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By Leslie Cook
Updated: January 21, 2022 10:19 AM ET | Originally published: January 18, 2022
girl coming down a swing with two zeros on the side representing a percent
Kiersten Essenpreis for Money

Even with mortgage rates on the rise, plenty of homeowners can still improve their finances by refinancing — albeit far fewer than just weeks ago.

At current mortgage rates, 5.9 million mortgage holders could lower their interest rate by at least 0.75 percentage points and are well-qualified to do so. That's down from 11 million borrowers at the end of December and from a high of nearly 20 million in 2020, according to mortgage data provider Black Knight.

After hovering just above 3% through December, mortgage rates have jumped by nearly half a percentage point in the first three weeks of January, hitting 3.56% this week. That's the highest average rate since March 2020.

Despite the rate increases, the millions of homeowners who still stand to benefit can save a lot of money.

These homeowners could save an aggregate of close to $1.6 billion per month. That works out to average monthly savings of $275 and annual savings of $3,300 per borrower. Over 1 million of these homeowners could save at least $400 per month, while 661,000 could save $500 per month or more.

The key to whether to refinance or not will be to compare the monthly savings provided against the costs involved in obtaining a new home loan. With the amount of potential savings involved, it makes sense to at least run the numbers and find out whether a refi is the best option. We'll guide you through the necessary steps to help you make this decision.

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If your mortgage rate is above 4.56%, now is probably a good time to refinance

Mortgage rates for well-qualified borrowers have been hovering around 3% for the past four months. The current average for a 30-year fixed-rate loan is 3.56%.

One of the indications that a refinance is a good idea is if you can reduce your current interest rate by at least 0.5% to 1%.

If you have a $300,000 balance on your mortgage and you refinance to a new 30-year loan, lowering your interest rate from 3.75% to 3.25% will save around $84 per month or $1,008 per year. If you can reduce the rate by 1%, from 3.75% to 2.75%, your monthly savings would be $165 per month or $1,980 per year.

Of course, you don’t have to refinance into another 30-year loan. If your finances have improved and you can afford higher monthly payments you can refinance your 30-year loan into a 15-year fixed-rate mortgage, which will allow you to pay the loan off faster and also pay less interest.

Taking a look at your monthly savings is just one part of the refi equation, however. You also need to factor in the cost of switching out your loan and how long it will take you to recover those costs, or ‘break even’.

Just as with a purchase loan, you’ll have to pay closing costs on a refinance. These costs can include origination and applications fees, appraisal and inspection costs and title search fees. In all, closing costs can run between 3% and 6% of the total loan amount being refinanced.

You can determine your breakeven point by dividing your total closing costs by the amount you’ll save each month. The result is the number of months it will take you to recoup the refinance cost and start saving money. The less time it takes to break even, the more sense it makes to refinance your home loan.

The final piece of the refi puzzle is balancing your refinance goals with the change in the length of the loan. For example, if you are 10 years into a 30-year mortgage, refinancing into another 30-year loan means you’ll be paying a mortgage for 40 years instead of 30.

If your primary reason is reducing your monthly payment, refinancing into another 30-mortgage makes sense. However, if your goal is to save on interest and reduce the term of your loan, then refinancing a 30-year into a 15-year mortgage may be the better option, as long as you can afford the higher monthly payments. Use a mortgage refinance calculator to get a sense of what might work for you.

Are mortgage refinance rates still low?

When the COVID-19 pandemic first hit in March of 2020, the Federal Reserve devised a monetary policy to help stabilize financial markets and soften the economic impact of the virus. Part of that policy included reducing the federal funds rate — the interest rate banks charge each other for short-term loans — to near zero.

The Fed also pledged to purchase $40 billion worth of mortgage-backed securities, and $80 billion in Treasury notes and other financial instruments per month to inject money into the economy and encourage investing and lending.

However, with the economy continuing to show signs of improvement, the central bank announced at its November meeting that it would begin to taper its asset purchasing program. The Fed has begun reducing its purchases of Treasury notes by $10 billion each month and of MBS by $5 billion per month.

The net effect of these policies was to drive mortgage rates down, with the average rate for a 30-year dropping below 3% for the first time in history in July 2020. Rates reached a record low of 2.65% on January 7, 2021. Since then, rates have trended higher but hovered around 3%. Since the beginning of the year, however, rates have jumped substantially and are currently averaging 3.56%.

Still, if you’re considering a refinance, it may be best to act sooner rather than later. Most economists agree that mortgage rates will increase further in 2022, with rates ending the year between 3.5% and 4%.

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How to know when to refinance your mortgage

Here are some key points you should consider when deciding whether to refinance your mortgage:

  • Your credit score. With most mortgage lenders, you’ll need a credit score of at least 620 to qualify for a mortgage refinance. To get the lowest mortgage rate, you’ll need a 740. Also keep in mind that, if your credit is lower than it was when you took out your current mortgage, you may not qualify for as favorable a rate as you did before.
  • Your debt-to-income ratio (DTI). For conventional loans, some lenders will work with a DTI as high as 43%. FHA loans will go a little higher, usually accepting DTIs of 50%. Lower, however, is generally better.
  • How long you’re staying. When you refinance, you’ll need to pay closing costs. If you plan to move out in the near future, you may not break even.
  • How much equity you have in your home. In order to qualify for a mortgage refinance you generally need at least 20% equity in your home.

Don’t try to time the market. Waiting on rate swings is as troublesome as timing the stock market. Don’t wait to see what happens with mortgage rates tomorrow if you can save money or move closer to your financial goals by refinancing today.

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Mortgage Refinance FAQ

Are refinance rates going down?

While current mortgage rates remain low, most mortgage experts anticipate rates will continue to drift higher over the coming months and years. The Federal Reserve is expected to begin raising short term interest rates in 2022. The Fed does not set mortgage rates, but lenders tend to increase the price to borrow money when the Fed acts.

Why would refinancing be a bad idea?

Refinancing is a bad idea if it doesn’t represent some sort of gain, be it in the form of lower monthly payments or saving on interest by reducing the term of your loan. If the interest rate being offered isn’t at least 0.5% lower than your current rate, it’s probably not worth the cost of a refi. Another reason not to refinance is if you plan on selling the house before you reach your breakeven point or if the new monthly payment is more than you can comfortably afford.

Is it cheaper to refinance with my current lender?

Not necessarily. While it is possible having an established relationship with your current lender may lead to more favorable rates, it’s not a guarantee. Your best option for finding the best mortgage rate is to shop around and consider different types of lenders, including banks, mortgage brokers, private lenders and credit unions.

How do I get the best refinance loan rates?

Try to go through the mortgage pre-approval process with at least three lenders to find out your real rate and make sure you are getting the best deal. Freddie Mac has found that borrowers save an average of $1,500 over the life of the loan by getting one additional rate quote — and an average of about $3,000 if they get five quotes.