How to Handle an Upside-Down Car Loan

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Upside-down. Negative equity. Underwater. No matter what you call it, it means you owe more on your car than it’s currently worth. While it happens to most people who finance the purchase of a vehicle at some point, it’s not a good place to be — especially when you’re planning on selling the car or trading it in for a newer model.

It’s also a situation that’s becoming more common. According to the Edmunds Used Vehicle Market Report for the third quarter of 2016, a record 25 percent of all trade-ins toward a used car purchase have negative equity, and the average negative equity at the time of trade-in was $3,635 — also a record in the used-car market.

You can find out if you’re in this position by looking up the value of your vehicle using a research tool such as Kelley Blue Book. If the value is less than the balance on your current car loan, you are upside-down.

Part I: How do you get upside-down in the first place?

There are some reasons car loans may be upside-down.

Low down payment

Dealerships often offer incentives for new cars, including very low or no down payment loans. A new car loses about 20 percent of its value in the first year, so a small down payment can quickly cause the balance of your loan to soar above its actual value. A healthy down payment can help keep your loan balance in line with the worth of your car.

High interest rate

Remember to shop around for an auto loan, because the higher the interest rate, the less you’re paying toward principal each month. That makes it more likely you’ll become upside-down, even if you made a decent down payment.

Anthony Curren, a sales and marketing manager and salesperson with Rick Curren Auto Sales in Corning, N.Y., says he sees this happen pretty regularly when disreputable salespeople charge higher interest rates to make more money off a loan.

“This happened to my girlfriend before we met,” Curren says. “She had an 800-plus credit score and got stuck in a loan charging 5 percent interest. She should have been paying 2 percent or less at that time.”

Longer loan term

According to Experian’s State of the Automotive Finance Market report for the second quarter of 2017, the average length of a new auto loan is currently nearing 69 months. While longer loan terms may keep your monthly payment low, you’ll end up paying more interest, and you’re more likely to be upside-down.

Past upside-down loan

You could be upside-down because you carried negative equity over from your last car loan. Many dealers offer what’s known as a rollover loan: When people trade in an upside-down vehicle, the dealership rolls the negative equity into the purchase of their next car. With a rollover loan, you are upside-down before you even drive off the lot.

People who trade up for a new vehicle every couple of years are most likely to have car loans with rolled-over negative equity. In the first few years of a new car loan, your car depreciates faster while your loan balance declines the slowest due to interest. This means many people are upside down in the early years of their loans. The longer you keep the vehicle, the more likely it is that the loan balance will be less than the current value of the vehicle.

Being upside-down on your car loan may not pose a problem, as long as you are planning on holding onto the car until you have some equity in it. But if an unforeseen financial setback means you need to sell the car, you may need to come up with extra cash to pay off the loan difference. And if your car is wrecked or stolen, your insurance may not pay out enough to retire the loan.

Part II: How to get out of an upside-down car loan

The first step to dealing with an upside-down car loan is knowing your numbers.

Step 1: Figure out how much you owe.

The fastest and most accurate way to find out how much you owe on your loan is to contact your finance company. If you are planning on selling or trading in your car right away, you’ll need to know the payoff amount, not just the amount remaining on your principal. The payoff amount is how much you actually have to pay to satisfy the terms of your loan. It includes the payment of any interest you owe through the day you intend to pay off the loan, as well as any prepayment penalties.

You may be able to find this figure by logging into your lender’s online account portal. Otherwise, you’ll have to call the finance company.

Step 2: Figure out how much your car is worth

You can get a value estimate using Kelley Blue Book’s What’s My Car Worth tool. You’ll need to provide the car’s year, make, model, mileage, style or trim level (the alphanumeric code that helps identify at what level the vehicle is equipped), and the car’s condition. If you’re not sure how to rate your car’s condition, you can take a quick quiz to help you assess it.

Once you input those details, you’ll receive a range suggesting how much (or how little) you can expect to receive from a dealer for a trade-in. Keep in mind that every dealer is different, but you may be able to negotiate.

Step 3: Calculate your negative equity

If the payoff amount on your loan is greater than the value of your car, you are, as we’ve said, upside-down. Subtract the value of your car from the payoff amount to find out how underwater you are. If the difference is small, you may be able to make extra payments toward the loan’s principal to catch up. If the difference is significant, you may have to take more drastic steps.

Step 4: Strategize remedies

If you find yourself upside-down on your car loan, the most prudent course of action is continue to pay down the debt until you have some equity in the car. You can hasten the process by making extra payments toward the loan’s principal.

If that isn’t an option, here are a few other ideas.

Pay off the car with a home equity loan or line of credit

As with most things in life, there are pros and cons to paying off a car loan with a home equity loan or line of credit (HELOC). One advantage is that you can typically lengthen your repayment period, thereby reducing your monthly payment. HELOCs also have more flexible repayment options, compared with the fixed monthly payment that comes with an auto loan. This may be a good option if you’re having trouble making your monthly payment due to a temporary financial setback.

The second advantage of paying off your car loan in this fashion: The interest paid on your HELOC is typically tax-deductible, while interest on your car loan is not. Keep in mind that you’ll have to itemize deductions on your tax return to take advantage of this benefit. If you take the standard deduction, there’s no tax advantage.

But before you pay off a car loan with a HELOC, consider the downsides. First off, HELOCs are often variable-rate loans. If interest rates rise, your monthly payment could go up. Second, even if the interest rate on your HELOC is lower than the interest rate on your car loan, you could end up paying more in interest by stretching out the loan term. Finally, if you can’t make your HELOC payments, you could lose your home.

If you decide to take this route, make a plan to pay down the HELOC as soon as possible. Otherwise, it could well outlive your car, and you’ll be paying off the HELOC and a new loan for your next vehicle at the same time.

Pay off the car with a personal loan

Paying off a car loan with a personal loan could be a good option if you plan on selling your car without buying a new one. In that case, you would sell the car, use the proceeds to pay down the balance of the car loan, then refinance the remaining balance with a personal loan.

However, keep in mind that auto loans are secured by collateral (the car). If you’re unable to pay, the lender can repossess the car. Personal loans are unsecured. If you stop paying, the lender has fewer options for recovering the money. For this reason, personal loans usually come with higher interest rates than auto loans.

The Federal Reserve Bank’s survey of commercial bank interest rates for the second quarter of 2017 shows just how much higher those rates can be. The average 60-month new car loan comes with an APR of 4.24 percent. The average 24-month personal loan has an APR of 10.13 percent. So with the typical personal loan, you’ll pay more than twice as much interest in half the time. Hard to see that as a good deal.

Refinance the car loan

Refinancing your car loan can help in a few ways. You may be able to lower your interest rate and lower the term of your loan, both of which will help you get equity in your car sooner. Curren says deciding whether refinancing is the right option depends on the remaining loan term and interest rate.

He uses the hypothetical example of a person who, because of credit issues, used a subprime loan with an interest rate of 22.9 percent to purchase a car. “My advice to that person is to build their credit up as much as possible and as quickly as possible,” Curren says. “In one year, they should be looking at refinancing the loan with an interest rate as low as 6 or 7 percent, which is still relatively high, but much more palatable. It will save them thousands of dollars in repayment.”

However, Curren says he doesn’t offer the same advice to someone with only a year or two left on a loan. “At that point, the savings is minimal,” he says. “The better advice is to pay off the car quicker.”

Part III: What to watch out for when you have an upside-down car loan

Car dealers push the latest vehicle designs and advertise very attractive incentives for trading in your old vehicle, no matter how upside-down you are at the moment. But take heed: You’ll want to be very careful about trading in an upside-down vehicle for a new loan. Here’s a look at the problems that can arise:

Rolled-over negative equity

As we mentioned above, many car dealers are willing to roll the negative equity from your old car loan into a new loan. This is a popular option because it doesn’t require coming up with any money immediately. But it also means your new car will be underwater before you even drive it home. That new car may be fun to drive, but your monthly will be higher because it includes the cost of your new vehicle and the remaining balance on the old one.

Dealer cash incentives

Some car dealers offer cash incentives that can help pay off your negative equity. For example, if you have $1,000 in negative equity on your current car loan, you could buy a new car with a $2,500 rebate, use $1,000 of the rebate to pay off the negative equity, and still have $1,500 left over to use as a down payment on the new car.

But be wary of dealers advertising they’ll “pay off your loan no matter how much you owe.” The FTC warns consumers that these promises may be misleading because dealers may roll the negative equity into your new loan, deduct it from your down payment, or both. If the dealer promises to pay off your negative equity, read your sales contract very carefully to make sure it’s not somehow folded into your new loan.

Part IV: How to avoid an upside-down car loan

Being upside-down on your car loan, at least for a little while, is very common. But there are things you can do to prevent it from happening.

  • Make a larger down payment. Because a car depreciates by around 20 percent in its first year, putting down 20 percent of the total purchase price (including taxes and fees) can help you avoid going underwater.
  • Choose a car that holds its value. Some makes and models hold their value better than others. Kelley Blue Book, Edmunds and other car research sites regularly release lists of car brands and individual models with the best resale value. Do your research and pick out a car that will depreciate more slowly.
  • Opt for a shorter loan term. Longer terms are more likely to leave you underwater in the early years of the loan because you’re paying less toward the principal each month. Try not to finance a car for longer than you plan on keeping it.
  • Shop around for the lowest rate. The lower your interest rate, the more money you’ll pay toward principal each month. Don’t settle for the first offer you receive at a dealership. Shop around for a car loan before you go to the dealer, so you can feel confident you’re getting the best deal.
  • Avoid unnecessary options. Sunroofs, leather upholstery, rust proofing, extended warranties, fabric protection, chrome wheels — all these attractive add-ons are often overpriced. They’ll increase the purchase price of your vehicle, but rarely add long-term value.

Final thoughts

Being upside-down on your car loan is not an ideal situation, but you do have options. Understand the circumstances that led you to be upside-down in the first place can help keep the problem from recurring, or from carrying over to your next loan.

