Can I Refinance?

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LendingTree quoted me in Can I Refinance? Refinance Requirements for Your Mortgage. It opens,

While there are many reasons to refinance a mortgage, one of the biggest factors at play is whether or not you’ll be able to get a better interest rate. When interest rates drop, homeowners are incentivized to refinance into a new mortgage with a lower rate and better terms because it can potentially save them a boatload of money over the course of their loan.

Not only can refinancing save money on interest payments, but it can lead to lower monthly payments, or be a way to get rid of a pesky primary mortgage insurance requirement once you’ve earned enough equity in your home. Homeowners can also tinker with their repayment timeline when they refinance, choosing to lengthen their loan term or even shorten it to pay off their home faster.

The first question before you refinance your mortgage is simple: Does it make financial sense? Refinancing a mortgage comes with the same closing costs and fees as a regular mortgage, so you must stand to earn more by refinancing than you’ll pay to do it.

If you’ve had the same mortgage rate since the aughts or earlier, chances are you could have much to gain by refinancing in today’s lower rate environment.

The average interest rate on a 30-year, fixed-rate mortgage hit a low point of 3.31% on Nov. 21, 2012 and hasn’t budged all too much since then. Rates currently stand at 4.32% as of Feb. 8, 2018. By comparison, rates were routinely in the double digits in the 80s and early 90s.

Will rates continue on the upward trend? Unfortunately, nobody knows. But rate behavior will very likely play a key role in your decision.

Once you’ve decided refinancing makes financial sense, the next question should be this: What does it take to qualify? That’s what we’ll cover in this guide.

If you hope to refinance before rates climb any further, it’s smart to get your ducks in a row and find out the refinance requirements for your mortgage right away. Keep reading to learn the minimum requirements to refinance your mortgage, how your credit score may come into play and what steps to take next.

Can you refinance your home?

Lenders consider three main criteria when approving consumers for a home refinance – income, equity, and credit.

  • Debt and income.
  • Equity. Equity is important because lenders want to confirm possibly getting their money back out of your home if you default on your mortgage.
  • Credit. Any lending situation will involve a credit check. “They look at your credit score to see if you have the willingness to pay your mortgage back – to see if you’re creditworthy,” said David Reiss, Professor of Real Estate Law at The Center for Urban Business Entrepreneurship at Brooklyn Law School. “Do you have a low credit score or a high credit score? Do you pay your bills on time?” he asked. “These are all things your lender needs to know.”

While the above factors play a role in whether you’ll qualify to refinance your home, lenders do get fairly specific when it comes to how they gauge your income to determine affordability. Since the amount of income you need to qualify for a new mortgage depends on the amount you wish to borrow, lenders typically use something called “debt-to-income ratio” to measure your ability to repay, says Reiss.

Your debt-to-income ratio (DTI)

During the underwriting process for a conventional loan, lenders will look at all the factors that make them comfortable extending you a loan. This includes your income and your debt levels, says Reiss. “Debt-to-income ratio is an easy way for lenders to determine if you have too many debt payments that might interfere with your home mortgage payment in the future.”

To come up with a debt-to-income ratio, lenders look at your debts and compare them with your income.

But, how is your debt-to-income ratio determined? Your debt-to-income ratio is all of your monthly debt payments divided by your gross monthly income.

In the real world, someone’s debt-to-income ratio would work something like this:

Imagine one of your neighbors has a gross monthly income of $4,000, but they pay out $3,000 per month toward rent payments, car loans, child support, and student loans. Their debt income ratio would be 75% because $3,000 divided by $4,000 is .75.

Reiss says this factor is important because lenders shy away from consumers with debt-to-income ratios that are considered “too high.” Generally speaking, lenders prefer to loan money to borrowers with a debt-to-income ratio of less than 43% but 36% is ideal.

In the example above where your neighbor has a monthly gross income of $4,000, this means he or she may have to get all debt payments down to approximately $1,700 to qualify for a mortgage. ($1,700 divided by $4,000 = .425 or 42.5%).

