Choosing the Right Mortgage Loan: 15 or 30 Years?
When my husband and I decided to refinance our home earlier this year, we were faced with the major decision all home loan borrowers face — 15-year mortgage or 30-year mortgage?
Whether you are buying a home for the first time or whether you're an old pro at the refinancing game, you need to determine whether it makes more sense for you to get a 15-year mortgage or a 30-year mortgage. (See also: The 7-Year Mortgage: Take It or Leave It?)
While you will also need to decide whether you want a fixed rate loan or an adjustable rate loan, the first big decision you make has to do with the length of your mortgage term.
In the end, the decision is usually made based on monthly cash flow.
The biggest advantage of the 15-year mortgage is that you can save money over the life of your home loan. Not only do you have the loan for a shorter period of time, but you also usually have a lower interest rate.
Consider a $200,000 loan. A 15-year mortgage has a rate of 2.6% fixed, and a 30-year mortgage has rate of 3.4% fixed. This calculation doesn't include PMI, taxes, insurance, and other costs that might come with a mortgage.
With a 15-year mortgage, your total on that loan would be $241,742.46. The total on a 30-year mortgage would be $319,306.49. You can see that you save a great deal by choosing a 15-year mortgage. Plus, you pay off the mortgage much faster. It can be a great choice for someone who is interested in saving money and paying off the house as soon as possible.
The main downside with a 15-year mortgage is that you have a higher mortgage payment.
In our scenario above, the 15-year monthly payment is $1,343.01. That, of course, doesn't include your other costs, from property taxes and insurance to utilities and maintenance. Compare that to the $886.96 monthly payment that comes with a 30-year mortgage.
30-year mortgages are popular mainly because they are more affordable on a monthly basis. When you get a 30-year mortgage, you can usually shave off between $300 and $500 a month, depending on the interest rate and the size of the mortgage.
For someone just starting out, a 30-year mortgage is desirable because it makes the home more affordable. Many couples buying a first home have a hard time affording the monthly payment associated with a 15-year mortgage.
Another advantage of a 30-year mortgage is that you have a certain degree of flexibility — even if you can afford the payments associated with a 15-year mortgage. When my husband and I refinanced our home, we decided to go with the 30-year mortgage, in spite of the fact that we could afford a 15-year loan. We realized that we have a certain amount of payment flexibility with a 30-year loan. This is comforting, since our income is variable.
We can make 15-year loan payments with our 30-year mortgage. So, even though we have a lower monthly payment, we can pay more each month, applying the extra toward the principal. If you are interested in paying off your loan as quickly as possible, there is nothing preventing you from making payments as though you have a 30-year loan. If you run into financial trouble, you can stop making your extra payment, and return to the payment that you agreed to.
With a 15-year mortgage, you are stuck with that higher payment — no matter what. If you miss payments because of financial difficulty, you run the risk of foreclosure. If all you need is $300 or $400 of breathing room for the month, and you are used to making 15-year payments on your 30-year mortgage, you have that option to cut back without jeopardizing your credit rating or your home.
How to Decide Which Mortgage to Get
Whether you choose a 15-year mortgage or a 30-year mortgage, it's important to make sure that you can handle your payments right now. Even the lower payments associated with a 30-year mortgage can be a problem if the mortgage is just barely affordable for you.
In some cases, it's a straightforward look at the numbers. Can you afford the monthly payment with a 15-year mortgage? If not, you have little choice but to go with the 30-year mortgage. You can refinance to a 15-year mortgage, with a lower rate and a higher payment, after your income situation improves.
However, if you have income flexibility, weigh the pros and cons. Decide what is most important to you. If paying off your mortgage as quickly as possible is the most important consideration to you, a 15-year mortgage will force you into disciplining yourself to make those payments. At the same time, though, a 30-year mortgage can allow you the same ability (just make extra payments) while providing you with a level of flexibility in your payments.
Another consideration is whether or not you really need to pay off your mortgage so quickly. While it sounds nice in theory to pay off your mortgage in 15 years, while building up equity, for many that isn't a particular concern. This is especially true in a low interest rate environment like we are experiencing right now. If you can lock in a low interest rate for 30 years, and then invest the money you are saving each month over the 15-year payment, you can actually come out ahead, depending on market conditions.
For those who want to maintain cash flow flexibility, the best option is a 30-year mortgage. A certain amount of peace of mind comes with a 30-year mortgage, too, since you know that you might be able to handle a payment if an emergency strikes. However, if you want to lock in a lower interest rate, paying less and getting out of your mortgage sooner, a 15-year mortgage might be the better choice.
What do you think? 15-year or 30-year? Why do you have the mortgage that you do?