You have two basic choices when you’re refinancing your mortgage. If you simply refinance your existing loan to get a lower interest rate or change the terms, it is called a rate-and-term refinance. If you want to extract some of the equity in your house—perhaps to do a renovation, pay down debts, or help pay college costs—you take a cash-out loan. Here’s how these two refinance options can affect your financial position.

Key Takeaways

  • The basic options when refinancing a mortgage are cash-out or rate-and-term refinance.
  • You can extract some of the equity in your home with a cash-out refi.
  • In a rate-and-term refinance, the borrower exchanges the current loan for one with better terms.
  • Cash-out loans generally come with added fees, points, or a higher interest rate, because they carry a greater risk to the lender.
  • It may be possible to extract some cash from your refinance without incurring the extra fees of a cash-out loan by taking advantage of the overlap of funds at the end of one loan and the beginning of another.

The Basics of Mortgage Refinancing

Think of refinancing as the replacement of an existing mortgage with another or the consolidation of a pair of mortgages into a single loan. Out with the old (mortgage) and in with the new, as they say. After the refinance, the old loan (or loans) are paid off, and a new one replaces it. 

There are plenty of reasons to consider refinancing. Saving money is the obvious one. In August 2008 the average 30-year fixed mortgage had an interest rate of 6.48%. After the financial crisis, rates for the same sort of mortgage steadily declined. By December 2012 the 30-year fixed mortgage rate was slashed nearly in half from four years earlier, to 3.35%. The average annual rate for 2017 edged up to 3.99%. It peaked in 2018 at 4.54%, then slid to 3.94% for 2019, according to Freddie Mac. But even 2018’s highest rate could be lower than the rate on an older mortgage that you might have.

In February 2020 30-year fixed rate mortgage rates dropped to 3.47%, their lowest point since July 2016. In the week ending Feb. 28, 2020, mortgage applications rose 15.1% over the previous week, and the refinance level increased to 66.2% of total applications, a more than 30% jump. According to Mike Fratantoni, MBA’s senior vice president and chief economist, the cause was “increasing concerns regarding the economic impact from the spread of the coronavirus, as well as the tremendous financial market volatility.... Given the further drop in Treasury rates this week, we expect refinance activity will increase even more until fears subside and rates stabilize.” These low rates are an important reason for homeowners with older, higher-interest mortgages, those whose home equity has risen, and those who have much better credit ratings than when they originally financed their home to look at refinancing now. By May 14, 2020, they had dropped further, to 3.28%.

When rates are moving higher, refinancing can offer a chance to convert an adjustable-rate mortgage into a fixed-rate one, to lock in lower-interest payments before rates climb even higher. However, it is often challenging to forecast the future direction of interest rates, even for the most seasoned economists.

Cash-Out vs. Rate-and-Term Refi

The simplest and most straightforward option is the rate-and-term refinance. No actual money changes hands in this case, outside of the fees associated with the loan. The size of the mortgage remains the same; you simply trade your current mortgage terms for newer (presumably better) terms.

In contrast, in a cash-out refinance the new mortgage is bigger than the old one. Along with new loan terms, you’re also advanced money—effectively taking equity out of your home in the form of cash.

You can qualify for a rate-and-term refinance with a higher loan-to-value ratio (the amount of the loan divided by the appraised value of the property). In other words, it’s easier to get the loan even if you’re a poorer credit risk because you’re borrowing a high percentage of what the home is worth.

Think carefully before obtaining a cash-out loan in order to invest, as it makes little sense to put your funds into a certificate of deposit that earns 1.58% or even 2.5% when your mortgage interest is 3.9%.

Cash-Out Loans Are Pricier

Cash-out loans come with tougher terms. If you want back some of the equity you’ve built up in your home in the form of cash, it’s probably going to cost you—how much depends on how much equity you have built up in your home and your credit score.

For example, if your FICO score is 700, your loan-to-value ratio is 76%, and the loan is considered cash-out, the lender might add 0.750 points to the up-front cost of the loan. If the loan amount is $200,000, the lender would add $1,500 to the cost. (Every lender is different.) Alternatively, you could pay a higher interest rate—0.125% to 0.250% more, depending on market conditions. 

