Borrowers may pay a higher rate on a refinance for 4 reasons, 3 of which may or may not be justified. The fourth, to lower interest cost, is never justified.

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Can Mortgage Refinance at a Higher Rate Make Sense?
April 8, 2002, Revised November 17, 2004, November 30, 2006, June 29, 2007, February 4, 2008, September 10, 2010

"Does it ever make sense to refinance into a mortgage carrying a higher interest rate than the mortgage you already have?"

Very often it does not. Mortgage borrowers refinancing at higher rates ought to use the 72 hour right-to-rescind period to ask themselves if the deal is really in their best interest. See Rescinding a Mortgage Refinance.

Different Reasons to Refinance

Mortgage borrowers refinance for four reasons: to raise cash, to reduce monthly payments, to reduce the risk of higher future monthly payments, or to lower interest cost. Refinancing at a higher interest rate for any of the first three reasons may be justified but often isn’t, for reasons explained below. Refinancing at a higher interest rate to lower interest costs is never justified, although there are some snake oil salesmen in the market who would like to convince you otherwise. I’ll explain their tricks further below.

Cash-Out Refinance

Refinancing to raise cash means that you borrow more than the balance of the old mortgage. This is called a "cash-out refinance". Very often, the rate on a cash-out refinance is higher than the rate on the mortgage that is being paid off.

I can’t say that this is never a sensible thing to do. If a family member is critically ill, and if a cash-out refinance is the only source of cash for a life-saving operation, then you do it. Yet the number of rate-increasing cash-out refinances that can be justified by dire circumstances is very small. In all too many cases, the borrower had a better option but didn’t realize it.

For example, Betty had a $210,000 mortgage at 7% and needed $18,000. She took a cash-out refinance for $232,000 at 7.5%, which covered the $18,000 she needed and $4,000 of settlement costs. She could have obtained a second mortgage for $18,000 but decided against it because the rate was 10.5%. That was a mistake.

What Betty overlooked was that if she took the second mortgage, she would be paying 10.5% on only $18,000, while retaining the $210,000 loan at 7%. With the cash-out refinance, in contrast, the rate on $210,000 was raised by .5%. Paying 7.5% on $232,000 costs more than paying 7% on $210,000 and 10.5% on $18,000.

Unfortunately, the Truth in Lending (TIL) disclosures provided to Betty encouraged her to make this mistake. They indicated an Annual Percentage Rate (APR) of 7.60% on the cash-out refinance, and 10.90% on the second mortgage. Illogically, the APR on her cash-out refinance did not take into account the cost of raising the rate on $210,000 by .5%.

An APR on a cash-out refinance that is comparable to an APR on a second mortgage would be based on the net cash raised, not on the total loan amount. This "net-cash" APR was 14.82%, which was well above the 10.90% APR on the second. If the net-cash APR had been provided to Betty, she might well have avoided the mistake. See The APR on a Cash-Out Refinance.

The Federal Reserve administers TIL but don’t expect it to fix this anytime soon. Meanwhile, you can compare the cost of a cash-out refinance and a second mortgage using my mortgage calculator 3d, Cash-Out Refi Versus Second Mortgage.

Refinance to Reduce Monthly Payments

While refinancing at a higher rate to lower monthly payments is nowhere near as common as refinancing to get cash, it happens occasionally. The payment can be reduced only if the remaining term on the existing mortgage is short. This allows a lengthening of the term to reduce the payment by more than the higher rate increases it.

Charles took out a 15-year mortgage in early 1994 at 6.5%, and has paid down the balance to $200,000. But Charles’ income has unexpectedly dropped and he can no longer afford the mortgage payment of $2,970. He plans to refinance into a 30-year loan at 7% on which the payment is only $1,331, but at a cost of $3,500.

At my suggestion, Charles asked his servicing agent whether it would be possible to extend the term of his existing loan, or reduce the payment to interest-only for 5 years. In cases where a servicing agent also owns the loan, the agent may be willing to do this for a small fee to accommodate a customer. However, the answer to Charles was "no", because the agent did not own the loan and had no discretion to adjust the terms.

