Hero Images/Getty Images
Yep: Use equity to renovate
Home improvement is "the No. 1 use" of home equity loans and home equity lines of credit, or HELOCs, says Kelly Kockos, senior vice president of home equity for Wells Fargo in San Francisco.
Second on the list are major purchases, which these days are more likely to be vehicles, appliances or other durables rather than lavish weddings or exotic vacations.
"People are using home equity for what they need versus what they want," Kockos says.
The upside is clear if you bought a home you don't completely love and want to remodel, whether that means an addition, cosmetic changes, kitchen and bathroom updates, finishing a basement or building a garage, suggests Justin Lopatin, vice president of mortgage lending for PERL Mortgage in Chicago.
The opportunity is especially attractive if your home has risen in value so you have a larger equity cushion.
"You can leverage that equity at a low rate to improve your home and make it more comfortable," Lopatin says. "If you can tap into equity without increasing overhead to the point that it's not affordable or comfortable for you, that's a good reason."
RATE SEARCH: Thinking about improving your home or upgrading your appliances? Compare home equity rates on Bankrate today!
Adam Gault/Getty Images
Maybe: Use equity to invest
Home equity can be used to invest for a higher return as long as interest rates remain low, Lopatin suggests.
"It's inexpensive cash. If you can borrow at 4% and turn around and make an investment in the stock market and yield 8%, you made 4% on your money," he says.
However, this is a risky undertaking since the stock market has a reputation for crashing at times.
Moore says home equity can be a good source of funds to start a business or further your education, but he adds that an objective adviser should be consulted to ensure that your investment is sound.
"That kind of opportunity is a great area where using home equity makes sense," he says. "If you were retraining, going back to school or getting a certificate and putting that money to work in human capital to increase your earnings, that would be a possibility."
Maybe: Use equity as a student loan
A HELOC or home equity loan can be an attractive way to finance a child's education because the interest rate might be lower and the maximum loan amount higher than some other types of education financing, says Andy Tilp, president of Trillium Valley Financial Planning in Sherwood, Oregon.
But this strategy isn't risk-free either.
"I've seen parents struggle because they have to delay retirement, sometimes for many years, because of this huge debt. And if they lose their home, and with a bit of an ironic twist, they may be moving in with their new college grad," Tilp says.
A related question is whether to tap equity to pay off a student's loans after he or she graduates.
That might seem smart, but Alan Moore, co-founder of XY Planning Network in Bozeman, Montana, says parents shouldn't sacrifice their own financial well-being.
"Kids are much better off with financially secure parents than they are being financially secure and having to take care of their parents later in life," Moore says.
One exception might be if the parent (unwisely) co-signed a student's loans and the student didn't make the payments.
Maybe: Use equity as retirement income
Some retirees use a HELOC to meet their current income needs in years when their investment returns aren't sufficient for that purpose, Tilp says.
But again, there's a risk because eventually the retiree will have to make payments on the HELOC.
"If their investment returns don't pick up, they'll need to cut back elsewhere or borrow more against the line of credit, which can start a dangerous downward spiral," Tilp warns.
Another option is a reverse mortgage, which allows seniors to borrow against home equity without making payments. Instead, the loan is repaid when the senior dies or moves out of the home or the home is sold.
Nope: Use equity to pay off credit cards
Paying off car loans, credit cards or other personal debt is another popular use of a home equity loan, HELOC or cash-out refinance.
But the ease with which new debts can be incurred suggests this tactic might not always be wise.
"It may make sense when you run the numbers," Moore says. "But that doesn't cure the problem of credit card debt. We want to make sure we're taking care of what got you into debt in the first place."
Moore points out that credit card debt is unsecured while a home loan is secured by your home, which explains why the interest rate is so much lower than a typical credit card rate.
"Freeing up unsecured debt for secured debt is typically a bad idea until it's absolutely necessary," Moore says.
Maybe: Use equity for emergency fund
A HELOC or home equity loan can be a handy alternative to keeping a large sum of money in a low-rate bank account for emergency savings.
However, one downside of this strategy is that a major life catastrophe can trigger a path to home foreclosure.
"If someone has an emergency and taps the money, but then loses their income and then is in default, they've put their home at risk," Tilp says.
What's more, Moore suggests, a HELOC as an emergency fund can also be too big a temptation to borrow.
"When (a HELOC) is very easily accessible and the interest rate looks good, it can maybe be too easy," he says. "By having it, you're more likely to use it, which is the good and the bad."
RATE SEARCH: Do you have a lot of equity in your home and a good reason to tap it? Check out rates at Bankrate today!