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Refinancing a mortgage means paying off an existing loan and replacing it with a new one. There are many common reasons why homeowners refinance: the opportunity to obtain a lower interest rate; the chance to shorten the term of their mortgage; the desire to convert from an adjustable-rate mortgage (ARM) to a fixed-rate mortgage, or vice versa; the opportunity to tap a home's equity in order to finance a large purchase; and the desire to consolidate debt. Some of these motivations have both benefits and pitfalls. And because refinancing can cost between 3% and 6% of the loan's principal and - like taking out the original mortgage - requires appraisal, title search and application fees, it's important for a homeowner to determine whether his or her reason for refinancing offers true benefit.

One of the best reasons to refinance is to lower the interest rate on your existing loan. Historically, the rule of thumb was that it was worth the money to refinance if you could reduce your interest rate by at least 2%. Today, many lenders say 1% savings is enough incentive to refinance.

Reducing your interest rate not only helps you save money, but increases the rate at which you build equity in your home, and can decrease the size of your monthly payment. For example, a 30-year fixed-rate mortgage with an interest rate of 9% on a $100,000 home has a principal and interest payment of $804.62. That same loan at 6% reduces your payment to $599.55.


Q: Should You Refinance?

Refinancing can be a great financial move if it reduces your mortgage payment, shortens the term of your loan or helps you build equity more quickly. When used carefully, it can also be a valuable tool in getting your debt under control. Before you refinance take a careful look at your financial situation, and ask yourself: 'How long do I plan to continue living in the house?' and 'How much money will I save by refinancing?'

Again, keep in mind that refinancing generally costs between 3% and 6% of the loan's principal. It takes years to recoup that cost with the savings generated by a lower interest rate or shorter term. So, if you are not planning to stay in the home for more than a few years, the cost of refinancing may negate any of the potential savings It also pays to remember that a savvy homeowner is always looking for ways to reduce debt, build equity, save money and eliminate that mortgage payment. Taking cash out of your equity when you refinance doesn't help you achieve any of those goals.

Q. Should I refinance from an adjustable rate to a fixed rate?

Generally, it's a good idea to get the lowest fixed rate possible, but you also have to consider your situation. If you're in the first year of an adjustable rate mortgage (ARM) and you plan on moving in three years, it probably doesn't make sense for you to refinance. However, if the rate on your ARM is about to adjust and you think the rate will go up, then it may make sense to get a long-term fixed-rate mortgage, especially if you don't plan on moving in the next seven years or so.

Q. Are interest rates higher for a cash-out refinance?

The interest rate you pay on a cash-out refinance loan will generally be the same as what you pay on a mortgage where you don't take cash out. There may be an incremental fee associated with a cash-out refinance loan depending on the specific loan you choose and the loan-to-value ratio. Using the equity in your home to pay off other bills can be a smart thing. Consider taking some money out to pay off high-interest credit cards bills, auto loans and any other debts you have that have non-tax-deductible interest. Please consult your tax advisor to find out whether you may be able to deduct the interest on your new loan.

Q. When should I "lock in" an interest rate?

Nobody can predict what interest rates will do. But historically, rates rise faster than they come down. So if you're thinking about buying a home or refinancing your mortgage, lock in your rate now you can always refinance later if rates drop again. Any near-future drop in interest rates may not be drastic enough to impact your monthly mortgage payment. Of course, every situation is different, so it's important to consider all of your options.

Q. Should I pay points to get a lower rate?

Paying points may or may not be your best option, depending on what you're doing. Points paid on a loan you've refinanced can be deducted from your taxes only in small increments-1/30th a year for a 30-year mortgage, for example. This means it could be several years before your lower rate makes up for the points you pay. However, if you're buying a home, points paid are a tax-deductible expense for that year.

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