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Low Mortgage Rates Spark a Refinance Wave. Should You Refi?

Shane Murphy
Low Mortgage Rates Spark a Refinance Wave. Should You Refi?

As mortgage rates have slid in the direction of record lows, refinancing has become a top priority for U.S. homeowners.

Refinances have been making up the majority of applications for new mortgages, and lenders have been receiving refi applications at more than double the rate of a year ago.

If you’re a homeowner, you might compare mortgage rates and see that refinancing could save you a bundle on interest. Find out more about whether a refi is right for you.

Why refinance?

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Even if your current home loan is only a year old, it may make sense for you to refinance to a lower rate and reduce your monthly payment.

Research by Freddie Mac shows that homeowners who refinanced last spring — when mortgage rates were higher than they are today — have cut their interest costs by an average $1,700 a year, or around $140 a month.

Refinancing makes sense not only if you can lower your monthly mortgage payment but also if you have a variable-rate mortgage and are able to lock in a low fixed rate.

Adjustable-rate mortgages (ARMs) typically have appealing low rates to start, but after the introductory period ends your interest rate can shoot up depending on the market.

With a fixed-rate mortgage, you won’t have to worry about any surprise rate increases, and rates are headed toward historic lows according to mortgage giant Freddie Mac.

Refi applications up, mortgage rates down

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Falling mortgage rates have made refis all the rage, lenders say. During the week ending Jan. 17, refinances accounted for 61.6% or all mortgage applications.

Though demand for refinance mortgages softened a little bit last week, interest among homeowners remains "elevated," according to the Mortgage Bankers Association.

“Refinance applications fell 2% but stayed near their highest level since October,” says Joel Kan, the trade group's vice president of forecasting.

The high volume is directly related to the decline in mortgage rates. Rates on 30-year fixed-rate mortgages fell to three-year lows last year and are headed back in that direction this week, says mortgage company Freddie Mac.

“Rates fell to the lowest level in three months and are about a quarter point above all-time lows,” said Sam Khater, Freddie Mac's chief economist.

Thirty-year fixed-rate mortgages are averaging 3.60%, down from 3.65% a week ago, Freddie Mac reports. The average is the lowest since early October and is closing in on the record-low of 3.12% hit in November 2012.

Rates on 15-year fixed-rate mortgages — which are a popular refinance choice — have slid to an average 3.04%, from 3.09% last week.

2 things to consider before you refinance

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Although the prospect of slashing your monthly payment through a refinance may be tantalizing, watch out for a couple of special considerations when you're trading in your old mortgage for something new and improved.

The loan term: If you’ve already made 15 years' worth of payments on a 30-year mortgage, refinancing into a new 30-year home loan could wind up costing you tens, or possibly hundreds of thousands of dollars in additional interest charges if you stick with the loan for its full term.

In a case like that, refinancing into a 15-year mortgage would be a far better option; it may lead to a higher monthly payment, but you’ll pay much less interest.

Closing costs: The cost of your new mortgage is another factor that deserves close examination when you refinance. In 2018, borrowers paid mortgage closing costs averaging $5,779, according to the real estate data firm ClosingCorp.

If your monthly interest savings from a refinance are $100 but the closing costs are $5,000, it will take more than four years for you to recoup that expense with your interest savings. And if you’re planning to move before that four year period is up, it will be difficult to make back your closings costs.

The outlook for mortgage rates and housing

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Analysts believe recent drops in mortgage rates have resulted from investors pouring their money into safe-haven investments like U.S. Treasury bonds amid worrisome global issues like the spread of the deadly coronavirus.

Increased demand for Treasuries pushes their prices higher, which causes their yields (interest rates) to droop — and mortgage rates fall right along with them.

The current historically low mortgage rates are likely to stay that way throughout 2020 and 2021, according to a new forecast from Freddie Mac's sister company, Fannie Mae.

But it's important to lock in a good rate when you see one, because mortgage rates can change without warning.