There are exceptions to the 43% DTI rule, according to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Some lenders may offer you a mortgage if your debt-to-income ratio is higher than 43%. Situations, where such mortgages are offered, include when a borrower has a high credit score, a stellar record of repayment or both. Still, the 43% rule is a good rule of thumb to follow when it comes to traditional mortgages.

Other financial thresholds

If you plan to refinance your home with an FHA mortgage, your housing costs typically need to be less than 29% of your income while your total debts should be no more than 41%.

However, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which oversees FHA loans, also notes that potential borrowers with lower credit scores and higher debt-to-income ratios may need to have their loans manually underwritten to ensure “adequate consideration of the borrower’s ability to repay while preserving access to credit for otherwise underserved borrowers.”

Mortgage broker Mark Lewin of Caliber Home Loans in Indiana even says that in his experience, individuals with good credit and “other compensating factors” have secured FHA loans with a total debt-to-income ratio of 55%.

Of course, those who already have an FHA loan may also be able to refinance to a lower rate with no credit check or income verification through a process called FHA Streamline Refinancing. Your debt-to-income ratio won’t even be considered.

A VA loan is another type of home loan that has its own set of debt-to-income requirements. Generally speaking, veterans who meet eligibility requirements for the program need to have a debt-to-income ratio at or below 41% to qualify. However, you may be able to refinance your home with an Interest Rate Reduction Refinance Loan from the VA if you already have a VA loan. These loans don’t have any underwriting or appraisal requirements.

Equity requirements

Equity requirements to refinance your mortgage are typically at the sole discretion of your lender. Where some home mortgage companies may require 20% equity to refinance, others have much lighter requirements.

To find out what your home is worth and how much equity you have, you typically need to pay for a home appraisal, says Reiss. “Appraisals are typically required because you have to be able to prove the value of your home in order to refinance, just like you would with a traditional mortgage.”

There are a few exceptions, however. Mortgage refinancing options that may not require an appraisal include:

  • Interest Rate Reduction Refinance Loans from the VA
  • FHA Streamline Refinance
  • HARP (Home Affordable Refinance Program) Mortgages

Explaining loan-to-value ratio, or LTV

Loan-to-value ratio is a figure determined by assessing how much you owe on your home in relation to its value. If you owe $80,000 on a home worth $100,000, for example, your LTV would be 80% and you would have 20% equity in your home.

This ratio is important because it can determine whether your lender will approve you for a refinance. It can also determine the interest rates you’ll pay and other terms of your loan. If you have less than 20% equity in your home, for example, you may face higher interest rates and fees when you go to refinance.

Having less than 20% equity when you refinance may also cause you to have to pay PMI or private mortgage insurance. This mortgage insurance usually costs between 0.15 to 1.95% of your loan amount each year. If you have less than 20% equity in your home already, you’re already likely to be paying for this coverage all along. However, it’s still worth noting that, if you refinance with less than 20% equity, this coverage will once again get tacked onto your mortgage amount.

Is 80% LTV mandatory?

Your LTV and equity aren’t the end-all, be-all when it comes to your loan refi application. In fact, Reiss says that lenders he has experience with don’t absolutely require borrowers to have 20% equity or a loan-to-value ratio of 80% — so long as they score high on other measures.

“If you meet the lender’s requirements in terms of income and credit, your loan-to-value ratio doesn’t matter as much — especially if you have excellent credit and a solid payment history,” he said. However, lenders do prefer lending to consumers who have at least 20% equity in their homes.

Reiss says he always refers to 20% equity as the “gold standard” because it’s a goal everyone should shoot for. Not only does having 20% equity in your home when you refinance help you avoid paying for the added expense of PMI, but it can help provide more stability in your life, says Reiss: “Divorce, disease, and death in the family can and do happen, but having equity in your home makes it easier to overcome anything life throws your way.”

