What is home equity?

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Home equity is the portion of your home that you’ve paid off — your stake in the property, as opposed to the lender’s. For many homeowners, home equity is their most valuable asset. And the best part of home equity is that it often increases without you having to do anything more than make your regular monthly mortgage payment.

What is home equity?

In practical terms, home equity is the appraised value of your home minus any outstanding mortgage and loan balances. In most cases, home equity builds over time as you pay down mortgage balances or add value to your home. Home equity is an important asset for homeowners, since it can be used to borrow home equity loans or lines of credit.

How does home equity work?

Whether you’re looking to free up cash for a home renovation or find ways to consolidate debt, borrowing against the value of your home could be a good option. While you pay off your home, you build equity that you can later use for home equity loans or home equity lines of credit (HELOCs).

Because you can use equity for loans or tap into it when selling your home, it’s a great financial tool. And the bigger your down payment and the more you pay toward your mortgage, the greater chance you have at increasing your total equity.

If you’re considering using your home equity, keep the following steps in mind:

  • Build your equity. You can increase the equity in your home by making payments on your mortgage or making home improvements that increase your property’s value.
  • Calculate your equity. Subtract your mortgage balance from your home’s current market value. To get an estimate of your home’s current value, use an online home price estimator tool like Zillow’s Zestimate. For example, if the estimator says that your home is worth $250,000 and you still owe $150,000, the estimated equity in your home would equal $100,000.
  • Consider the benefits and drawbacks of a home equity loan. Using home equity to fund emergency expenses or consolidate debt isn’t the right choice for everyone. Before applying for a home equity loan, consider the risks of using your home as collateral — for instance, the risk of losing your home if you default — and look into personal loan options or other debt consolidation loan alternatives.
  • Learn if you qualify. Lenders typically require 20 percent equity, a minimum credit score in the mid-600s and a debt-to-income ratio below 43 percent before you can borrow from your home equity.

How do you build home equity?

Because home equity is the difference between your home’s current market value and your mortgage balance, your home equity can increase in a few circumstances:

  • When you make mortgage payments. The easiest way to increase your home’s equity is by reducing the outstanding balance on your mortgage. Every month when you make your regularly scheduled mortgage payment, you are paying down your mortgage balance and increasing your home equity. You can also make additional mortgage principal payments to build your equity even faster.
  • When you make home improvements that increase your property’s value. Even if your mortgage principal balance remains the same, increasing the value of your home also increases your home equity. Just keep in mind that some home renovations add more value than others, so do your research before starting a renovation project.
  • When the property value rises. Often (but not always), property values rise over time. This is called appreciation, and it can be another way for you to build your home equity. But since your property increasing in value depends on several factors, such as your location and the economy, there’s no way to tell just how long you’ll have to stay in your home to expect a decent rise in value. However, looking at the historical price data of homes in your area may give you some insight as to whether home prices have been trending upward or downward.
  • When you make a large down payment. Putting down a larger down payment can also increase the equity in your home. For example, if you put down 20 percent on your home instead of 10 percent, you’d have more equity. Doing so could also allow you to tap your home equity faster, since lenders usually require you to have 20 percent equity in your home.

How do you calculate home equity?

To calculate the equity in your home, follow these steps:

  1. Get your home’s estimated current market value. What you paid for your home a few years ago or even last year may not be its value today. You can use online home price estimator tools, but consider talking to a local real estate agent to get a more accurate measurement of your home’s market value. A lender may order a professional property appraisal to determine your home’s market value.
  2. Subtract your mortgage balance. Once you know the market value of your home, subtract the amount you still owe on your mortgage and any other debts secured by your home. The result is your home equity.

How to use home equity

 

There are several common uses for your home equity. For one, when you sell your home, you’ll get most of your equity back to you at closing. Often you can then use that money as a down payment on your next home.

Another common use for the equity in your home is to borrow against it with either a home equity loan or a home equity line of credit (HELOC). Using these loans, you might use your home equity to fund a home improvement project (increasing your home equity even more), pay for large purchases or consolidate debt.

If your house is fully paid off (100 percent equity) but you don’t want to move, you might consider a reverse mortgage — a mortgage where the lender pays you —  to get money during retirement. To qualify for a reverse mortgage, you have to be 62 years old.

Before you decide to pursue a reverse mortgage as an option for using home equity for retirement, remember that the money the lender pays you will be due once you move out, sell the property or pass away. High fees can also reduce the amount of cash you can borrow. Because of this, you may want to consider alternative ways to get money for retirement, such as:

  • Downsizing. To reduce your expenses in retirement, you could sell your home and purchase a cheaper one. The money you get from the sale can be used to pay for everyday expenses. In addition, you could invest a portion of the proceeds to create an additional income stream.
  • Moving to an area with a lower cost of living. If you live in an area with a high cost of living, consider selling your home and moving to a cheaper area. By moving, you could save a lot of money and stretch your retirement dollars further

Types of home equity loans

There are two types of home equity products, which differ in how you receive the cash and how you repay funds:

  • Home equity loan: A second mortgage, paid out in a lump sum and repaid in fixed monthly payments at a fixed interest rate.
  • Home equity line of credit (HELOC): Similar to a credit card, a line of credit with a limit for what you can borrow and a variable interest rate.

Home equity loans

A home equity loan is a second mortgage, meaning a debt that is secured by your property. When you get a home equity loan, your lender will pay out a single lump sum. Once you’ve received your loan, you start repaying it right away at a fixed interest rate. That means you’ll pay a set amount every month for the term of the loan, whether it’s five years or 15 years. This option is ideal if you have a large, immediate expense. It also comes with the stability of predictable monthly payments.

