What Is Mortgage Insurance?

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If you’re making a down payment of less than 20% on a home, it’s important to understand what mortgage insurance is and how it works. Private mortgage insurance (PMI) isn’t just for people who can’t afford a 20% down payment. It’s also for people who don’t want to put down 20%, so they have more cash on hand for repairs, remodeling, furnishings and emergencies.

What Is PMI?

If the concept of buying insurance on your mortgage sounds a little odd, you're probably a newcomer to buying property or never put down a small down payment. Most lenders require PMI when a homebuyer makes a down payment of less than 20% of the home's purchase price – or, in mortgage-speak, the mortgage's loan-to-value (LTV) ratio is in excess of 80% (the higher the LTV ratio, the higher the risk profile of the mortgage). And unlike most types of insurance, the policy protects the lender's investment in the home, not yours. On the other hand, PMI makes it possible for people to become homeowners sooner.

PMI allows borrowers to obtain financing if they can only afford (or prefer) to put down just 5% to 19.99% of the residence's cost, but it comes with additional monthly costs. Borrowers pay their PMI until they have accumulated enough equity in the home that the lender no longer considers them high-risk.

PMI costs can range from 0.25% to 2% (but typically run about 0.5 to 1%) of your loan balance per year, depending on the size of the down payment and mortgage, the loan term and your credit score. The greater your risk factors, the higher the rate you pay. Also, because PMI is a percentage of the loan amount, the more you borrow, the more PMI you’ll pay. There are six major PMI companies in the United States. They charge similar rates, which are adjusted annually.

It’s an added expense, but so is continuing to spend money on rent and possibly missing out on market appreciation while you wait to save up a larger down payment. There’s no guarantee you’ll come out ahead buying a home later rather than sooner just to avoid it, so the value of paying PMI is worth considering. The value of paying Federal Housing Administration mortgage insurance – what you may need if you get an FHA loan – is another story. We’ll explain that later.

Mortgage Insurance Helps You, but Protects the Lender More

First, you should understand how PMI works. For example, suppose you put down 10% and get a loan for the remaining 90% of the property’s value – $20,000 down and a $180,000 loan. With mortgage insurance, if the lender has to foreclose on your mortgage because you lose your job and can’t pay for several months, the lender’s losses will be limited. 

The mortgage insurance company covers a certain percentage of the lender’s loss. For our example, let’s say that percentage is 25%. So if you still owed 85% ($170,000) of your home’s $200,000 purchase price at the time you were foreclosed on, instead of losing the full $170,000, the lender would only lose 75% of $170,000, or $127,500 on the home’s principal. PMI would cover the other 25%, or $42,500. It would also cover 25% of the delinquent interest you had racked up and 25% of the lender’s foreclosure costs.

If PMI protects the lender, why do you, the borrower, have to pay for it? You’re compensating the lender for taking on the higher risk of lending to you versus lending to someone with a larger down payment, someone who has more to lose if his or her home gets foreclosed on. (For more, see How to Outsmart Private Mortgage Insurance.)

How Long Do You Carry PMI?

Borrowers can request that monthly mortgage insurance payments be eliminated once the loan-to-value ratio drops below 80%. Once the mortgage's LTV ratio drops to 78% – meaning your down payment, plus the loan principal you’ve paid off, equals 22% of the home’s purchase price – the lender must automatically cancel PMI as required by the federal Homeowners Protection Act, even if your home’s market value has gone down (as long as you’re current on your mortgage).

Otherwise, the length of time you have to carry PMI depends on the type of PMI you choose. For more, see How to Get Rid of Private Mortgage Insurance.

The 4 Types of Private Mortgage Insurance

Mortgage insurance comes in five types. Four fall under the category of PMI, which you pay when you put down less than 20% on a conventional loan. The fifth applies when you put down less than 20% on a mortgage insured by the Federal Housing Administration, better known as an FHA loan or FHA mortgage. Below are the four types of regular PMI.

1. Borrower-Paid Mortgage Insurance

The most common type of PMI is borrower-paid mortgage insurance (BPMI).  When you read about PMI and the type isn’t specified, this is usually the kind that’s being discussed.

BPMI comes in the form of an additional monthly fee that you pay with your mortgage payment.  After your loan closes, you pay BPMI every month until you have 22% equity in your home based on the original purchase price. At that point the lender must automatically cancel BPMI, as long as you’re current on your mortgage payments. Accumulating enough home equity through regular monthly mortgage payments to get BPMI canceled generally takes about 11 years. 

You can also be proactive and ask the lender to cancel BPMI when you have 20% equity in your home. Your mortgage payments must be current, you must have a satisfactory payment history, there must not be any additional liens on your property and, in some cases, you may need a current appraisal to substantiate your home’s value and prove that it hasn’t declined below the value when you purchased it. 

Some loan servicers will allow (but are not required to allow) borrowers to cancel PMI sooner based on home value appreciation. If the borrower accumulates 25% equity due to appreciation in years two through five, or 20% equity after year five, the investor who purchased the loan (most mortgages are sold to investors) may allow PMI cancelation after the home’s increased value is proved with an appraisal, a broker’s price opinion (BPO) or an automated valuation model (AVM, which takes into account the value of recently sold similar properties). 

