Interest-only mortgages are risky in a rising interest rate environment

By Bill Schmick • May 19, 2022

Over the past decade, as interest rates declined, some homebuyers gravitated towards interest-only loans. However, times are changing, and borrowers should be careful in considering this kind of mortgage loan.

During the past two years, many financial lenders have tightened credit standards across most loan types. The combination of the Coronavirus pandemic, supply shortages, inflation and the impact of the Ukraine war has created a drag on the U.S. economy.  A slowing economy increases the risks of lending, thus tighter standards emerge.

Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the two government-sponsored enterprises that back most mortgages, exclude interest-only mortgages. And while standards have been raised since the 2007 subprime collapse for these kinds of loans, there is a perception that standards may be more relaxed than conventional loans. Lenders, for the most part, keep these mortgages in their own portfolio or sell them to institutional investors.

What is an interest-only mortgage?

An interest-only mortgage is one in which you initially only pay the interest on the loan for an allotted period, usually five, seven or ten years. As a result, your monthly payments are cheaper, since you are not repaying principal (the total amount borrowed). However, once that initial period concludes, you will still owe the same amount on the mortgages as you originally borrowed. Typically, these loans charge higher interest rates than conventional mortgages.

Interest-only loans are popular right now in this booming real estate market. One mistake would be to take out such a loan simply to qualify for a home you otherwise couldn’t afford. Others believe they can afford larger homes with steeper asking prices because their monthly payments could be lower by several hundred dollars a month.

Another mistake is to dismiss future risk by arguing that by the time the interest-only period expires, interest rates will have fallen further, or they will be making enough income to afford future payments, whatever they may be. It would be better to take a worst-case scenario and see if you can live with it.

What makes interest-only mortgages risky?

Let’s say you had a 30-year, fixed interest-only mortgage that you entered in 2012. Your initial interest-only period was ten years. That time is now up. What happens?  You still have the entire principal to repay, only now you have only twenty years to do so. That means your monthly payments will rise simply because of the math.  By exactly how much should also be of concern.

Payment terms for the remainder of the loan may vary, but your new interest rate is usually determined by whatever the prevailing rate is at the time. Some loans are capped, so that the new interest rate you will be charged can be increased by no more than 2%. Other loans may not have a cap. In a rising rate environment, that can spell disaster for borrowers.

In addition, remember your monthly payments now include principal repayments, plus a higher rate of interest and a shorter time period to repay the entire mortgage. This can mean your new monthly payment could cost you 2-3 times what you had been paying during the first ten years of your loan, according to the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC).

Ask yourself what would happen if mortgage interest rates, which hit a 30-year low last year, continue to rise over the next decade? There is a real risk that rates could rise to a point that the added costs to borrowers could present a default risk.

Granted, if payments become that expensive, there is always a chance that the loan could be refinanced, or the length of the loan might be extended, but at what cost? My advice is taking the necessary time and effort to analyze whether an interest-only mortgage is right for you or just a tempting alternative that fails to make economic sense in the long term.

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