Posted June 14, 2014

Which Is Better: A Fixed-Rate Mortgage Or An Adjustable-Rate Mortgage?

Which is better? A fixed-rate mortgage or an adjustable-rate mortgage?

As recently as 10 years, mortgage borrowers had tens of choices with respect to picking "the best mortgage" for their needs. Today, there are basically two -- fixed-rate mortgages (FRM) and adjustable-rate mortgages (ARM).

Each has its benefits and an informed home buyer will want to understand how both loan types operate in order to make the best possible choice.

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All About Fixed Rate Mortgages

A fixed-rate mortgage is exactly what it sounds like. It's a mortgage for which the interest rate is fixed for the life of the loan.

Fixed rate mortgages are available in multiple terms, where "term" is used to describe the length for which the mortgage contract is in place. With a fixed-rate mortgage, when the term is complete, the loan is paid-in-full.

As you may suspect, the monthly payment required for fixed-rate loans increase as the loan term reduces. This is because, with a shorter loan term, the homeowner is repaying the mortgage lender over a lesser period of time.

The upside of assuming the larger payment that comes with a shorter fixed rate loan term is that mortgage rates are often lower, and the amount of mortgage interest   paid over the loan's lifetime is less, too.

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For example, consider a homeowner in Orange County, California borrowing at the local jumbo mortgage limit of $625,500 and how different loan terms affect the monthly mortgage payment, given today's mortgage rates :

  • 30-year fixed rate mortgage : $2,765 monthly; $370,000 interest over time
  • 20-year fixed rate mortgage : $3,547 monthly; $226,000 interest over time
  • 15-year fixed rate mortgage : $4,208 monthly; $132,000 interest over time
  • 10-year fixed rate mortgage : $5,897 monthly; $82,000 interest over time

Some banks also offer intermediate loan terms including the 25-year fixed rate mortgage and odd-year terms such as a 17-year fixed rate mortgage.

The main benefits of a fixed rate mortgage are linked to its predictability. With a fixed-rate mortgage, your mortgage payment is set on Day 1 of your home loan, and never changes until the loan is paid-in-full. Some homeowners like this.

However, in recent years, another benefit has emerged.

For U.S. homeowners refinancing via the government's HARP mortgage program for underwater home loans, refinancing into a fixed-rate mortgage gets you access to the program's "unlimited LTV" feature. HARP households using adjustable-rate mortgages are limited to 105% loan-to-value. Homeowners using a fixed-rate loan can have LTVs of 200% or higher.

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All About Adjustable-Rate Mortgages

An adjustable-rate mortgage (ARM) is a mortgage for which the interest rate can vary over time.

Mortgage rates are often lower with an adjustable-rate mortgage versus for a comparable fixed rate loan because the homeowner assumes some of the long-term interest rate risk which is fully-assigned to the bank with a fixed-rate loan.

Most ARMs works like this :

  • For some preset, fixed number of years, the ARM's mortgage rate remains unchanged
  • After the fixed period ends, the mortgage rate changes based on a preset formula
  • Annually, the ARM's mortgage rate changes again based on the same formula

Adjustable-rate mortgages then to adjust once per year until the original loan balance is paid in full, usually in 30 years. Note that some ARMs exist which adjust every six months, but they are uncommon. Annual adjustments are most prevalent.

When ARMs adjust, the "adjusted mortgage rate" is a sum of two numbers -- a constant figure called a margin and a variable figure called an index. When you add the (margin) to the (index), you get your new rate.

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The most common index used for ARMs is the 12-month LIBOR rate, which is currently 0.86%. Margins are typically 2.5%. Today's homeowners with adjusting mortgage rates, therefore, get new mortgage rates near 3.36%.

The good news is that adjustable-rate mortgages cannot adjust too high, too quickly. This is because ARMs come with "adjustment caps" -- limits in how far an adjustable-rate mortgage's mortgage rate can change during any one adjustment period.

The adjustment caps often vary by the ARMs initial fixed-rate period.

  • 3-Year ARM : Rate doesn't change for the initial 3 years, after which it can change up to ±2% annually, and after which it may never be more than ±6% from the initial mortgage rate.
  • 5-Year ARM : Rate doesn't change for 5 years, after which it can change up to ±5% at the first adjustment, and after which it can change up to ±2% annually, and after which it may never be more than ±5% from the initial mortgage rate.
  • 7-Year ARM : Rate doesn't change for 7 years, after which it can change up to ±5% at the first adjustment, and after which it can change up to ±2% annually, and after which it may never be more than ±5% from the initial mortgage rate.

Adjustment caps protect homeowners from a rapidly-changing index such as LIBOR, limiting how far an ARM can adjust in any given year.

Since 2003, homeowners with ARMs have "beaten" the market. Today's adjusting ARMs are adjusting to near 2.80%.

Which Is Better For You : Fixed Rate Mortgage Or Adjustable Rate Mortgage

There are a lot of reasons to choose a fixed-rate mortgage over an adjustable-rate mortgage; just as the reverse is true. The "best" product will depend on your individual risk tolerance and your short- and long-term financial goals.

However, in recent years, as fixed rate mortgage rates have dropped, the relative value of an ARM's low starting mortgage rate has diminished.

Furthermore, certain ARMs including those made in "high-cost areas" such as Montgomery County, Maryland; San Jose, California; and New York, New York require larger downpayments than comparable fixed-rate loans.

Lastly, with ARMs, there are fewer low-closing cost and zero-closing cost mortgage options available because Wall Street doesn't value ARMs as highly as fixed-rate product. Talk to your loan officer about which product fits you best.

See today's current mortgage rates and compare your loan pricing. Rates are available online, at no cost, with no obligation, and with no social security number required to get started.

Click here for today's mortgage rates.

The information contained on The Mortgage Reports website is for informational purposes only and is not an advertisement for products offered by Full Beaker. The views and opinions expressed herein are those of the author and do not reflect the policy or position of Full Beaker, its officers, parent, or affiliates.

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