other factors fall into place. In addition, since ARMs are priced at belowmarket rates, it's almost always possible to get that 2% spread  though you may or may not want to. The only way to determine whether refinancing is for you is to go about it the right way: by analyzing the time and the cost factors.
What Is Your Time Frame?
What is your time frame? Simply put, it's how long you plan on holding this mortgage, although it can be more complicated than that. You might have a product that demands refinancing  like a balloon mortgage  your time frame is only until the balloon period runs out. But, if you don't have to refinance, your time frame can be as long as you plan to stay in the home you're in. When determining your time factor, it's crucial to be honest with yourself, since the time factor will determine if and when you begin to save money. It's a fact that refinancing can cost a considerable amount of money, so you'll want to be as certain as possible of your time frame. For example, is it likely that your employer will relocate you to another city, or that you'll change jobs soon? Do you have a physical condition that could require you to move?
Evaluating all possibilities is vital, but only you know what your time frame will be.
More or Less Mortgage?
One other factor involved in refinancing your mortgage: how much money you'll need or want to borrow. Most lenders will let you borrow around 80% of your home's current appraised value. Some will allow more, if you're simply refinancing your existing loan. But, if you're looking to tap equity, known in the mortgage industry as a 'cashout refi', you'll probably find that it's less than 80%. In many cases, cashingout will mean that you'll have a larger mortgage balance than before, with possibly a higher monthly payment  and you'll have to qualify for that new mortgage.
Another consideration with a cashout refi: you might not be able to get that nice low rate you've seen, if your mortgage amount will be above the 'conforming' loan amount. Conforming loans are sold to large secondary market investors  mostly to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac  and since they buy so many, the rates are often lower. However, loans above the conforming limit, known as 'jumbo' loans, often have interest rates as much as 1/2% higher than conforming, since they are bought and sold on a much smaller scale. This is also known as the 'jumbo premium'. In short, if you have to or want to take out a jumbo mortgage, be prepared to pay more for it.
Cashout Refi or Home Equity Loan?
If freeing up cash in your home is what you'd like to do, there's a way to do so, even without refinancing: taking a homeequity loan. Home equity loans can be a viable alternative to a cashout refi, although they are not without their own set of risks. Most Home Equity loans are of the adjustablerate, revolving 'line of credit' type, and work much like a credit card does, and lenders will generally offer you as much as 75% of the equity in your home (the appraised value less the balance of your first mortgage). Most lines are pegged to the Prime rate plus a margin, but be careful  most don't have peradjustment interest rate caps, and some have lifetime caps of as much as 25%. There are fixed rate home equity loans available too, and they function much like any first or second mortgage does, but will cost you more than a line of credit.
Closing Costs
Now that we know why you want to refinance, how long you're planning to hold the mortgage, and how much money you want or need to borrow, we can look into possibly the most difficult part: closing costs. Closing costs are what it will cost you, out of pocket, to obtain that new mortgage. Keep in mind, of course, that the more it costs you to get that new loan, the longer it will take to recoup those costs, so there may be some finite limits on what you want to pay.
While some closing costs are standard  that is, you'll find them all over the country  there are some that may be specific to your local market, or to your state. Estimating your costs will take a little research, but it's important because they'll cost you anywhere between $1000 to $5000 dollars. Along with the time factor, they will determine your savings (or costs) when you refinance.
The major closing cost in obtaining any mortgage are 'points', also known as 'discount' and 'origination' points. Origination points are treated differently for tax purposes, but each point is equal to 1% of the mortgage amount you borrow  $1000 each if you're borrowing $100,000. How many points you want to pay, or whether you want to pay any at all, depends upon how much cash you have available. Typically, paying more 'discount' points will lower the available interest rate, since they are a prepayment of interest; however, you may not know that points can often be traded off for a different interest rate  such as 9% and 3 points, 9.125% and 2 points, 9.25% and 1 point, and 9.375% and no points. (This is just an example).
So, if you decide that paying points is not for you, expect to pay an incrementally higher interest rate. Origination points are a different matter, since they technically are a fee, and they have no effect whatsoever on the interest rate you can obtain. (Some states limit the number of discount points a lender can charge in the making of a mortgage loan).
Of course, points (discount or otherwise) are only one of the costs involved with refinancing. As you well remember from getting your original mortgage, there are plenty of others waiting to tap your resources  costs for appraising your property, researching your title to the property, title insurance, credit checks, attorney review fees, inspections for insects, and others. These can easily add up to a few thousand dollars, but there may be ways you can reduce these costs. For example, if the lender who originated your mortgage still holds it, you might be able to simply update your title insurance policy, instead of taking out a new one. Or, if your original mortgage required Private Mortgage Insurance (PMI) because you put less than 20% down on the property, and your new mortgage will be 80% or less than the appraised value, you can probably drop your PMI coverage, saving you as much as the equivalent of 1/4 of one percent on your new interest rate. Shopping around and comparing can also help you save on these fees.
One other possible cost, depending upon where you live: taxes. Some states have surcharges known as 'mortgage taxes', 'realty transfer taxes', 'mortgage recording fees' and others. It is very important to find out if your area is one that does charge these fees, since they can add as much as 2% of the mortgage amount to your closing costs, and significantly lengthen the cost recovery time.
What Kind of Mortgage?
Getting the wrong kind of mortgage for your situation, even with a low interest rate, can, and often will, end up costing you money in the long run. Conversely, getting the right kind of mortgage, without a low enough interest rate, can make it take a very long time to recoup your closing costs.
That's because some mortgages are better suited for a shorter time frame, some for midlength times, and others for the long haul. The time frame you have available will help determine what kinds of products are best suited to your needs. Refinancing to a 30 year fixed rate mortgage may be the wrong selection for you if you don't plan on holding the mortgage long enough to make it pay.
The biggest savings, as you'd expect, come from paying less interest. If you are comfortable with the monthly payment you are now making, it may very well be possible for you to refinance into a mortgage with a shorter term  15 or 20 years, for example  for the very same monthly payment you have now. A 15 year mortgage payment is only about 25% higher than that of a 30 year  not double, as you might expect. While this won't put money back in your pocket every month, it will let you build equity in your home twice as fast, which can pay you back in a lump sum if and when you sell the home, or let you borrow larger sums against it later. Overall, where a 30 year, $100,000 mortgage (at 10%) will cost you about $216,000 in interest costs over the life of the loan, a 15 year term will only cost you about $94,000  a $122,000 savings. So, the term of the loan you want can also help determine your overall savings.
As we mentioned, your time frame will determine the best types of mortgage for you. For example, if your time frame is reasonably short, say one to four years, you'll want to consider a short term mortgage, like a oneyear adjustable rate mortgage. With a very low first year's interest rate, and a peradjustment cap of 2%, you can virtually guarantee that low interest rate, in this example, would be at least 2% below an available 30 year fixed rate, and approximately 3% to 5% below your current interest rate. Don't laugh  a 4% interest rate spread would recoup $3000 in closing costs in less than one year, plus you'd still have a second year at below market rates. It's certainly worth considering an ARM if your time frame is very short.
As you'd expect, your mortgage choices expand as your time frame does. With a time frame of five to seven years, you might consider a balloon mortgage or the newer "TwoStep" mortgage. With either, your payments are based on as long as thirty years, but your mortgage may end at a much shorter time. But, since your mortgage can end at a shorter time, you get an added benefit: an interest rate that is roughly 1/2% lower than the prevailing 30 year fixed rate mortgage.
If your time frame runs six years or longer, you can start to consider other mortgages, including the 30 year fixed rate; as an alternative, you could also consider taking an ARM, and be prepared to refinance again in another three or four years. This isn't as crazy as it may sound, as we'll show on the chart below by making a worst case assumption. (We assume the same points and closing costs on each mortgage).
Four Year cost analysis: 1 Yr ARM vs 30 Yr Fixed
$100,000 Original Mortgage Amount
1 Year ARM with 2% PerAdjustment Cap and 6% Life Caps vs.
30Year Fixed Rate Mortgage at 9.50%


