What Are Points and How Do They Work?

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I got a search hit for that and, amazingly enough after 150+ articles, I've never dealt with this subject head on. So here goes.



One point, either discount or origination, is one percent of the final loan amount. After all of the loan amounts and fees and what have you are added, for a loan with one point, multiply the amount by 100 and divide by 99, and that will be your final loan amount. For a loan with two points, multiply by 100 and divide by 98. The general formula is multiply by 100 and divide by (100-n) where n is the total number of points.



Points come in two basic sorts, discount and origination. Origination is a fee your loan provider charges for getting the loan done. Some brokers quote in dollars, most quote in points because it sounds cheaper than an explicit dollar cost. Most brokers out there charge one point of origination. To contrast this, direct lenders do not have to disclose how much they are going to make on the secondary loan market. And many direct lenders still charge origination. Judging the loan by how much the provider makes (or tells you they make) is a good way to end up with a bad loan. My point is that it's the rate, type of loan, and net cost to you that are important, not how much the guy is getting paid for doing your loan. Remember two things here, and they will save you. First, loans are always done by a tradeoff between rate and cost. For the same type of loan, the more points you pay the lower your rate will be, and vice versa. Second, remember to ask about "What would it be without a prepayment penalty?" It's a good way to catch people who are trying to slide one over on you, and the lenders pay a lot more for loans with a penalty, and the lenders make a lot more on them when they sell them to Wall Street, so they often do them on what looks like a much thinner margin until you ask the question "What would it be without the prepayment penalty?" Remember it.



Discount points are an explicit charge in order to offer you a lower rate than you would otherwise have gotten. To use an example I ran across today, six point five percent with one point, seven percent without. On a four hundred thousand dollar loan, that's essentially four thousand dollars, either out of your pocket where you're not earning money on it, or added to your mortgage balance where you are making payments and paying interest.



Is it a good idea to pay discount points, or is it a better idea to pay the higher rate? That depends upon the loan type and how long you keep it. Let's say the loan is $396,000 without the point, $400,000 with, just to keep the math easy. Your monthly interest charge on the first loan is $2310, on the second it's $2166. On the other hand, you pay $361 principal on loan 2, only $324 on loan 1. Here's the bottom line, though: You've got to get that $4000 back before you sell or refinance. Just a straight line computation, that second loan saves you $181 the first month. $4000/$181 per month is about 22 months to break even (and it's a little faster than that, because loan 2 pays off more principal per month). On the other hand, even after you've theoretically "broken even" there is a period where if you sell or refinance, you will inexorably lose money because you're paying interest on a balance that's higher than it would have been.



But now let's run the actual numbers. If the above loan is a thirty year fixed and you keep it four years, you're well ahead. You've saved yourself $6944 in interest and your balance is only $2159 higher. $6944 - $2159 = $4785. Even if your next loan is at ten percent, you're only losing $215.90 per year. Especially when you consider that at a cost of money now versus later, you'll never make it up, because you can invest that $4785 you saved and it'll pay more interest than that.



On the other hand, let's say the rate was only fixed for two years. After that, it is a universal feature of hybrid ARMs that they all adjust to the same rate. You are theoretically ahead by $363, but because of your higher balance, even if the loan adjusts to five percent, you're losing $154 per year due to your higher balance, and there is nothing you can do about it. Play now, pay later.



There is no cut and dried answer about whether it's to your benefit to pay points. I tend not to do it, myself, because rates do vary a lot with time, and money sticks around in your balance. If I've got a zero or low cost loan and the rates drop half a percent, it's worthwhile to refinance for free. If I have a loan I paid a point for, I'm going to have to pay that same point again to see a benefit on refinancing, and as we've already discussed, if you don't keep the loan long enough, you've wasted your money. The median time between refinances is right about two years right now. I see no reason to pretend I'm any different from everyone else, but some folks do have a history of keeping loans a long time. You need to make your own choice to fit your own situation.



Caveat Emptor.

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This page contains a single entry by Dan Melson published on May 26, 2007 10:00 AM.

The Tradeoff between Rate and Cost in Real Estate Loans was the previous entry in this blog.

Buy Now vs. Wait: Some Practical Hypotheticals is the next entry in this blog.

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