Evidently many mortgage borrowers fail to understand that mortgage refinances have a variety of possible purposes, and their success depends on a variety of factors that vary with the purpose. This article is a guide.

Should I Refinance?
November 16, 2018

This question was posed to me recently through Quora, the question and answer web site. I did not answer it there because an adequate answer in the short space that Quora likes was impossible. But it made me think about why that was the case, and the result was this article.

 “Should I refinance” is what I will call a “contingent question.” Some other examples are:  

  • “Should I retire?”

  • “Should I trade-in my car?”

  • “Should I marry Charles?”

Contingent questions are unanswerable without more information provided by the questioner. The interesting thing is that in my 3 other examples, the contingent nature of the question would generally be recognized, so that anyone posing any of these questions would include information that the questioner felt was relevant. But “Should I refinance?” was asked with no additional information provided. This probably reflects a lack of understanding that mortgage refinances have   a variety of purposes, and that the success of a refinance depends on a range of factors that vary with the purpose. This article is designed as a guide. 

Purpose is Lower Interest Cost

Most borrowers contemplating the refinance of a fixed-rate mortgage want to know whether the financial gain from a lower interest rate more than offsets the refinance costs. This is less important as a motivation than it was a year ago because of the rise in rates that has since occurred. It remains relevant, however, to borrowers with older higher-rate mortgages who for one reason or another failed to refinance when rates were at their lowest.

I have 3 calculators on my web site directed to this question. They all measure the benefits of a rate-reduction refinance relative to the refinance costs. Calculator 3a is for borrowers who have one mortgage that will be refinanced into another mortgage. Calculator 3b is for borrowers who have both a first and a second mortgage that will be refinanced into one new mortgage. Calculator 3c is for borrowers who have one mortgage carrying private mortgage insurance and will be refinancing into a combination first and second mortgage without mortgage insurance.

Purpose Is to Raise Cash

Another reason borrowers refinance is to raise cash. While cash-out refinances are priced higher than rate-reduction refinances, this is not in itself a deterrent to the borrower who needs cash. What matters to that borrower is whether the cost of the cash-out refinance is larger or smaller than the cost of raising the same amount of cash with a second mortgage. Calculator 3d on my site is directed to this question.

Purpose Is to Reduce the Risk of Higher Rates on an ARM

Borrowers who now have an adjustable rate mortgage (ARM) and are concerned about rising interest rates have their own reason for considering a refinance. They want to know whether the likely loss from retaining their ARM exceeds the cost of eliminating the risk by refinancing into an FRM. Calculator 3e is designed to answer their question.

Purpose Is to Make Rate-Reduction Refinance Possible by Paying Down the Loan Balance

Some borrowers have mortgage interest rates above the current market but they can’t refinance into a lower rate because their house value has depreciated. They want to know whether paying down the balance on their existing FRM in order to lower the cost of refinancing into another FRM would yield a satisfactory rate of return. These are sometimes called “cash-in refinances”. My Calculator 3e is designed to answer that question.

Purpose Is to Eliminate High-Cost Short-Term Debt by Consolidating it into One or Two Mortgages

Borrowers who are burdened with short-term debt may want to know whether it pays to consolidate such debt in a cash-out refinance. Calculator 3e is designed to answer their question. If the borrower has only one mortgage, he can use my Calculator 1b. It compares the cost of consolidating the short-term debt in a new and larger first mortgage, or in a second mortgage. Calculator 1c assumes the borrower has two mortgages plus other debt, which can be consolidated with a cash-out refinance or a new second mortgage.


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