You also may be able to get rid of PMI early by refinancing, though you’ll have to weigh the cost of refinancing against the costs of continuing to pay mortgage insurance premiums. You may also be able to ditch it early by prepaying your mortgage principal so that you have at least 20% equity.

You need to decide if you’re willing to pay PMI for up to 11 years in order to buy now. Look beyond the monthly payment. What will PMI cost you in the long run? What will waiting to buy potentially cost you? Yes, you miss out on accumulating home equity while you’re renting, but you also avoid all the throw-away costs of home ownership, such as homeowner’s insurance, property taxes, maintenance and repairs. And the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, which doubled the  standard deduction, makes the mortgage-interest tax deduction no longer as valuable as it was before.

The remaining three types of PMI aren’t nearly as common. You might still want to know how they work, though, in case one of them sounds more appealing or your lender presents you with more than one mortgage insurance option.

2. Single-Premium Mortgage Insurance

With single-premium mortgage insurance (SPMI), also called single-payment mortgage insurance, you pay mortgage insurance up front in a lump sum, either in full at closing or financed into the mortgage (in the latter case, it may be called single-financed mortgage insurance).

The benefit of SPMI is that your monthly payment will be lower compared to BPMI. This can help you qualify to borrow more to buy your home. Another benefit is that you don’t have to worry about refinancing to get out of PMI – or watching your loan-to-value ratio to see when you can get your PMI canceled.  

The risk is that if you refinance or sell within a few years, no portion of the single premium is refundable.  Further, if you finance the single premium, you’ll pay interest on it for as long as you carry the mortgage. Also, if you don’t have enough money for a 20% down payment, you may not have the cash to pay a single premium up front. However, the seller or, in the case of a new home, the builder can pay the borrower’s single-premium mortgage insurance. You can always try negotiating that as part of your purchase offer.

If you plan to stay in the home for three or more years, single-premium mortgage insurance may save you money. Ask your loan officer to see if this is indeed the case. And be aware that not all lenders offer single-premium mortgage insurance. 

3. Lender-Paid Mortgage Insurance

With lender-paid mortgage insurance (LPMI), your lender will technically pay the mortgage insurance premium. In fact, you will actually pay for it over the life of the loan in the form of a slightly higher interest rate. Unlike BPMI, you can’t cancel LPMI when your equity reaches 78% because it’s built into the loan. Refinancing will be the only way to lower your monthly payment. Your interest rate will not decrease once you have 20% or 22% equity. Lender-paid PMI is not refundable.

The benefit of lender-paid PMI, despite the higher interest rate, is that your monthly payment could still be lower compared with making monthly PMI payments, and you could qualify to borrow more. 

4. Split-Premium Mortgage Insurance

Split-premium mortgage insurance is the least common type. It’s a hybrid of the first two types we discussed: BPMI and SPMI.

Here’s how it works: You pay part of the mortgage insurance as a lump sum at closing and part monthly. You don’t have to come up with as much extra cash up front as you would with SPMI, nor do you increase your monthly payment by as much as you would with BPMI. One reason to choose split-premium mortgage insurance is if you have a high debt-to-income ratio. When that's the case, increasing your monthly payment too much with BPMI would mean not qualifying to borrow enough to purchase the home you want.

The upfront premium might range from 0.50% to 1.25% of the loan amount. The monthly premium will be based on the net loan-to-value ratio before any financed premium is factored in. 

As with SPMI, you can ask the builder or seller – or even the lender – to pay the initial premium, or you can roll it into your mortgage.  Split premiums may be partly refundable once mortgage insurance is canceled or terminated. 

Cost of Private Mortgage Insurance

Your mortgage insurance costs, or premiums, will depend on several factors.

  • which premium plan you choose
  • whether your interest rate is fixed or adjustable
  • your loan term (usually 15 or 30 years)
  • your down payment or loan-to-value ratio (LTV) [a 5% down payment gives you a 95% LTV; 10% down makes your LTV 90%]
  • the amount of mortgage insurance coverage required by the lender or investor (it can range from 6% to 35%)
  • whether the premium is refundable or not
  • your credit score
  • any additional risk factors, such as the loan being for a jumbo mortgage, investment property, cash-out refinance or second home

In general, the riskier you look on any factor, the higher your premiums will be. For example, the lower your credit score and the lower your down payment, the higher your premiums will be.

As of early April 2018, premiums can range from 0.17% to 2.81% or more per year. If you put down 15% on a 15-year fixed-rate mortgage and have a credit score of 760 or higher, for example, you’d pay 0.17%, because you’re a low-risk borrower. If you put down 3% on a 30-year adjustable-rate mortgage for which the introductory rate is fixed for only three years and you have a credit score of 630, your rate will be 2.81%, because you’re a high-risk borrower. 

