In this post I'll cover a handful of essential points about the impact of ARM financing with emphasis on one of the most common and popular types of ARMs -- the hybrid with its temporarily fixed rate. Here's a visual representation of a typical hybrid ARM:
ARMs became incredibly popular during the decade leading up to the housing market collapse primarily because of their attractively low initial rates when compared to fixed-rate financing.
Generally speaking, the shorter the fixed period of a hybrid ARM (#1 in Figure 1) the lower the introductory rate. Why? Because, conditions permitting, that initial rate could adjust upward sooner which would benefit the investor holding your mortgage note. Consequently, a 3/1 ARM is usually offered with a lower initial rate than a 5/1, which in turn is lower than a 10/1, and so on.
Point 1: Longer fixed rate periods provide greater long term stability. In exchange for a higher interest rate, fixed rate products such as a 10, 15 and 30yr (as well as hybrid ARMs with longer initial fixed rate periods such as the 7/1 and 10/1) protect borrowers from volatile markets for longer periods of time -- sort of a built-in "insurance policy" against rate hikes in an uncertain market and future.The low introductory rates of ARMs enabled borrowers to qualify for higher loan amounts than they might have otherwise qualified for given their financial circumstances at the time. How? Borrowers only had to qualify at the introductory rate, not at the highest rate the loan might eventually adjust to in the future. While that pleased a great many borrowers who then sought even higher loan amounts, it also meant they were gambling on assumptions about their future circumstances. If the gamble failed to pay off and their introductory rate expired, they found themselves stuck in financing that was most likely going to grow more expensive with time.
Let's step back for a moment. How might I qualify for a larger loan amount by using an ARM? Well, one of the factors that a lender must use to determine how much I can afford is my debt-to-income ratio (DTI). The DTI equation looks like this:
DTI = (monthly debts + mortgage payment, taxes, insurance & fees) / Adjusted Gross Income
A lower initial interest rate translates directly into lower monthly mortgage payments for a given loan amount and term which, in turn, lowers my DTI ratio at my current income level. The lower the rate, the larger the loan amount I am able borrow before reaching the maximum DTI limit enforced by the lender under whatever the rules happen to be at that time. So long as I come up with the necessary downpayment, closing costs and reserve requirements, I could "afford" a larger loan amount. That is, until the day my interest rate begins to adjust upward.
Point 2: The rules have changed for 2014. Because borrowers and lenders alike abused ARM financing by determining qualification based on a temporary introductory rate, the Federal Government changed the rules. As of 2014, anyone who wishes to obtain ARM financing must qualify at the highest rate they would be expected to pay during the first 5 years of the loan -- taking into account the margin, index, timing of adjustments, etc.
Point 3: There is an upside to ARMs. In a perfect world markets behave, employment grows, investments thrive and the only direction is up. In such a world ARMs might be king. ARMs offer short-term savings versus their long-term fixed rate counterparts. In our current market, a 1% interest rate reduction translates to a $115-125 decrease in a monthly mortgage payment per $200k of the loan amount. For a 5/1 ARM that's up to $7500 "savings" per $200k over the course of its 5 year fixed period. To calculate the actual benefit we would need to consider the effect on investment and tax positions -- which may amplify or lessen the impact -- another reason to consult a financial or tax advisor.
Point 4: Favor facts over assumptions. As our world repeatedly reminds us -- it isn't perfect. If you plan to entertain an ARM it is imperative that you base your decision on reality and the facts before you, not unrealistic optimism or assumptions about your future. An ARM offers a relatively brief window of stability -- from as little as a month to several years or longer -- after which all bets are off. In the context of the 5/1 hybrid ARM used in Figure 1, if you have not successfully sold or refinanced your property before year six -- whatever the underlying reasons -- your monthly payment obligation will very likely begin to increase. By how much and how quickly? Well it depends on a number of factors including the specific terms (i.e. the margin, index, caps, etc.) of your ARM and the current market conditions. The interest rate on the ARM depicted in Figure 1 could increase by as much as two full percentage points (rising from 3 to 5%) in year 6. Assuming your budget can withstand the impact of the increased mortgage payment, the initial savings from point #3 can easily be wiped out within a couple years following the first adjustment.