For example, having more equity in your home makes it easier to refinance into the best rates possible. Having a lot of equity is also ideal when you have to sell your home suddenly because it means you’re more likely to turn a profit and less likely to take a loss. Last but not least, if you have plenty of equity in your home, you can access that cash for emergency expenses via a home equity loan or HELOC.

“Home equity is a big source of wealth for American families,” he said. “The more equity you have, the more resources you have.”

Fortunately, many households are enjoying greater home equity today, as home values have continued to increase since the housing crisis.

Your credit score

The third factor that can impact your ability to refinance your home is your credit score. When a lender decides whether to give you a mortgage or not, they typically offer the best rates to people with very good credit, or with FICO scores of 740 or higher, according to Reiss.

“The lower your credit score, the higher your interest rate may be,” he said. “If your credit score is bad enough, you may not be able to refinance or get a new mortgage at all.”

The FICO scoring model’s main website, myFICO.com, seems to echo Reiss’ comments. As it notes, a “very good” score is any FICO score in the 740-799 range. If you earn a 740+ FICO, you’re above the national average and have a greater likelihood of getting credit approval and being offered lower interest rates.

Don’t stress about getting a perfect 850 FICO score either. In reality, rates stop improving much once you pass 740.

Improving the 30-Year Mortgage

Wayne Passmore and Alexander von Hafften have posted Improving the 30-Year Fixed-Rate Mortgage to SSRN. The abstract reads,

The 30-year fixed-rate fully amortizing mortgage (or “traditional fixed-rate mortgage”) was a substantial innovation when first developed during the Great Depression. However, it has three major flaws. First, because homeowner equity accumulates slowly during the first decade, homeowners are essentially renting their homes from lenders. With so little equity accumulation, many lenders require large down payments. Second, in each monthly mortgage payment, homeowners substantially compensate capital markets investors for the ability to prepay. The homeowner might have better uses for this money. Third, refinancing mortgages is often very costly. We propose a new fixed-rate mortgage, called the Fixed-Payment-COFI mortgage (or “Fixed-COFI mortgage”), that resolves these three flaws. This mortgage has fixed monthly payments equal to payments for traditional fixed-rate mortgages and no down payment. Also, unlike traditional fixed-rate mortgages, Fixed-COFI mortgages do not bundle mortgage financing with compensation paid to capital markets investors for bearing prepayment risks; instead, this money is directed toward purchasing the home. The Fixed-COFI mortgage exploits the often-present prepayment-risk wedge between the fixed-rate mortgage rate and the estimated cost of funds index (COFI) mortgage rate. Committing to a savings program based on the difference between fixed-rate mortgage payments and payments based on COFI plus a margin, the homeowner uses this wedge to accumulate home equity quickly. In addition, the Fixed-COFI mortgage is a highly profitable asset for many mortgage lenders. Fixed-COFI mortgages may help some renters gain access to homeownership. These renters may be, for example, paying rents as high as comparable mortgage payments in high-cost metropolitan areas but do not have enough savings for a down payment. The Fixed-COFI mortgage may help such renters, among others, purchase homes.

The authors acknowledge some drawbacks for Fixed-COFI mortgages that can make them unattractive to some borrowers:

What do homeowners lose by choosing Fixed-COFI mortgages instead of traditional fixed-rate mortgages? First, they cannot freely spend refinancing gains on non-housing items. When mortgage rates fall, homeowners with Fixed-COFI mortgages automatically pay less interest and pay down the mortgage principal more. Second, they can no longer “win the lottery” played with capital markets investors and lock in a substantially lower rate for the remainder of their mortgage. With Fixed-COFI mortgages, homeowners trade the option of prepayment for faster home equity accumulation. We believe that many households may prefer Fixed-COFI mortgages to traditional fixed-rate mortgages. Furthermore, we believe that many renting households without savings for a down payment may prefer Fixed-COFI mortgages to renting. (4)

American households rely too much on the plain vanilla 30-year fixed rate mortgage for their own good. Papers like this give us some reasonable alternatives that might be better suited for many households.

