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Home Equity Loans and Debt Consolidation

by Gary R. Crum

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Your house is worth more than you think.

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Been looking twice at those attractive sounding offers for a debt consolidation loan? Paying off high-interest credit card debt with a home equity loan can help financially troubled families make ends meet. And in some cases the interest on a home equity loan is tax deductible.

Home-equity loans are certainly popular.

The Federal Reserve reports that outstanding consumer debt exceeds $1 trillion. Of that amount, SMR Research Corp. reports that in 1998 $525 billion was home-equity debt and $450 billion was credit-card debt. According to the Consumer Bankers Association 1998 Home Equity Lending Survey, consumers have nearly 80 percent of the appraised value of their homes in loans or potential loans. That's up seven percentage points from the CBA's 1997 study.

Loan to Value:

Lenders may allow homeowners to borrow up to 100 percent, and even 125 percent, of the value of their homes to consolidate debt. The 125 percent loans present problems. "We feel these loans are very risky and not in the best interest of the customer," says Ken Fazio, vice president at Champion Mortgage in New York.

Considering what has take place in the housing bubble what would a 125 percent loan mean when you try to sell your house: With a 125 percent loan taken on a house valued at $200,000, you would have to bring $50,000 to the closing before even considering the cost of the sale.


Also, home-equity loans are not treated the same way as credit-card debt in the event of a bankruptcy. While credit-card balances may be wiped out, homeowners must continue to pay on the home-equity loan or face possible foreclosure.

According to the National Home Equity Association:"About 2 percent of home-equity borrowers default on loans and end up in foreclosure proceedings. This figure compares to 1 percent for prime loans and 3 percent for government-guaranteed mortgage loans."

Home-equity loans are made two ways:

-The first option is a fixed term and fixed amount. Typically these mortgages are made for periods of 5 to 20 years. Each payment is the same, and the loan is paid off at the end of the term. For example, you borrow $20,000 for 10 years at a fixed rate, and at the end of 10 years the loan is paid off.

-The second alternative is a line of credit secured by your house. The line of credit can increase and decrease just as a credit-card balance does. The monthly payment is usually based on 1.5 percent to 2.5 percent of the outstanding balance. As with a credit card, this balance can go on almost indefinitely as long as the borrower pays the interest and a small amount of the loan principal each month.

Loan Term

Many lenders will terminate the line of credit after 10 years and require that the balance be paid off over the next 10 years. Also, lines of credit usually have adjustable rates of interest. So in a time of rising interest rates, you'll pay more every time the prime rate increases.

Another problem:

Consumers who take out debt consolidation loans to consolidate credit-card debt often run up their cards again. One study showed that 70 percent of households using equity loans to consolidate debt had new credit-card balances at the end of a year.

To prevent such behavior, some lenders will go to the extent of paying off credit cards with checks sent directly to the credit-card companies. Some even require that the cards be cut up at the loan closing.

Tax Deduction:

Finally, the tax deductibility of home-equity loan interest sounds enticing but may not always benefit average borrowers. Recent tax cuts provide higher standard deductions that negate the value of interest deductions.

According to a recent study by the National Home Equity Association, the typical non prime borrower is 48 years old with an annual income of $34,000. And most of these loans are taken to consolidate high-interest debt or finance a child's college education.

For most borrowers the standard deduction would exceed any benefit gained from itemizing interest expense. In order for a homeowner to take the mortgage-interest deduction, the homeowner must have enough itemized deductions to total an amount greater than his particular standard deductions.

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