A home equity line of credit (HELOC) can be a useful financial tool if you have sufficient equity in your home and need a stream of cash. It allows you to use that equity as collateral, borrowing against it as the need arises — similar to using a credit card. You’re given a decade or two to repay the funds in full, in monthly installments.

Let’s say, though, that you want to settle your HELOC balance early. It’s doable — but be aware, your lender might charge a HELOC prepayment penalty.

How HELOCs work
A HELOC allows you to tap your home’s equity  Once you open a HELOC, you’ll have access to a line of credit. You can typically access the line of credit over a 10-year draw period, during which you’ll make interest-only payments. After the draw period, you’ll need to repay what you borrowed, along with any outstanding interest, usually over 10 or 20 years. HELOCs generally have variable interest rates, so your payments will change as rates fluctuate.

What is a prepayment penalty on a HELOC?

Once you enter your HELOC’s repayment period, you’ll have a specific time frame to pay off your outstanding balance. If you make the minimum payments, you’ll be following that time frame, geared to completely clearing the debt by the end of it.

However, you might choose to pay your balance off sooner by making a lump-sum payment or adding an extra amount to each payment. A HELOC early payoff penalty is a fee the HELOC lender charges if you make more than the minimum payment and settle the debt ahead of schedule.

This surcharge can also be referred to as an “early closure” or “early termination” fee. If you repay and close the line of credit within a certain time after opening it — when you’re still in the draw period — you may also be charged the penalty.

Why do lenders charge HELOC prepayment penalties?

Lenders primarily make money by charging interest on the products they offer, along with annual or maintenance fees. With a contractual product, like a HELOC, they calculate the profit they’ll make based on the interest for its entire term, or lifespan. If you settle and close your HELOC prematurely, it cuts off their income stream early. To compensate for that loss, they ding you with the fee.

Some lenders entice borrowers with a “no closing cost” HELOC. But these often come with the stipulation that the lender can recapture those closing costs through — wait for it — an early closure fee.

How much is a typical prepayment penalty on a HELOC?

The exact amount of a prepayment penalty varies from one lender to the next. In general, you can expect the fee to range from 2 percent to 5 percent of your loan. In some cases, the fee the lender charges may be based on how early you prepay the HELOC.

For instance, if you close a HELOC before three years has elapsed, you may pay a 3 percent penalty or you could be charged a 5 percent penalty for closing a HELOC before the five-year mark. Some lenders may opt to charge a flat fee for early termination, which usually amounts to a few hundred dollars. Bank of America, for example, charges $450 if you terminate your account within 36 months of establishing a HELOC. Alliant Credit Union posits a possible $200 one for the same time period, while Rockland Trust Bank might impose a $500 early termination fee if you close or cancel with 24 months of opening the line of credit.

How to avoid prepayment penalties on a HELOC

Not all lenders charge a HELOC early payoff penalty. They tend to be more typical with banks, so if you’re concerned about incurring one, it might make sense to go with a non-bank lender, provided you can still get an attractive rate.

Carefully read and make sure you understand the terms of your HELOC. If your line of credit does in fact have a prepayment penalty, you might choose to absorb that cost at payoff, or wait until the penalty period has passed before prepaying.

Can I negotiate prepayment penalty fees with my lender?

Yes, as with any detail about a loan, you have the option to negotiate a home equity loan prepayment penalty with your lender.

However, some lenders will simply refuse to remove the fee from your HELOC. Others might raise your interest rate or ask for something else in return. It’s up to you to decide if negotiating is worth trying and what is worth giving up to get the fee removed from your line of credit.

What are the benefits of paying off a HELOC early?

While you may incur a penalty for early repayment or termination of a HELOC, in some cases it can still make sense to eliminate this debt ahead of time.

  • Pay less interest: The repayment period for HELOCs often stretches over 10 to 20 years and you will be paying interest on the debt during that term. By paying off your HELOC years ahead of time, you can avoid paying a significant amount of interest. Often, the interest you avoid paying by taking this step is far more than the penalty you incur for early termination.
  • Streamline monthly payments: Having multiple debts to keep track of and repay each month can be challenging. Eliminating HELOC debt can streamline your bookeeping.
  • Reduce your debt-to-income ratio: Having too much debt compared to your income limits the amount of free cash you have available, and dampens your credit score. Paying off your HELOC early frees up cash in your monthly budget and improves your debt-to-income ratio, which is an important factor if you plan to apply for borrowing in the future.

Final word on HELOC prepayment penalties

While some HELOC lenders don’t charge a fee for prepayment, others do. So, before you commit to a line of credit, be sure you read and understand the fine print. That’s where prepayment penalty info is usually buried. By law, lenders have to indicate if they impose one, but bear in mind that it could go by numerous other names, like “early termination fee” or “cancellation fee” (“penalty” having rather negative connotations). Whatever they call it, it’s an extra expense.

Given the thousands you’re saving in interest by prepaying, a penalty of a few hundred dollars is more of a nuisance than a drawback. Still, it’s good to be aware of it, and to talk your way out of it if you can.