Home equity lines of credit (HELOCs)

A home equity line of credit, or HELOC, works like a credit card. You can withdraw as much as you want up to the credit limit during an initial draw period that is usually up to 10 years. As you pay down the HELOC principal, the credit revolves and you can use it again. This gives you flexibility to get money as you need it.

You can opt for interest-only payments or a combination of interest and principal payments. The latter helps you pay off the loan more quickly.

Most HELOCs come with variable rates, meaning your monthly payment can go up or down over the loan’s lifetime. Some lenders offer fixed-rate HELOCs, but these tend to have higher initial interest rates and sometimes an additional fee.

After the draw period, the remaining interest and the principal balance are due. Repayment periods tend to be from 10 to 20 years. The interest on a HELOC that is used for a substantial home improvement project may be tax-deductible.

Home equity loans vs. HELOCs

Home equity loan Home equity line of credit (HELOC)
Type of interest Fixed Variable
Repayment term 5 – 15 years 10 – 20 years
Payout Lump sum Revolving credit
Type of loan Secured Secured
Best for Debt consolidation, major renovation costs Minor renovation costs over a number of years

Are home equity loans a good idea?

Home equity loans may make sense for people who want to take advantage of low interest rates and long repayment terms. However, before you commit to using your home equity, consider both the benefits and the drawbacks.

Benefits of using home equity

Home equity can be a useful tool when you need a large sum for home improvement, debt consolidation or any other purpose. Home equity loans and HELOCs have their benefits, like:

  • Lower interest rates. Your home is what makes your home equity loan or line of credit secure. These loans have lower interest rates than unsecured debt, such as credit cards or personal loans. This can help you save on interest payments and improve monthly cash flow if you need to lower high-interest debt.
  • Tax benefits. The 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act allows homeowners to deduct the interest on home equity loans or lines of credit if the money is used for capital improvements, such as to “buy, build or substantially improve” the home that secures the loan.

Drawbacks of using home equity

Using home equity doesn’t work for everyone in every situation. Drawbacks include:

  • Borrowing costs. Some lenders charge fees for home equity loans or HELOCs. As you shop lenders, pay attention to the annual percentage rate (APR), which includes the interest rate plus other loan fees. If you roll these fees into your loan, you’ll likely pay a higher interest rate.
  • Risk of losing your home. Home equity debt is secured by your home, so if you fail to make payments, your lender can foreclose on your home. If housing values drop, you could also wind up owing more on your home than it’s worth. That can make it more difficult to sell your home if you need to.
  • Misusing the money. You should only use home equity to finance expenses that will pay you back, like renovating a home to increase its value, paying for college, starting a business or consolidating high-interest debt. Stick to needs versus wants; otherwise, you’re perpetuating a cycle of living beyond your means.

How to qualify for a home equity loan

To qualify for a home equity loan, there are a few basic minimum requirements:

  • A credit score of 620 or higher. A score of 700 and above will most likely qualify for the best rates.
  • A maximum loan-to-value ratio (LTV) of 80 percent — or 20 percent equity in your home.
  • A debt-to-income ratio no higher than 43 percent.
  • A documented ability to repay your loan.

Lenders have varying borrowing standards and rates for home equity products, so you’ll want to shop around for the best deal.

It also helps to know how much you want to borrow and what you’re using the money for. Home equity loans are long-term loans that take years to repay, so borrow only as much as you need and make sure that you’re prepared for as many as 30 years of payments.

Next steps

Home equity is a great financial tool that you can use to help pay for big expenses like a home renovation, high-interest debt consolidation or college expenses. If you need a large amount of cash, you may want to consider borrowing some of the equity you have built up in your home. But you should do so with care and shop around with multiple lenders before signing up.

FAQ for home equity

Can you use a home equity loan for anything?

There aren’t many limits on home equity loan uses. You can use your loan for consolidating debt, paying for medical expenses or financing a vacation. However, not all of these are the best uses for a home equity loan. Typically, it’s best to use your home equity loan for things that will add value to your home, such as home renovations, since this will give you even more equity.

Is home equity an asset?

Home equity is considered one of the most valuable assets a homeowner can have. This is because home equity can increase over time, and homeowners may use it to access funds in the form of a loan.

Does a home equity loan require an appraisal?

While not every home equity lender requires a full appraisal, all lenders need to determine the value of your home in order to calculate your available equity. If your lender doesn’t require a full appraisal, it may obtain these estimates by looking at county assessments, using automated value models or even driving by your home and taking photos. If you’ve had a full appraisal done within the last six months, the lender may also be able to use that information.

How fast does a home build equity?

How fast your home builds equity depends on a number of factors. The easiest and most consistent way to build equity is by making your regular monthly mortgage payments. Each payment will build hundreds of dollars in equity. You can also get more home equity if your home appreciates in value, but this is less reliable, since home values fluctuate over time.

How much equity can you borrow from your home?

Most lenders allow you to borrow only a percentage of your home’s equity in the form of a home equity loan or HELOC. The exact terms and percentage varies by lender, but it’s common for the maximum loan-to-value ratio to be 80 percent or 85 percent of your home’s appraised value.

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Written by
Jeanne Lee
Contributing writer
Jeanne Lee writes about mortgages, personal finance and enjoys finding ways for people to hack their finances.
Edited by
Associate loans editor