The Difference Between Note Rate (APY) and APR

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I am continually horrified how many people shop their loans by APR, just as I am by people shopping their loan based upon payment. Why? Because in either case, you're setting yourself up to spend a lot of money in closing costs that most people will never recover. But you shouldn't choose a loan based upon APR, just like you should never choose a loan based upon payment.

There is always a tradeoff between rate and cost in real estate loans. If you want a lower rate, you're going to spend more in up-front costs to get it. This is a law of finance on the same order as the law of gravity, or Newton's laws of movement. Some lenders and originators have different tradeoffs, for better or worse, but they are always present. The question of rate should never be asked or answered on its own, but always in conjunction with the costs it takes to get that rate. If you keep a loan long enough, yes, you will eventually get back your upfront investment, but most people don't keep their loans nearly long enough.

Let's illustrate by example. Picking a random rate sheet from one lender as I type this, I've got one thirty year fixed rate loan with a rate of 5.00 percent, and assuming an existing loan payoff of $350,000, and rolling costs only into the balance, an APR of 5.484, and payment of $1993. Looks better at first glance than a loan at 5.625%, with a payment of $2056 and an APR of 5.764. As other alternatives, 6.00 percent is available with a payment of $2119 and an APR of 6.048, or 6.375% with a payment of $2184 and APR of 6.375.

But here's what may not be apparent. As a matter of fact, it isn't apparent to most consumers. That 5.00 percent loan cost 4.8 points to get, and involved paying over $21,300 in total costs to buy the rate down that far. You're almost up against California rules limiting the total costs of a loan to 6% of total loan amount. The loan at 5.625% is done with a single point, and costs a grand total of $7070 to get done. The loan at 6.00% requires no points, and costs a grand total of $3500. Finally, the loan at 6.375% is a true zero cost loan.

What this means is that that getting that 5.00 percent rate is a $21,300 bet that you will keep that property and that loan long enough that the money you save in interest every month will be more than that upfront cost. It takes 141 months for that loan to do that as opposed to the 5.625% loan - almost twelve years - when you consider time value of money. It takes 108 months - nine years - before it pulls even with the no points loan at 6.00, and 92 months - over seven and a half years - before it pulls even with the zero cost loan at 6.375%. The 5.625% loan (a $7000 bet) doesn't start in first place either, but it does get there a lot more quickly. It takes 55 months - four and a half years to pull in front of the 6.00% loan, and 53 months to pull in front of the zero cost 6.375% loan. That poor 6.00 percent loan for no points is the only one that's never the absolute best choice - it takes the exact same 55 months to pull in front of the zero cost loan as the 5.625 takes to catch it, but since you're only betting $3500, at least you've lost less if you refinance or sell before break even, which most people do. Last time I checked (a few months ago), the median age of mortgages in the United States was 28 months - just about half the time that any of the other loans takes to pull even with the 6.375% loan that doesn't cost a penny, either out of pocket or rolled into the balance.

Let's consider how much money you'll be out if you refinance after 28 months with that 5.00 percent loan (or sell the property), like approximately half the population will. Your balance is $18,860 higher than the zero cost 6.375% loan, while on the plus side you have saved $1288 in payments. On the minus side, however, if you get another loan, you still have to pay interest on that $18,860. Whether it's because you sold that property and bought another, or a refinance loan comes along that you like better, it means a loan balance $18,860 higher even if you don't pay points on the new loan. You're still paying for your old loan, while all of your benefits stopped on the day you let your old lender off the hook by selling or refinancing. Admittedly, the chance of this happening is lower as you get to lower and lower rates, but it's still a bad bet, in my estimation. People not only sell, they want cash out, they want debt consolidation, the list goes on and on. If you get another 5% loan, you're paying $943 extra per year because of that higher balance. Alternatively, if you kept the extra in your pocket and invested it elsewhere, a 9% rate of return would mean it would cost you $1697 that first additional year. So far, I haven't worried about tax deductibility, but it works against the higher cost loan, making the picture even less favorable.

