Fifteen Year Loans: Are They A Good Idea?

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My take on the matter is "mostly no", but they do have some uses.

The one advantage that they usually carry a lower interest rate. There have been exceptions to this, just as there have been exceptions to the 5/1 hybrid ARM carrying lower rates than a thirty year fixed rate loan. There was a period about a month ago where for exactly the same cost I could deliver a 30 year fixed rate loan three eighths of a percent lower in the interest rate than the best fifteen year fixed rate loan then being offered. I just checked again, and the world has gone back to normal in this regard - the fifteen year fixed was almost three eighths of a percent lower rate for the same cost. So that is one benefit - lowered interest rate and lowered cost of interest. For a $300,000 loan amount, that would save you $1125 per year in interest charges, or $93.75 per month to start with, and increasing as time goes by. Solid benefit. Mathematical Fact.

Now let's consider the drawbacks. The first is that the payments are much higher. Why? Because you have to pay that principal ($300,000) off in half the time. I'm considering rates to be had at wholesale par as I'm writing this article, but these are equally valid in other contexts. On a $300,000 loan at 4.75% for a fifteen year loan, you're paying $2333.50 per month, versus $1633.47 at 5.125% on a thirty Suppose you have unexpected expenses, lose your job, or take a pay cut. On a fifteen year loan you are still obligated to make that additional $700 payment every month. The payment isn't twice as big, and it does save you a very large chunk of change if you pay your loans off. But there's nothing stopping you from voluntarily paying extra on a thirty year fixed rate mortgage, either. A month ago, I was telling people who wanted fifteen year loans to do exactly that. If the rate on the thirty year fixed rate loan is lower (as it was then), it's a 100% gain to get a thirty year fixed rate loan and simply add extra to the principal payment every month.

Let me make another observation: most folks don't pay loans off - even 15 year loans. Statistically, the number of folks who haven't sold or refinanced before five years is is less than ten percent. Some situation will arise which makes it better to pay off that loan early, via a sale or refinance. When it happens and you have been adhering to a fifteen year payoff schedule (whether you have a fifteen year loan or thirty year fixed rate loan you've been paying extra on), you get a large extra chunk of cash back on a sale, or you owe a lot less on a refinance. Bully for you, good show, and all that. But don't kid yourself that it led to an earlier payoff of your loan.

If you're the sort of person who is just buying their primary residence, going to pay it off without ever refinancing, just going to spend the extra money when the loan is paid off, and would never consider investment property or alternative investments, that's about the limit in complexity we're talking about here. Verdict: yes, get a fifteen year loan. But if any of those assumptions is not valid, then we've got some more work to do.

First off, if you're the sort of person who is looking to get into investment property, especially more than one: Higher minimum payments hit your debt to income ratio (and cash flow) hard. It would be very easy for me to come up with a scenario where you would be accepted on three or four thirty year fixed rate loans, putting the power of leverage to work for you where it does a lot more good, where you would be rejected for a second 15 year loan, simply because the debt to income ratio doesn't work. With the impending final death of stated income, this is going to bite an awful lot of people and keep biting. Where you could have your own property and three investment properties all with positive cash flow on thirty year loans, you could quite likely be stuck with your own property and possibly one investment property on fifteen year loans, and even if the loans were approved, be in serious negative cash flow land. Negative cash flow is a very bad thing for real estate investors - it's the number one reason why real estate investors are forced to do bad things they don't want to do, like sell in a tough market. If you've got positive cash flow and sustainable loans, the question is "How long is it going to be before I sell for a huge profit?" not "can I hold on another month?"

Second, we haven't considered a hypothetical alternative investment yet. Let's look at this very situation, and suppose we can earn an annualized 9% with alternative investments (right now, with the financial markets in the state they are in, I would bet on the historical average of about 10% being too low, for people with the guts to buy into a down market). Let's consider what happens when we take that extra $700 per month the fifteen year loan would require, and invest it. After 15 years, it has become $264,770 - which is actually more than enough to offset the difference in what you owe ($204,868 versus zero), despite the fact that the thirty year loan carries a higher interest rate. Start investing that $2333.50 every month in exactly the same investment at exactly the same yield. Carry it out another fifteen years, and where both loans are paid off, that thirty year and invest the difference strategy has netted you $1,281,520.44, versus $883,009.86 if you waited the fifteen years to start investing while you paid off your property, a difference of almost fifty percent. Mind you, this does presume you actually make that investment every month, but if you're just treating it as an abstract problem to see which use of the same money nets you more money at the end point, the thirty year mortgage and invest the difference strategy really does come out way ahead. In the real world, nothing pays a smooth 9%, and there will be fluctuations - but those fluctuations are more likely to benefit the strategy that starts investing earlier.

If this seems counter-intuitive, consider that by taking the fifteen year loan, you're taking money you could earn 9% on, and using it to pay off a tax-deductible 4.75% debt. Doesn't make a whole lot of sense to me, and the numbers in the previous paragraph don't even take into account tax deductions for home interest, which will cause even more advantage to the thirty year loan. An accountant probably wouldn't bother running the numbers unless you insisted upon knowing exactly how much it would cost you..

One final item before I go: It is much harder to recover the cost of points on a fifteen year loan than on a thirty. Most people never do get the money they spend back on thirty year loans, but on fifteen year loans, it can be truly horrid. For the rates in effect today, it takes over half again as long to recover the cost of two points on a fifteen year fixed rate loan as it does on a thirty year fixed - and since the loans are for a shorter period, you won't get them back as many times over, even if you do keep the loan long enough to pay it off. I have seen rate sheets where the payment actually works out lower for a higher interest rate, due to the costs of buying the rate down. In such circumstances, you literally never recover the additional costs. Watch your actual costs, and things that may not be costs like prepaid interest and money to seed an Impound Account. On fifteen year loans, they become proportionally much more important than on thirty year loans when they find they way into your mortgage balance, especially if the payment was something you only marginally qualified for to begin with.

Caveat Emptor

Article UPDATED here

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This page contains a single entry by Dan Melson published on January 22, 2009 7:00 AM.

Links and Minifeatures 2009 01 21 Wednesday was the previous entry in this blog.

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