Once you know which percentage applies to your situation, multiply it by the amount you’re borrowing. Then divide that amount by 12 to see what you’ll pay each month. For example, a loan of $200,000 with an annual premium of 0.65% would cost $1,300 per year ($200,000 x .0065), or $108 per month ($1,300/12).

Estimating Your Borrower-Paid Mortgage Insurance Rate

Many companies offer mortgage insurance. Their rates may differ slightly, and your lender, not you, will select the insurer. Nevertheless, you can get an idea of what rate you will pay by studying the mortgage insurance rate card. MGIC, Radian, Essent, National MI, United Guaranty and Genworth are some major providers of private mortgage insurance. 

Mortgage insurance rate cards can be confusing at first glance. Here’s how to use them.

  1. Find the column that corresponds to your credit score.
  2. Find the row that corresponds to your LTV ratio.
  3. Identify the applicable coverage line. Search the web for Fannie Mae’s Mortgage Insurance Coverage Requirements to identify how much coverage is required for your loan, or ask your lender (and impress the pants off them with your knowledge of how PMI works).
  4. Identify the PMI rate that corresponds with the intersection of your credit score, down payment and coverage.
  5. If applicable, add or subtract to that rate the amount from the adjustment chart (below the main rate chart) that corresponds with your credit score. For example, if you’re doing a cash-out refinance and your credit score is 720, you might add 0.20 to your rate.
  6. As we showed in the previous section, multiply the total rate by the amount you’re borrowing; this is your annual mortgage insurance premium. Divide it by 12 to get your monthly mortgage insurance premium.

Your rate will be the same every month, though some insurers will lower it after 10 years. However, that’s just before the point when you should be able to drop coverage anyway, so any savings won’t be that significant. 

FHA Mortgage Insurance

Mortgage insurance works differently with Federal Housing Administration loans. For many – if not most – borrowers it will be more expensive than PMI.

PMI doesn’t require you to pay an up-front premium unless you choose single-premium or split-premium mortgage insurance. (In the case of single-premium mortgage insurance, remember that you pay no monthly mortgage insurance premiums. In the case of split-premium mortgage insurance, you pay lower monthly mortgage insurance premiums.) However, with FHA mortgage insurance everyone must pay an up-front premium, and that payment does nothing to reduce your monthly premiums.

As of April 2018 the up-front mortgage insurance premium (UFMIP) is 1.75% of the loan amount. You can pay this amount at closing or finance it as part of your mortgage. The UFMIP will cost you $1,750 for every $100,000 you borrow. If you finance it, you’ll pay interest on it too, making it more expensive over time. The seller is permitted to pay your UFMIP as long as the seller’s total contribution toward your closing costs doesn’t exceed 6% of the purchase price.

With any FHA mortgage you’ll also pay a monthly mortgage insurance premium (MIP) of 0.45% to 1.05% of the loan amount based on your down payment and loan term. For example, as the table below from the FHA shows, if you have a 30-year loan (mortgage term of more than 15 years) for $200,000 (base loan amount less than or equal to $625,500) and you’re paying the FHA’s minimum down payment of 3.5% (LTV greater than 95%), your MIP will be 0.85% (85 bps, or basis points) for the life of the loan (mortgage term). Not being able to cancel your MIPs can be costly.

Source: U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

For FHA loans with a down payment of 10% or more, you can cancel your monthly MIPs after 11 years. But if you have 10% to put down, why get an FHA loan at all? You’d only want to do this if your credit score is too low to qualify for a conventional loan. Another good reason: if your low credit score would give you a much higher interest rate and/or PMI expense with a conventional loan than with an FHA loan.

You can get an FHA loan with a credit score as low as 580 and possibly even lower (though lenders might require your score to be 620 or higher). And you might qualify for the same rate you would on a conventional loan despite having a lower credit score: 660 versus 740, for example.

Without putting down 10% or more on an FHA mortgage, the only way to stop paying FHA MIPs is to refinance into a conventional loan. This step will make the most sense once your credit score and/or LTV have increased considerably. Refinancing means paying closing costs, however, and interest rates might be higher when you’re ready to refinance. Higher interest rates plus closing costs could negate any savings from canceling FHA mortgage insurance. And you can’t refinance if you’re unemployed or have too much debt relative to your income.

In addition, FHA loans are more generous in allowing sellers to contribute to the buyer’s closing costs: up to 6% of the loan amount vs 3% for conventional loans. So if you can’t afford to buy a home without substantial closing cost assistance, an FHA loan might be your only option.

The Bottom Line

Mortgage insurance costs borrowers money, but it enables them to become homeowners sooner by reducing the risk to financial institutions of issuing mortgages to people with small down payments. You might find it worthwhile to pay mortgage insurance premiums if you want to own a home sooner rather than later for lifestyle or affordability reasons. Adding to the reasons for doing this: Premiums can be canceled once your home equity reaches 80% if you’re paying monthly PMI or split-premium mortgage insurance.

However, you might think twice if you’re in the category of borrowers who would have to pay FHA insurance premiums for the life of the loan. While you might be able to refinance out of an FHA loan later to get rid of PMI, there’s no guarantee that your employment situation or market interest rates will make a refinance possible or profitable.

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