Prepayment penalties, balloon payments increase risk

4 min read

Some activities invite heartbreak and loss: driving without a seat belt, marrying someone after one date, experimenting with heroin. Add another to the list: getting a home loan with a prepayment penalty or balloon payment.

People who refinance their mortgages with loans containing prepayment penalties or balloon payments are more likely to undergo foreclosure, according to a study by researchers at the University of North Carolina.

Prepayment penalties and balloon payments are most often found in subprime mortgages (higher-rate home loans for borrowers with flawed credit). It’s common sense that these loans have higher foreclosure rates, and this research backs it up with hard evidence, says one of the authors.

“Our study for the first time really definitively gives you the order of magnitude of the additional risk of foreclosure that are posed by these terms,” says Michael Stegman, director of the Center for Community Capitalism at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

The study, by Stegman, Walter Davis and Robert Quercia, estimates that a prepayment penalty increases foreclosure risk by about 20 percent, after compensating for factors such as income and credit score.

Mortgages with balloon payments were 46 percent more likely to go to foreclosure than loans without balloon payment provisions to comparable borrowers, according to the study of more than 122,000 subprime refinance mortgages originated in 1999.

Prepayment penalties punish borrowers for refinancing, and balloon payments punish borrowers for not refinancing. A prepayment penalty is levied on the borrower for paying off the mortgage early — whether by refinancing the loan or selling the house. A balloon loan requires the outstanding balance to be paid in a lump sum after a set period.

Prepayment penalty term In foreclosure at least once
No prepayment penalty 15.3 percent
Penalty less than three years 19.9 percent
Penalty three years or more 23.6 percent

Almost 72 percent of the mortgages in the study had prepayment penalties, usually lasting three or more years. About 14 percent of the mortgages had balloon provisions. About 80 percent of balloon loans have prepayment penalties, Stegman says.

In a theoretical worst-case scenario, the two loan provisions could bump into each other: A borrower could be forced to pay a prepayment penalty for refinancing within five years of getting the loan and could be forced to make a balloon payment of the entire balance at the mortgage’s five-year anniversary. Few, if any, lenders would be that diabolical. But federal laws wouldn’t prohibit it.

In the study, a common prepayment penalty was a fee of six months’ interest on the outstanding balance. That means that someone who borrowed $100,000 at 12 percent interest, and who then sold the home a year later, would have to pay a penalty of almost $6,000 for paying off the loan early.

Without a prepayment penalty, a homeowner with an unaffordable mortgage can get out of financial trouble by refinancing the loan or selling the house. A prepayment penalty can trap a borrower into keeping the unaffordable loan past the point of no return into delinquency, foreclosure and eviction.

Prepayment penalties and balloon payments are abusive and predatory, say Stegman and fellow critics of subprime loans. They are costly, are applied unfairly, lead to foreclosures and don’t even give borrowers a break on interest rates, says Keith Ernst, senior policy counsel for the Center for Responsible Lending in Durham, N.C.

That last assertion is disputed by the subprime-lending industry. Ameriquest, the biggest subprime lender, has a set of best practices that pledges “to show borrowers how they can reduce their rates through discount points and prepayment options.”

New Century Financial Corp., the second-biggest subprime mortgage lender, says that it does not make or buy loans with balloon payments. As for prepayment penalties, New Century says it offers loans with and without them: “When a borrower opts for a loan with a prepayment charge, the borrower benefits from a lower interest rate or pays lower upfront fees,” its set of best practices says.

Nevertheless, Ernst, in a report issued this month by the Center for Responsible Lending, concludes that on subprime refinance loans, there was no significant difference in rates between mortgages with prepayment penalties and those without, “as borrowers receive the burdens of penalties without the compensating benefits.”

“Once the penalty is in place,” Ernst says, “the borrower’s ability to build wealth is significantly hampered since the borrower either continues to pay excess interest or gives up accumulated home equity to get a better loan.”

The University of North Carolina study says that, of the borrowers who got loans with prepayment penalties, 37 percent ended up paying the fees, either because they refinanced or they sold their homes. “These penalties, if fully enforced, generated hundreds of millions of dollars for lenders at the expense of borrower equity,” the report says.

The report was released at a news conference attended by Stegman, Ernst and Nina Simon, an attorney for the AARP Foundation who sues predatory lenders. A reporter invited the three to identify egregious lenders, but they declined. Ernst said that 70 percent to 80 percent of subprime mortgages have prepayment penalties, so the whole industry is culpable.

The industry’s trade association, the National Home Equity Mortgage Association, or NHEMA, had no immediate response to the report.

Stegman, Ernst and Simon praise states (such as North Carolina, Massachusetts and New Jersey) that have anti-predatory lending laws that ban practices such as excessive prepayment penalties or balloon loans. They contend that subprime mortgages are just as available in these states as in others — but with less onerous terms.

NHEMA counters with its own studies, including one released last year that concluded that subprime lending in New Jersey “dropped significantly” after that state’s anti-predatory lending law went into effect. That study said it was more difficult to borrow in New Jersey afterward — borrowers needed higher incomes and higher credit scores to qualify for subprime mortgages.

Stegman and his co-authors scrutinized a national database of subprime, refinanced mortgages that were originated in 1999. They tracked the loans to the end of 2003 and analyzed them statistically. They chose to look at refinanced mortgages because such loans were more likely to have prepayment penalties and balloon payments than purchase mortgages. About 73 percent of the borrowers had done “cash-out” refinancing — they had refinanced for than they originally owed and pocketed the difference.