The post How to Handle an Upside-Down Car Loan appeared first on MagnifyMoney.

The Complete Guide to FHA Loans

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Saving up for a big down payment on a home could be the kind of financial obstacle that prevents first-time homebuyers with little savings from ever becoming homeowners. Fortunately, government-backed Federal Housing Administration (FHA) loans can help potential homebuyers who want a home but struggle to pull together a large down payment.

This guide will cover the pros and cons of using an FHA loan to purchase a home and how homebuyers can begin the process of shopping and getting approved for these loans.

Part I: Understanding FHA Loans

What is an FHA loan?

FHA loans are insured by the Federal Housing Administration, which means that the federal government makes a guarantee to the bank that the government will repay the borrower’s loan if the borrower stops making payments. This guarantee means banks are willing to provide funding to borrowers who may not otherwise be able to qualify for a home loan.

FHA loans are not funded or underwritten directly by the FHA, but rather by FHA-approved lenders. These lenders can be found using the Lender Search tool. Interest rates and fees vary by lender, even for the same type of loan, so it’s important to shop around.

Benefits of FHA loans

FHA loans are designed to promote homeownership and make it easier for people to qualify for mortgages. For that reason, they typically have more flexible lending requirements than conventional loans, including:

Lower minimum credit scores

Many loan programs require a credit score of at least 620 or 640, but FHA loans are available to borrowers with scores as low as 500.

Lower down payments

Borrowers can get FHA loans with as little as 3.5 percent down. However, borrowers with credit scores between 500 and 579 will need at least 10 percent down.

Not just for first-time homebuyers

Although their flexible terms and low down payments make FHA loans appealing to first-time homebuyers, they’re also available to repeat buyers as long as the proceeds are used to purchase a primary residence.

Seller assistance with closing costs

Yael Ishakis, the vice president of FM Home Loans in Brooklyn, N.Y., says another benefit of FHA loans is that they allow sellers to assist with up to 6 percent of sales price for closing costs, including origination fees, points and other closing costs. This helps borrowers struggling to come up with a down payment cover some of the additional costs involved in closing on a home loan. Sellers may not be willing to pay closing costs in a hot housing market, but in a down market, helping with closing costs can mean a faster sale. For conventional loans, the seller can contribute no more than 3 percent toward closing costs unless the buyer has a down payment greater than 10 percent.

Drawbacks of FHA loans

FHA loans are appealing to many borrowers, but they’re not always the best choice. Here are a few reasons you may want to look into alternatives.

Mortgage insurance

FHA loans require mortgage insurance, a policy that protects the lender against losses from defaults on home mortgages. FHA loans require both upfront and monthly mortgage insurance from all borrowers, regardless of the amount of the down payment.

On a 30-year mortgage with a base loan amount of less than $625,500, the annual mortgage insurance premium would be 0.85 percent of the base loan amount, and the upfront mortgage insurance premium would be 1.75 percent of the base loan amount as of this writing.

With a conventional loan, the borrower can avoid mortgage insurance by putting at least 20 percent down. They can also request to have their mortgage insurance premiums removed from their monthly payment once the loan is at 78 percent of the home’s current value, as long as the borrower has been making on-time payments for at least one year. With an FHA loan, mortgage insurance is required for the life of the loan.

Ishakis says this aspect of FHA loans causes her to hesitate before offering FHA loan options to buyers. If an FHA borrower’s home goes up in value, the only way to have the mortgage insurance removed is to refinance to a conventional loan. The refi would require more paperwork, closing costs, and a potential increase to their interest rate if rates have increased. With a conventional loan, getting mortgage insurance removed simply requires sending a written request to the lender once you’ve met the requirements.

Documentation requirements

  • Most recent two months of bank statements
  • Most recent 30 days of pay stubs
  • Most recent two years of W-2s
  • Two years of tax returns
  • Gift letter (if using gifted funds for the down payment or closing costs)

If you have been divorced in the past, declared bankruptcy, are self-employed, or earn income based on commissions, you may be required to provide even more documentation.

FHA Loan

Conventional Loan

Minimum credit score

500

620

Minimum down
payment

3.5%

3%

Maximum seller-
assisted closing costs

6%

  • 3% with down payments
    less than 10%

  • 6% with down payments
    between 10% and 25%

  • 9% with down payments
    greater than 25%

Upfront mortgage
insurance

1.75%

None

Monthly mortgage
insurance

0.85%

Varies based on credit score
and loan-to-value ratio

Borrowers who are able to qualify for a conventional loan may be better off choosing a conventional loan rather than an FHA loan. Conventional loans can require a slightly lower down payment and do not require any upfront mortgage insurance, and borrowers can request to have their monthly mortgage insurance payments removed once they have at least 20 percent equity in the home and have made on-time payments for one year. That can all add up to significant savings over the life of the loan.

Part II: FHA Loan Requirements

With their flexible requirements and low barriers to approval, FHA loans are some of the easiest loans to qualify for. Here’s a look at FHA loan requirements.

Minimum credit score requirements

The minimum credit score for an FHA loan with a 3.5 percent down payment is typically 580. If your credit score is between 500 and 579, you may be approved for an FHA loan, but you will need to put at least 10 percent down.

These are FHA guidelines, but individual lenders may have their own requirements, referred to as lender overlays. A particular lender may require a minimum credit score of 640 or higher, so if you are turned down for an FHA loan by one bank, it’s a good idea to try others.

Income requirements

The FHA does not have minimum or maximum income requirements. However, borrowers must have sufficient income to be able to afford the mortgage payments and their other obligations. Part of the approval process involves verifying your employment and income, but the amount you earn is not as important as the amount of income you have left over after paying your other monthly bills.

Debt-to-income ratio requirements

Debt-to-income (DTI) ratio is another key metric FHA-approved lenders consider when determining whether you can afford a mortgage. DTI measures the amount of debt you have compared to your income, and it is expressed as a percentage.

Lenders look at two debt-to-income ratios when determining your eligibility:

  • Housing ratio or front-end ratio. What percentage of your income would it take to cover your total monthly mortgage payment? According to Kevin Miller, Director of Growth at Open Listings, lenders like to see a front-end ratio below 31 percent of your gross income, although approval with a percentage up to 40 percent is possible depending on the circumstance.
  • Total debt or back-end ratio. Shows how much of your income is needed to pay for your total monthly debts. Miller says lenders prefer a back-end ratio of less than 43 percent of your gross income, although approval with a percentage of up to 50 percent is possible.

Down payment requirements

FHA loans require a down payment of at least 3.5 percent of the purchase price, or 10 percent if your credit score is below 580. In addition to the down payment, the borrower may have to pay other upfront costs including appraisal and inspection fees, upfront mortgage insurance, real estate taxes, homeowners insurance, homeowners association dues, and more.

However, the FHA allows sellers to cover up to 6 percent of closing costs and allows closing costs to be gifted from friends or family members.

Clear CAIVRS report

Any federal debt that hasn’t been repaid and has entered default status can prevent you from getting an FHA loan. The government keeps track of people who default on all types of federal debts, like government-backed mortgage loans, SBA loans, and even federal student loans.

The system they use to track defaults is called the Credit Alert Verification Reporting System (CAIVRS). Borrowers do not have access to CAIVRS, so you’ll have to consult an FHA-approved lender to learn whether you are in the system.

If the delinquency was for a prior FHA-backed loan, you’ll have to wait three years from the time that the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) paid the mortgage lender’s insurance claim.

FHA loan limits

The FHA puts a cap on the size of a mortgage that it will insure. These loan limits are calculated and updated annually and announced by HUD near the end of each calendar year.

Because the cost of living can vary widely throughout the country, FHA loan limits differ from one county to the next. The national maximum for an FHA loan is currently $636,150, but in low-cost areas, the maximum can go as low as $275,665 for a single-family home. You can look up the limit in your area using HUD’s FHA Mortgage Limits lookup tool.

FHA mortgage limits are calculated based on 115 percent of the median home price in the county, as determined by the Federal Housing Finance Agency.

Property requirements

FHA loans are only available when the borrower intends to use the property as a primary residence — investment properties are not eligible.

In addition, the property you intend to purchase must meet certain requirements to qualify for an FHA mortgage. Every FHA loan requires the property to be appraised and inspected by a HUD-approved home appraiser to verify the current market value of the property and ensure it meets HUD’s minimum property standards.

The appraiser will look at the roof, foundation, lot grade, ventilation, mechanical systems, heating, electricity, and crawl space in the home. Their standards are outlined in great detail in HUD’s Single Family Housing Policy Handbook, but essentially the property must not be hazardous or threaten the health and safety of the buyer who will live in the home.

Safety hazards noted during the appraisal will not automatically disqualify the property from an FHA loan. If the issue can be corrected before final inspection — such as the seller repairing a leaking roof — the loan can move forward.

Part III: Types of FHA Loans

There are several types of FHA loans to meet the needs of different homeowners. Here’s a look at the options available.

Fixed-rate mortgages

Fixed-rate mortgages are the most common type of FHA loans. The borrower chooses a loan term between 10 and 30 years, and the interest rate will not change over the life of the loan.

Adjustable-rate mortgages

Adjustable-rate mortgages (ARMs) also have terms between 10 and 30 years, but as the name implies, the interest rate can change periodically, so the payments can go up or down. The initial interest rate on an ARM is lower than that of a fixed-rate mortgage, so this can be a good option for a borrower who plans to own their home for only a few years.

Many ARMs are hybrids, meaning there is an initial period during which the rate is fixed. After that, the rate changes at regular intervals. Most ARMs have caps that limit how much the rate can change at any one time and throughout the life of the loan.

