The 5 most important requirements to borrow from home equity

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Tapping home equity can be a smart way to borrow cash to pay for home improvements, pay off high-interest debt or fund other large expenses. If you have a significant amount of equity in your home, either because you’ve paid down your mortgage or because the market value of your home has increased substantially above the balance you owe on the property, you may be able to obtain a sizable loan.

The requirements to borrow from home equity vary by lender, but generally you’ll want to have a strong credit score, sufficient income, few debts and a reliable payment history.

What is a home equity loan? 

A home equity loan is a second mortgage against your home, the proceeds from which are paid out in a lump sum. The loan is secured against your home, and once you receive the money, you start repaying it right away in monthly installments with a fixed interest rate, just like your original mortgage.

In this way, home equity loans are similar to personal loans — both can be used for nearly any purpose, and both have fixed APRs. However, because home equity loans use your home as collateral, they often come with lower interest rates.

Why get a home equity loan?

Home equity loans can be helpful when you need a large amount of money to pay for home improvements or to consolidate debt. And because they usually have lower interest rates than other types of unsecured debt like credit cards or personal loans, they’re one of the most affordable ways to finance large expenses.

There may also be some tax benefits associated with a home equity loan. The IRS allows homeowners to deduct interest on home equity loans from their taxes if the money was spent on substantial home improvements.

The top 5 requirements for a home equity loan

There are three ways to tap into your home’s equity: a home equity loan, home equity line of credit or cash-out refinance.

Each loan has its own set of pros and cons, so it’s important to consider your needs and how each option would fit your budget and lifestyle. Regardless of which type of loan you choose, you’ll typically want to meet five base requirements:

Have at least 15 to 20 percent equity in your home

Equity is the difference between how much you owe on your mortgage and the home’s market value. Lenders use this number to calculate what’s known as the loan-to-value ratio, or LTV, a factor that helps determine whether you qualify for a home equity loan.

To determine your LTV, divide your current loan balance by the appraised value of your home. For instance, if your loan balance is $150,000 and an appraiser values your home at $450,000, you would divide the balance by the appraisal and get 0.33, or 33 percent. This is your LTV ratio. Since your LTV ratio is 33 percent, you have 67 percent equity in your home.

This also determines how much you can borrow. You can usually borrow up to a combined loan-to-value ratio (CLTV) of 85 percent — meaning the sum of your mortgage and your desired loan can make up no more than 85 percent of your home’s value. In the above example, 85 percent of the home’s value is $382,500. If you subtract your mortgage balance, that leaves you with $232,500 of equity to borrow with a loan.

Why it’s important: Typically, lenders will only approve a home equity loan or HELOC with a loan-to-value ratio or combined loan-to-value ratio of up to 85 percent — meaning you have 15 percent equity in your home. Maintaining at least 15 to 20 percent equity in your home is also important in the event that the real estate market experiences a downturn and the value of your property suddenly declines to a level much closer to the outstanding balance you owe on the mortgage, says Ralph DiBugnara, president of Home Qualified. If you max out your financing, selling your home could be more difficult.

Have a credit score in the mid-600s

Having enough equity is not the only important consideration for securing a loan. A favorable credit score is also essential in order to meet most banks’ approval requirements.

For those who have poor credit or a lot of outstanding debt, it may be more difficult to secure a home equity loan.

A credit score above 700 will most likely qualify you for a loan as long as you also meet equity requirements. Homeowners with credit scores of 621 to 699 might be approved, but most likely at higher interest rates.

Some lenders also extend loans to those with scores below 620, but these lenders may require the borrower to have more equity in their home and carry less debt relative to their income.

Why it’s important: Having a good credit score will help you secure more favorable interest rates, saving you a substantial amount of money over the life of the loan. In addition, lenders use your credit score to predict how likely you are to repay the loan, so a better score will improve your odds of approval.

Have a debt-to-income ratio of 43 percent or lower

Your debt-to-income ratio, or DTI, is yet another factor that lenders consider when reviewing a home equity loan application. The lower your DTI percentage, the better.

Qualifying DTI ratios will vary from lender to lender. Some require that your monthly debts eat up less than 36 percent of your gross monthly income, while other lenders may still be willing to go as high as 43 or 50 percent.

To determine your DTI, lenders will add up the total monthly payment for the house, which includes mortgage principal, interest, taxes, homeowners insurance, direct liens and homeowners association dues, along with any other outstanding debt that is a legal liability.

The debt total is divided by the borrower’s gross monthly income — which includes base salary, commissions and bonuses, as well as other income sources, such as rental income and spousal support — to come up with the DTI ratio.

Before you apply for an equity loan, be sure to calculate your DTI. If you’re above the optimum ratio, pay off as much debt as you can. Try starting with the debt avalanche method, where you pay off loans with the highest interest rates first. The money you save on interest can be put toward paying off other debts. Jerry Schiano, CEO of Spring EQ, also recommends extending the term of any outstanding loans you hold, which will reduce your monthly installment payments on the debt.

Why it’s important: Decreasing your debt-to-income ratio will improve your odds of qualifying for a home equity loan. Paying down existing debt will also boost your overall financial picture, helping you qualify for better rates on loans down the line.

Have sufficient income

While not all lenders will list specific income requirements for their home equity products, many will still evaluate your income to make sure that you make enough money to pay back your loan. Your income level may also determine how much you are able to borrow.

More critically, having a higher income or finding ways to boost that income prior to applying for a home equity loan will also improve your debt-to-income ratio.

Be prepared to provide income verification information when you apply for your loan; examples of documents you may be asked for are W-2s and paystubs.

Why it’s important: A steady income indicates to lenders that you’ll be able to make payments on your loan. Plus, the higher your income, the easier it may be to lower your debt-to-income ratio.

Have a reliable payment history

When deciding whether or not to issue a loan, lenders want to make sure that they’re not taking on too much risk. One of the main ways to do this is to evaluate potential borrowers’ payment history.

While payment history is folded into your overall credit score, lenders may look closer to see how often you pay your bills on time. If you have a history of late payments, lenders may be less willing to lend to you, even if you have an otherwise-decent credit score. This is because they don’t want to risk losing money in the event that you can’t pay your bills.

This is especially true with home equity loans and HELOCs, since these are technically second mortgages — meaning the lender will be second in line for payment should you fall into foreclosure.

Why it’s important: If you have a history of late payments or accounts in collections, lenders may be less willing to lend to you, since they see you as higher risk. Work to make at least minimum payments on credit card accounts or set up automatic payment before applying for a home equity loan to give yourself the best chances at approval.

Other factors to consider

The factors listed above are some of the most critical areas to focus on when applying for a home equity loan. However, also keep in mind that all lenders are required to follow state and federal rules when it comes to lending money. Most significantly, limits on interest rates are different from one state to the next.

In addition, some federal rules have changed over the years. For instance, in 2018, the tax deductions available for the interest paid on a home equity loan were reduced substantially. Now the only time the interest can be deducted is when the money is used to build or improve the property.

Next steps

If you’re still interested in pursuing a home equity loan or HELOC, it’s always a good idea to shop around with multiple lenders to compare interest rates, fees and terms. Bankrate’s list of the best home equity loans may be a good place to start, although it’s also worthwhile to investigate options from your local bank, as having an existing relationship could help your chances at approval. Additionally, take advantage of prequalification offers where available — lenders that offer prequalification allow you to check what rates you qualify for without going through a hard credit check.

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Featured image by @reinasierra of Twenty20.

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