Home equity loans and home equity lines of credit (HELOCs) are affordable ways to tap the equity in your home to use for home improvements, pay for education, and pay off credit cards or other higher-interest types of debt. These debt instruments are secured by your property and typically have lower interest rates than non-secured loans.

Key Takeaways

  • Home equity loans and home equity lines of credit (HELOCs) are two key types of debt used to tap the equity in your home.
  • Defaulting on either can result in foreclosure, but what the lender will actually do largely depends on the amount of equity you have in your home.
  • The more equity, the more likely your lender will choose to foreclose.
  • However, if you're underwater on your home, the lender may choose to sue you personally for the money you owe.
  • Many lenders will work with you if you're struggling to make payments, such as modifying the loan, but it's important to contact them as soon as possible.

Formerly, the interest paid on these loans, used for personal items, was tax-deductible. However, with the advent of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA), the interest will only be deductible if the loans “are used to buy, build or substantially improve the taxpayer’s home that secures the loan,” as stated by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS).

Home Equity Loans vs. HELOCs

There are two types of debt instruments used to turn the equity in your home into cash. The first is a home equity loan, which is a set amount of money financed for a set period (usually five to 15 years) at a fixed interest rate and with a fixed payment.

The second is a HELOC, which has a variable interest rate and functions more like a credit card with an expiration date (often up to 10 years after the line of credit is taken out). You can run into trouble with either type of debt if you have serious financial problems, lose your job, or experience an unexpected illness.

A further complication of a HELOC is the stark contrast between the initial phase ("draw" period), when you have access to the line of credit and may have to pay only interest on the money you borrow, and the second (much more costly) "repayment" phase, when the line of credit expires and you must begin repaying both principal and interest on your remaining balance.

Mortgage lending discrimination is illegal. If you think you've been discriminated against based on race, religion, sex, marital status, use of public assistance, national origin, disability, or age, there are steps you can take. One such step is to file a report to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau or with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).

Lenders Won’t Automatically Foreclose

Defaulting on a home equity loan or HELOC could result in foreclosure. What the home equity lender actually does depends on the value of your home. If you have equity in your home, your lender will likely initiate foreclosure, because it has a decent chance of recovering some of its money after the first mortgage is paid off. The more equity, the more likely your lender will choose to foreclose.

If you are underwater—your home is worth less than the amount you owe—your home equity lender may be less likely to foreclose. That’s because the first mortgage has priority, meaning that it's likely that the home equity loan or HELOC holder will not receive any money after a foreclosure.

Instead, the lender may choose to sue you personally for the money you owe. While a lawsuit may seem less scary than foreclosure proceedings, it can still hurt your credit, and lenders can garnish wages, try to repossess other property, or levy your bank accounts to get what is owed.

Don’t Wait to Act

Most mortgage lenders and banks don’t want you to default on your home equity loan or HELOC, so they will work with you if you are struggling to make payments. Should that happen, it's important to contact your lender as soon as possible. The last thing you should do is try to duck the problem. Lenders may not be so willing to work with you if you have ignored their calls and letters offering help.

When it comes to what the lender can do, there are a few options. Some lenders offer to modify your loan or line of credit. This can include modifying the terms, such as interest rate, monthly payments, or loan length—or some combination of the three. For example, Bank of America offers HELOC modifications for borrowers that:

  • Have had the loan for at least nine months
  • Have not received any kind of home equity assistance in the last 12 months or twice in the last five years
  • Are undergoing financial hardship

Other private lenders—such as Sallie Mae, which offers student loans—work with a borrower who is struggling to meet payments by offering multiple deferments and forbearance options. For borrowers who don’t qualify, Bank of America offers payment extensions or repayment plans to catch up on delinquent payments.

Limited Government Help

Help from the federal government is limited. The Obama administration's Home Affordable Modification Program (HAMP), which allowed eligible homeowners to reduce monthly payments, including those for home equity loans and HELOCs, was closed to new applicants at the end of 2016. 

The Making Home Affordable mortgage assistance options page, however, has information and advice on seeking help from your lender, depending on whether your problem is temporary or long term.

If you live in one of the 18 states plus the District of Columbia that participates in the Hardest Hit Fund, you might be able to qualify for assistance there. Some states have already concluded their application process, and no applications will be accepted in any state after Dec. 31, 2020.

The Bottom Line

Home equity loans and HELOCs allow you to tap into the equity in your home. If you find yourself in trouble, you have options, including lender workouts and limited government help. The key in all options is to get help right away instead of hoping the problem will disappear on its own.