When you take out a home equity line of credit (HELOC) there is an initial draw period, which typically lasts 10 years. During this time you can borrow money from the credit loan as needed and make low, interest-only payments on what you’ve borrowed. Many homeowners do just that. 

After the draw period ends, however, you can no longer borrow from your HELOC and instead must begin making fully amortized interest and principal payments each month. This second stage is known as the repayment period, which is usually 20 years. That means your monthly payments can be significantly higher than they were during the draw period, and many homeowners end up facing payment shock.

One way to solve the payment-shock problem is by refinancing your HELOC, and there are several ways to do it. In this article, we explain how to qualify, what your options are, and the pros and cons of each of those options.

Key Takeaways

  • Many homeowners experience payment shock when they have to start repaying the higher fully amortized principal and interest on a HELOC.
  • To qualify for a HELOC refinance, you need to have adequate home equity to meet the lender's guidelines for combined LTV and very good to excellent credit scores for the lowest interest rates.
  • You can refinance a HELOC by requesting a loan modification, opening a new HELOC, using a home equity loan to pay off your HELOC, or refinancing into a new first mortgage.
  • Each strategy has pros and cons that homeowners should take into consideration in choosing the one that's best for them.

How to Qualify to Refinance Your HELOC

Refinancing a HELOC is similar to taking out or refinancing a first mortgage. You will have to qualify based on your income, expenses, debts, and assets. This means providing documents like pay stubs, W-2 forms, tax returns, mortgage statements, photo ID, proof of insurance, and any other documents the loan underwriter deems necessary.

To get the lowest interest rates, you’ll need to have a "very good" to "exceptional" FICO credit score: somewhere in the 740 to 850 range. You could qualify with a score as low as 620, but you’ll pay more than twice the interest rate of someone with an excellent score, and you may have a harder time finding a lender who will work with you.

You will also need to have enough equity in your home after taking out the new loan to meet the lender's guidelines for the combined loan-to-value (CLTV) ratio—a percentage that’s calculated by dividing the total amount borrowed by the property value. Some lenders will let homeowners with excellent credit borrow up to 100% of the value of their home, but it’s common to be able to borrow only 80% to 90%.

Here’s an example:

  • Property value: $300,000
  • First-mortgage balance: $190,000
  • HELOC balance: $50,000
  • Total borrowed: $240,000
  • Combined loan to value: 80%
  • Homeowner’s equity: 20%

In this case, assuming you only want to refinance the existing HELOC balance and do not want to borrow more, you should be able to find a lender who will work with you, especially if you have good credit. Also, the more equity you have, the lower your interest rate will tend to be. 

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).

There are four ways to refinance your home equity line of credit. Here are your options, and the pros and cons of each:

1. Request a Loan Modification

How It Works

Contact your lender and explain that you are going to have trouble making your payments when the draw period ends. Ask if the lender can work with you to change the loan terms in a way that will make your monthly payments affordable, so you don’t default. 

Bank of America, for example, has a home equity assistance program that grants qualified homeowners a longer-term, lower interest rate, or both if they have experienced a financial hardship such as divorce or loss of income—for example, due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Pros

Loan modification may be your only option if you are underwater on your mortgage.

Cons

Lenders are under no obligation to modify your loan, so this option might not be available to you. If it is, you’ll have to show that you can repay the modified loan. There is also less federal support to lenders. Two assistance programs for struggling homeowners ceased in 2016: the Home Affordable Second Lien Modification program and the FHA Short Refinance.

2. Open a new HELOC

How It Works

You kick the can down the road by starting over with a new draw period and the new interest-only repayment period.

Pros

It buys you some time to improve your financial situation if you’re struggling to make ends meet and you don’t want to default on your existing loan.

Cons

You are going to have to repay the loan someday. The longer you put off repaying it, the more interest you’re going to owe, and the higher your fully amortized principal and interest payments will be each month.

Also, entering a new draw period makes it easy to keep borrowing beyond your means. If you are refinancing because you’re concerned about repaying your existing HELOC, the last thing you want to do is add to your debt.

You might consider a HELOC with a fixed-rate option, which gives you a fixed APR on at least a portion of what you owe.

It is hard to know what your total borrowing costs or your monthly payments will be with a HELOC because you’re borrowing a little bit here and there and the interest rate can fluctuate. Further, when your new HELOC’s repayment period kicks in, interest rates could be higher than they are today, making those monthly payments even larger.

3. Get a New Home Equity Loan

How It Works

You turn your variable-rate HELOC balance into a fixed-rate home equity loan or a second mortgage. You generally can take 10 or 15 years to pay off this new balance. 

Pros

You end the cycle of continuous borrowing by taking out a lump sum to pay off your HELOC, and you get a fixed interest rate with stable monthly payments. Make sure you know your long-term borrowing costs and factor them into your household’s long-term financial plan.

Cons

Large financial institutions do not necessarily have the best rates or the most competent customer service, so you'll need to look beyond the biggest banks. Also, keep in mind that the longer your loan term, the lower your monthly payments will be, but the more interest you’ll pay.

4. Refinance Into a New First Mortgage

How It Works

Instead of just refinancing your HELOC, you refinance both your HELOC and your original mortgage into one loan: a new first mortgage.

Pros

You can get the lowest interest rates available. First-mortgage rates tend to be lower than home equity loan rates because if you default on your house payments, your first-mortgage lender had dibs on the proceeds from selling your foreclosed home. In a market where the rates for HELOCs and home equity loans are 4.18% and 5.56%, respectively, the rates for 30-year and 15-year fixed first mortgages might be 3.57% and 3.03%, respectively. 

Assuming you refinance with a fixed-rate first mortgage, you’ll also gain the stability of equal monthly payments and knowing your total borrowing costs up front, just as you would with the home equity loan option discussed above.

Cons

Taking out the first mortgage may mean paying significantly higher closing costs than you would by refinancing into a new HELOC or home equity loan.

The Bottom Line

You may be able to get more affordable monthly payments on your HELOC through a loan modification, refinancing into a new HELOC, refinancing into a home equity loan, or refinancing with a new first mortgage. Explore your options with several lenders to see which possibility offers the best combination of short-term affordability and the lowest possible long-term expenses and closing costs.