In fact, the loan was in a pool of similar loans against which a mortgage-backed security had been issued and sold to multiple investors. Changing the terms of loans in pools against which securities have been issued is forbidden. While the "securitization" of mortgages has driven down interest rates by increasing the efficiency of the system, it has eliminated the flexibility to negotiate changes in the contract. Charles was forced to pay the $3500 in refinance fees, along with a higher rate, to get the payment down.

Refinancing at a higher rate in this situation is justified because the alternative is default. Nonetheless, the difficulties involved in trying to modify the terms of existing mortgages is a weakness of the present system. See Mortgage Loan Modifications.

Refinance to Avoid an Increase In Payments

Borrowers with adjustable rate mortgages (ARMs) who expect a significant increase in the rate and payment at the next rate adjustment date may find it advantageous to refinance into a fixed-rate mortgage (FRM). While the FRM rate may be higher than the rate they are now paying, it is lower than the future rate they expect if they hold on to their ARM.

In my experience, few borrowers who refinance for this reason make a mistake. Read Is Now the Time to Refinance an ARM Into an FRM?

Refinance to Reduce Interest Costs

If the purpose is to reduce interest costs, it never makes sense to refinance at a higher interest rate.

To an economist, this is self-evident, but it isn’t to many readers, which is why I keep returning to the topic. Hardly a week goes by that I don’t hear from confused homeowners who are being badgered by snake oil salesmen (SOS) trying to convince them that their higher rates actually cost less. Most of them work for Primerica.

These SOS believe their own spiel. In fact, several of them have pitched it to me, in the expectation that once I understood it, I was bound to endorse it. Well, I do understand it, and it is a scam. Here is a typical conversation between an SOS and me.

SOS: Will you agree that the important thing is not the interest rate but the total amount you actually pay in interest over the life of the loan? [Note: this is the key point of the spiel. If the SOS gets you to agree to this, you are well on your way to being conned.]

JG: No. The amount I pay in interest over the life of the loan has to be related to the amount I borrow. If you reduce my interest payments by reducing the amount I borrow while raising the price, you are doing me no favor.

Let me make you a similar offer. Right now, you can buy 10 lbs of sugar at $1 a pound, spending a total of $10. If you will agree that the most important thing is the total amount spent on sugar, I will sell you 5 lbs for $1.50 a pound, or $7.50 in all. This will save you $2.50.

No one would be fooled by the sugar case, of course, yet many people buy into the same argument in connection with their mortgage. Their confusion arises from the fact that the "amount" you borrow has two dimensions: the loan size, and the amount of time it is outstanding, which depends on how fast you repay it. The SOS exploits this confusion with examples such as the following:

SOS: Your present 6.60% mortgage has a balance of $200,000 and 300 months remaining to term. Over that period you will pay $208,881 in interest. If you refinance into our mortgage at 8%, you will pay $200,986 in interest, or $7,895 less.

JG: True, but you have reduced the amount I am borrowing, which is like selling me a smaller bag of sugar at a higher price. Your mortgage is a biweekly that requires me to make an extra payment every year. I don’t need to raise my interest rate to make an extra payment. I can convert my current loan to a biweekly for a setup fee of $200 or $300. This would reduce my total interest payments to $169,614, which is $31,372 less than I would pay with your 8% mortgage.

Indeed, I can do even better by increasing my regular monthly payment by 1/12. This is the equivalent of one extra payment a year, the same as with a biweekly, but the savings begin with the first additional payment. Total interest payments in this case will be $167,849, or $1765 less than with the biweekly, and there is no setup fee. See Simple Interest on a Biweekly Mortgage.

SOS: Our biweekly is unlike any other and generates far more savings for the borrower.

JG: The biweekly you offer is only slightly better than the standard biweekly, and the difference is far outweighed by your higher interest rate.

The SOS make exaggerated claims for what they call a simple interest biweekly. It benefits the borrower by reducing the loan balance on the day a payment is received. The benefit, however, is very small.

In the $200,000 mortgage at 6.60% referred to above, interest payments on a simple interest biweekly are $167,306. This is only $543 less than when the monthly payment is increased by 1/12. You only have to raise the interest rate from 6.60% to 6.63% to eliminate the benefit. And if you raise the rate to 8%, which is actually on the low side of the deals promoted by the SOS, it is a loser big time.

Note: All the numbers cited above were drawn from a biweekly spreadsheet that is now available by clicking on Spreadsheets.