Mortgage rates have been lower than ever during the pandemic, making refinancing a must for many homeowners. You can trade in your old loan for a new one that might easily chop hundreds of dollars off your monthly mortgage payment.
A 30-year fixed-rate mortgage may be the borrower's go-to loan for a refinance. But if you've been in your house a few years, refinancing to a 15-year mortgage can help you avoid dragging out the debt and piling up a mountain of lifetime interest.
The monthly payments on a 15-year home loan can be stiffer, but the interest rates are lower — currently averaging just 2.23%, more than one-half of one percentage point below the typical 30-year mortgage rate, according to mortgage company Freddie Mac.
Here are five tips on how you can get the very best deal when refinancing into a 15-year mortgage.
1. Do the math on 30- and 15-year loans
Most mortgage lenders offer both 30- and 15-year terms. Compare the current average rates between the two loan products, then focus on a couple of lenders and see how their 30- and 15-year rates differ.
If 15-year mortgage rates don't seem substantially lower, it may not seem worthwhile to accept the steeper monthly payment that comes with the shorter-term loan.
Still, the long-term savings can be considerable.
Freddie Mac says rates are now averaging 2.79% for a 30-year fixed-rate mortgage, versus 2.23% for the 15-year option. Let's say you're trying to decide whether to refinance a $200,000 mortgage balance for either 15 or 30 years, at today's average rates.
Your monthly payment (principal plus interest) would be $1,308 with a 15-year mortgage at 2.23%, yet only $821 with a 30-year loan at 2.79%.
But you'd pay total interest of around $35,500 with the shorter-term loan, versus roughly $95,500 — $60,000 more — over the course of the 30-year mortgage.
2. Be the best borrower you can be
Before you start applying for mortgages, check your credit score. These days, it's very easy to take a peek at your score for free.
A lender wants to feel confident you'll pay back the loan and not default — particularly at a time when so many people are in a financial squeeze from the coronavirus pandemic. A very good (740 to 799) or excellent (800 or higher) credit score will help provide that assurance.
If your score could stand improvement, request copies of your credit reports from the three major credit reporting bureaus — Equifax, TransUnion and Experian — and make sure they're accurate.
Bad information, such as debts that aren't yours, or debts that are too old and should have fallen off the reports, can weigh down your credit score.
Sharpen your score by paying down debt (especially credit card balances), getting bill payments in on time, and not opening new credit accounts while you're shopping for a home loan.
3. Shop around (and around)
Once you've settled on a 15-year mortgage for your refi and have determined your credit score looks solid, check rates from multiple lenders in your area. Review them side by side to identify the best deal available to you.
As you research rates online, you may want to look at the websites of major banks operating where you live. They often have similar pricing on their mortgages, but you might find one offering a cheaper rate or more favorable terms.
Small local banks and credit unions often have affordable rates, but the approval processes can be slower.
Note that some lenders recently bumped up their refi mortgage rates, to factor in a new 0.5% fee on refinance loans that officially took effect on Dec. 1 after months of buildup.
Be sure to comparison shop for your homeowners insurance, too, each time your policy comes up for renewal. You could easily save hundreds of dollars.
4. Pay as much as you can upfront
If you don't have much equity in your home, making a larger down payment on your refinance loan can help you land an extremely low 15-year mortgage rate for your refi.
Like a decent credit score, a bigger down payment is a way of demonstrating to the lender that you're a good risk and deserve a low rate.
If you're heavily invested in your house, it's less likely you'll walk away from your mortgage.
Plus, making a down payment large enough to give you at least 20% equity in your home will keep troublesome private mortgage insurance (PMI) premiums from being tacked onto your house payments.
5. Lock a great rate when you find one
Mortgage rates have been remarkably difficult to predict amid the coronavirus crisis.
They recently sank even as investors applauded the positive news on the COVID front as vaccines started rolling out. More recently, rates jumped as Treasury bond yields have climbed on expectations for more government spending.
You can’t forecast the future, so you need to lock in a super-low 15- or 30-year mortgage rate when you're offered one.
The closing process can take a few weeks, and rates can move up or down every day. When you lock a rate a lender has quoted you, the rate is guaranteed — usually for 30 or 60 days.