FHA loans offer the following interest rate cap structures for ARMs:

  • One- and three-year ARMs may increase by 1% annually after the initial fixed-rate period and 5% points over the life of the loan
  • Five-year ARMs may either allow for increases of 1% points annually and 5% points over the life of the loan, or increases of 2% points annually and 6% points over the life of the loan
  • Seven- and 10-year ARMs may only increase by 2% annually after the initial fixed-interest rate period, and 6% over the life of the loan

FHA reverse mortgages

Seniors with a paid-off mortgage or significant equity in their home may be able to access a portion of their home’s equity with an FHA Home Equity Conversion Mortgage (HECM), commonly referred to as a reverse mortgage.

The loan is called a reverse mortgage because instead of the borrower making monthly payments to the lender, as with a traditional mortgage, the lender makes payments to the borrower. The borrower is not required to pay back the loan unless the home is sold or otherwise vacated.

Many seniors use reverse mortgages to supplement Social Security income, meet unexpected medical expenses, make home improvements, and more.

Energy Efficient Mortgages

The FHA’s Energy Efficient Mortgage (EEM) program is designed to help homeowners save on utility bills by financing energy-efficient improvements with an FHA loan. The program is available as part of a home purchase or by refinancing the current mortgage.

To qualify for an EEM, the borrower must first get a Home Energy Rating Systems Report performed by a professional rater. The rater inspects everything in the home, from insulation to appliances and windows. Once the property’s current energy efficiency is calculated, the inspector makes recommendations for energy-efficient upgrades.

EEMs are available for $4,000 or 5 percent of the property value up to $8,000. If the EEM is included in the initial home purchase, you do not need to come up with a larger down payment.

FHA 203(k) loans

Homebuyers looking to buy a fixer-upper may be interested in an FHA 203(k) mortgage. This program allows homeowners and homebuyers to finance up to $35,000 into their mortgage for repairs and improvements.

These loans often make it possible for buyers to purchase and rehabilitate properties that other lenders won’t touch because the property is in such bad shape. The loan includes money to purchase the property, enough to make necessary improvements, and, in certain cases, enough to cover rent or the borrower’s existing mortgage for up to six months so the buyer has another place to live while the home is being renovated.

Part IV: Shopping for FHA Loans

As mentioned previously, FHA loans are notorious for requiring a lot of documentation. Here’s a list to get you started:

  • Address of your place of residence
  • Social Security number(s)
  • Names and locations of your employer(s)
  • Gross monthly salary at your current job(s)
  • Two years of completed tax returns (three if you are self-employed)
  • Two years of W-2s, 1099s, or other income statements
  • Most recent month of pay stubs
  • Recent statements for all open loans (such as student loans or car loans)
  • A year-to-date profit-and-loss statement for self-employed individuals
  • Most recent three months of bank, retirement, stocks, and/or mutual fund statements
  • Contact information for your landlord or current mortgage lender
  • Bankruptcy and discharge papers (if applicable)
  • Copies of driver’s license(s)
  • Social Security card(s)
  • Copy of divorce decree (if applicable)
  • Letters of explanation for any past credit issues, bankruptcies, or foreclosures (if applicable)
  • Gift letter if your down payment or closing funds are a gift from friends or family members
  • If you are refinancing or you own another property, you will also need:
  • Note and deed from current loan
  • Property tax bill
  • Homeowners insurance policy

Your lender will also have you sign multiple documents, including authorization to pull your credit report, verify your employment, and obtain a transcript of your tax return from the Internal Revenue Service.

As you get closer to your closing date, you may need to update many of these documents. For instance, if you provided a January bank statement and pay stubs when you started your loan process and your loan doesn’t close until March, your loan officer will likely need a copy of your February bank statement and pay stubs to finalize your loan.

Where can you compare FHA loan rates?

As mentioned above, FHA loans are not provided directly by the FHA, but by FHA-approved lenders, so rates can vary depending on which bank you work with. For that reason, it’s a good idea to shop around for the best rate.

Fortunately, some resources allow you to do a lot of your initial mortgage rate shopping online.

Check out LendingTree’s FHA loan rates here. By filling out an online form with questions about the type of property you’re purchasing, city, state, and a few other details, you can compare personalized rates from several lenders. Note: LendingTree is the parent company of MagnifyMoney.

Part V: The FHA Closing Process

The HUD Handbook 4155.2 explains the FHA loan process in detail, from identifying a lender to the lender’s responsibilities after the loan is closed. The time it takes to close on an FHA loan is pretty comparable to other types of loans. According to a recent Origination Insight Report from Ellie Mae, in August of 2017, FHA loans for new purchases took an average of 44 days to close, compared to 42 days for conventional loans.

Here are the steps that apply to borrowers:

  1. Lender identification. Contact a HUD-approved lender to find out if you are eligible for an FHA loan. All of the major banks and many smaller, regional lenders participate in the FHA loan program.
  2. Loan application. The lender will help you complete a loan application and request a variety of financial documents.
  3. Case number assigned. Every FHA mortgage is assigned a case number that identifies the individual loan and borrower.
  4. Property appraisal. The lender will order a property appraisal from a HUD-approved appraiser to verify the market value of the home and that it meets all of HUD’s property requirements.
  5. Mortgage underwriting. The underwriter reviews your file in accordance with HUD’s guidelines to determine whether you have the ability to repay the loan. They’ll take a close look at your credit history, employment situation, income stability, debt-to-income ratio, and other factors.
  6. Underwriting decision. If your application is approved, you are “clear to close” and will move on to the closing process. If your file is rejected for some reason, the lender will notify you of the underwriter’s decision and will likely tell you why the underwriter came to that decision.
  7. Closing process. The lender “closes” the loan by having all documents signed and ensuring that all money is distributed to the appropriate parties. Borrowers should review all loan documents carefully to ensure accuracy. This is also the time when you’ll need to present a cashier’s check or wire funds from your bank to cover closing costs.

Before you sign

The closing process can be a ceremonious event. It may take place in your lender’s or realtor’s office. You’ll be handed a pen and a big stack of documents that require your signature. A notary will likely be present to witness your signature. But don’t let the pomp and circumstances distract you from the task at hand: making one of the largest financial transactions of your life.

Before you get to closing, you should receive a loan estimate that lays out the important information about your loan, including the loan amount, projected interest rate, estimated monthly payment, and estimated funds required to close. Your interest may be locked in. This means your rate won’t change between the offer and closing date, as long as there are no changes to your application and you close within the specified time frame.

At least three business days before closing, you should receive a Closing Disclosure form listing all final terms of the loan you’ve selected and final closing costs. When you sit down to sign the loan documents at closing, double-check the details to ensure your final documents agree with the Closing Disclosure. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has an excellent interactive tool explaining all of the parts of your Closing Disclosure and the details you should review.

Your lender or realtor should give you a list of items to bring with you to the closing. This will likely include a cashier’s check or proof of wire transfer for the funds you need to close and your driver’s license.

Ask questions to ensure you feel comfortable with everything you’re signing and make sure you know when and where to send your first mortgage payment and when it will be due.

Closing costs to consider

Your Closing Disclosure will show all of the closing costs required to finalize your loan. Some of them may be financed into your loan, some may be paid by the seller, and some are your responsibility. Closing costs vary based on where you live and the property you buy. Here’s a list of some common ones:

  • Application fee. Covers the cost of the lender to process your application.
  • Appraisal. Paid to the appraisal company to confirm the value of your home.
  • Attorney fee. Paid to an attorney to review the closing documents on behalf of the buyer or lender.
  • Escrow fee. Paid to the title company or escrow company that oversees the closing of your home purchase.
  • Credit report. The cost of pulling your credit report and credit score.
  • Escrow deposits. You may be required to put down two months or more of property taxes and mortgage insurance payments at closing.
  • Upfront mortgage insurance premium. FHA loans require an upfront mortgage insurance premium of 1.75 percent of the loan amount.
  • Homeowners insurance. Homeowners insurance covers possible damage to your home. The lender may require that you pay the first year’s premium at closing.
  • Origination fee. Covers the lender’s administrative costs.
  • Prepaid interest. The lender may require you to prepay any interest that will accrue between your closing date and the date your first mortgage payment is due.
  • Recording fees. Charges by your local city or county for recording public records.
  • Title company search. A fee paid to the title company for doing a thorough search of the property’s records to ensure that no one else has a legal claim to the property.

Closing costs typically run 3 to 5 percent of the loan amount.

FAQ

Still wondering whether an FHA loan is right for you? The following are some frequently asked questions about FHA loans that may help you decide.

Yes! FHA guidelines require borrowers to wait two years from the discharge of a Chapter 7 bankruptcy or one year from the discharge of a Chapter 13 bankruptcy before applying for an FHA loan. In addition to meeting the waiting period, borrowers with bankruptcies should be able to demonstrate that they’ve worked to re-establish good credit or chosen not to incur any new debts since the bankruptcy. Borrowers will also have to submit a letter of explanation detailing the circumstances that lead to the bankruptcy with their loan application.

Yes. Having a co-signer may improve your chances of getting approved for the loan, especially if it’s a high debt-to-income ratio holding you back from getting approved. The co-signer must also submit to an underwriter review of their income and credit as they will be liable for repayment of the loan if the borrower fails to meet their obligation.

Yes. You can refinance an existing mortgage to a new FHA loan in a streamline refinance as long as you’ve made at least six monthly payments on your current mortgage and it’s been at least 210 days since the closing of that loan. You cannot have any payments overdue by more than 30 days and no late payments in the past 90 days. If you qualify, the streamline refinance does not require an appraisal, credit qualification, or employment verification.

You can also refinance an FHA loan into a conventional loan. This is often a good option for borrowers whose home has increased in value substantially. Since some FHA loans require mortgage insurance be paid during the entire life of the loan, refinancing to a conventional loan can eliminate mortgage insurance.

No. While FHA loans are popular among first-time homebuyers due to their low down payments and flexible requirements, they are available to repeat buyers as long as the loan is being used to purchase a primary residence.

No. FHA loans are only available for purchasing a buyer’s primary residence. However, you can use an FHA loan to buy a property with up to four units, as long as you will live in one unit while renting out the others.

