Mortgage refinancing is not always the best idea, even when mortgage rates are low and the office chatter focuses on who snagged the lowest interest rate. Before you begin the long process of gathering pay stubs and bank statements, think about why you are refinancing. While some financial goals—such as easing your monthly cash flow or paying off your home loan sooner—can be met with a refinance, here are seven scenarios in which a mortgage refinance may be a mistake.

Key Takeaways

  • Refinancing your mortgage can be a good or bad idea, depending on your motivation and goals.
  • Many consumers who refinance to consolidate debt build up new credit card balances that may be hard to repay.
  • Homeowners who refinance can wind up paying more over time because of fees and closing costs, a longer loan term, or a higher interest rate that is tied to a "no-cost" mortgage.

1. To Consolidate Debt

This can be one of the most dangerous financial moves any homeowner can make. On the surface, paying off high-interest debt with a low-interest mortgage seems like a smart move, but there are some potential problems.

First, you are transferring unsecured debt (such as credit card debt) into debt that is backed by your home. If you are unable to make the loan payments, you can lose that home. While nonpayment of credit card debt can have negative consequences, they are usually not as dire as a foreclosure.

Second, many consumers find that, once they have repaid their credit card debt, they are tempted to spend again and will begin building up new balances that they will have more trouble repaying.

2. To Move Into a Longer-Term Loan 

While refinancing into a mortgage with a lower interest rate can save you money each month, be sure to look at the overall cost of the loan. If you have 10 years left to pay on your current loan and you stretch out the payments into a 30-year loan, you will pay more in interest overall to borrow the money and be stuck with 20 extra years of mortgage payments.

3. To Save Money for a New Home 

As a homeowner, you need to make an important calculation to determine how much a refinance will cost and how much you will save each month. If it will take three years to recoup the expenses of a refinance and you plan to move within two years, that means despite the lower monthly payments, you are not saving any money at all.

4. To Switch From an ARM to a Fixed-Rate Loan

For some homeowners, this can be an excellent move, particularly if you intend to stay in the home for years to come. But homeowners who are simply afraid of the bad reputation of an adjustable-rate mortgage, or ARM, should carefully look at their ARM terms before making a move to refinance. If you have an ARM, make sure you know what index it is tied to, how often your loan adjusts and, even more important, your caps on the loan adjustments: the first cap, the annual cap, and the lifetime cap. It may be that a fixed-rate loan is better for you, but make sure you do the math before committing to spending money on a refinance. 

5. To Take Cash out for Investing

The problem with cash is that it is too easy to spend. If you are disciplined and will truly use the extra money for investing, this can be a good option. However, paying down a mortgage at 5% to 6% per year can be a better deal than plunking your cash into a CD that earns 2.5% every year. Make sure you are a savvy investor before playing with the equity in your home.

6. To Reduce Your Payments

In general, reducing your monthly payments by lowering your interest rate makes financial sense. But don't ignore the costs of refinancing. In addition to the closing costs and fees, which can cost from 2% to 5% of your home loan, you will be making more mortgage payments if you extend your loan terms. If, for example, you have been making payments for seven years on a 30-year mortgage and refinance into a new 30-year loan, remember that you will be making seven extra years of loan payments. The refinance may still be worthwhile, but you should roll those costs into your calculations before making a final decision.

Comparing the amortization schedule of your current mortgage to the amortization schedule of the new mortgage will reveal the effect a refinance will have on your net worth.

7. To Take Advantage of a No-Cost Refinance

A "no-cost" mortgage loan does not exist. There are several ways to pay for closing costs and fees when refinancing, but in every case, the fees are paid one way or another. Homeowners can pay cash from their bank account for a refinance, or they can wrap the costs into their loan and increase the size of their principal. Another option is for the lender to pay the costs by charging a slightly higher interest rate. You can calculate the best way for you to pay the costs by comparing the monthly payments and loan terms for each scenario before choosing the loan that works best for your finances.

The Bottom Line

Refinancing a mortgage can be a wise financial move for many homeowners, but not every refinance makes sense. Be sure to evaluate all your options before making a decision.