Foreclosure Alternatives


Realtor.com quoted me in 3 Foreclosure Alternatives: What to Do Before Your Mortgage Goes Underwater. It opens,

Maybe you’ve missed a couple of monthly mortgage payments. Maybe a notice of default from your lender is looming right now. You understand the severity of the situation, but what most homeowners don’t know is that foreclosure is not the only option you have when you’re no longer able to afford your house.

The first step for anyone in risk of foreclosure is to get in contact with your lender. This shows that you are aware of the problem and committed to finding a solution—and trust us, that will go a long way. The earlier you reach out, the greater shot you have of amicably rectifying the problem.

After you speak with your lender, your lender will lay out your options, including the foreclosure alternatives that you might be able to take advantage of. Let’s take a closer look at some of the alternatives so you—and your credit history—don’t suffer the ultimate blow.

1. Standard sale or rental

If your home is currently valued at more than you owe and if you are up to date on your mortgage payments (but you anticipate that paying your mortgage could become a problem), you can hold out as long as possible for a buyer.

You can also try to rent out the home to cover the mortgage payments until the house sells, says Carolyn Rae Cole, a Realtor® with Nourmand & Associates. In the end, virtually all homes eventually sell—it’s just about pricing.

2. Short sale

When a home has fallen in value and is priced so low that there isn’t enough equity to cover the mortgage, you might have the option to conduct a short sale. It’s also known as going “underwater.” This means the lender agrees to accept less than the amount the borrower owes through a sale of the property to a third party.

A short sale works like this: A specialist brokers a deal with the mortgage lender to sell the home for whatever the market will bear. If the amount of the sale is for less than what’s owed on the mortgage, the lender gets the money from the sale and relinquishes the remaining debt. (This means you won’t owe anything else.) In a short sale, the lender usually pays for the seller’s closing costs. A traditional sale takes about 30 to 45 days to close after the offer is accepted, whereas a short sale can take 90 to 120 days, sometimes even longer.

Sellers will need to prove hardship—like a loss of primary income or death of a spouse—to their lender. In addition to explaining why they’re unable to make mortgage payments, sellers will have to provide supporting financial documents to the lender to consider for a short sale.

3. Deed in lieu of foreclosure agreement

A deed in lieu of foreclosure is a transaction between a lender and borrower that effectively ends a home loan. Essentially both parties agree to avoid a lengthy foreclosure proceeding by the borrower voluntarily turning over the home’s deed to a lender, says professor David Reiss of Brooklyn Law School
. The lender then releases the borrower from any further liability relating to the mortgage. However, if the property is worth significantly less than the outstanding mortgage, the lender may require the borrower to pay a portion of the remaining loan balance.

You might be eligible for a deed in lieu if you’re experiencing financial hardship, can’t afford your current mortgage payment, and were unable to sell your property at fair market value for at least 90 days.

Bottom line: This agreement is a negotiated solution to a bad situation—borrowers who have fallen behind on their payments are going to lose their house and the lender is not getting paid back in full.

Understanding The Ability To Repay Rule

photo by http://401kcalculator.org

The Spring 2017 edition of the Consumer Financial Bureau’s Supervisory Highlights contains “Observations and approach to compliance with the Ability to Repay (ATR) rule requirements. The ability to repay rule is intended to keep lenders from making and borrowers from taking on unsustainable mortgages, mortgages with payments that borrowers cannot reliably make.  By way of background,

