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Fixed Rate Mortgage vs. ARMs

Which is the better mortgage option for you: fixed or adjustable? The low initial cost of adjustable-rate mortgages (ARMs) can be very tempting to homebuyers, yet they carry a degree of uncertainty. Fixed-rate mortgages offer rate and payment security, but they can be more expensive. Here are some pros and cons of ARMs and their fixed-rate counterparts.

ARM Advantages

ARMs have lower rates and payments early on in the loan term. Because lenders can use the lower payment when qualifying borrowers, people can buy larger homes than they otherwise could buy.

ARMs allow borrowers to take advantage of falling rates without refinancing. Instead of having to pay a whole new set of closing costs and fees in a time of low rates, ARM borrowers just sit back and watch the rates (and their payment) fall.

ARMs can help borrowers save on their mortgage in order to invest more elsewhere. Someone who has a payment that's $200 less with an ARM can invest that money into a higher-yield investment, like a retirement account.

ARMs offer a cheap way for borrowers who don't plan on living in one place for very long to buy a house.

ARM Disadvantages

Rates and payments can rise significantly over the life of the loan. A 6% ARM can end up at 11% in just three years if rates rise sharply.

A borrower's initial low rate will adjust to a level higher than the going fixed-rate level in almost every case, even if rates in the economy as a whole don't change. That's because ARMs have initial fixed rates that are set artificially low.

The first adjustment can be a doozy because some annual caps don't apply to the initial change. Someone with an annual cap of 2% and a lifetime cap of 6% could theoretically see the rate shoot from 6% to 12% 12 months after closing if rates in the overall economy skyrocket.

ARMs are difficult to understand. Lenders have much more flexibility when determining margins, caps, adjustment indexes, and other things, so unsophisticated borrowers can easily get confused or trapped by shady mortgage companies.

On certain ARMs, called negative amortization loans, borrowers can end up owing more money than they did at the start! That's because the payments on these loans are set so low (to make the loans even more affordable) that they only cover part of the interest due. Any additional amount due gets rolled into the principal balance.

Fixed-Rate Mortgage Advantages

Rates and payments remain constant. There won't be any surprises even if inflation surges out of control and mortgage rates head to 10%.

Stability makes budgeting easier. People can manage their money with more certainty because their housing outlays don't change.

Simple to understand, so they're good for first-time buyers who wouldn't know a 7/1 ARM with 2/6 caps if it hit them over the head.

Fixed-Rate Mortgage Disadvantages

To take advantage of falling rates, fixed-rate mortgage holders have to refinance. That means a few thousand dollars in closing costs, another trip to the title company's office, and several hours spent digging up tax forms, bank statements, and so on.

Can be too expensive for some borrowers, especially in high-rate environments, because there is no early-on payment and rate break.

Fixed-rate loans are virtually identical from lender to lender. While lenders keep many ARMs on their books, most financial institutions sell their fixed-rate mortgages into the secondary market. As a result, ARMs can be customized for individual borrowers, while most fixed-rate mortgages can't.

Important Questions to Ask Yourself

How long do you plan on staying in the home? If you're only going to be living in the house a few years, it would make sense to take the lower-rate ARM, especially if you can get a reasonably priced 3/1 or 5/1. Your payment and rate will be low, and you can build up more savings for a bigger home down the road. Plus, you'll never be exposed to huge rate adjustments because you'll be moving before the adjustable rate period begins.

How frequently does the ARM adjust, and when is the adjustment made? After the initial fixed period, most ARMs adjust every year on the anniversary of the mortgage. The new rate is actually set about 45 days before the anniversary, based on the specified index. But some adjust as frequently as every month. If that's too much volatility for you, go with a fixed-rate mortgage.

What's the interest rate environment like? When rates are relatively high, ARMs make sense because their lower initial rates allow borrowers to still reap the benefits of homeownership. Rates could fall even further, meaning borrowers will have a decent chance of getting lower payments without the hassle of refinancing. When rates are relatively low, however, fixed-rate mortgages are affordable and bring the security of knowing your payment will never rise.

Could you still afford your monthly payment if interest rates rise significantly? On a $150,000, one-year adjustable-rate mortgage with 2/6 caps, your 5.75% ARM could end up at 11.7%, with the monthly payment shooting up as well.