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Home Equity Line of Credit

... Continued From Previous Page

How much money can you borrow
on a home equity credit line?

Depending on your creditworthiness (your income, credit rating, etc.) and the amount of your outstanding debt, home equity lenders may let you borrow up to 85% of the appraised value of your home minus the amount you still owe on your first mortgage. Ask the lender about the length of the home equity loan, whether there is a minimum withdrawal requirement when you open your account, and whether there are minimum or maximum withdrawal requirements after your account is opened. Inquire how you gain access to your credit line — with checks, credit cards, or both.

Also, find out if your home equity plan sets a fixed time — a draw period — when you can make withdrawals from your account. Once the draw period expires, you may be able to renew your credit line. If you cannot, you will not be permitted to borrow additional funds. Also, in some plans, you may have to pay your full outstanding balance. In others, you may be able to repay the balance over a fixed time.

What is the interest rate on the home equity loan?

Interest rates for loans differ, so it pays to check with several lenders for the lowest rate. Compare the annual percentage rate (APR), which indicates the cost of credit on a yearly basis. Be aware that the advertised APR for home equity credit lines is based on interest alone. For a true comparison of credit costs, compare other charges, such as points and closing costs, which will add to the cost of your home equity loan. This is especially important if you are comparing a home equity credit line with a traditional installment (or second) mortgage, where the APR includes the total credit costs for the loan.

In addition, ask about the type of interest rates available for the home equity plan. Most home equity credit lines have variable interest rates. These variable rates may offer lower monthly payments at first, but during the rest of the repayment period the payments may change and may be higher. Fixed interest rates, if available, may be slightly higher initially than variable rates, but fixed rates offer stable monthly payments over the life of the credit line.

If you are considering a variable rate, check and compare the terms. Check the periodic cap, which is the limit on interest rate changes at one time. Also, check the lifetime cap, which is the limit on interest rate changes throughout the loan term. Ask the lender which index is used and how much and how often it can change. An index (such as the prime rate) is used by lenders to determine how much to raise or lower interest rates. Also, check the margin, which is an amount added to the index that determines the interest you are charged. In addition, inquire whether you can convert your variable rate loan to a fixed rate at some future time.

Sometimes, lenders offer a temporarily discounted interest rate — a rate that is unusually low and lasts only for an introductory period, such as six months. During this time, your monthly payments are lower too. After the introductory period ends, however, your rate (and payments) increase to the true market level (the index plus the margin). So, ask if the rate you are offered is "discounted," and if so, find out how the rate will be determined at the end of the discount period and how much larger your payments could be at that time.

What are the upfront closing costs?

When you take out a home equity line of credit, you pay for many of the same expenses as when you financed your original mortgage. These include items such as an application fee, title search, appraisal, attorneys' fees, and points (a percentage of the amount you borrow). These expenses can add substantially to the cost of your loan, especially if you ultimately borrow little from your credit line. You may want to negotiate with lenders to see if they will pay for some of these expenses.

What are the continuing costs?

In addition to upfront closing costs, some lenders require you to pay continuing fees throughout the life of the loan. These may include an annual membership or participation fee, which is due whether or not you use the account, and/or a transaction fee, which is charged each time you borrow money. These fees add to the overall cost of the loan.

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