Tapping home equity, part 2

In last week's column, I described home equity lines of credit. In this column, I'd like to discuss shopping for credit.


What should you look for when shopping for a plan?

If you decide to apply for a home equity line of credit, look for the plan that best meets your particular needs. Read the credit agreement carefully and examine the terms and conditions of various plans, including the annual percentage rate and the costs of establishing the plan. The APR for a home equity line is based on the interest rate alone and will not reflect the closing costs and other fees and charges, so you'll need to compare these costs, as well as the APRs, among lenders.


Interest rate charges and related plan features

Home equity lines of credit typically involve variable rather than fixed interest rates. The variable rate must be based on a publicly available index (such as the prime rate or a Treasury bill rate).

The interest rate for borrowing under the home equity line changes, mirroring fluctuations in the value of the index. Most lenders cite the interest rate you will pay as the value of the index at a particular time plus a "margin," such as two percentage points. Because the cost of borrowing is tied directly to the value of the index, it is important to find out which index is used, how often the value of the index changes, and how high it has risen in the past as well as the amount of the margin.

Lenders sometimes offer a temporarily discounted interest rate for home equity lines — a rate that is unusually low and may last for only an introductory period, such as six months.

Variable-rate plans secured for a dwelling must, by law, have a ceiling (or cap) on how much your interest rate may increase over the life of the plan. Some variable-rate plans limit how much your payment may increase and how low your interest rate may fall if interest rates drop.

Some lenders allow you to convert from a variable interest rate to a fixed rate during the life of the plan, or to convert all or a portion of your line to a fixed-term installment loan.

Plans generally permit the lender to freeze or reduce your credit line under certain circumstances. For example, some variable-rate plans may not allow you to draw additional funds during a period in which the interest rate reaches the cap.


Costs of establishing and maintaining a home equity line

Many of the costs of setting up a home equity line of credit are similar to those you pay when you buy a home. For example:

    * A fee for a property appraisal to estimate the value of your home.

    * An application fee, which may not be refunded if you are turned down for credit.

    * Up-front charges, such as one or more points (one point equals 1 percent of the credit limit).

    * Closing costs, including fees for attorneys, a title search, and mortgage preparation and filing.

    * Property and title insurance.

    * Taxes.

In addition, you may be subject to certain fees during the plan period, such as annual membership or maintenance fees and a transaction fee every time you draw on the credit line.

You could find yourself paying hundreds of dollars to establish the plan. If you were to draw only a small amount against your credit line, those initial charges would substantially increase the cost of the funds borrowed.

On the other hand, because the lender's risk is lower than for other forms of credit, as your home serves as collateral, annual percentage rates for home equity lines are generally lower than rates for other types of credit. The interest you save could offset the costs of establishing and maintaining the line. Moreover, some lenders waive some or all of the closing costs.


Next week


In my next column, I'll discuss paying off your home equity line of credit.

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

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