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The Refinancing Dilemma

Many homeowners who have watched interest rates plunge over the last month or so have undoubtedly felt pangs of mortgage envy. It’s a perfectly natural emotion when lenders start to dangle 4.9 percent rates for 30-year, fixed-rate loans without extra fees for buying down that rate.

These offers, which were common in recent weeks, started the phones ringing at the offices of mortgage brokers. But for many homeowners, deciding whether to refinance their mortgages can be confusing, especially if they have had the loan long enough to start significantly diminishing their debt.

Because the typical mortgage only lasts for about five or six years before the homeowner sells the home or refinances the loan, lenders collect much of the mortgage interest during those years. Once a loan gets beyond five or six years old, homeowners can start seeing the overall debt drop at a faster pace.

So if a homeowner has reached that point, does it make sense to start a new 30-year loan, and face another five years where you’ll make heavier interest payments? The answer, as is so often the case with financial decisions, depends on individual circumstances. If retirement or tuition payment plans involve the liquidation of a home, it may make sense not to take out a new loan.

But in other cases, the monthly savings from a cheaper mortgage could be critical — “especially in this economy,” said Richard E. Austin, a financial adviser with Lincoln Financial Advisors.

Mr. Austin, who is based in Rye Brook, N.Y., noted that someone who five years ago borrowed $220,000 on a 30-year, fixed-rate mortgage at 5.5 percent would have reduced the loan principal to only $203,500, despite having made nearly $75,000 in payments during that time. From this point forward, the principal would shrink more quickly, but if the borrower could reduce the interest rate to, say, 5 percent, the monthly mortgage payment would drop by $157, to $1,092. Assuming it costs $3,000 to close that new loan, it would take just 27 months to recoup the costs if the borrower is in the 28 percent tax bracket.

If a homeowner planned on keeping the new loan for 27 months or longer, a refinance could well make sense, Mr. Austin and other mortgage advisers said. The federal government has floated the idea of engineering a 4.5 percent mortgage rate, by promising to buy mortgages at those rates, but that proposal was only targeted at loans made for a home purchase, not a refinance. Mortgage rates in late December were at their lowest level since at least 1971, when Freddie Mac began tracking these loans.

Closing costs vary widely in the New York area. Borrowers in Manhattan, for instance, face much higher mortgage taxes than those in the suburbs, so the financial calculus of a refinance decision shifts accordingly.

Mr. Austin, who is also a tax lawyer, said another frequently overlooked factor could help reduce the cost of a refinancing. If the new bank agreed to essentially absorb the old loan — albeit with new terms — the homeowner might not face a mortgage origination tax on the new loan.
So when shopping for the new loan, he said, borrowers should ask if the lender will perform a “consolidation and assignment” with the old loan.
Be sure to ask, or the lender may not offer it.

For those averse to the idea of starting the 30-year clock anew, Mr. Austin suggests splitting the monthly payment — making half at the middle of the month and saving the other half for the actual due date. That strategy, he said, can take years off the new loan’s payoff term.