I need to note that these were honest calculations. The ones you encounter won't always be. Sometimes, they're based upon the payoff balance - in other words, calculate the payment for that 5% loan as if you were going to pay all of the costs in cash, even though the loan officer probably knows that's not going to happen. This would allow them to quote a payment of $1879. It also assumes they're giving you an honest quote on your MLDS (California) or GFE (the other 49 states) is accurate, as the APR is calculated given that information. If the underlying document is inaccurate, and I've covered how badly lenders can legally lowball, then the resulting payment and APR calculations will therefore be too low.

Now the difference between the two numbers, APR and APY, can give you a certain amount of information if you know how to use it, assuming that the loan officer tells you the truth, unlikely though that may be in some cases. I'm going to assume you've got a financial calculator or can do the calculations yourself, because none of the ones I've seen on the web are up to this task. Furthermore, this is only an approximation of the actual computation method, so there will be a small amount of slop in the calculations, but much smaller than the eighth of a percent fixed rate loans quotes are permitted to be erroneous. Using the term of the loan, the payment, and the contractual note rate (APY), tell your calculator to compute principal value of the loan - in other words, the new balance. This may not be accurate in and of itself, and that will tell you there's something funny going on with the numbers. Then repeat the calculation with APR substituted, which should give you the balance less the cost of loan, albeit with third party fees (appraisal, escrow, title) still in the amount as those are excludable from APR calculations under Federal Reserve Regulation Z. The difference in the two numbers tells you the fees the lender is charging - or the ones they're willing to tell you about, anyway. Without a Loan Quote Guarantee, these numbers have no more meaning than the lender wants them to have.

Note that the "spread" or difference between APY and APR gets larger as costs get higher or the term of the loan being contemplated gets shorter. The reason is that these costs have to be paid off over a shorter period of time. It also increases for smaller loans and decreases for larger ones. If you have to pay them off over fifteen years instead of thirty, the difference gets much larger. That 5.00 percent loan that had an APR of 5.484 with a thirty year loan term goes to 5.834 with a fifteen year loan term - not quite twice the difference, but nasty enough!

Despite the fact that the person refinances about every three years, APR is always calculated upon the consumer keeping the loan for the full term, which isn't likely. Ninety-five percent of everyone has sold or refinanced within about seven years, and this number climbs towards an effective 100% for loans that begin adjusting before that. Sure, you could theoretically keep a hybrid ARM (although not a Balloon) after the adjustment, but nobody does.

With that in mind, let's calculate APRs of each of these loans assuming you'll refinance after 36 months - significantly longer than the fifty percent mark where half of the country has refinanced or sold the property. The 6.375% zero cost loan still has an APR of 6.375 - because it has no costs to recover. The The APR on the 6.00 percent "no points" loan, which only has $1800 of non-excludable costs (see Regulation Z), doesn't go up much - to 6.391. The 5.625% loan you can have for one point jumps up to 6.643 APR, and the APR on that loan that the people shopping by APR or payment will choose - the one with a 5.00 percent contractual interest rate - skyrockets to 8.663%! If you only end up keeping it three years - beating out median age of loans in the country by better than 25% - this loan is the worst of the choices I have presented, not just by calculation of money spent, but even by calculating APR honestly.

If I had to pick a few things I could pack into a sixty second public service announcement to tell all 300 million people in this country about real estate loans, the fact that they're severely unlikely to keep the loan for anything like the full term would be one of those things. People just assume that they're going to keep a loan for the full term, but then they don't actually do it. Meanwhile, all of the calculations that are made presume that they will, even though that presumption is nonsense, and making those calculations on that basis will actually cause many consumers to make erroneous decisions, because they paint the facts as something other than what they are. If gravity was a tenth of what it is, we could all fly in the manner of Icarus as described by myth. But those pesky facts keep getting in the way, and over half the people who take out thirty year financing don't keep it for even one tenth of the full term. If you're wasting nearly nineteen thousand dollars of your money every three years, as the people here did once, those facts will have an ugly tendency to bite you just as hard as they will any modern day imitator of Icarus.

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This page contains a single entry by Dan Melson published on April 2, 2008 7:00 AM.

Straw Buyer Fraud was the previous entry in this blog.

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