If you want to borrow money, chances are you’ve already started scoping out options that could work for you. Loans are a popular choice for many consumers, and they come in two forms – secured and unsecured. But the differences between the two aren’t always clear.

In short, secured loans require collateral while unsecured loans do not. You’ll also find that secured loans are far easier to qualify for and generally have lower interest rates as they pose less risk to the lender.

Still, they may not be the best option for you and could have serious consequences for your credit and finances if you cannot repay what you borrow.

What is a secured loan and how does it work?

Secured loans are debt products that are protected by collateral. This means that when you apply for a secured loan, the lender will want to know which of your assets you plan to use to back the loan. The lender will then place a lien on that asset until the loan is repaid in full. If you default on the loan, the lender can claim the collateral and sell it to recoup the loss.

It is important to know precisely what you are promising and what you stand to lose before you take out a secured loan.

What are the advantages and disadvantages of secured loans?

Secured loans offer many advantages. You will often have a larger borrowing limit and may be able to get a lower interest rate and a longer repayment period. Additionally, you may qualify for tax deductions for interest paid on certain loans, such as mortgages.

With secured loans, you risk losing your collateral if you can’t make loan payments. Additionally, you can’t use the funds however you choose — the loan must be used for its intended purpose (except in the case of home equity lines of credit).

Secured loan vs. unsecured loan

Some loans, such as personal loans, can be either unsecured or secured, depending on the lender. If you don’t qualify for the unsecured option or you’re looking for the lowest possible interest rate, check to see if the lender offers a secured option for the loan you’re interested in.

When choosing a secured versus an unsecured loan, there are multiple factors to consider. Here are a few key differences between the two.

Secured loan Unsecured loan
Availability Must have an asset to use as collateral Collateral not required
Borrowing limits Lower borrowing limits that may not be sufficient for your funding needs Higher borrowing limits if you’re putting up collateral that’s worth a sizable amount
Credit score Credit score and financial health will determine eligibility, but they could be more accessible if you have bad credit Credit score and financial health will determine eligibility, but you’ll generally need good or excellent credit to qualify for the most competitive loan terms
Eligibility criteria Less stringent since the lender assumes lower risk More stringent since the lender has no rights to the collateral if you default on the loan
Interest rates Typically lower Typically higher since the lender is unable to recoup their losses if you fall behind on payments
Penalties Collateral can be seized, credit score will drop Missed payments will enter into collections, credit score will drop
Loan types Mortgages, HELOCs, auto loans, business and secured credit cards, etc. Unsecured credit cards, student loans, personal loans, etc.

Types of secured loans

Lenders want to know that they have leverage once you walk away with their money. When they place a lien on your collateral, they know that in a worst-case scenario, they can take possession of the assets you’re using as collateral. This does not guarantee that you will repay your loan, but it does give lenders a greater sense of security and gives the borrower more impetus to repay the loan.

Types of loans that are secured include:

  • Mortgage: With a mortgage, you put your home or property up as collateral to buy that home. If you fail to make the payments, your home can be foreclosed on.
  • Home equity line of credit: A home equity line of credit (HELOC) gives you access to your home equity in the form of a credit line, like a credit card. With a HELOC, you also put your home up as collateral.
  • Auto loans: When taking out a loan to pay for a car or any other vehicle, your vehicle will be used as collateral. If you don’t make the payments on time and in full, your vehicle could be seized.
  • Loan for land: A land loan is used to finance the purchase of land. This type of loan uses the land itself as collateral.
  • Business loan: Business loans can be used to buy equipment, pay wages or invest in business projects. When you take out a business loan, there are a number of things you can use as collateral. For example, inventory, equipment or your land or building can be used to secure a business loan.

What types of collateral are used to back a secured loan?

Secured loans are usually the best way — and often the only way — to obtain large amounts of money. Nearly anything can be accepted as collateral, as long as it is allowed by law. Lenders prefer assets that are easy to collect and can be readily turned into cash. What you use as collateral likely will depend on whether your loan is for personal or business use. Examples of collateral include:

  • Real estate, including equity in your home.
  • Cash accounts (retirement accounts typically do not qualify).
  • Cars or other vehicles.
  • Machinery and equipment.
  • Investments.
  • Insurance policies.
  • Valuables and collectibles.

