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Is now the right time to refinance? 3 strategies to know when to refinance your home

Maggie Overholt
The Mortgage Reports editor

Should I refinance my mortgage?

Mortgage rates hit record lows again and again in 2020. And interest rates are expected to stay low throughout 2021.

As a result, millions of homeowners are “in the money” to refinance — meaning they could lower their current mortgage rate and save big on monthly payments.

Of course, deciding when to refinance your home isn’t a simple decision. Your real refinance rate and savings depend on many different factors.

So, how do you know when to refinance your home? Here are three trusted strategies that can help you decide.

Check your refinance rates (Dec 3rd, 2020)

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When to refinance your home

If refinancing your home loan saves you money, there’s a good chance you should do it.

Even if you just recently bought the home or completed a refinance, it’s probably not too soon to find yourself a better deal. 

That said, refinancing isn’t a flip of a switch. It takes some time, and there are closing costs and paperwork to consider.

You’ll have to weigh the benefits of a mortgage refinance against the upfront costs to make your decision. 

There are three simple ways to look at the numbers:  

  1. The break-even rule of thumb: A refinance might be worth it if the savings outweigh your closing costs within the amount of time you plan to stay in the home
  2. Lowering your monthly mortgage payments: Refinancing for a lower interest rate and lower monthly payment can help if your budget is tight and you need to free up your cash flow. This strategy might even be worth it if your interest costs are higher in the long run
  3. No-closing-cost refinancing: If you can find a refinance program with low or no closing costs, the decision becomes a lot easier. You’ll likely pay a slightly higher interest rate, but you might be able to avoid the out-of-pocket cost of refinancing

Start by clearly defining your goals. Know what your financial objective is, and how a refinance will help you get there. 

Then check refinance rates available to you. If they’re significantly lower than your current mortgage rate, a refinance is likely worth it.

Strategy 1: The ‘refinance to break even’ rule of thumb 

Your biggest consideration when refinancing will probably be closing costs. As with the original mortgage, closing costs for a refinance can easily total a few thousand dollars. 

With that in mind, the first question to ask yourself is: Will I stay in the house long enough after refinancing to reach the break-even point?  

The break-even point is when your total savings equal the amount you spent on refinance closing costs. After that point, you start seeing ‘real’ savings on your new loan.

You can get a simple answer to this question by dividing your closing costs by your estimated monthly savings. For example:

  • Refinance closing costs and fees: $3,000
  • Monthly savings: $300
  • Time to break even: 10 months

In this scenario, the homeowner won’t start seeing savings until 11 months in. If they’re planning on staying in the house for another few years, a refinance is probably in their best interest.

Calculate your potential savings using a refinance calculator

Here are a couple more tips for calculating your refinance savings:

  • Closing costs to consider include title, escrow, and origination fees. Ignore prepaid items like taxes and insurance, since you’ll have to pay those anyway
  • Look at your interest savings, not your payment savings. The goal is to pay significantly less in interest over the life of the loan, not just to lower your payment

If you’re planning on moving or selling before you’ll break even, take another look at your goals.

There might still be reasons to refinance (like freeing up your cash flow, below), but it’s more likely to be a wash. You might wait till interest rates drop a little lower and you can break even faster.

Strategy 2: The cash-flow refinance method

Saving money over the life of your loan is a great reason to refinance. But it’s not the only one.

Say you’re a few years into your current loan, and really struggling with monthly payments. (It can happen to anyone.) 

Refinancing into a new 30-year term might increase your total interest payments over the life of the loan. But if it lowers your monthly payment and frees up some day-to-day cash? Refinancing might be worth it anyway. 

Here’s an example of how this type of refinance might shake out:

  Original mortgage Refinanced mortgage
Loan balance $300,000 $300,000
Remaining term 23 years 30 years
Interest rate 4.75% 4%
Total interest remaining $190,000 $215,000
Monthly payment $1,800 $1,400

This homeowner would save $400 per month by refinancing. That extra cash can make a meaningful dent in monthly bills and living expenses. It could make all the difference in affording their home.

However, refinancing into a new 30-year term also means this person would pay an extra $25,000 in interest over the life of the loan.

Whether or not this type of refinance is worth it depends on your unique situation.

The important thing is that you’re fully aware of both the short- and long-term effects on your bank account before making a decision.

Check your refinance rates (Dec 3rd, 2020)

Strategy 3: No-closing-cost refinance

There’s one more surefire refinance strategy: The no-closing-cost refinance.

Believe it or not, any lender can offer you a refinance with no closing costs. But it’s not exactly a free lunch.

