Payment, Interest Rate and Up Front Costs: Choosing a loan intelligently
Most people tend to shop for a mortgage based upon the payment. They figure the lowest payment will be the cheapest loan.
This is the way most people make banks rich. Because they are looking for the loan with the lowest rate and the lowest payment, they choose the loan with two or three points that's going to take twelve years to pay for its costs, and then after they've sunk all those costs into the front end of the loan, refinance within two years and sink a whole new set of costs into the loan. The bank gets all this lovely money, and then the consumer lets them off the hook by refinancing, and the bank doesn't have to carry through on the full amount of their end of the bargain.
In point of fact, when shopping for a mortgage loan, there are at least four factors the consumer should consider. The best loan for a given consumer in a given situation at a given time is based upon all of these factors. Each varies in importance from loan to loan.
These factors are:
The monthly payment
The monthly interest charges
The costs that are sunk into the loan in order to get it
How long you're likely to keep the loan.
This is not to say that only these factors are of importance. For example, the possibility of "back end" costs when you refinance is likely to be a critical factor when considering a loan that has a prepayment penalty. If you know there's a good chance you're going to get hit with an $8000 charge for paying it off too early, that needs to be added into the likely costs of the loan.
The monthly payment is important for obvious reasons. If this is not something you're comfortable paying every month for month after month and year after year, then getting this loan is probably not something you should do. The costs of getting behind in your mortgage are significant, and the costs of going into default are enormous, and both may likely continue even after you have dealt with them. I talk with people all of the time who say, "We've got to buy something now, before it gets even worse!" Many agents and loan officers will happily put someone who says this into a home, with a loan payment that looks affordable on the surface, but isn't. If you don't examine the situation carefully, you're likely to be getting into something you cannot afford, and is likely to have huge costs and ramifications for years down the line. Neither of these people is your friend. They are each making thousands, often tens of thousands of dollars, by putting you into a situation that is not stable, and that you're going to have to deal with down the line, while they're long gone and putting some other trusting person who doesn't know any better into the same situation as you. If the situation is not both stable and affordable, pass it by.
With that said, the monthly payment is usually the LEAST important of these four factors. As long as it's something you can afford, do not charge straight ahead, distracted by the Big Red Cape of "Low Payment" while you are being bled to death by other things. Many of these Matadors (which means killers in Spanish) will bleed you to death while acting like your friend by distracting you with the "affordable low payment". Due to lack of a real financial education in the licensing process, a disturbingly large number do not realize they are bleeding people, but that doesn't help their victims. A loan payment that is higher but still affordable may be a better loan for you - and in fact this is more likely true than not.
The three other factors are each far more important than payment. Payment is important. People who are unable to make their payments are called insolvent. Many of them file bankruptcy, have liens placed upon them, wage garnishments, suffer for years because of bad credit ratings, etcetera. But just because the cash flow is better right now does not mean the situation is better - that way lies the Ponzi scheme, Enron, and many other famous wrecks in the financial graveyard.
There is no universal ranking of which of the remaining three is the most important. They must be compared as a group in the light of a given situation: YOUR situation.
The monthly interest charges are simple. Principle balance times interest rate. This starts at the amount of the new loan contract (with all the costs added in, of course) times the interest rate.
The costs sunk into the loan shouldn't be any more difficult to compute, but they are. As I have gone over elsewhere, it is an unfortunate fact that rarely does a mortgage provider tell the entire truth about the costs of the loan until it's too late to do anything about it. If you have an ethical loan provider, the amount on the Good Faith Estimate (or Mortgage Loan Disclosure Statement here in California) should match what shows on your HUD 1 at the end of the process. Please remember to note any prepayment penalty or other back end charges as a separate dollar amount.
The thing that is most difficult to determine is how long you intend to keep the loan. Most people have no reliable crystal ball to gaze into the future.
The obvious answer to this dilemma is to compute a break even point. This completely falls short with regards to higher costs incurred after disposing of the loan as a result of having a higher balance, but it's a start. If one loan has lower costs and a lower interest rate, there's no need to go through the computations. But if as is common, one loan has a higher sunk cost and the other has a higher monthly interest charge, divide the difference in sunk costs by the difference in interest charges per month. This gives a figure in months that is a break even point. Don't forget to add in any possibility of a prepayment penalty.
With this breakeven figure in months, you can calculate which is likely to be the better loan for you, using your own situation as a guide. If the breakeven is 54 months and you're being transferred in 36, the answer is obvious. If you've refinanced at intervals of twenty-four months your whole life, a 54 month breakeven is not likely to be beneficial. If you're going to need to sell in two and a half years when mom retires, that's a clue, too. And if you're a first time homebuyer starting out, remember that 50% of all homes are sold or refinanced within two years, so unless you have some reason to suspect that you are likely to be different, take that into account. Far too many people waste thousands of dollars regularly by paying the up-front costs for loans that they will not keep long enough to break even.
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