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Although you may see many different types advertised, they all belong to just two families: those mortgages that carry fixed interest rates, and those whose rates change during the course of the loan on a periodic schedule mutually agreed upon by you and your lender.

Fixed Rate Mortgages

You are probably familiar with a fixed rate mortgage. Your parents more than likely had one, as did their parents before them. The major advantage of fixed rate mortgages is that they present predictable housing costs for the life of the loan. Some fixed rate mortgages you will probably hear about are:

  • 30-Year Fixed Rate Mortgages
  • 15-year Fixed Rate Mortgages
  • Biweekly Mortgages
  • "Convertible" Mortgages

When people thought of a mortgage 10 to 50 years ago, they thought of a 30-year fixed rate mortgage. This traditional favorite is not the only choice nowadays because volatile financial times created a whole new range of selections. However, the 30-year fixed rate mortgage may still be the best mortgage for your circumstances. It offers the lowest monthly payments of fixed rate loans, while providing for a never-changing monthly payment schedule. Some lenders offers 25, 20, and even 40-year term mortgages as well. But remember, the longer the term of the loan, the more total interest you will pay.

The 15-year fixed rate mortgage allows homeowners to own their homes free and clear in half the time and for less than half the total interest costs of the traditional 30-year loan. The loan's term is shortened by the 10 percent to 15 percent higher monthly payments. Some homebuyers prefer this mortgage because it allows them to own their home before their children start college. Others prefer it because they will own their home free and clear before retirement and probable declines in income. If you are interesting in obtaining a 15-year fixed loan.

The major disadvantages or the 15-year fixed rate mortgage are the sometimes higher monthly payments. But if saving on total interest costs and cutting the time to free and clear ownership are important to you, the 15-year fixed rate mortgage is a good option.

The biweekly mortgage shortens the loan term to 18 to 19 years by requiring a payment for half the monthly amount every two weeks. The biweekly payments increase the annual amount paid by about 8 percent and in effect pay 13 monthly payments (26 biweekly payments) per year. The shortened loan term decreases the total interest costs substantially. The interest costs for the biweekly mortgage are decreased even farther, however, by the application of each payment to the principal upon which the interest is calculated every 14 days. By nibbling away at the principal faster, the homeowner saves additional interest. Remember, however, that you trade lower total interest costs for fewer mortgage interest deductions on your federal income tax. Your ability to qualify for this type of loan is based on a 30-year term, and most lenders who offer this mortgage will allow the homebuyer to convert to a more traditional 30-year loan without penalty. Availability is limited on this mortgage, but it can be worth looking for.

Mortgages That Change

Some newer mortgages afford homebuyers some the best qualities of the fixed rate and adjustable rate mortgages. One new type of loan, often called a Two-Step, Super Seven, or Premier Mortgage, gives homeowners the predictability of a fixed rate and adjustable rate mortgage for a certain time, most often seven or 10 years, and then the interest rate is adjusted to fit market conditions at that time. The main advantage associated with this type of loan is that homebuyers often get a slightly lower than market rate to begin with. The main disadvantage is that they may see their interest rate go up by as much as six percentage points at the end of the seven-year period. The lender may also reserve the option to call the loan due with 30 days notice at that time, making this loan similar to a balloon mortgage in some cases.

Lenders offer this type of loan in part because research indicates that many homebuyers remain in the home for seven to 10 years before moving. For this type of homebuyer, the Two-Step or Super Seven loan present an excellent way of getting a fixed rate loan at a better than market price for a fixed period of time.

Another type of mortgage that is becoming popular is called a Lender Buydown, where the homebuyer gets an initially discounted rate and gradually increases to an agreed-upon fixed rate over a matter of three years. For example: When the market rate is 10 percent, the fixed rate for the mortgage is set at about 10.5 percent, but the homebuyer makes monthly payments based on a first year rate of 8.5 percent. The second year the rate goes up to 9.5 percent, and for the third year through the remaining life of the loan, the rate is calculated at 10.5 percent. A second type of lender buy-down, called a Compressed Buydown, works the same way, but with the interest rate changing every six months instead of on a yearly basis.

The Lender Buydown gives consumers the advantage of lower initial monthly payments for the first two years of the loan when extra money may be needed for furnishings and, secondly, the advantage of knowing that, although the interest rate does change during the first three years of the loan, the interest is fixed from the third year on.

