It's a question as old as debt itself: Should I pay off one loan with another loan?
"Debt reshuffling," as it's known, has garnered a bad reputation because it often amounts to just trading one debt problem for another. So it's no wonder the news that Fannie Mae would make it easier for homeowners to swap student loan debt for mortgage debt was met with some caution.
It's awfully tempting to trade a 6.8% interest rate on your federal student loan for a 4.75% interest rate on a mortgage. On the surface, the interest rate savings sound dramatic. It's also attractive to get rid of that monthly student loan payment. But there are things to consider.
"One thing we stress big time: It worries me, taking unsecured debt and making it secured," said Desmond Henry, a personal financial adviser based in Kansas. "If you lose your job, with a student loan, there is nothing they can take away. The second you refinance into a mortgage, you just made that a secured debt. Now, they can come after your house."
The Cash-Out Refinance
The option to swap student loan debt for home debt has already been available to homeowners through what's called a "cash-out refinance." These have traditionally been used by homeowners with a decent amount of equity to refinance their primary mortgage and walk away from closing with a check to use on other expenses, such as costly home repairs or to pay off credit card (or student) debt. Homeowners could opt for a home equity loan also, but cash-out refinances tend to have lower interest rates.
The rates are a bit higher than standard mortgages, however, due to "Loan Level Price Adjustments" added to the loan that reflect an increase in perceived risk that the borrower could default. The costs are generally added into the interest rate.
So what's changed with the new guidelines from Fannie Mae? Lenders now have the green light to waive that Loan Level Price Adjustment if the cash-out check goes right from the bank to the student loan debt holder, and pays off the entire balance of at least one loan.
The real dollar value savings for this kind of debt reshuffle depends on a lot of variables: The size of the student loan, the borrower's credit score, and so on. Fannie Mae expressed it only as a potential savings on interest rates.
"The average rate differential between cash-out refinance loan-level price adjustment and student debt cash-out refinance is about a 0.25% in rate," Fannie Mae's Alicia Jones wrote in an email. "Depending on profile [it] can be higher, up to 0.50%."
On $36,000 of refinanced student loan debt — the average student loan balance held by howeowners who have cosigned a loan — a 0.50% rate reduction would mean nearly $4,000 less in payments over 30 years.
So, the savings potential is real. And for consumers in stable financial situations, the new cash-out refinancing could potentially make sense. Like Desmond Henry, though, the Consumer Federation of America urged caution.
"Swapping student debt for mortgage debt can free up cash in your family budget, but it can also increase the risk of foreclosure when you run into trouble," said Rohit Chopra, Senior Fellow at the Consumer Federation of America and former Assistant Director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. "For borrowers with solid income and stable employment, refinancing can help reduce the burden of student debt. But for others, they might be signing away their student loan benefits when times get tough."
Risking foreclosure is only one potential pitfall of this kind of debt reshuffle, Henry said. There are several others. For starters, the savings might not really add up.
Crunch the Numbers. Alllll the Numbers…
"You don't just want to look at back-of-a-napkin math and say, 'Hey, a mortgage loan is 2% lower than a student loan.' You've got to watch out for hidden costs,' Henry said.
Cash-out refinances come with closing costs that can be substantial, for example. Also, mortgage holders who are well into paying down their loans will re-start their amortization schedules, meaning their first several years of new payments will pay very little principal. And borrowers extending their terms will ultimately pay far more interest.
"We live in a society where everything is quoted on a payment. That catches the ears of a lot of people," Henry said. "People think 'That's a no brainer. I'll save $500 a month.' But your 10-year loan just went to 30 years."
There are other, more technical reasons that the student-loan-to-mortgage shuffle might not be a good idea. Refinancers will waive their right to various student loan forgiveness options – programs for those who work public service, for example. They won't be able to take advantage of income-based repayment plans, either. Any new form of student loan relief created by Congress or the Department of Education going forward would probably be inaccessible, too.
On the tax front, the option is a mixed bag. Henry notes that student loan payments are top-line deductible on federal taxes, while those who don't itemize deductions wouldn't be able to take advantage of the mortgage interest tax deduction. On the other hand, there are caps on the student loan deduction, while there's no cap on the mortgage interest deduction. That means higher-income student loan debtors who refinanced could see substantial savings at tax time.
In other words, it's complicated, so if you're considering your options, it's probably wise to consult a financial professional like an accountant who can look at your specific situation to see what makes the most sense. (It's also a good idea to check your credit before considering any refinancing or debt-consolidate options since it'll affect your rate. You can get your two free credit scores right here on Credit.com.)
As a clever financial tool used judiciously, a cash-out student loan refinance could save a wise investor a decent amount of money. But, as Henry notes, the real risk with any debt reshuffle is that robbing Peter to pay Paul doesn't change fundamental debt problems facing many consumers.
"The first thing to take into consideration is you still have the debt," he said.