Point 5: Take the time to understand how the adjustments work. Figure 1 illustrated a 5/1 2-2-6 ARM with an initial adjustment of up to 2% (emphasis in red). The terms of some ARMs permit a significantly larger initial adjustment following the reset date. For example, the first adjustment on a 3/1 5-2-5 ARM with an introductory rate of 3% could be as high as 5% (which also happens to be that particular ARM's lifetime cap). Or, to put it differently, in its 4th year this 3/1 ARM's interest rate could rise from 3% to 8% which would translate into a $624.00 increase in the monthly payment per $200k borrowed. [NOTE: To be fair, technically your rate could adjust downward instead if the terms and market conditions allow.]
Point 6: Be aware of the difference between prime & subprime loan products. ARMs labeled 1/1, 3/1, 5/1, 7/1, 10/1 and so forth are generally prime products while those labeled 2/28, 3/27, 5/25, etc are subprime products. At first glance they appear to be similar, but the underlying rates and terms (i.e., the fine print) can be quite different. One of the most obvious differences, visually anyway, is the number following the slash. With prime products that number represents the frequency with which the rate will change following the fixed rate period -- depicted as #2 in Figure 1. With subprime products the number following the slash represents the number of years over which the rate is adjustable -- e.g., a 3/27 subprime ARM is fixed for the first 3 years and adjustable for the remaining 27 (the same as its prime 3/1 cousin). However, the actual frequency with which the rate of the subprime ARM will adjust appears elsewhere in its terms and conditions. A lender should always assess your eligibility for prime products first before considering anything subprime -- make sure you speak with at least 2-3 lenders to find out. Prime rates and terms are better overall.
Point 7: Be aware of the potential for negative amortization (a.k.a. "neg-am"). That's when your loan balance increases over time even if you're making payments in full and on time. One of the many ways this can occur is when your monthly payment isn't enough to keep pace with accruing interest. If you're in an ARM with a payment cap, any amount due each month over and above your capped payment is still owed to the lender and will be added to your loan balance. In other words, if your monthly payment is not large enough to cover the monthly interest and at least some principal, you will be moving further from your goal (to pay off your home) with each payment -- probably not the type of financial arrangement you have in mind.
Point 8: Worst case scenarios can offer valuable insight. I'm not suggesting that you become a pessimist. That would not be in your best-interest. However, you should always assess the value of an ARM in the context of your worst case scenario. If you should find yourself unable to sell or refinance before the ARM begins to adjust, how might the increased mortgage payment affect your quality of life and ability to sustain the property? What resources might you have at your disposal to weather unanticipated hardships? Are you risk averse? Might long-term fixed rate financing make more sense? Only you know the answers to these questions. At least you will have taken these factors into consideration.
Point 9: Read everything that you receive from your loan servicer. From time to time, for the duration of your loan you'll receive notices from the servicer by mail. These notices may or may not be bundled with your statement. Read them. Several months before your first interest rate adjustment you will be informed of the upcoming rate adjustment, the new payment amount, other options you may have, etc. For each adjustment thereafter you'll receive a similar notice approximately 2 months in advance of the actual adjustment. Some borrowers claim that they were never told that they would receive advance notice of adjustments, or that they have never received such notices by mail. While it is always possible for such an oversight to occur, more often than not they a) failed to read the fine print provided when they acquired the loan, or b) they never noticed, opened or read the notifications, or c) the details were explained to them and they did read the notices but they simply have no recollection of either.This is not a case of "buyer beware". Rather, it's one of "buyer be aware". It was certainly easier to justify the use of ARMs during a market free fall (2007-2013) than in today's market with interest rates creeping upward. However, if you have the means and ability to assume the risk, and you qualify under current standards, and stand to benefit from adjustable rate financing, then you can certainly add ARMs to your list of viable financing options. I strongly suggest that you consult with a financial and/or tax advisor as well as an experienced loan officer for further guidance.
And, for additional information about ARMs I recommend this easy to read handbook published by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau:
I wish you and your family all the best.