Prior to the mortgage crisis, some creditors offered consumers mortgages without considering the consumer’s ability to repay the loan, at times engaging in the loose underwriting practice of failing to verify the consumer’s debts or income. The Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act (Dodd-Frank Act) amended the Truth in Lending Act (TILA) to provide that no creditor may make a residential mortgage loan unless the creditor makes a reasonable and good faith determination based on verified and documented information that, at the time the loan is consummated, the consumer has a reasonable ability to repay the loan according to its terms, as well as all applicable taxes, insurance (including mortgage guarantee insurance), and assessments. The Dodd-Frank Act also amended TILA by creating a presumption of compliance with these ability-to-repay (ATR) requirements for creditors originating a specific category of loans called “qualified mortgage” (QM) loans. (3-4, footnotes omitted)

Fundamentally, the Bureau seeks to determine “whether a creditor’s ATR determination is reasonable and in good faith by reviewing relevant lending policies and procedures and a sample of loan files and assessing the facts and circumstances of each extension of credit in the sample.” (4)

The ability to repay analysis does not focus solely on income, it also looks at assets that are available to repay the mortgage:

a creditor may base its determination of ability to repay on current or reasonably expected income from employment or other sources, assets other than the dwelling (and any attached real property) that secures the covered transaction, or both. The income and/or assets relied upon must be verified. In situations where a creditor makes an ATR determination that relies on assets and not income, CFPB examiners would evaluate whether the creditor reasonably and in good faith determined that the consumer’s verified assets suffice to establish the consumer’s ability to repay the loan according to its terms, in light of the creditor’s consideration of other required ATR factors, including: the consumer’s mortgage payment(s) on the covered transaction, monthly payments on any simultaneous loan that the creditor knows or has reason to know will be made, monthly mortgage-related obligations, other monthly debt obligations, alimony and child support, monthly DTI ratio or residual income, and credit history. In considering these factors, a creditor relying on assets and not income could, for example, assume income is zero and properly determine that no income is necessary to make a reasonable determination of the consumer’s ability to repay the loan in light of the consumer’s verified assets. (6-7)

That being said, the Bureau reiterates that “a down payment cannot be treated as an asset for purposes of considering the consumer’s income or assets under the ATR rule.” (7)

The ability to repay rule protects lenders and borrowers from themselves. While some argue that this is paternalistic, we do not need to go much farther back than the early 2000s to find an era where so-called “equity-based” lending pushed many people on fixed incomes into default and foreclosure.

What is the Debt to Income Ratio?

OppLoans.com quoted me in What is the Debt to Income Ratio? It opens,

One of the great things about credit is that it lets you make purchases you wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford at one time. But this arrangement only works if you are able to make your monthly payments. That’s why lenders look at something called your debt to income ratio. It’s a number that indicates what kind of debt load you’ll be able to afford. And if you’re looking to borrow, it’s a number you’ll want to know.

Unless your rich eccentric uncle suddenly dies and leave you a giant pile of money, making any large purchase, like a car or a home, is going to mean taking out a loan. Legitimate loans spread the repayment process over time (or a longer term), which makes owning these incredibly expensive items possible for regular folks.

But not all loans are affordable. If the loan’s monthly payments take up too much of your budget, then you’re likely to default. And as much as you, the borrower, do not want that to happen, it’s also something that lenders want to avoid at all costs.

It doesn’t matter how much you want that cute, three-bedroom Victorian or that sweet, two-door muscle car (or even if you’re just looking for a personal loan to consolidate your higher interest credit card debt). If you can’t afford your monthly payments, reputable lenders aren’t going to want to do business with you. (Predatory payday lenders are a different story, they actually want you to be unable to afford your loan. You can read more about that shadiness in our personal loans guide.)

So how do mortgage, car, and personal lenders determine what a person can afford before they lend them? Well, they usually do it by looking at their debt to income ratio.

What is the debt to income ratio?

Basically, it’s the amount of your monthly budget that goes towards paying debts—including rent or mortgage payments.

“Your debt to income ratio is benchmark metric used to measure an individual’s ability to repay debt and manage their monthly payments,” says Brian Woltman, branch manager at Embrace Home Loans (@EmbraceHomeLoan).