The FHA allows 100 percent of the down payment and closing cost funds to be gifted, as long as the donor signs a gift letter stating that the money is a gift and does not have to be repaid.

The post The Complete Guide to FHA Loans appeared first on MagnifyMoney.

Do You Really Need a Home Warranty?

When I bought my first house years ago, my real estate agent requested that the seller purchase a home warranty to cover our home for one year from the date of sale. It didn’t cost me anything, and I only used the warranty once that year when the dishwasher started leaking water all over the kitchen floor. I called the warranty company, and for a $60 service fee, a contractor repaired the dishwasher, a service that would average somewhere between $100 and $200. Once the year was up, I had to decide whether to pay more than $500 to renew the warranty or let it lapse.

You may find yourself facing the same decision, whether you’re deciding to extend a warranty past the initial year or buy a warranty when the seller is not willing to foot the cost. So, do you need a home warranty?

Unlike a homeowners insurance policy, which is typically required by your lender, home warranties are completely optional.

A home warranty is a service contract on your home’s appliances and systems. Unlike a homeowners insurance policy, which may cover your home’s structure and belongings in the event of a fire, storm, or other accident, a home warranty covers repairs and replacement of systems and appliances due to normal wear and tear. This might include:

  • Electrical systems
  • Plumbing systems
  • Heating and air conditioning systems
  • Washers and dryers
  • Kitchen appliances

How much does a home warranty cost?

The cost of a home warranty varies by location, coverage, and provider. American Home Shield, the largest home warranty company in the country, has plans that cover appliances only starting at $360 per year. Systems plans, that cover heating, air conditioning, and electrical systems but not appliances, start at around $408 per year. Plans that cover both systems and appliances start at around $516 per year.

Cedric Stewart, a residential and commercial sales consultant at Entourage Residential Group at Keller Williams in Rockville, Md., says home warranties range in price from $400 to $650 on average but can go much higher if you opt for additional coverage options. Those options may include coverage for spas and swimming pools, additional refrigerators, water softener systems, or water wells.

How to shop for a home warranty

Your realtor may be able to recommend one or two home warranty providers that they work with on a regular basis and let you know how much the warranty will cost and what is covered. Take a look at a sample contract and read the fine print to see exactly what the warranty will and won’t cover and how much you will pay per service call.

Next, look for online reviews from reputable review sites like Consumer Reports, Angie’s List, or the Better Business Bureau. Pay special attention to the bad reviews. Did customers have to wait days for service? Does the company deny a lot of claims? Were customers happy with the contractors hired to perform the work? These can all give you an idea of whether you’ll be happy with your purchase or experience buyer’s remorse.

Benefits of buying a home warranty

Some people love home warranties for the peace of mind it gives them. “In the event your hot water heater or furnace stop working,” Stewart says, “you make a service call, pay the fee to have someone come out, and they’ll repair or replace that item. Whether it’s the first or the 365th day of the warranty, the coverage is the same. So you could end up getting a $4,000-$8,000 system replaced for $400 bucks.”

Downsides to buying a home warranty

There are many arguments against buying home warranties, especially since home warranty companies have historically been one of the “worst graded” categories on Angie’s List.

  • Your claim can be denied if the problems existed before. Stewart says you should think of a home warranty like an insurance policy. When something happens, you file a claim (referred to as a “service call”). An adjuster comes out to assess the damage and submits his findings to the home warranty company, which renders a decision. That decision could be a denial of your claim. Stewart says one of the most common reasons home warranty companies deny claims is due to pre-existing conditions, or problems that existed before you purchased the policy. The company may even require that you turn over a copy of the home inspection report to ensure that the issue wasn’t cited during the inspection.
  • You can’t pick your contractor. Warranty providers require that homeowners work with specific, pre-approved contractors. Homeowners may sometimes be disappointed in a long wait time for service or poor quality of service provided by these contractors, but they can’t fire them and pick their own.
  • You may get repairs when what you want is a replacement. The service technician will always try to repair the appliance or system first and replace it only if it is beyond repair. That can be a hassle. I found this out when I rented a townhome covered by a home warranty. Several contractors told us that the 20-year old A/C unit should really be replaced, but the warranty company wanted to keep repairing the old system. As a result, the A/C went out three times over the course of one hot summer in Phoenix.

4 questions to ask yourself before you purchase a home warranty

Rocky Lalvani is a wealth coach and rental property owner, so he is well versed in what can go wrong in your first year in a new home. He recommends asking the following questions before deciding whether to purchase a home warranty.

  • What condition are the home, systems, and appliances in? If the heating, air conditioning, and appliances are older, the greater the need to protect against failure.
  • Can you afford to repair the items yourself? If replacing the furnace or buying new appliances in the next year would cause a financial hardship, you may be better off buying a warranty.
  • Are you planning on replacing the items in the near future? If you know you are going to remodel the kitchen and purchase all new appliances shortly, it doesn’t make sense to protect them.
  • What is covered and what is excluded? Read the policy so you know what coverage it provides. Each warranty provider has their own limits, rules, and caps on repair costs. “When you couple that with long wait times to go through the process, these factors may make the warranty not worth the cost,” Lalvani says.

Also, keep in mind that a separate warranty is typically not necessary for new homes since the appliances are covered under the manufacturer’s warranty. Homebuilders usually put a warranty on system and structural defects for 10 years. But read the fine print of your purchase contract to make sure you know what is covered.

The bottom line

If your seller is willing to cover the cost of a home warranty as a condition of sale, do take advantage of the free coverage. Just realize that you will have to pay a service fee, which could range from $50 to $75 per repair.

Otherwise, consider the age of each covered item and compare that to its average life span using this chart from the International Association of Certified Home Inspectors. The older the home and appliances, the more likely it is that something will go wrong. If the systems and appliances are newer or you’re planning on replacing them shortly after you move in, you may be better off setting the money aside in a home-repair fund. That way, you won’t end up paying for something that may not provide the coverage you expect.

The post Do You Really Need a Home Warranty? appeared first on MagnifyMoney.

The Best Mortgages That Require No or Low Down Payment

 

If you’re considering buying a home, you’re probably wondering how much you’ll need for a down payment. It’s not unusual to be concerned about coming up with a down payment. According to Trulia’s report Housing in 2017, saving for a down payment is most often cited as the biggest obstacle to homeownership.

Maybe you’ve heard that you should put 20% down when you purchase a home. It’s true that 20% is the gold standard. If you can afford a big down payment, it’s easier to get a mortgage, you may be eligible for a lower interest rate, and more money down means borrowing less, which means you’ll have a smaller monthly payment.

But the biggest incentive to put 20% down is that it allows you to avoid paying for private mortgage insurance. Mortgage insurance is extra insurance that some private lenders require from homebuyers who obtain loans in which the down payment is less than 20% of the sales price or appraised value. Unlike homeowners insurance, mortgage protects the lender – not you – if you stop making payments on your loan. Mortgage insurance typically costs between 0.5% and 1% of the entire loan amount on an annual basis. Depending on how expensive the home you buy is, that can be a pretty hefty sum.

While these are excellent reasons to put 20% down on a home, the fact is that many people just can’t scrape together a down payment that large, especially when the median price of a home in the U.S. is a whopping $345,800.

Fortunately, there are many options for homebuyers with little money for a down payment. You may even be able to buy a house with no down payment at all.

Here’s an overview of the best mortgages you can be approved for without 20% down.

FHA Loans

An FHA loan is a home loan that is insured by the Federal Housing Administration. These loans are designed to promote homeownership and make it easier for people to qualify for a mortgage. The FHA does this by making a guarantee to your bank that they will repay your loan if you quit making payments. FHA loans don’t come directly from the FHA, but rather an FHA-approved lender. Not all FHA-approved lenders offer the same interest rates and costs, even for the same type of loan, so it’s important to shop around.

Down payment requirements

FHA loans allow you to buy a home with a down payment as low as 3.5%, although people with FICO credit scores between 500 and 579 are required to pay at least 10% down.

Approval requirements

Because these loans are geared toward lower income borrowers, you don’t need excellent credit or a large income, but you will have to provide a lot of documentation. Your lender will ask you to provide documents that prove income, savings, and credit information. If you already own any property, you’ll have to have documentation for that as well.

Some of the information you’ll need includes:

  • Two years of complete tax returns (three years for self-employed individuals)
  • Two years of W-2s, 1099s, or other income statements
  • Most recent month of pay stubs
  • A year-to-date profit-and-loss statement for self-employed individuals
  • Most recent three months of bank, retirement, and investment account statements

Mortgage insurance requirements

The FHA requires both upfront and annual mortgage insurance for all borrowers, regardless of their down payment. On a typical 30-year mortgage with a base loan amount of less than $625,500, your annual mortgage insurance premium will be 0.85% as of this writing. The current upfront mortgage insurance premium is 1.75% of the base loan amount.

Casey Fleming, a mortgage adviser with C2 Financial Corporation and author of The Loan Guide: How to Get the Best Possible Mortgage, also reminds buyers that mortgage insurance on an FHA loan is permanent. With other loans, you can request the lenders to cancel private mortgage insurance (MIP) once you have paid down the mortgage balance to 80% of the home’s original appraised value, or wait until the balance drops to 78% when the mortgage servicer is required to eliminate the MIP. But mortgage insurance on an FHA loan cannot be canceled or terminated. For that reason, Fleming says “it’s best if the homebuyer has a plan to get out in a couple of years.”

Where to find an FHA-approved lender

As we mentioned earlier, FHA loans don’t come directly from the FHA, but rather an FHA-approved lender. Not all FHA-approved lenders offer the same interest rates and costs, even for the same type of loan, so it’s important to shop around.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has a searchable database where you can find lenders in your area approved for FHA loans.

First, fill in your location and the radius in which you’d like to search.

Next, you’ll be taken to a list of FHA-approved lenders in your area.

Who FHA loans are best for

FHA loans are flexible about how you come up with the down payment. You can use your savings, a cash gift from a family member, or a grant from a state or local government down-payment assistance program.

