For home equity lines of credit, or HELOCs, most banks set their rates based on the shortest-term market rate of all, The Wall Street Journal prime rate. It moves in lock step with the federal funds rate.
But equity loans and lines of credit usually come without closing costs, so they can be $2,000 or $3,000 cheaper than a mortgage refinance.
"It is relatively rare," says Vickie Hampton, CFP and personal financial planning department chair at Texas Tech University in Lubbock, Texas. "But if you can get as much money as you need with good terms on a home equity loan as you can on a mortgage refinance, and you can get a rate that's attractive and lock it in, then that seems like a very wise thing to do."
The best equity candidates
So who should go for an equity loan or line of credit rather than a cash-out refinance mortgage?
This question can only be asked if there is equity in the home. When a homeowner owes more on the home than it is currently worth, there is no equity and therefore no reason for the bank to loan money from an equity standpoint.
That being said, consumers who plan to pay off their loans in a reasonable amount of time and those who don't need to borrow much money make good candidates. That's because banks offer their lowest rates on shorter-term equity loans.
Long-term equity loans tend to have rates that are higher than fixed-rate mortgages, even when the prime rate is low. And, customers who need $75,000, $100,000 or more will usually find they need loans with longer amortization schedules to keep their payments affordable. Most equity loans amortize over 10 years or 15 years, while many first mortgages amortize over as many as 30 years.