Until recently, I’d never seen a mortgage rate south of 6%. Of course I’d heard that rates had dropped to almost half that, and yet, for a variety of reasons, I did not take advantage of them by refinancing my existing mortgage. Though illogical, my inertia is not uncommon. According to a recent paper by researchers at the University of Chicago and Brigham Young Unversity, the "failure to refinance" strikes approximately 20% of homeowners who could greatly benefit from the lower interest rate environment.
The costs of this failure can be sizeable over time. Say you had a 30-year fixed-rate mortgage of $200,000 at an interest rate of 6.5%. If you refinanced at 4.5 % (approximately the decrease between 2008 and 2010), you would save over $80,000 in interest payments over the life of the loan, even after accounting for refinancing transaction costs. If you had refinanced in late 2012, when rates hit an all-time low of 3.35%, you would save $130,000 over the life of the loan.
Failing to refinance isn't completely irrational. Refinancing is a difficult transaction requiring extensive paper work, an appraisal and hefty fees. All of which triggers what the researchers call “present bias,” a psychological phenomenon that makes it harder for people to make decisions that may have upfront costs but longer-term benefits.
My own story illustrates the way that present bias impacts behavior. When I bought my current home in 2007, my rate on a 30-year fixed mortgage was 6.625%. As rates began to drop, I was never entirely clear how to calculate at what point refinancing would make sense financially. At the same time, I was receiving mail offers promising to save me money merely by increasing the number of mortgage payments a year. That made me wary of being taken advantage of by lenders looking to make money in transaction costs off of unsuspecting buyers. (This wariness has also always made me distrustful of any loans with “points.”)
By 2011, however, rates had clearly fallen enough to justify a refinance. But by that point I was considering moving, and I didn’t want to go through all the paperwork and hassle if I was going to be selling soon anyway. Then, like many others, I found that my house’s assessed value had fallen sharply from my purchase price. Given the weak real estate market at the time, it made more sense to stay put. Even though I knew that refinancing would still benefit me, the uncertainty about my future brought about by market forces only delayed my decision more.
Finally, in 2013, I refinanced. I wound up borrowing more as part of another financial transaction, but at an interest rate of 3.46%, my monthly payments are almost the same as they were before. I have since heard of wise colleagues who, instead of lowering their monthly payments, refinanced from a 30-year mortgage to a 15-year mortgage and as a result will own their homes outright in half the time while making about the same payments.
Which, if you think about it, means that they overcame "present bias" twice: first in the act of refinancing, and then by forgoing having extra cash on hand to spend now in order to be debt-free in 15 years. At the end of the day, refinancing isn't just about saving money; it's about what you do with that money that can make a huge difference to your long-term financial security.