Tapping home equity, part 1

More and more lenders are offering home equity lines of credit. By using the equity in your home, you may qualify for a sizable amount of credit,available for use when and how you please, at an interest rate that is relatively low.

Furthermore, under the existing tax law — depending on your specific situation — you may be allowed to deduct the interest because the debt is secured by your home.

If you are in the market for credit, a home equity plan may be right for you. Or perhaps another form of credit would be better. Before making a decision, you should carefully weigh the costs of a home equity line against the benefits. Shop for the credit terms that best meet your borrowing needs without posing undue financial risk. And remember, failure to repay the amounts you've borrowed, plus interest, could mean the loss of your home.

What is a home equity line?

A home equity line of credit is a form of revolving credit in which your home serves as collateral. Because the home is likely to be a consumer's largest asset, many homeowners use their credit lines only for major items such as education, home improvements or medical bills and not for day-to-day expenses.

With a home equity line, you will be approved for a specific amount of credit. Many lenders set the credit limit on a home equity line by taking a percentage (say, 75 percent) of the home's appraised value and subtracting from that the balance owed on the existing mortgage. In determining your actual credit limit, the lender also will consider your ability to repay,by looking at your income, debts and other financial obligations as well as your credit history.

Many home equity plans set a fixed period during which you can borrow money, such as 10 years. At the end of this "draw period," you may be allowed to renew the credit line. If your plan does not allow renewals, you will not be able to borrow additional money once the period has ended. Some plans may call for payment in full of any outstanding balance at the end of the period. Others may allow repayment over a fixed period (the "repayment period"),for example, 10 years.

Once approved for a home equity line of credit, you will most likely be able to borrow up to your credit limit whenever you want. Typically,you will use special checks to draw on your line. Under some plans, borrowers can use a credit card or other means to draw on the line. There may be limitations on how you use the line. Some plans may require you to borrow a minimum amount each time you draw on the line (for example, $300) and to keep a minimum amount outstanding. Some plans may also require that you take an initial advance when the line is set up.

Next week

What should you look for when shopping for a home equity plan?

Zall, Bureaucratus columnist and a retired federal employee, is a freelance writer based in Silver Spring, Md. He specializes in taxes, investing, business and government workplace issues. He is a certified internal auditor and a registered investment adviser. He can be reached at miltzall@starpower.net.


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