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What You Should Know About Home Equity Credit Lines

What Should You Look For When
Shopping For a Home Equity Credit Line?

If you decide to apply for a home equity line of credit, look for the plan that best meets your particular needs. Read the credit agreement carefully, and examine the terms and conditions of various plans, including the annual percentage rate (APR) and the costs of establishing the plan. The APR for a home equity line is based on the interest rate alone and will not reflect the closing costs and other fees and charges, so you'll need to compare these costs, as well as the APRs, among lenders.

Interest Rate Charges
and Related Plan Features

Home equity lines of credit typically involve variable rather than fixed interest rates. The variable rate must be based on a publicly available index (such as the prime rate published in some major daily newspapers or a U.S. Treasury bill rate); the interest rate for borrowing under the home equity line changes, mirroring fluctuations in the value of the index. Most lenders cite the interest rate you will pay as the value of the index at a particular time plus a "margin," such as 2 percentage points. Because the cost of borrowing is tied directly to the value of the index, it is important to find out which index is used, how often the value of the index changes, and how high it has risen in the past as well as the amount of the margin.

Lenders sometimes offer a temporarily discounted interest rate for home equity lines—a rate that is unusually low and may last for only an introductory period, such as 6 months.

Variable-rate plans secured by a dwelling must, by law, have a ceiling (or cap on how much your interest rate may increase over the life of the plan. Some variable-rate plans limit how much your payment may increase and how low your interest rate may fall if interest rates drop.

Some lenders allow you to convert from a variable interest rate to a fixed rate during the life of the plan, or to convert all or a portion of your line to a fixed-term installment loan.

Plans generally permit the lender to freeze or reduce your credit line under certain circumstances. For example, some variable-rate plans may not allow you to draw additional funds during a period in which the interest rate reaches the cap.

Costs of Establishing and
Maintaining a Home Equity Line

Many of the costs of setting up a home equity line of credit are similar to those you pay when you buy a home. For example,

  • A fee for a property appraisal to estimate
    the value of your home

  • An application fee, which may not be
    refunded if you are turned down for credit

  • Up-front charges, such as one or more points
    (one point equals 1 percent of the credit limit)

  • Closing costs, including fees for attorneys,
    title search, and mortgage preparation and
    filing; property and title insurance; and taxes.

In addition, you may be subject to certain fees during the plan period, such as annual membership or maintenance fees and a transaction fee every time you draw on the credit line.

You could find yourself paying hundreds of dollars to establish the plan. If you were to draw only a small amount against your credit line, those initial charges would substantially increase the cost of the funds borrowed. On the other hand, because the lender's risk is lower than for other forms of credit, as your home serves as collateral, annual percentage rates for home equity lines are generally lower than rates for other types of credit. The interest you save could offset the costs of establishing and maintaining the line. Moreover, some lenders waive some or all of the closing costs.

How Will You Repay Your Home Equity Plan?

Before entering into a plan, consider how you will pay back the money you borrow. Some plans set minimum payments that cover a portion of the principal (the amount you borrow) plus accrued interest. But (unlike with the typical installment loan) the portion that goes toward principal may not be enough to repay the principal by the end of the term. Other plans may allow payment of interest alone during the life of the plan, which means that you pay nothing toward the principal. If you borrow $10,000, you will owe that amount when the plan ends.

Regardless of the minimum required payment, you may choose to pay more, and many lenders offer a choice of payment options. Many consumers choose to pay down the principal regularly as they do with other loans. For example, if you use your line to buy a boat, you may want to pay it off as you would a typical boat loan.

Whatever your payment arrangements during the life of the plan—whether you pay some, a little, or none of the principal amount of the loan—when the plan ends you may have to pay the entire balance owed, all at once. You must be prepared to make this "balloon payment" by refinancing it with the lender, by obtaining a loan from another lender, or by some other means. If you are unable to make the balloon payment, you could lose your home.

If your plan has a variable interest rate, your monthly payments may change. Assume, for example, that you borrow $10,000 under a plan that calls for interest-only payments. At a 10 percent interest rate, your monthly payments would be $83. If the rate rises over time to 15 percent, your monthly payments will increase to $125. Similarly, if you are making payments that cover interest plus some portion of the principal, your monthly payments may increase, unless your agreement calls for keeping payments the same throughout the plan period.

If you sell your home, you will probably be required to pay off your home equity line in full immediately. If you are likely to sell your home in the near future, consider whether it makes sense to pay the up-front costs of setting up a line of credit. Also keep in mind that renting your home may be prohibited under the terms of your agreement.


 
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