Skip to Main Content

What is a home equity loan and how does it work?

View of a sunlit living room with white walls
Thomas Barwick/Getty Images
View of a sunlit living room with white walls
Thomas Barwick/Getty Images
Bankrate Logo

Why you can trust Bankrate

While we adhere to strict , this post may contain references to products from our partners. Here's an explanation for .

ON THIS PAGE Jump to Open page navigation

Home equity loans allow homeowners to borrow against the equity they’ve built in their house. Funded in a lump sum, this type of borrowing offers several valuable advantages versus other loans such as lower interest rates, longer repayment terms and fixed interest.

The attractive interest rates offered with home equity loans are becoming particularly important as rates overall head back upward. For two years amid the pandemic, interest reached historic lows, which inspired a flurry of mortgage refinancing among homeowners seeking lower monthly payments. But now that the Federal Reserve has begun raising rates again to help control inflation, refinancing activity has plummeted, dropping 50 percent between 2021 and 2022, according to the Mortgage Bankers Association’s March 2022 report.

Amid this shift in the market, home equity loans and the competitive interest rates they offer, are an increasingly popular option.

What is a home equity loan?

A home equity loan, commonly referred to as a second mortgage, is a fixed-rate, lump-sum loan that’s secured by the equity in your home. Because the loan is secured by your home, lenders typically charge lower interest rates than they do for personal loans or credit cards.

For example, as of June 2022, the average home equity loan rate was 5.96 percent, while the average personal loan rate was 10.3 percent and the average credit card rate was 16.51 percent. However, the interest rate you’ll receive on a home equity loan, personal loan or credit card will vary depending on your lender, credit score and income and other factors. If you have excellent credit, you might secure a lower interest rate.

How does a home equity loan work?

When you take out a home equity loan, a lender approves you for a loan amount based on the percentage of equity you have in your home. Some lenders may require that you pay closing costs. Once your funds are issued, you have to repay the loan in fixed monthly installments that include the principal and interest. Although terms vary, home equity loans can be as long as 30 years.

Since the loan is secured by your home, this puts your home at risk if you can’t repay what you borrowed. If you default on the loan, the lender can foreclose on your home. In addition, this will cause serious damage to your credit score, making it harder for you to qualify for future loans.

If you use a home equity loan to make home improvements, the interest you pay on it may be tax deductible. According to the IRS, you can deduct interest on a home equity loan that is used to “buy, build or substantially improve” the home.

How do you calculate the equity in your home?

Your home equity represents the portion of your home you actually own; it is your home’s current value minus your outstanding mortgage balance. To calculate the percentage of equity you have in your home, you have to divide your outstanding mortgage balance by the estimated value of your home. If you need help estimating the value of your home or calculating your equity, use a home equity calculator.

For example, if your outstanding mortgage balance is $100,000 and your home’s estimated value is $250,000, then you have 40 percent equity in your home.

What are the home equity loan requirements?

Lenders have different requirements for home equity loans. Before applying, review each lender’s minimum requirements to see if you are likely to qualify. Some of the most common requirements include:

  • Credit score: Applicants typically need a credit score at least in the mid-600s
  • Home equity: At least 15 percent to 20 percent equity in your home
  • Income history: A solid income history is also an important part of successful home equity loan applications
  • Debt-to-income ratio: Lenders typically prefer applicants who have DTIs lower than 43 percent.
  • Loan-to-value ratio: Lenders usually have a maximum combined loan-to-value ratio of up to 85 percent. This means you can only borrow 85 percent of your home’s value, minus your outstanding mortgage balance.

What are the differences between a home equity loan and a home equity line of credit (HELOC)?

A home equity loan isn’t your only option for borrowing against the equity in your home. You can use a home equity line of credit (HELOC) instead.

While a HELOC is also secured by the equity in your home and has similar borrowing requirements, it operates differently from a home equity loan. A HELOC is similar to a credit card in that you can borrow money on an as-needed basis up to a set limit. Unlike home equity loans, HELOCs usually have variable interest rates. Though average HELOC rates tend to be lower than home equity loan rates, your monthly payments could increase if interest rates increase.

Also, a HELOC comes with a draw period and a repayment period. During the draw period, which typically lasts 10 years, you can borrow money from the line of credit and are responsible for making interest-only payments. When that period ends, the repayment period begins and you have to repay the principal, plus interest. During the repayment period, which often lasts 10 to 20 years, you cannot borrow money from the HELOC.

Below is a chart that summarizes the key differences between a home equity loan and a HELOC:

Home equity loan HELOC
  • Loan proceeds disbursed in a lump sum
  • Fixed interest rate
  • Predictable monthly payment (for principal and interest) that remains the same over the loan term
  • Access to a revolving line of credit
  • Withdrawals limited to a 10-year draw period
  • Only pay interest on the funds your borrow
  • Variable interest rate
  • Monthly payment could increase

The bottom line

When deciding if taking out a home equity loan is a good idea, consider the benefits and costs. Although home equity loans usually come with lower interest rates than other types of loans, you risk losing your home if you can’t repay your loan. If you need more payment flexibility, consider choosing a HELOC instead.

However, if you decide that borrowing against your home isn’t right for you, research different loan options.

Learn more:

Written by
Jerry Brown
Contributing writer
Jerry Brown is a contributing writer for Bankrate. Jerry writes about home equity, personal loans, auto loans and debt management.
Edited by
Associate loans editor
up next
Part of  Home Equity Loan Basics