However, FHA loans are not the best option for everyone. The upfront and ongoing mortgage insurance premiums can cost more than private mortgage insurance. If you have good credit, you may be better off with a non-FHA loan with a low down payment and lower loan costs.

And if you’re buying an expensive home in a high-cost area, an FHA loan may not be able to provide you with a large enough mortgage. The FHA has a national loan limit, which is recalculated on an annual basis. For 2017, in high-cost areas, the FHA national loan limit ceiling is $636,150. You can check HUD.gov for a complete list of FHA lending limits by state.

SoFi

For borrowers who can afford a large monthly payment but haven’t saved up a big down payment, SoFi offers mortgages of up to $3 million. Interest rates will vary based on whether you’re looking for a 30-year fixed loan, a 15-year fixed loan, or an adjustable rate loan, which has a fixed rate for the first seven years, after which the interest rate may increase or decrease. Mortgage rates started as low as 3.09% for a 15-year mortgage as of this writing. You can find your rate using SoFi’s online rate quote tool without affecting your credit.

Down payment requirements

SoFi requires a minimum down payment of at least 10% of the purchase price for a new loan.

Approval requirements

Like most lenders, SoFi analyzes FICO scores as a part of its application process. However, it also considers factors such as professional history and career prospects, income, and history of on-time bill payments to determine an applicant’s overall financial health.

Mortgage insurance requirements

SoFi does not charge private mortgage insurance, even on loans for which less than 20% is put down.

What we like/don’t like

In addition to not requiring private mortgage insurance on any of their loans, SoFi doesn’t charge any loan origination, application, or broker commission fees. The average closing fee is 2% to 5% for most mortgages (it varies by location), so on a $300,000 home loan, that is $3,000. Avoiding those fees can save buyers a significant amount and make it a bit easier to come up with closing costs. Keep in mind, though, that you’ll still need to pay standard third-party closing costs that vary depending on loan type and location of the property.

There’s not much to dislike about SoFi unless you’re buying a very inexpensive home in a lower-cost market. They do have a minimum loan amount of $100,000.

Who SoFi mortgages are best for

SoFi mortgages are really only available for people with excellent credit and a solid income. They don’t work with people with poor credit.

SoFi does not publish minimum income or credit score requirements.

VA Loans

Rates can vary by lender, but currently, rates for a $225,000 30-year fixed-rate loan run at around 3.25%, according to LendingTree. (Disclosure: LendingTree is the parent company of MagnifyMoney.)

Down payment requirements

Eligible borrowers can get a VA loan with no down payment. Although the costs associated with getting a VA loan are generally lower than other types of low-down-payment mortgages, Fleming says there is a one-time funding fee, unless the veteran or military member has a service-related disability or you are the surviving spouse of a veteran who died in service or from a service-related disability.

That funding fee varies by the type of veteran and down-payment percentage, but for a new-purchase loan, the funding fee can run from 1.25% to 2.4% of the loan amount.

Approval requirements

VA loans are typically easier to qualify for than conventional mortgages. To be eligible, you must have suitable credit, sufficient income to make the monthly payment, and a valid Certificate of Eligibility (COE). The COE verifies to the lender that you are eligible for a VA-backed loan. You can apply for a COE online, through your lender, or by mail using VA Form 26-1880.

The VA does not require a minimum credit score, but lenders generally have their own requirements. Most ask for a credit score of 620 or higher.

If you’d like help seeing if you are qualified for a VA loan, check to see if there’s a HUD-approved housing counseling agency in your area.

Mortgage insurance requirements

Because VA loans are guaranteed by the Department of Veterans Affairs, they do not require mortgage insurance. However, as we mentioned previously, be prepared to pay an additional funding fee of 1.25% to 2.4%.

What we like/don’t like

There’s no cap on the amount you can borrow. However, there are limits on the amount the VA can insure, which usually affects the loan amount a lender is willing to offer. Loan limits vary by county and are the same as the Federal Housing Finance Agency’s limits, which you can find here.

HomeReady

 

The HomeReady program is offered by Fannie Mae. HomeReady mortgage is aimed at consumers who have decent credit but low- to middle-income earnings. Borrowers do not have to be first-time home buyers but do have to complete a housing education program.

Approval requirements

HomeReady loans are available for purchasing and refinancing any single-family home, as long as the borrower meets income limits, which vary by property location. For properties in low-income areas (as determined by the U.S. Census), there is no income limit. For other properties, the income eligibility limit is 100% of the area median income.

The minimum credit score for a Fannie Mae loan, including HomeReady, is 620.

To qualify, borrowers must complete an online education program, which costs $75 and helps buyers understand the home-buying process and prepare for homeownership.

Down payment requirements

HomeReady is available through all Fannie Mae-approved lenders and offers down payments as low as 3%.

Reiss says buyers can combine a HomeReady mortgage with a Community Seconds loan, which can provide all or part of the down payment and closing costs. “Combined with a Community Seconds mortgage, a Fannie borrower can have a combined loan-to-value ratio of up to 105%,” Reiss says. The loan-to-value (LTV) ratio is the ratio of outstanding loan balance to the value of the property. When you pay down your mortgage balance or your property value increases, your LTV ratio goes down.

Mortgage insurance requirements

While HomeReady mortgages do require mortgage insurance when the buyer puts less than 20% down, unlike an FHA loan, the mortgage insurance is removed once the loan-to-value ratio reaches 78% or less.

What we like/don’t like

HomeReady loans do require private mortgage insurance, but the cost is generally lower than those charged by other lenders. Fannie Mae also makes it easier for borrowers to get creative with their down payment, allowing them to borrow it through a Community Seconds loan or have the down payment gifted from a friend or family member. Also, if you’re planning on having a roommate, income from that roommate will help you qualify for the loan.

However, be sure to talk to your lender to compare other options. The HomeReady program may have higher interest rates than other mortgage programs that advertise no or low down payments.

USDA Loan

USDA loans are guaranteed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Although the USDA doesn’t cap the amount a homeowner can borrow, most USDA-approved lenders extend financing for up to $417,000.

Rates vary by lender, but the agency gives a baseline interest rate. As of August 2016, that rate was just 2.875%

Approval requirements

USDA loans are available for purchasing and refinancing homes that meet the USDA’s definition of “rural.” The USDA provides a property eligibility map to give potential buyers a general idea of qualified locations. In general, the property must be located in “open country” or an area that has a population less than 10,000, or 20,000 in areas that are deemed as having a serious lack of mortgage credit.

USDA loans are not available directly from the USDA, but are issued by approved lenders. Most lenders require a minimum credit score of 620 to 640 with no foreclosures, bankruptcies, or major delinquencies in the past several years. Borrowers must have an income of no more than 115% of the median income for the area.

Down payment requirements

Eligible borrowers can get a home loan with no down payment. Other closing costs vary by lender, but the USDA loan program does allow borrowers to use money gifted from friends and family to pay for closing costs.

Mortgage insurance requirements

While USDA-backed mortgages do not require mortgage insurance, borrowers instead pay an upfront premium of 2% of the purchase price. The USDA also allows borrowers to finance that 2% with the home loan.

What we like/don’t like

Some buyers may dismiss USDA loans because they aren’t buying a home in a rural area, but many suburbs of metropolitan areas and small towns fall within the eligible zones. It could be worth a glance at the eligibility map to see if you qualify.

At a Glance: Low-Down-Payment Mortgage Options

To see how different low-down-payment mortgage options might look in the real world, let’s assume a buyer with an excellent credit score applies for a 30-year fixed-rate mortgage on a home that costs $250,000.

As you can see in the table below, their monthly mortgage payment would vary a lot depending on which lender they use.

 

Down Payment


Total Borrowed


Interest Rate


Principal & Interest


Mortgage Insurance


Total Monthly Payment

FHA


FHA

3.5%
($8,750)

$241,250

4.625%

$1,083

$4,222 up front
$171 per month

$1,254

SoFi


SoFi

10%
($25,000)

$225,000

3.37%

$995

$0

$995

VA


VA Loan

0%
($0)

$250,000

3.25%

$1,088

$0

$1,088

HomeReady


homeready

3%
($7,500)

$242,500

4.25%

$1,193

$222 per month

$1,349

USDA


homeready

0%

$250,000

2.875%

$1,037

$5,000 up front,
can be included in
total financed

$1,037

Note that this comparison doesn’t include any closing costs other than the upfront mortgage insurance required by the FHA and USDA loans. The total monthly payments do not include homeowners insurance or property taxes that are typically included in the monthly payment.

ANALYSIS: Should I put down less than 20% on a new home just because I can?

So, if you can take advantage of a low- or no-down-payment loan, should you? For some people, it might make financial sense to keep more cash on hand for emergencies and get into the market sooner in a period of rising home prices. But before you apply, know what it will cost you. Let’s run the numbers to compare the cost of using a conventional loan with 20% down versus a 3% down payment.

Besides private mortgage insurance, there are other downsides to a smaller down payment. Lenders may charge higher interest rates, which translates into higher monthly payments and more money spent over the loan term. Also, because many closing costs are a percentage of the total loan amount, putting less money down means higher closing costs.

For this example, we’ll assume a $250,000 purchase price and a loan term of 30 years. According to Freddie Mac, during the week of June 22, 2017, the average rate for a 30-year fixed-rate mortgage was 3.90%.

Using the Loan Amortization Calculator from MortgageCalculator.org:

Assuming you don’t make any extra principal payments, you will have to pay private mortgage insurance for 112 months before the principal balance of the loan drops below 78% of the home’s original appraised value. That means in addition to paying $169,265.17 in interest, you’ll pay $11,316.48 for private mortgage insurance.

The bottom line

Under some circumstances, a low- or no-down-payment mortgage, even with private mortgage insurance, could be considered a worthwhile investment. If saving for a 20% down payment means you’ll be paying rent longer while you watch home prices and mortgage rates rise, it could make sense. In the past year alone, average home prices increased 16.8%, and Kiplinger is predicting that the average 30-year fixed mortgage rate will rise to 4.1% by the end of 2017.