Why the tougher terms and higher cash-out refinance rates? Because cash-out loans carry a higher risk to the lender, according to Casey Fleming, mortgage advisor at C2 Financial Corporation and author of “The Loan Guide: How to Get the Best Possible Mortgage.” According to Fleming,

“Statistically, a borrower is much more likely to walk away from a home if he gets in trouble if he has already pulled equity out of it. It is particularly true if he has pulled out more than he initially invested in the down payment. Consequently, any loan that is considered cash-out is priced higher to reflect that risk, until there is so much equity that the borrower isn’t likely to walk away anymore.”

One more reason to think twice about cash-outs: Doing a cash-out refinance can negatively affect your FICO score.

Special Considerations of Cash-Out Loans

In certain circumstances, however, cash-out loans may not have tougher terms. A higher credit score and lower loan-to-value ratio can shift the numbers substantially in your favor. If you have a credit score of 750 and a loan-to-value ratio of less than 60%, for example, you won’t be charged any additional cost for a cash-out loan. That’s because the lender would believe that you are no more likely to default on the loan than if doing a rate-and-term refi.

Your loan may be a cash-out loan even if you don’t receive any cash. If you’re paying off credit cards, auto loans, or anything else that wasn’t originally part of your mortgage, the lender probably considers it a cash-out loan. If you’re consolidating two mortgages into one—and one was originally a cash-out loan—the new consolidated loan will also be classified as cash-out. 

48%

The number of mortgage refinances that were cash-out loans in Q4 of 2019.

Americans Split on Cash-Out Refinance

Although many personal finance experts would advise against stripping your home of its equity in a cash-out refinance, recent data shows that nearly half of Americans are choosing this loan type. Freddie Mac’s quarterly refinancing statistics demonstrated that, in the fourth quarter of 2019 (released in March 2020), cash-out borrowers represented 48% of all refinance loans.

An Interesting Mortgage-Refinancing Loophole

With the help of your mortgage broker, you may be able to generate a little cash from your refinancing without it being considered a cash-out loan (and generating the extra fees that come with it). Basically, it works by taking advantage of the overlap of funds at the end of one loan and the beginning of another. It’s a complicated process that will affect any escrow accounts, so pay close attention to how Fleming describes it:

“You are allowed to finance closing costs in a rate-and-term refi. Most lenders allow those closing costs to include prepaid expenses, such as prepaid interest, the unpaid accrued interest on your existing mortgage, the money necessary to pre-fund your escrow account, and even property taxes and insurance if you time it right.
“When you refinance, you pay the accrued interest on your existing mortgage up to the day it is paid off. You prepay your interest on your new loan from the day you fund until the first of the next month, and then you don’t make a payment the next month. Therefore, you have financed one month’s interest on your mortgage within the new loan.
“If you have an impound (or escrow) account to pay insurance and taxes with your existing mortgage, then your existing lender is holding some of your money—at least a couple of months of taxes and insurance each. When you refinance, your new lender will need some money on hand when your tax and insurance bills come due, so they will ask for some money upfront. You can usually finance this.
“Then, after your loan closes, your old lender—who is holding some of your money—sends you a check equal to the balance of your escrow account when you paid off that loan. Cash!
“Also, because some of the fees change a little up until funding, most lenders allow a little bit of cushion—up to $2,000 in cash back in escrow without the loan being considered cash-out.
“What all this means is that you can finance ‘costs’ that aren’t really the cost of originating the loan but rather represent the cost of having the loan. On a $200,000 rate-and-term loan, it would be very feasible to generate about $4,000 in cash—under the right circumstances, if it were structured carefully—without paying a cash-out penalty.”

The Bottom Line

Your responsibility as a borrower is to have enough knowledge to discuss options with your lender. For most people, avoiding the added cost of a cash-out loan is the best financial move. If you have a specific reason for taking cash out of your home, a cash-out loan may be valuable, but remember that the extra amount of money you will pay in interest over the life of the loan can make it a bad idea.