Convertible mortgages offer today's homebuyer the option to change the loan's interest rate after some period of time or some specified movement in interest rates.

Convertible fixed rate mortgages are often referred to as the Reduction Option Loan (ROL) or, in some locations, the Reducing Interest Loan (RIL), or Mortgage (RIM). This new type of loan offers homeowners the option of getting a loan that , under the right conditions, can be adjusted to a lower interest rate with a payment of $100 or $200 or so and a small loan amount-based fee, sometimes as little as one-fourth of a percentage point. These conditions usually are a prescribed movement in rates-typically two percent below the initial- during a set time limit-between months 13 and 59, for example.

On a 30-year fixed rate mortgage with a reduction option, the homebuyer pays an extra one-fourth to three-eighths of a percentage point in the interest rate on the mortgage plus a quarter to three-eighths of 1 percent of the loan amount (points) at the time of closing. This allows the homeowners to adjust the interest rate on the loan without having to go through a refinancing, which could cost up to 5 percent or 6 percent of the loan amount, if the rates are right during the prescribed time limit.

On an $80,000 loan, this means that you could reduce the interest rate on your loan from, say, 10.5 percent to 8.5 percent, and take advantage of the low rates for the rest of the loan term for $150 instead of up to $4,800, if the rates dropped to that point during your "window of opportunity" - months 13 through 59. Some homeowners may find the ROL a good "insurance policy" against the high costs of refinancing. Others may want the flexibility that refinancing offers - namely the ability to draw on built-up equity- that is not available with ROLs. The decision is up to you.

Convertible Adjustable Rate Mortgages (ARMs) are another new loan product on today's market. It works like any other ARM, but offers homeowners a distinct advantage - it allows them to turn their ARM into a fixed rate mortgage after a set period (usually during the second through fifth years of the loan).

Adjustable Rate Mortgages

Adjustable Rate Mortgages (ARMs) have become on of the most popular and effective tools for helping some prospective homebuyers achieve their dream of homeownership. Developed during a time of high interest rates that kept many people out of the housing market, the ARM offers lower initial rates by sharing the future risk of higher rates between borrower and lender.

ARMs can be an excellent choice of financing under certain conditions, such as rising income expectations, high interest rates, and short-term homeownership. But because payments and interest rates can increase, either steadily or irregularly, homebuyers considering this kind of mortgage need to have the income to keep up with all possible rate and/or payment changes. Each ARM has four basic components:

  • Initial interest rate, which is typically one to three percentage points lower than that of most fixed rate mortgages. Lower interest rates also make ARMs somewhat easier to qualify for. The initial interest rate is tied to certain economic indicators that dictate in part what the monthly payments will be.
  • Adjustment interval, at the time between changes in the interest rate and/or monthly payment will be.
  • Index*, against which lenders measure the difference between what they are making on their investment in the mortgage and what they could be making on other types of investments.
  • Margin, or the additional amount the lender adds to the index to establish the adjusted interest rate on an ARM. The margin is usually 1.5 percent to 2.5 percent.

In addition to the four basic components, an ARM usually contains certain consumer safeguards such as interest rate caps, which limit the amount that the interest rate applied to the payments may move. This prevents the amount of interest the consumer pays from rising higher than perhaps the homeowner can afford. For instance, a typical ARM would have a two percentage point cap over the life of the loan. That means that a loan with an initial interest rate of 9.75 percent would be able to go no higher than 14.75 percent over the life of the loan, and it would be able to move no more than two percentage points per year.

Another safeguard found on some ARMs are monthly payment caps that limit the amount homeowners need to increase their payments at adjustment time. Monthly payment caps can, however, sometimes prevent the monthly payments from increasing enough to keep up with the rise in the interest rate, causing negative amortization-resulting in higher or more payments for the homeowner later on.

Other options you should ask about when shopping for an ARM are:

  • Assumability, or whether you may transfer the mortgage to a new homebuyer, usually with the same terms if the new homebuyer qualifies for the loan. ARMs are almost always assumable.
  • Convertibility allows the borrower to change an ARM to a fixed rate mortgage, usually at the end of some predetermined period, locking in a lower interest rate.