As you can see, even at a worst case, your 30 year fixed rate would still have cost you slightly more over the four year period. In addition, it's very possible that your ARM wouldn't have gone up the full 2% every year. In that event, if your rate didn't go up the full 2%, year, you would have saved money  perhaps even enough to pay for your next refinance.
How long will it take for your refinance to save you money? That all depends upon the difference between your existing monthly payment and the monthly payment on your new mortgage.
Breaking Even
Most people want to recoup their closing costs within a "reasonable" amount of time  typically, three or four years. Of course, lowering your monthly payment (if that's why you refinanced) will put a few dollars back in your pocket every month. Your breakeven point (the point where the savings each month has offset the cost of your refi) should be short enough that you enjoy at least a year or two of savings after the breakeven point expired.
To start with, you'll need to know what the available interest rates are on the type of mortgage that fits your needs; the difference between your current and projected monthly payments; and your closing costs. Using the worksheet below, you can estimate one (or more) possible scenarios to see just how long it will take.
Time Frame Evaluation: Your Mortgage vs New Mortgage



This number is the number of months it will take to recoup your costs. After this time expires, you'll actually begin to save money each month.
Finding those low mortgage rates
When you refinance, you'll want to find the best overall terms available for the type of loan you need. There's a few methods you can use: call the lenders yourself, research advertisements in the local newspapers, ask friends to recommend a lender. While all these work just fine, there's a problem: you still won't know if a lender's rate is really competitive. You'll need to shop around.
Calculating Mortgage Payments
Monthly Payments For Each $1000
Principal and Interest Combined


For instructions on using this chart, see below.
Calculating Mortgage Payments
The Monthly Mortgage Payment Chart will allow you to estimate your monthly principal and interest payments for any fixed interest rate mortgage, including Conventional, FHA (Plan 203b), VA, Balloon, or Rollover mortgages. You can't reliably use the chart to calculate the monthly payment for an adjustablerate mortgage, except for the initial period; after that, of course, the rate (and the payments) will be different. You can also easily calculate payments using HSH's mortgage calculator.
If you have a specific property in mind, you can also estimate your total monthly payment. To do this, you must know (or estimate) the following: the real estate tax(es), the property insurance cost, and, if the property is in a special hazard area (such as a flood zone), the cost for such insurance.
How To Use The Chart
This chart covers interest rates from 3% to 10.75%, and loan terms of 15 and 30 years. Each of the term columns shows the monthly payment (Principal + Interest), and the total amount you will pay back, for each $1,000 of the loan.
For example: you want to borrow $49,000 at 14% for 30 years. Scan down the interest rate column until you come to 14%. Follow this line across the page until you reach the "30 years" column. Your monthly payment for each $1,000 of the loan will come to $11.85 (with a grand total paid of $4,266.00). To find your monthly payment or your total payment, multiply the appropriate figure times the number of $1,000s in your mortgage. In our example, with a loan of $49,000, multiply:

Remember, these figures are the loan payment only. For your total monthly payment, you must add taxes and insurance. Add the total annual taxes and insurance together, divide the total by 12, and add the result to your monthly payment. This is something of an approximation, because you have to make these payments to the lender. The lender, in turn, deposits his money into an "escrow" account, until the payments are actually made. You will, however, be close to the actual payment amount.
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