If you do choose a loan that requires private mortgage insurance, consider making extra principal payments to reach 20% equity faster and request that your lender cancels private mortgage insurance. Even if you have to spend a few hundred dollars to have your home appraised, the monthly savings from private mortgage insurance premiums could quickly offset that cost.

Keep in mind, though, that the down payment is only one part of the home-buying equation. Sonja Bullard, a sales manager with Bay Equity Home Loans in Alpharetta, Ga., says whether you’re interested in an FHA loan or a conventional (i.e., non-government-backed) loan, there are other out-of-pocket costs when buying a home.

“Through my experience, when people hear zero down payment, they think that means there are no costs for obtaining the loan,” Bullard says. “People don’t realize there are still fees required to be paid.”

According to Bullard, those fees include:

  • Inspection: $300 to $1,000, based on the size of the home
  • Appraisal: $375 to $1,000, based on the size of the home
  • Homeowners insurance premiums, prepaid for one year, due at closing: $300 to $2,500, depending on coverage
  • Closing costs: $4,000 to $10,000, depending on sales price and loan amount
  • HOA initiation fees

So don’t let a seemingly insurmountable 20% down payment get in the way of homeownership. When you’re ready to take the plunge, talk to a lender or submit a loan application online. You might be surprised at what you qualify for.

The post The Best Mortgages That Require No or Low Down Payment appeared first on MagnifyMoney.

Here’s How to Find Out How Much Social Security Income You’ll Receive

At what age will you retire? How much can you expect to receive each month when you do? These are important questions even if you are decades away from retirement, and there’s an easy way to get answers anytime. We’re going to show you how to get your Social Security benefits statement online and what to do with it once you’ve got it.

A little background:

Depending on your age, you may remember getting a printed Social Security benefits statement in the mail. Prior to 2011, the Social Security Administration (SSA) mailed statements to all workers every year. Those annual mailings were discontinued in 2011 as a cost-saving measure. The following year, the SSA made the statements available online, but their decision caused a bit of an uproar. Despite the agency’s outreach campaign, far fewer people registered for an account than there were eligible workers. So in 2014, Congress required the agency to resume sending printed statements every five years to workers age 25 and older who hadn’t registered for an online account.

That schedule remained until earlier this year when the agency announced that due to budget restraints, paper benefit statements will only be mailed to people who are 60 or older, have not established an online account, and are not yet receiving Social Security benefits. Simply put, don’t expect to get a printed statement anytime soon.

How to get your Social Security benefits statement

Accessing your Social Security benefits statement online is pretty simple, as long as you have an email address and can provide some basic identifying information.

First, go to ssa.gov/myaccount and click on “Sign In or Create an Account.”

If you’ve never created an online account with the SSA, you’ll click on “Create an Account.” If you’ve set up an account before, you won’t be able to create a new account using the same Social Security number. If you’ve forgotten your username or password, the SSA website offers tools to help recover them.

When you select “Create an Account,” the site will lead you through a few questions to verify your identity. You’ll need to provide personal information that matches the information on file with the SSA as well as some information matching your credit report.

Ryder Taff, a Certified Financial Adviser with New Perspectives, Inc. of Ridgeland, Miss., helps many of his clients set up Social Security accounts and says the questions often have to do with past residences or vehicles that may have been registered in your name.

If you have trouble setting up your account online, you can call the SSA for help at 1-800-772-1213.

Information in a Social Security benefits statement

Your Social Security benefits statement provides several valuable pieces of information:

  • A record of your earnings, by year, since you began having Social Security and Medicare taxes withheld.
  • Estimated retirement benefits if you begin claiming Social Security at age 62, full retirement age, or age 70.
  • Estimated disability benefits if you became disabled right now.
  • Estimated survivor benefits that your spouse or child would receive if you were to die this year.

Here’s a sample of what your benefits statement will look like:

Keep in mind that the estimated benefits shown are just that — estimates. The amounts shown are calculated based on average earnings over your lifetime and assume you’ll continue earning your most recent annual wages until you start receiving benefits. They are also calculated in today’s dollars without any adjustment for inflation. The amount you receive could also be impacted by any changes enacted by Congress from now until the time you retire.

What to do with your Social Security benefit statement

It’s a good idea to check your earnings record for errors once per year. It’s not uncommon for earnings from certain employers or even all of your earnings from an entire year to be missing, and you’ll want to get that corrected right away because benefits are calculated on your highest 35 years of earnings. “Any missing years will be just as damaging as a zero on a test was to your GPA,” Taff says. “Gather your documents and correct ANY missing years, even if they aren’t the highest salary. Every dollar counts!”

If you do spot any errors, grab your W-2 or tax return for the year in question and call the SSA at 1-800-772-1213. You can also report errors by writing to the SSA at:

Social Security Agency
Office of Earnings Operations
P.O. Box 33026
Baltimore, MD 21290-3026

Reading your statement is also a good reminder of how much you need to save for retirement outside of Social Security. Chances are, you won’t be happy living on just your Social Security income in retirement.

The good news is, the longer you delay taking your benefit, the higher your annual benefit will be. You can begin taking Social Security retirement benefits at age 62, but your payments will be smaller than they would be if you waited until full retirement age (FRA). Currently, your annual benefit increases by 8% for each year you delay taking your benefit from FRA until age 70.

Colin Exelby, president and founder of Celestial Wealth Management in Towson, Md., says that using your Social Security benefits statement can be particularly useful for retirement planning for couples. “Depending on your age, health, family health history, and financial situation there are a number of different ways to claim your benefits,” he says. “Each individual situation is different, and many couples have different views on the decision.”

If you are nearing retirement, you can use your benefits statement to work with a financial adviser to help you maximize total benefits, or run through various scenarios using a free online tool like the one provided by AARP.

Setting up your Social Security account is simple, free, and helpful for retirement planning, but it’s also a good security measure. It’s impossible to set up more than one account per Social Security number, so registering your account is a good way to prevent identity thieves from establishing an account on your behalf.

Take the time to set up your Social Security account and find out how much you might be entitled to receive in benefits. It could help you feel more empowered to take charge of your retirement plan.

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Should You Use a Mortgage to Refinance Student Loans?

Fannie Mae, the largest backer of mortgage credit in America, recently made it a little easier for homeowners to refinance their student loans. In an update to its Selling Guide, the mortgage giant introduced a student loan cash-out refinance feature, permitting originators that sell loans to Fannie Mae to offer a new refinance option for paying off one or more student loans.

That means you could potentially use a mortgage refi to consolidate your student loan debt. Student loan mortgage refis are relatively new. Fannie Mae and SoFi, an alternative lender that offers both student loans and mortgages, announced a pilot program for cash-out refinancing of student loans in November 2016. This new program is an expansion of that option, which was previously available only to SoFi customers.

Amy Jurek, a Realtor at RE/MAX Advantage Plus in Minneapolis/St. Paul, Minn., says people with home equity have always had a cash-out option, but it typically came with extra fees and higher interest rates. Jurek says the new program eliminates the extra fees and allows borrowers to refinance at lower mortgage interest rates. The policy change could allow homeowners to save a significant amount of money because interest rates on mortgages are typically much lower than those for student loans, especially private student loans and PLUS loans.

But is it a good idea?

Your student debt isn’t eliminated; it’s added to your mortgage loan.

This may be stating the obvious, but swapping mortgage debt for student loan debt doesn’t reduce your debt; it just trades one form of debt (student loan) for another (mortgage).

Brian Benham, president of Benham Advisory Group in Indianapolis, Ind., says refinancing student loans with a mortgage could be more appealing to borrowers with private student loans rather than federal student loans.

Although mortgage rates are on the rise, they are still at near-historic lows, hovering around 4%. Federal student loans are near the same levels. But private student loans can range anywhere from 3.9% up to near 13%. “If you’re at the upper end of the spectrum, refinancing may help you lower your rate and your monthly payments,” Benham says.

So, the first thing anyone considering using a mortgage to refinance student loans should consider is whether you will, in fact, get a lower interest rate. Even with a lower rate, it’s wise to consider whether you’ll save money over the long term. You may pay a lower rate but over a longer term. The standard student loan repayment plan is 10 years, and most mortgages are 30-year loans. Refinancing could save you money today, but result in more interest paid over time, so keep the big picture in mind.

You need to actually have equity in your home.

To be eligible for the cash-out refinance option, you must have a loan-to-value ratio of no more than 80%, and the cash-out must entirely pay off one or more of your student loans. That means you’ve got to have enough equity in your home to cover your entire student loan balance and still leave 20% of your home’s value that isn’t being borrowed against. That can be tough for newer homeowners who haven’t owned the home long enough to build up substantial equity.

To illustrate, say your home is valued at $100,000, your current mortgage balance is $60,000, and you have one student loan with a balance of $20,000. When you refinance your existing mortgage and student loan, the new loan amount would be $80,000. That scenario meets the 80% loan-to-value ratio, but if your existing mortgage or student loan balances were higher, you would not be eligible.

You’ll lose certain options.

Depending on the type of student loan you have, you could end up losing valuable benefits if you refinance student loans with a mortgage.

Income-driven repayment options

Federal student loan borrowers may be eligible for income-driven repayment plans that can help keep loan payments affordable with payment caps based on income and family size. Income-based repayment plans also forgive remaining debt, if any, after 25 years of qualifying payments. These programs can help borrowers avoid default – and preserve their credit – during periods of unemployment or other financial hardships.

Student loan forgiveness

In certain situations, employees in public service jobs can have their student loans forgiven. A percentage of the student loan is forgiven or discharged for each year of service completed, depending on the type of work performed. Private student loans don’t offer forgiveness, but if you have federal student loans and work as a teacher or in public service, including a military, nonprofit, or government job, you may be eligible for a variety of government programs that are not available when your student loan has been refinanced with a mortgage.

