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- A convertible ARM includes a clause that lets borrowers switch from an adjustable interest rate to a fixed one, usually for a fee.
- A convertible mortgage allows borrowers to take advantage of the lower interest rates that come with adjustable-rate mortgages with the option for predictable payments later.
- If you want to benefit from a lower introductory rate to afford a home faster, a convertible ARM loan could be right for you.
A convertible adjustable-rate mortgage (ARM) allows the borrower to swap their interest rate from adjustable to fixed once an initial fixed-rate period expires without the need to refinance. You might also hear this option called a conversion clause or part of a conversion option mortgage.
This type of home loan typically comes with lower introductory mortgage rates and payments, making it an appealing option for first-time homebuyers. However, it doesn’t come without risk. See if a convertible ARM loan is right for you.
What is a convertible ARM?
A convertible ARM allows you to change your adjustable-rate loan to a fixed-rate loan after a set fixed-rate period expires — usually five, seven, or 10 years into the loan term. You typically have to pay a small fee for this conversion. With this convertible mortgage option, you can benefit from a lower introductory interest rate and then convert to a fixed-rate mortgage, which comes with more stable, predictable payments.
How do convertible ARMs work?
With a traditional ARM loan, after the set initial fixed-rate period expires, your interest rate can go up or down at predetermined times (for example, every six months or once a year) based on prevailing market rates. These fluctuating interest rates will either raise or lower your monthly mortgage payment. The rate is based on an index, such as the Secured Overnight Financing Rate (SOFR), and whatever margin that is stated in your loan documents.
In contrast, the interest rate on a fixed-rate mortgage stays the same for the entire loan term, meaning your monthly payments do not change. Many borrowers appreciate this stability in their monthly budget, especially as interest rates tend to trend upward.
With a convertible ARM loan, that same borrower could move from an ARM to a fixed-rate loan without having to go through the refinancing process (and paying its associated closing costs). The caveat is that the rate you’ll get when you convert to a fixed-rate mortgage will likely be higher than your adjustable rate.
- Rashawn takes out a 30-year 5/1 adjustable-rate mortgage for $350,000 with a conversion option. The interest rate for the first five years of his convertible mortgage is 6.49 percent, giving him a monthly payment (excluding homeowners insurance and property taxes) of about $2,210.
- Approaching the five-year mark, Rashawn learns his rate will change to 6.69 percent, bumping his monthly payment to about $2,251.
- Rashawn decides he’d rather have the peace of mind of a fixed payment for the remainder of the loan term and opts to convert his ARM to a fixed-rate loan. The fixed-rate loan comes with a higher rate of 6.99 percent, bringing his monthly payment to about $2,326.
The history of convertible ARMs
Convertible ARMs came into play in the early 1980s, when fixed-rate mortgages had high interest rates that made for expensive payments. At the time, many borrowers took the chance on convertible ARM loans because it seemed unlikely that rates would continue to increase, and therefore they’d benefit from a lower interest rate if rates declined after the set fixed-rate period.
When Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac started to purchase convertible ARM loans on the secondary mortgage market in the 1980s and 1990s, these home loans became more affordable and accessible.
Pros and cons of convertible ARMs
- With a convertible ARM loan, the borrower has the flexibility to potentially lock in an even better rate at a specific time in the future.
- The fee to convert is less than the closing costs to refinance from an ARM to a fixed-rate loan. (However, borrowers can refinance at any time if rates go down, whereas the conversion option is usually only available early in the loan term.)
- As with any ARM, the borrower benefits initially from a lower interest rate and monthly payment.
- The borrower might have to keep tabs on interest rates, which fluctuate daily or even hourly, to see if it’s best to convert to the fixed option. (If rates have gone up, the borrower won’t benefit from the conversion.) At best, this is a time-consuming task.
- The borrower has to pay a nominal fee to convert.
- As with other types of ARMs, a convertible ARM can be risky if the borrower isn’t prepared for higher monthly payments.
Should you get a convertible ARM?
Some borrowers take out an ARM loan because the comparable fixed rate is too high for their budget — in other words, the lower introductory rate on the ARM makes it easier to get into a home for less. The hope is that their income will increase or rates will come down enough that they’ll be able to convert to a fixed-rate loan before the ARM rate resets.
But borrowers can only benefit from an ARM if rates fall — and it’s difficult to predict where rates will be in five years or even one year from now.
If you’re comfortable with some risk, a convertible ARM loan comes with the upside of lower monthly mortgage payments, at least for the introductory period. And if rates start to tick up, it gives you the option to convert your interest rate to a fixed one, assuming you’re willing and able to pay the conversion fee.
Alternative to convertible ARM loans
If you can afford the higher payments, a fixed-rate loan can be the safer alternative because of the predictable payments it provides. Don’t forget: If rates go down, you can always refinance to a lower, fixed-rate mortgage.
Frequently asked questions on convertible ARMs
A conversion clause allows the mortgage lender to convert an ARM to a fixed-rate loan, and the conversion clause fee is what they charge to do so. For Fannie Mae-backed loans, this is limited to $100, or $250 if the ARM includes a monthly conversion option.
An ARM and a convertible ARM are similar, but the main difference is that with a convertible ARM, you won’t need to refinance and pay closing costs to switch to a fixed-rate loan. Convertible ARM loans have a conversion clause that allows the borrower to swap their rate and skip the refi process.
To be eligible for a convertible ARM loan, you typically need to meet conventional ARM loan requirements, such as a credit score of at least 620. For an FHA ARM loan, the minimum drops to 580. You must also meet debt-to-income ratio standards (usually no more than a 50 percent ratio) and down payment requirements (at least 5 percent for conventional loans and 3.5 percent for FHA loans).
Bottom line on convertible ARMs
A convertible ARM gives you the low introductory rate of an adjustable-rate mortgage with the flexibility to convert to a fixed-rate loan later. This option can help you save money in the beginning and give you the possibility of predictable payments down the road. That said, a conversion option mortgage comes with a fee, and you can usually only exercise this option for a limited time.
Weigh the pros and cons of an ARM and look carefully at the details of your conversion clause before you decide on this route.