How do I apply for a secured loan?

When it comes to getting a secured loan, take these steps before applying:

  1. Check your credit: Before applying for a loan, you’ll want to check your credit report. Whether you’ll get approved for the loan is largely based on your creditworthiness, and while secured loans may have less stringent credit requirements than unsecured loans, it’s still important to know your credit score for qualification. You can check each of your credit reports for free every 12 months (or weekly through December 31, 2022) with AnnualCreditReport.com.
  2. Check the value of your assets: The value of the asset you want to use as collateral will usually determine how much you can borrow with a secured loan, so get an appraisal or look up estimated resale value before researching lenders.
  3. Shop around with different lenders: Shopping around allows you to compare lenders’ rates and fees. Many lenders provide prequalification, which lets you see what you’re eligible for without impacting your credit. It’s usually best to get prequalified with at least three lenders.
  4. Apply for the loan with the most competitive lender: If you’re applying with an online lender, the entire process can typically be done online. If you’re applying at a bank or credit union, you might have to visit a physical location.

Can you pay off a secured personal loan early?

You can pay a secured loan off early, but some lenders may charge a prepayment penalty. If there is a prepayment penalty, paying off your loan early may not save you money.

There is also the potential to lower your credit score if you pay off a loan early. Paying off a secured loan can potentially reduce your credit mix and average age of accounts, both of which are part of your credit score.

The true impact on your credit score will depend on the number of open and closed accounts on your credit report. You might see a drop in your credit score, but you could potentially see it rise if you have few open accounts and paying off the loan makes up a large portion of your credit mix. Ultimately, you should weigh the benefits of paying off the loan early against the potential downsides.

What happens if you default on a secured loan?

After a few missed payments on a secured loan, the lender will likely repossess the asset used to secure the loan. In many states, the lender is not required to give you notice of the repossession. And repossession is not the end of the matter. If the repossessed asset does not sell for enough to cover the amount of your loan, you are responsible for the difference.

For example, if you owe $20,000 when you stop making payments on a boat loan and the boat is repossessed and sold for $15,000, you will owe the lender the outstanding $5,000 and any outstanding fees. The repossession stays on your credit report for seven years.

If you miss payments on a mortgage, home equity loan or business loan, the lender has a lengthier process to recoup its money. In about half the U.S. states, a lender must go to court to foreclose on a property. In the other half, the lender must provide you with advance notice of foreclosure.

What should you do if you’re having trouble repaying a secured loan?

If you struggle to repay a secured loan, contact your lender to discuss your options. The lender may be willing to negotiate a loan modification that will allow you to keep your home or business. That could include a new payment schedule, a new repayment term or a partial deferment of the loan. 

If you are having difficulty making payments on multiple bills, prioritize them. This means you make payments on the bills that have the most serious consequences for nonpayment. For example, making your home loan payment may take priority over paying your credit card bill.

If you’re having a cash flow crisis that makes it difficult or impossible to pay your bills, seek financial help. You can reach out to a consumer credit counseling agency certified by the National Foundation for Credit Counseling (NFCC) or the Financial Counseling Association of America (FCAA). 

Also, consider speaking with a U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development-approved housing counselor to help you negotiate loan modification terms with your mortgage provider. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has a directory you can use to find a HUD-approved housing counselor near you.

Next steps

If you’re interested in a secured loan, start by checking your credit so you’ll know where you stand and if you’re likely to qualify for the best competitive interest rates. Next, research reputable lenders, and get pre-qualified to view rate quotes with no impact to your credit score.

Once the loan is approved, submit a formal application. It’s also ideal to rework your budget before the loan is funded to ensure you don’t fall behind on loan payments and possibly lose your collateral.

While secured loans do present more risks than unsecured loans, they can be helpful tools as long as you keep up with the monthly payments.

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