Economic hardship deferments and forbearances

Some federal student loan borrowers may be eligible for deferment or forbearance, allowing them to temporarily stop making student loan payments or temporarily reduce the amount they must pay. These programs can help avoid loan default in the event of job loss or other financial hardships and during service in the Peace Corps or military.

Borrowers may also be eligible for deferment if they decide to go back to school. Enrollment in a college or career school could qualify a student loan for deferment. Some mortgage lenders have loss mitigation programs to assist you if you experience a temporary reduction in income or other financial hardship, but eligibility varies by lender and is typically not available for homeowners returning to school.

You could lose out on tax benefits.

Traditional wisdom favors mortgage debt over other kinds of debt because mortgage debt is tax deductible. But to take advantage of that mortgage interest deduction on your taxes, you must itemize. In today’s low-interest rate environment, most taxpayers receive greater benefits from the standard deduction. As a reminder, taxpayers can choose to itemize deductions or take the standard deduction. According to the Tax Foundation, 68.5% of households choose to take the standard deduction, which means they receive no tax benefit from paying mortgage interest.

On the other hand, the student loan interest deduction allows taxpayers to deduct up to $2,500 in interest on federal and private student loans. Because it’s an “above-the-line” deduction, you can claim it even if you don’t itemize. It also reduces your Adjusted Gross Income (AGI), which could expand the availability of other tax benefits.

You could lose your home.

Unlike student debt, a mortgage is secured by collateral: your home. If you default on the mortgage, your lender ultimately has the right to foreclose on your home. Defaulting on student loans may ruin your credit, but at least you won’t lose the roof over your head.

Refinancing student loans with a mortgage could be an attractive option for homeowners with a stable career and secure income, but anyone with financial concerns should be careful about putting their home at risk. “Your home is a valuable asset,” Benham says, “so be sure to factor that in before cashing it out.” Cashing out your home equity puts you at risk of carrying a mortgage into retirement. If you do take this option, set up a plan and a budget so you can pay off your mortgage before you retire.

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File Taxes Jointly or Separately: What to Do When You’re Married with Student Loans

Married couples with student loans must make a difficult decision when they file their tax returns. They can choose to file jointly, which often leads to a lower tax bill. Or they can file separately, which may result in a higher tax bill, but smaller student loan payments. So which decision will save the most money?

First, let’s discuss the difference between the two filing statuses available to married couples.

Married filing jointly

Married couples always have the option to file jointly. In most cases, this filing status results in a lower tax bill. The IRS strongly encourages couples to file joint returns by extending several tax breaks to joint filers, including a larger standard deduction and higher income thresholds for certain taxes and deductions.

Married filing separately

Because married couples are not required to file jointly, they can choose to file separately, where each spouse is taxed separately on the income he or she earned. However, this filing status typically results in a higher tax rate and the loss of certain deductions and credits. However, if one or both of the spouses have student loans with income-based repayment plans, filing separately could be beneficial if it results in lower student loan payments.

For help figuring out which filing status is better for married couples with student loans, we reached out to Mark Kantrowitz, publisher and Vice President of Strategy at Cappex.com. Kantrowitz knows quite a bit about student loans and taxes. He’s testified before Congress and federal and state agencies on several occasions, including testimony before the Senate Banking Committee that led to the passage of the Ensuring Continued Access to Student Loans Act of 2008. He’s also written 11 books, including four bestsellers about scholarships, the FAFSA, and student financial aid.

Two Advantages to Filing Taxes Jointly:

  • Most education benefits are available only if married taxpayers file a joint return. This can affect the American opportunity tax credit, the lifetime learning credit, the tuition and fees deduction (which Congress let expire as of January 1, 2017, but is still available for 2016 returns), and the student loan interest deduction.
  • Couples taking the maximum student loan interest deduction of $2,500 in a 25% tax bracket would save $625 in taxes. But this “above the line” deduction also reduces Adjusted Gross Income (AGI), which could yield additional tax benefits (e.g., greater benefits for deductions that are phased out based on AGI, lower thresholds for certain itemized deductions such as medical expenses, and miscellaneous itemized deductions).

However, there is a potential downside to filing jointly for couples with student loans.

Income-driven repayment plans use your income to determine your minimum monthly payment. Generally, your payment amount under an income-based repayment plan is a percentage of your discretionary income (the difference between your AGI and 150% of the poverty guideline amount for your state of residence and family size, divided by 12).

  • If you are a new borrower on or after July 1, 2014, payments are generally limited to 10% of your discretionary income but never more than the 10-year Standard Repayment Plan amount.
  • If you are not a new borrower on or after July 1, 2014, payments are generally limited to 15% of your discretionary income, but never more than the 10-year Standard Repayment Plan amount.

Because filing jointly will increase your discretionary income if your spouse is also earning money, your required student loan payment will typically increase as well. In some cases, the difference is negligible; in others, this can add up to a pretty significant cost difference.

“Calculating the trade-offs of income-driven repayment plans versus the student loan interest deduction and other benefits is challenging,” Kantrowitz says, “in part because the monthly payment under income-driven repayment depends on the borrower’s future income trajectory and inflation, not just the inclusion/exclusion of spousal income.”

Fortunately, some tools can help you run the numbers.

An example: Meet Joe and Sally

Here’s a simple scenario that shows how a change in filing status can save on taxes but cost more on student loans:

  • Joe and Sally are married with no children.
  • They live in Florida (no state income tax).
  • Joe is making $35,000 per year and has $15,000 of student loan debt with a 6.8% interest rate.
  • Sally is making $75,000 per year and has $60,000 of student loan debt with a 6.8% interest rate.

First, we can estimate Joe and Sally’s tax liability for filing jointly versus separately. TurboTax’s TaxCaster tool makes this pretty easy. Here’s what we get when run their numbers using 2016 tax rates:

  • Filing jointly, Joe and Sally would owe $13,249 in federal taxes.
  • Filing separately, they would owe $15,178.

So they would save just over $1,900 in federal taxes by filing jointly. But how would filing jointly affect their student loan payments?

We can use a student loan repayment estimator like the one provided by the office of Federal Student Aid to find out. Here’s what we get when we run the numbers and choose the Income-Based Repayment option, assuming they are new borrowers on or after July 1, 2014:

  • Filing jointly, Joe’s minimum required monthly student loan payment under a standard repayment plan would be $143, and Sally’s would be $571, for a total of $714 per month.
  • Filing separately, Joe’s minimum required monthly student loan payment would be $141, and Sally’s would be $474, for a total of $615 per month.

Over the course of a year, Joe and Sally would only save $1,188 on their student loan payments by filing separately. Even with the additional loan payments they would have to make, filing jointly would save them $712 more than filing separately.

What’s best for your situation?

Every situation is different. The simple example above comes out in favor of filing jointly, but you will need to run your own numbers to figure out what is right for you. Here are additional tips to help you figure it out:

  1. Know how much you owe. Make a list of all loan balances, interest rates, and the type of each student loan you have. You can find your federal student loans on the National Student Loan Data System. You can find information on your private student loans by looking at a recent statement.
  2. Estimate your student loan payment options. Using a student loan repayment estimator like the one mentioned above, determine your required payments when filing separately versus jointly.
  3. Calculate your tax liability. Use a tool like TurboTax’s TaxCaster or 1040.com’s Free Tax Calculator to calculate your federal and state tax liability when filing separately versus jointly.
  4. Be aware of long-term consequences. Filing separately might result in lower monthly payments today but more interest paid over time. If you make it to the 20- or 25-year forgiveness point, that could have tax implications down the line. Kantrowitz points out that “forgiveness is taxable under current law, causing a smaller tax debt to substitute for education debt. The main exception is borrowers who will qualify for public student loan forgiveness, which occurs after 10 years and is tax-free under current law.” Keep those long-term consequences in mind as you make a decision.
  5. Consider steps to lower your AGI. Your eligibility for income-driven student loan repayment plans depends on your AGI, which is essentially your total income minus certain deductions. You can reduce this number, and potentially lower both your tax bill and your required student loan payment, by doing things like contributing to a 401(k), IRA, or Health Savings Account.
  6. Keep the big picture in mind. These decisions are just one part of your overall financial situation. Keep your eyes on your big long-term goals and make your decision based on what helps you reach those goals fastest.

Other unique situations

There are a few unique situations that make deciding whether to file jointly or separately a little more complicated. Do any of these situations apply to you?

Divorce and legal separation

Sometimes, determining marital status to file tax returns isn’t cut and dried. What happens when you and your spouse are separated or going through a divorce at year end? In this case, your filing status depends on your marital status on the last day of the tax year.

You are considered married if you are separated but haven’t obtained a final decree of divorce or separate maintenance agreement by the last day of the tax year. In this case, you can choose to file married filing jointly or married filing separately.

You and your spouse are considered unmarried for the entire year if you obtained a final decree of divorce or are legally separated under a separate maintenance agreement by the last day of the tax year. You must follow your state tax law to determine if you are divorced or legally separated. In this case, your filing status would be single or head of household.

Pay as You Earn repayment plans

Pay as You Earn (PAYE) is a repayment plan with monthly payments that are limited to 10% of your discretionary income. To qualify and to continue to make income-based payments under this plan, you must have a partial financial hardship and have borrowed your first federal student loan after October 1, 2007. Kantrowitz says the PAYE plan bases repayment on the combined income of married couples, regardless of tax filing status.

Unpaid taxes, child support, or defaulted federal student loans

If you or your spouse have unpaid back taxes, child support, or defaulted federal student loans, joint income tax refunds may be diverted to pay for those items through the Treasury Offset Program. “Spouses can appeal to retain their share of the federal income tax refund,” Kantrowitz says, “but it is simpler if they file separate returns.”

