Refinance Your Mortgage

Refinancing a mortgage means paying off an existing loan and replacing it with a new one. There are many common reasons why homeowners refinance: The opportunity to obtain a lower interest rate; the chance to shorten the term of their mortgage; the desire to convert from an adjustable-rate mortgage (ARM) to a fixed-rate mortgage, or vice versa; the opportunity to tap a home's equity in order to finance a large purchase; and the desire to consolidate debt. Some of these motivations have benefits and pitfalls. And because refinancing can cost between 3% and 6% of the loan's principal and —like taking out the original mortgage — requires appraisal, title search and application fees, it's important for a homeowner to determine whether his or her reason for refinancing offers a true benefit.

Securing a Lower Interest Rate

One of the best reasons to refinance is to lower the interest rate on your existing loan. Historically, the rule of thumb was that it was worth the money to refinance if you could reduce your interest rate by at least 2%. Today, many lenders say 1% savings is enough of an incentive to refinance.

Reducing your interest rate not only helps you save money, but it increases the rate at which you build equity in your home, and it can decrease the size of your monthly payment. For example, a 30-year fixed-rate mortgage with an interest rate of 9% on a $100,000 home has a principal and interest payment of $804.62. That same loan at 6% reduces your payment to $599.55.

Shortening the Loan's Term

The prospect of spending 30 years paying back a mortgage is discouraging. If you have 20 years remaining on your loan, the option to shorten your loan term to 15 can be tempting. Taking away 5 years from a 20-year loan means a higher monthly bill, but freedom from the mortgage after 15 years instead of 20 is definitely more appealing. But if it's only a matter of a few hundred dollars more, why not? Never mind if you'll be paying a higher monthly bill.

You'll be saving thousands of dollars from interests alone with the five years knocked off from the 20-year loan term. Another benefit is building your home equity faster. A refinance mortgage loan offers the chance to restructure your terms.

Converting Between Adjustable-Rate and Fixed-Rate Mortgages

While ARMs start out offering lower rates than fixed-rate mortgages, periodic adjustments often result in rate increases that are higher than the rate available through a fixed-rate mortgage. When this occurs, converting to a fixed-rate mortgage results in a lower interest rate as well as eliminates concern over future interest rate hikes.

Conversely, converting from a fixed-rate loan to an ARM can also be a sound financial strategy, particularly in a falling interest rate environment. If rates continue to fall, the periodic rate adjustments on an ARM result in decreasing rates and smaller monthly mortgage payments, eliminating the need to refinance every time rates drop. Converting to an ARM may be a good idea especially for homeowners who don't plan to stay in their home for more than a few years. If interest rates are falling, these homeowners can reduce their loan's interest rate and monthly payment, but they won't have to worry about interest rates rising in the future.

Tapping Equity and Consolidating Debt

While the previously mentioned reasons to refinance are all financially sound, mortgage refinancing can be a slippery slope to never-ending debt. It's important to keep this in mind when considering refinancing for the purpose of tapping into home equity or consolidating debt.

The Bottom Line

Refinancing can be a great financial move if it reduces your mortgage payment, shortens the term of your loan or helps you build equity more quickly. When used carefully, it can also be a valuable tool in getting your debt under control. Before you refinance take a careful look at your financial situation, and ask yourself: How long do I plan to continue living in the house? And how much money will I save by refinancing?

Refinancing cost between 3 and 6% of the loan's principal. If you are not planning to stay in the home for more than a few years, the cost of refinancing may negate any of the potential savings. It also pays to remember that a savvy homeowner is always looking for ways to reduce debt, build equity, save money and eliminate that mortgage payment. Taking cash out of your equity when you refinance doesn't help you achieve any of those goals.