Adjustable Rate loans
An adjustable-rate mortgage differs from a fixed-rate mortgage in many ways. Most importantly, with a fixed-rate mortgage, the interest rate stays the same during the life of the loan. With an ARM, the interest rate changes periodically, usually in relation to an index, and payments may go up or down accordingly.
To compare two ARMs, or to compare an ARM with a fixed-rate mortgage, you need to know about indexes, margins, discounts, caps on rates and payments, negative amortization, payment options, and recasting (recalculating) your loan. You need to consider the maximum amount your monthly payment could increase. Most importantly, you need to know what might happen to your monthly mortgage payment in relation to your future ability to afford higher payments.
Lenders generally charge lower initial interest rates for ARMs than for fixed-rate mortgages. At first, this makes the ARM easier on your pocketbook than would be a fixed-rate mortgage for the same loan amount. Moreover, your ARM could be less expensive over a long period than a fixed-rate mortgage--for example, if interest rates remain steady or move lower.
Against these advantages, you have to weigh the risk that an increase in interest rates would lead to higher monthly payments in the future. It’s a trade-off--you get a lower initial rate with an ARM in exchange for assuming more risk over the long run. Here are some questions you need to consider:
Is my income enough--or likely to rise enough--to cover higher mortgage payments if interest rates go up?
Will I be taking on other sizable debts, such as a loan for a car or school tuition, in the near future?
How long do I plan to own this home? (If you plan to sell soon, rising interest rates may not pose the problem they do if you plan to own the house for a long time.)
Do I plan to make any additional payments or pay the loan off early?
Initial rate and payment
The initial rate and payment amount on an ARM will remain in effect for a limited period--ranging from just 1 month to 5 years or more. For some ARMs, the initial rate and payment can vary greatly from the rates and payments later in the loan term. Even if interest rates are stable, your rates and payments could change a lot.
The adjustment period
With most ARMs, the interest rate and monthly payment change every month, quarter, year, 3 years, or 5 years. The period between rate changes is called the adjustment period. For example, a loan with an adjustment period of 1 year is called a 1-year ARM, and the interest rate and payment can change once every year; a loan with a 3-year adjustment period is called a 3-year ARM.
Any initial information you receive about mortgages probably will come from advertisements or mail solicitations from builders, real estate brokers, mortgage brokers, and lenders. Although this information can be helpful, keep in mind that these are marketing materials--the ads and mailings are designed to make the mortgage look as attractive as possible. These ads may play up low initial interest rates and monthly payments, without emphasizing that those rates and payments could increase substantially later. So, get all the facts.
Any ad for an ARM that shows an initial interest rate should also show how long the rate is in effect and the APR on the loan. If the APR is much higher than the initial rate, your payments may increase a lot after the introductory period, even if interest rates stay the same.
Choosing a mortgage may be the most important financial decision you will make. You are entitled to have all the information you need to make the right decision. Don't hesitate to ask questions about ARM features when you talk to lenders, mortgage brokers, real estate agents, sellers, and your attorney, and keep asking until you get clear and complete answers.