Pitfalls of Adjustable Rate Mortgages

Part 1 of 2

Homeowners who have adjustable rate mortgages, or ARMs, could find themselves struggling financially as rising interest rates make their monthly payments more costly.

Adjustable rate mortgages differ from traditional fixed-rate mortgages In that fixed-rate loan payments will never change during the term of the mortgage. An adjustable rate mortgage, on the other hand, may offer a fixed rate and payment for an initial period of time, such as one, three or five years. But after the initial period expires, both the interest rate and the monthly payment adjust on a regular basis to reflect current market interest rates. ARMs may also be easier to qualify for versus fixed rate loans, as the initial rate and payments are typically lower, plus buyers can often get a bigger ARM loan and buy a more expensive house than they could with a fixed-rate mortgage.

But as interest rates have marched upwards since June 2004, many homeowners with ARMs are seeing their interest rates adjust upward faster than they thought and their payments rise higher than they can afford. According to a recent survey by Roper Public Affairs for TrueCredit.com, 27 percent of homeowners believe that higher interest rates will make it difficult for them to make their mortgage payments.

About 18 percent of homeowners have ARMs, according to the Mortgage Bankers Association. But more than 25 percent of new mortgages in the first quarter of 2006 were ARMs, which is a significant increase from two years ago. According to industry estimates, this year over $330 billion worth of ARMs will adjust upward.

A Strong ARM Adjustment

On a $200,000 ARM that began a few years ago, the initial rate was around 4.5 percent. When the ARM adjusts to 6.5 percent, the monthly payment will increase from $1,013 to $1,254, or a rise of almost 24 percent. Although some interest rates have increased more than 3 percentage points since 2004, most ARMs typically cap the amount of the annual rate increase to 2 or 2.5 percentage points per year. Therefore, these increases are only just the beginning, and it's very likely that the people experiencing an increased ARM payment this year will see a similar rise again in 12 months.

The Perfect Storm for ARMs

Rising payments on ARMs are coming at a time when homeowners are getting slammed by rising expenses in many other areas. Skyrocketing energy and gas prices, higher minimum payments on credit cards and higher interest rates and payments on home equity loans are creating a "perfect storm" that can increase household expenses by a whopping 25 percent or more. Adding a higher ARM payment on top of these expenses may be simply unmanageable for some homeowners, and something will have to give.

Rising home values had been the way to ride out the storm for some financially strapped homeowners. The strategy was to tap their home's rising equity by taking out a home equity loan or by refinancing with a larger mortgage and taking additional cash out in the process. But now, since home equity loan rates have surged from 4.5 percent to 8.25 Percent and home values have stopped rising -- and even fallen in some markets -- this strategy is no longer working.

 

Already, nationwide mortgage delinquencies (mortgages where one or more payments have been missed) are up slightly from a year ago. However, the worst may be yet to come. According to the Mortgage Bankers Association, the peak for mortgage delinquencies comes when loans are three to five

years old, and the average loan is now three years old or less.

According to local reports across the country, some homeowners with ARMs are struggling to make the higher payments and hold on to their houses. In the Fredericksburg, Va., area, the number of foreclosures has climbed from 19 in the first quarter of 2005 to 80 during the same period this year.