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What to do if Your Adjustable Rate Mortgage is About to Adjust

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Adjustable-rate mortgages, also known as "ARMs", are a popular choice because they usually start with a lower interest rate and a lower monthly payment than a comparable fixed rate mortgage. But if your ARM is about to adjust to payments that are too high for your current financial circumstances, you may be regretting the day you chose an adjustable rate over a fixed rate mortgage.

Although ARMs can be cheaper at the outset, this can all change after an "adjustment period" that can range from 6 months to as long as 10 years after the mortgage begins. ARMs offer low rates initially because they are less risky for banks: if interest rates shoot up in the next few years, lending institutions know they will be able to adjust your ARM to give them a competitive rate of return. But for homeowners who took advantage of low ARM interest rates to buy a more expensive house, the first adjustment can put their monthly payments into an out-of-reach range. For others, the adjustment is not as large and will have less of an impact on household finances.

How to Determine How You're ARM Will Adjust

There are several factors that control exactly how an ARM will adjust. The two most important factors that control the fluctuations of your interest rate are the index and the margin. The index reflects present market conditions and competitive interest rates, while the margin is a measure of the percentage that can be added to that interest rate.

You'll also want to consider the caps on your ARM's adjustment. Every ARM comes with built-in caps that control the amount of adjustment - either upwards or downwards - after each adjustment period in the lifetime of the loan.

For example, a 7/1 ARM with a 3/2/5 cap structure means that for the first 7 years, the rate and payments are fixed, but for every year after that the rate can adjust. The first adjustment can be as much as 3%, and every year thereafter the ARM can adjust by up to 2%, but the adjustments must max out at no more than a 5% total increase over the lifetime of the mortgage.

Options for ARMs That are About to Adjust

If your arm is about to adjust by a substantial amount that may make it impossible for you to keep up with your monthly payments, there are options that can save you from defaulting on your mortgage:

  • Refinancing to a fixed rate mortgage is a popular choice, but may present some associated fees. Some ARMs require as much as $10,000 or $15,000 in fees to close them before the end of the term, preventing many homeowners from taking this route. If you are able to refinance out of an ARM and switch to a fixed rate mortgage with affordable payments, this is usually the wisest choice.
  • Refinancing to a new ARM is a sensible choice if you expect to sell your home in the next few years. ARM mortgages have lower initial rates, so if you can secure a new arm with lower payments than a fixed rate mortgage, and a long enough adjustment period, this may be a viable alternative.
  • Loan modification is an increasingly workable option. As delinquent loans and foreclosures continue to increase, banks and mortgage lenders may be more willing to consider changing the terms and payments on your existing loan rather than risking the worst. Loan modification is a good option for homeowners who are tied to an expensive ARM and are unable to refinance - especially in cases of negative home equity or bad credit.

Although adjusting an ARM can present a serious financial puzzle, there are solutions that can help homeowners keep their homes, save their existing equity, and stay on top of monthly payments.