“Your ‘DTI’ as it’s commonly referred to is exactly what it sounds like. It’s calculated by dividing your total current recurring monthly debt by your gross monthly income—the amount you make before any taxes are taken out,” says Woltman. “It’s important because it helps a lender to determine the proper amount of money that someone can borrow, and reasonably expect to be paid back, based on the terms agreed upon.”

According to Gerri Detweiler (@gerridetweiler), head of market education for Nav (@navSMB), “Your debt to income ratio provides important information about whether you can afford the payment on your new loan.”

“On some consumer loans, like mortgages or auto loans, your debt to income ratio can make or break your loan application,” says Detweiler. “This ratio typically compares your monthly recurring debt payments, such as credit card minimum payments, student loan payments, mortgage or auto loans to your monthly gross (before tax) income.”

Here’s an example…

Larry has a monthly income of $5,000 and a list of the following monthly debt obligations:

Rent: $1,200

Credit Card: $150

Student Loan: $400

Installment Loan: $250

Total: $2,000

To calculate Larry’s DTI we need to divide his total monthly debt payments by his monthly income:

$2,000 / $5,000 = .40

Larry’s debt to income ratio is 40 percent.

David Reiss (@REFinBlog), is a professor of real estate finance at Brooklyn Law School. He says that the debt to income ratio is an important metric for lenders because “It is one of the three “C’s” of loan underwriting:

Character: Does a person have a history of repaying debts?

Capacity: Does a person have the income to repay debts?

Capital: Does the person have assets that can be used to retire debt if income should prove insufficient?

What is a good debt to income ratio?

“If you listen to Ben Franklin, who subscribed to the saying ‘neither a borrower nor lender be,’ the ideal ratio is 0,” says Reiss. But he adds that only lending to people with no debt whatsoever would put home ownership out of reach for, well, almost everyone. Besides, a person can have some debt on-hand and still be a responsible borrower.

“More realistically, in today’s world,” says Reiss, “we might take guidance from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) which advises against having a DTI ratio of greater than 43 percent. If it creeps higher than that, you might have trouble paying for other important things like rent, food and clothing.”

“Requirements vary but usually if you can stay below a 33 percent debt-to-income ratio, you’re fine,” says Detweiler. “Some lenders will lend up to a 50 percent debt ratio, but the interest rate may be higher since that represents a higher risk.”

For Larry, the guy in our previous example, a 33 percent DTI would mean keeping his monthly debt obligations to $1650.

Let’s go back to that 43 percent number that Reiss mentioned because it isn’t just an arbitrary number. 43 percent DTI is the highest ratio that borrower can have and still receive a “Qualified Mortgage.”

Prepaying Your Mortgage

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Newsday quoted me in Paying off Your Mortgage Early Might not Make Sense (behind paywall). It opens,

There are few greater feelings than making that last mortgage payment. Some people feel better still if they pay it off early. But sometimes it doesn’t make sense to pay off your mortgage early.

First things first: Be sure you have adequate emergency savings before you put extra money into paying off the mortgage early. Then consider what’s the best use of any extra money you have.

While taking a shorter-term mortgage or prepaying principal saves you tons in interest, remember that mortgage interest is typically tax deductible.

Warren Goldberg, founder of Mortgage Wealth Advisors in Melville, offers an example. If you had a 5 percent interest rate on your 30-year fixed mortgage, depending on your tax bracket, your equivalent, after-tax interest rate might only be 3.3 percent. Even in today’s tumultuous market, it’s not difficult to earn a return greater than 3.3 percent after taxes.

“By paying the minimum on your mortgage and investing the balance, your money can be working for you. Your investments can be earning more than the interest you are paying,” says Goldberg.

David Reiss, a professor at Brooklyn Law School specializing in real estate, agrees: “If you have not maxed out your retirement savings, it might make sense to direct your extra funds to tax-advantaged retirement accounts. You could end up being better off overall as those accounts grow tax-free over time.”