How Does a HELOC Work?
With home values having risen dramatically in the last few years, many homeowners are looking for ways to tap their equity without selling their home or refinancing their primary mortgage. If your home has gained significant value since you purchased it, or you’ve just paid so much of the mortgage down that you’ve got ample equity to work with, a second mortgage on your home might make sense.
Home Equity Lines of Credit (HELOCs) are popular options for homeowners in this very situation. They’re flexible loans that give you a lot of options and time to decide what you want to do with your equity, but they can also be a bit confusing because they don’t work like a more traditional home loan.
HELOCs Are Lines of Credit
The most important thing to keep in mind when it comes to a HELOC is that, unlike a traditional home equity loan, HELOCs are lines of credit. That means that they work much more like a credit card than a mortgage. You’re approved for a line of credit that represents the maximum amount of money you can charge to your HELOC (just like with a credit card), and your payments are based on how much of that line of credit you’ve used.
If you max out your HELOC, you can pay it down and charge again, just like with a credit card. Unlike a credit card, however, your home is being used as the security for this loan, so if you get in over your head, your home is at risk of foreclosure. So you must be very careful with this particular kind of credit line.
HELOCs Have Two Separate Loan Periods
HELOCs start out their lives as open lines of credit, allowing you to charge or pay off as much as you wish at any given time. You’re usually expected to make at least an interest payment each month, but beyond that, you can charge a lot or a little and only pay based on the percentage of the credit line you’ve utilized. This is known as the “draw” period.
This period of the HELOC, where it functions as a line of credit, is usually about 10 years, but can be more or less, depending on the loan you take out. Immediately following this period, your HELOC becomes a set loan, and you can no longer charge anything else to the line of credit.
In the repayment period, your HELOC becomes much more like a traditional second mortgage, with a payment that’s based on the amount of credit you ultimately used during the draw period. From here on, your payment is more or less fixed, but can vary if you have an adjustable rate loan. The repayment period is usually about 20 years, but, again, can be different based on your agreement with your bank.
There is often a balloon payment due at the end of the repayment period, so if this is a concern for you, make sure that your loan either will fully amortize or that you’re paying extra each month to ensure your last payment takes your note to a zero balance.
Like other home equity loans, you’ll need to be able to qualify for a HELOC with a reasonable credit score (ask your lender for specifics), a debt-to-income ratio of about 40% or below, and a high amount of home equity. Most lenders won’t lend more than about 85% of your home’s equity back to you, in case of default.
Of course, there are exceptions to all of these rules of thumb, so it’s very important to consult with multiple lenders before you make your final decision on who will be servicing your HELOC. You’ll also need an appraisal to assess the current value of your home, as well as minimal closing paperwork to finalize and record the loan.
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