Mortgage Accelerator Programs: A Good Basic Idea, But the Devil Is In the Details

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The most recent hot thing in mortgage circles is a mortgage accelerator program. Now I've heard other things, most notably biweekly payment programs, called mortgage accelerators in the past, so let me take a moment to define exactly what I'm talking about.

A mortgage accelerator is essentially a combined mortgage and checking account, where every month you deposit your entire pay, and then write checks out of it as the month goes on to pay for your living expenses, and the mortgage interest of course accrues on a daily basis. The good things about it for consumers (and it is a good thing, as far as this goes) is that the entire paycheck is applied against your mortgage balance on day one, when your pay is deposited. This means that instead of just the minimum monthly payment, your entire pay goes towards the mortgage, lessening the amount of interest you pay in any given month. The bank, for its part, gets your entire paycheck and a significantly lower incidence of default.

This isn't a new concept. Several banks had somewhat different versions back in the late eighties. It went away. Why?

Several reasons, some administrative, some financial. First, the administrative. This bank has basically your entire financial activity. Let's say someone gives you a better deal. Now you either have to stick with a mortgage accelerator program, or go through the hassle of coming up with enough cash to start a new checking account if you go back to having a standard mortgage. Furthermore, when you do refinance, what happens to outstanding checks? That payoff is as of a specific day at a specific time. Your escrow officer comes in and gets the payoff demand, and then more checks clear and everything has to be re-figured. The alternative to this is freezing the account as is done with Home Equity Lines of Credit. So all of a sudden while you are going through this refinance, you have to come up with the seed cash for a new checking account, get new checks rushed through, and then pay your bills with the new checks. May the Universe Help You if you normally pay by automatic debit or any of the primary variants, because you have to set that up as well.

So what else does the bank get out of it, looking at the above? Increased opportunity costs for refinancing. In short, it makes it more difficult for you to take your business elsewhere. Cha-Ching! as the bank officer's eyes light up with dollar signs.

Now obviously, this mortgage accelerator saves you money, if you assume it's just a matter of math, and that math shows how much interest you save as opposed to the same loan at the same interest rate, providing you keep money in your checking account, of course. But how many people do? Not that many, these days.

Furthermore, it assumes you get the same loan at the same interest rate that you normally would. I haven't comparison shopped many of these yet, but my general impression is that the rates, and costs to get them, are higher than you might otherwise get. The assumption that it is the same rate and the same costs on the same type of loan is just that, an assumption, made for modeling purposes. I have used the metaphor of the matador in the past. The bull (consumer) wears himself out on the obvious large red cape, namely the cool service and the fact that all your pay is applied to your mortgage, and never sees the sword, which is the fact that your interest rate is half a percent higher than you might have gotten, you paid an extra point of origination as well, and you're being dinged $10 per month administrative tracking charges for this cool new toy you just got, the accelerator mortgage. Let's say your mortgage is $400,000. Half a percent of $400,000 is $2000 extra interest per year. An extra point of origination is $4000. And $10 per month is about what the average person might save on their mortgage interest if they weren't paying a higher rate, which they are.

($6000 per month deposited, instead of maybe $2500, leaves $3500. You save an average of one half months interest per month on this difference. $3500 at 6% divided by 24 is $8.75. If they bill you $10 per month for the service, you are out $1.25 per month net, on top of the additional interest charges and the one time fee of several thousand dollars of origination)

So lenders with mortgage accelerators charge you more money, charge you more up front costs, and you pay higher interest charges, as well as making it more difficult for the consumer to refinance into a better deal somewhere else. The banks love this one. Only the fact that your parents figured out what a rotten deal most of these are kept them from becoming a permanent fixture of the mortgage landscape nearly twenty years ago.

Now if you can find a mortgage accelerator at the same interest rate, for the same costs, and without the monthly fees that you don't have to pay for your other mortgage, then YES it makes a huge amount of sense to have one of these programs. But that's not what most of the lenders are offering. They are hoping that you are so distracted by the mathematics of how much you will save if you keep your mortgage until it's paid off, that you will never see how much extra you are really paying. Nor do most people keep any given mortgage longer than a few years. In fact, the median time living in a particular piece of real estate is only nine years - less than one third of the time until payoff. The metaphor of the matador is extremely apt. This is precisely what the matador does with the bull. Distracts them and wears them out with the cape so that they never see the sword. The banks dangle this wonderful mathematical concept of what might happen thirty years down the line for that one tenth of one percent of people who actually keep the loan that long, while hoping you are so fascinated by it that you never notice that they're charging you more up-front fees and a higher interest rate than you would have gotten with a traditional mortgage, and often, more in monthly maintenance fees that you save by depositing all of your pay. In short, the lender is making more money off of you by pretending to do you a favor.

So shop loans by interest rate and cost, and then if they'll let you put a mortgage accelerator on it for free, great! If not, they're just trying to distract you from what is really important by offering you a convenience and a cool-looking trick, while charging you hefty amounts of money and tricking you into thinking you are getting something beneficial. I have literally never seen a mortgage accelerator where the benefits outweighed the cost of setting it up, so if you take the money it costs to set the thing up, and instead use it for direct paydown of your mortgage (i.e. write check for the extra direct to the lender), you'll quite predictably come out ahead.

Caveat Emptor

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This page contains a single entry by Dan Melson published on May 22, 2008 7:00 AM.

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