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Tax Tips for Recent College Graduates

When life changes, so do your taxes, and graduating from college brings several life changes that can affect your tax return. You may go from being claimed as a dependent by your parents to filing on your own for the first time. You may move out of state, collect a paycheck for the first time, and start paying off student loans. All of these events present opportunities to save — and costly pitfalls to avoid. To help you keep more of what you earn in this next phase of life, check out these tax tips for recent college graduates.

Figure out if your parents can still claim you as a dependent

If you just graduated, you may still be eligible to be claimed as a dependent on your parents’ tax return. Dependency rules are complex, but essentially, for your parents to claim you as a dependent:

  • you must be under age 24 at the end of the year,
  • you must be a full-time student (enrolled for the number of credit hours the school considers full time) for at least five months of the year,
  • you must have lived with your parents for more than half the year (you are deemed to live with your parents while you are temporarily living away from home for education), and
  • your parent must have provided more than half of your financial support for the year.

If you meet all of these tests, your parents can still claim you as a dependent and take advantage of the dependency exemptions and education credits.

Even if your parents claim you as a dependent, you may still be required to file your own return if you had more than $2,600 of unearned income (interest, dividends, and capital gains) or more than $7,850 of earned income (wages or self-employment income).

Get reimbursed for moving expenses if you moved in order to take a new job

If you moved for a new job after graduation, you might be able to deduct any unreimbursed moving expenses, as long as the new job is at least 50 miles away from your old home. Those expenses include costs to pack and ship your belongings and lodging expenses along the way, but not meals. You can also take a deduction for 17 cents per mile driven for 2017 (down from 19 cents per mile in 2016).

If you moved out of state, you might have to file two state returns if you had taxable income in both states. Many students have a part-time job while in school and take a full-time job in another state after graduation. Rules vary drastically by state. In some states, you will have to claim 100% of your income on your resident state return, then receive a credit for any taxes paid to another state. In this case, you may be better off working with a professional who can help guide you through filing in both states.

Make sure you’re withholding the right amount from your paycheck

When you start your new job, the human resources department will ask you to complete a Form W-4 to indicate how much of your paycheck you’d like your employer to take out for taxes. Working through the questions on the form is simple enough, but it doesn’t take into account how much of the year you’ll be working.

Most new graduates end up having too much federal tax withheld in their first year, effectively giving the government an interest-free loan, says Bradley Greenberg, a CPA and partner at Kessler Orlean Silver & Co. in Deerfield, Ill.

That’s because graduates rarely start new jobs right at the start of a new year. You may graduate in May and start working in June, or graduate in December but not find a job until February. Yet you are taxed as if you have been earning that pay for the entire year.

“The withholding tables are designed with the assumption that one makes the same amount of money for each pay period of the year, regardless of how many pay periods were worked,” Greenberg says. “For example, a June graduate starting a job on July 1 for $50,000 will have the same taxes withheld per pay period as a colleague with the same salary, marital status, and number of exemptions, but who worked the entire year.”

Greenberg recommends two courses of action for new graduates:

  1. Set up your withholding in your first year of employment so less tax is withheld. Then make sure you adjust it on the following January 1, so you don’t have too little tax withheld in your first full year of employment, or
  2. View this as a savings plan and file your taxes as early as possible next year to get your refund from the IRS.

Take advantage of student tax credits

If your parents can no longer claim you as a dependent, you may be eligible to claim valuable tax credits for any tuition you paid during the year. There are two tax credits for higher education costs: the Lifetime Learning Credit and the American Opportunity Credit.

For 2016, there is also the tuition and fees deduction (Congress failed to renew this deduction, which expired on December 31, 2016, so it is not available for 2017). The rules and income limits for each credit and the deduction vary, but the IRS offers an interactive tool on their website to help you determine which tax break applies to you.

If you used student loans to pay for your education, you can take a deduction for up to $2,500 of interest paid on a qualified student loan. If your parents made loan payments on your behalf, you are in luck. Typically, you can only deduct interest if you actually paid the debt, but when parents pay back student loans, the IRS treats it as if the money was given to the child, who then repaid the debt.

Don’t ignore your 401(k) or health savings account at work

New college graduates may be financially strapped and hesitant to divert part of their paycheck into a retirement plan or health savings account, but opting out means missing out on substantial tax-saving and wealth-building opportunities.

If your employer offers a matching 401(k) contribution, as soon as you’re eligible you should contribute at least enough to get the employer match. Otherwise, you’re missing out on free money. If you select a traditional 401(k), you can save on next year’s taxes. That’s because any contributions you make will be tax free, and they will reduce the amount of your income subject to federal income tax as well as Social Security and Medicare (FICA) taxes.

For better or for worse, many employers now offer high-deductible health insurance plans. These plans often come with health savings accounts (HSAs). Any money you set aside in an HSA can be used for any qualifying medical expense, from co-pays to prescriptions. The best part is that money you put into your HSA is not taxed, so you can potentially save a lot by using your HSA for medical expenses rather than paying out of pocket.

HSA funds stay in the account until you use them and are portable, meaning you can take it with you even if you leave your job. If you have big medical bills down the road, the funds can come in handy. If not, think of them as another tax-advantaged way to save for retirement.

Bring in a professional if you think you need help

If this is your first time filing on your own, you may be wondering whether you should do it yourself or pay someone to prepare your return for you. If you have a simple return with just a Form W-2 and perhaps some interest income, you could save money by buying some tax software and doing it yourself. MagnifyMoney’s guide to the best tax software is a great place to start.

But if you have dependents, investments, or a small business, you may be better off going to a reputable accountant.

Doing your taxes is never fun, but for recent college graduates, they may not be as big a headache as you might have heard. Keep in mind that tax laws often change, and everyone’s situation is a little different. But taking the time to know which tax breaks apply to you can make your post-college life significantly easier.

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Can a Balance Transfer Hurt Your Credit Score?

 

When you are carrying a balance on a high-interest credit card, receiving a 0% balance transfer offer can be enticing. After all, shifting the balance from a high-interest credit card to a no-interest card means saving money on interest and paying down the balance faster.

But how will the balance transfer impact your credit score?

First, you should understand three crucial elements that go into determining your credit score: inquiries, credit utilization, and length of credit history.

  • Inquiries – How many new accounts have you opened lately? Whenever you apply for new debt, the lender performs a “hard inquiry” to determine whether they will approve your application. According to FICO, hard inquiries account for about 10% of your credit score.
  • Credit utilization ratio – How much do you owe? Your credit utilization ratio is calculated based on your total outstanding balances compared to your total credit limit. It is calculated both per card and across all of your credit accounts and makes up about 30% of your credit score.
  • Length of credit history – How long have you been using credit? This factor looks at the age of your oldest account as well as the average length of all of your credit accounts. The longer your history, the higher your score. According to FICO, the length of your credit history accounts for about 15% of your credit score.

How balance transfers can hurt your credit score

Balance transfer applications count as a hard credit inquiry

When you open a new account for a balance transfer, the lender will perform a hard inquiry. One hard inquiry is unlikely to have a large impact on your credit score. If you have excellent credit and haven’t applied for a card in the last six months, one hard inquiry may not impact your score at all. Inquiries could have as much as a ten-point impact, but that would be very rare. The typical impact of one hard inquiry is about five points. However, if you apply for several cards at once, the applications could have a big impact.

Balance transfers lower the average length of your credit history

Opening a new credit account will lower the average age of your credit accounts, which can negatively impact your credit score in the short term.

For example, if you have one 5-year-old credit card, one 3-year-old credit card, and one 10-year-old credit card, the average age of your cards is 6 years.

When you open a new credit card for a balance transfer, you now add a less-than-one-year-old account to your balance. At the most, your average credit age will drop down to 4.75 years.

How balance transfers can improve your credit score

All in all, the benefits of balance transfers can far outweigh the negatives.

You will likely lower your utilization rate

Opening new credit accounts decreases your overall credit utilization ratio, which positively affects your credit score over time. For example, if you have one credit card with a $5,000 limit and a $2,500 balance, your credit utilization ratio is 50%. When you open a second account with a $5,000 limit and transfer the $2,500 balance to the new card while leaving the old account open, your total available credit is $10,000 ($5,000 + $5,000), and your outstanding balance is still just $2,500. You’ve reduced your credit utilization rate to 25%.

What happens if the new account’s limit is just $2,500 and you transfer the full $2,500 balance? You’ve still reduced your overall credit utilization ratio. Now you’re using 33% of your available credit ($2,500 / $7,500). However, the negative is that there are still some points taken away if you max out one card. You didn’t have any maxed out cards before, and now you do. Credit scores are very sensitive to people who max out their credit cards as they’re seen as high risk. Maxing out a new card could reduce your credit score by about 30 points in the short term.

You will be paying off debt faster, improving your score dramatically

Where balance transfers get exciting is that more of your money is going to paying off the balance of your debt as opposed to interest. Ultimately, the best credit score comes from carrying as little debt as possible.

Using our previous example of the $2,500 balance on one card, assume that card had a 21% interest rate and you could afford to pay $220 per month toward paying it off. According to MagnifyMoney’s balance transfer calculator, if you did not take advantage of a balance transfer, the card would be paid off in 13 months, and you would pay $309 in interest. If you transferred that balance, even with a 3% balance transfer fee ($75), you could pay off that balance one month sooner and save $234.

In the end, your goal should be to pay off your debt as quickly as possible. Over the course of a year, as long as you stick to your strategy, you can eliminate that debt in a year, and your score will go up a whole lot faster than it otherwise would.

When to avoid balance transfers

The short-term impact of a balance transfer on your credit score should only concern you if you are planning on applying for a mortgage in the next six to nine months. During this period, every point on your score counts. Just a 0.2% difference in your interest rate can cost a ton of money over the life of your mortgage. In that case, wait until after you get the mortgage to do the balance transfer.

The bottom line

People are so programmed to think about their score that they sometimes lose sight of what they want the high score for. A higher score saves you money and gets you out of debt faster. Don’t focus on short-term fluctuations of 10 to 20 points. Use your good credit score to save money. That’s what it’s there for.

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