A no-closing-cost refinance still technically has closing costs. You just don’t pay them upfront.

You can either finance the closing costs (paying them off over the life of the loan) or accept a higher interest rate in return for the lender covering your upfront fees.

That might sound backward, considering that you’re probably refinancing because you want a lower rate.

But if mortgage interest rates are low enough, you can likely see a slight uptick and still save a lot in interest in the long run.

For example, imagine you’re refinancing a 30-year, fixed-rate loan of with a balance of $300,000 and a 4.75% interest rate:

  Refinance with closing costs Refinance with no closing costs
Loan balance $300,000 $300,000
New interest rate 3.75% 4%
Closing costs $3,000 $0
Total interest savings (over 30 years) $93,400 $77,800

Paying $3,000 in closing costs would save this homeowner more over the life of the loan, of course.

But if they can’t (or don’t want to) pay $3,000 out of pocket, they can still save more than $70,000 over 30 years with a no-closing-cost refinance. That’s not a bad deal.

Verify your new rate (Dec 3rd, 2020)

Good reasons to refinance your home loan

The three strategies above should help you figure out whether a refinance is worth it based on the amount of money you can save.

But a refinance can help you with other financial goals, too — aside from just reducing your mortgage payments.

Here are just a few good reasons to consider refinancing your mortgage:

  • Cancel mortgage insurance: You can use a refinance to get rid of mortgage insurance (either PMI or MIP) if you’ve built enough equity in the home
  • Refinance to a shorter term: You can pay off your home sooner by refinancing from a 30-year mortgage to a 15-year loan, or a less common loan term like a 10 or 20-year mortgage. Rates are usually lower, but your monthly payment will increase since you’re paying off the loan with fewer payments
  • Get out of an ARM and lock low rates: Adjustable-rate mortgages usually start with low rates, but they can spike later. Refinancing into a fixed-rate mortgage can help you lock in a low rate for the rest of your loan term 
  • Get cash out: As you pay down your mortgage, your home equity grows. A cash-out refinance lets you access some of that equity money to pay for renovations, kids’ college tuition, or other big-ticket items
  • Consolidate debt: You can also use a cash-out refinance to pay off high-interest debt, like from credit cards or personal loans, at a lower interest rate. Use extreme care with this method, as it’s easy to run debts back up and end in a worse place than where you started
  • Pay off liens, second mortgages, or judgments: If you’ve taken out a second mortgage (“piggyback” loan), home equity line of credit, or other judgment on the property, you can use a cash-out refi to pay these things off

You can learn more about these refinance strategies in our complete guide to refinancing a home.

Refinance requirements

Refinancing your home means taking out an entirely new mortgage to replace your old one. As such, you’ll need to complete a full loan application and pass basic mortgage loan requirements.

The minimum requirements to refinance depend on the loan program you’re using.

  • Conventional refinance loans typically require a credit score of 620 or higher. If you have at least 20 percent equity, you can avoid paying for private mortgage insurance and you’ll save more money
  • FHA refinance loans usually require a credit score of 580 or higher. If you want to take cash out, you’ll likely need a credit score of at least 600. FHA Streamline Refinances technically do not require credit, income, or employment verification — or a new appraisal. However some lenders may check those criteria anyway. FHA refinance loans charge mortgage insurance premium (MIP), but if you have at least 20 percent home equity, you can likely refinance to a conventional loan with no mortgage insurance
  • VA refinancing usually requires a credit score of at least 620, though some mortgage lenders are more lenient. VA loans do not require mortgage insurance and typically have the lowest interest rates of any mortgage program. The VA Streamline Refinance or ‘IRRRL’ does not require income or employment verification, or a new appraisal  
  • USDA refinancing typically requires a credit score of at least 640. Just like for USDA home purchase loans, the property must be located in an eligible ‘rural’ area. USDA borrowers also have access to a streamlined refinancing program with looser documentation requirements  

Which refinance option is right for you? That depends on your credit report and score, your current mortgage, your home value and loan amount, and your overall goal for refinancing.

You can compare refinance options here or chat with a lender, who will be able to direct you to the right loan program based on your specific profile and needs.

Refinance rates today

Refinance rates today are near record lows, hovering in the high-2% and low-3% range.

Low rates are predicted to stick around for a while — but they’re not likely to drop much further. So if you’re wondering when to refinance your home, now might be the time make your move.

Compare refinance rates from a few lenders to find the best deal for you. 

Verify your new rate (Dec 3rd, 2020)