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The post-Covid economic boom has cooled and interest rates have climbed, but the U.S. economy reportedly might be inching away from a potential recession. While some economists are predicting one could loom large in the new year, there is no way to know precisely when a recession will hit.
If you are nervous about the potential of an economic downturn, you may be looking for ways to shore up your finances in advance of one. However, if you’re considering paying down your mortgage to prepare for a recession, think again.
Should you prepay your mortgage ahead of a recession?
Most homeowners would be wise to stay the course by continuing to pay down the mortgage monthly rather than in a lump sum, says Greg McBride, Bankrate’s chief financial analyst.
“In a recession, you want to preserve liquidity, not restrict it,” says McBride. “Paying down the mortgage restricts your liquidity.”
A bit of explanation is in order. To seriously consider paying down a six-figure mortgage balance, you need a six-figure sum of cash — the “liquidity” McBride refers to.
So the question becomes: Would you rather trade your cash cushion for no monthly mortgage payment and a paid-off house, or have a six-figure balance in the bank but continue to owe on your house?
For most homeowners, it makes more sense to hang onto the cash and keep paying down the mortgage in monthly installments.
Pros and cons of prepaying your mortgage before a recession
- You don’t have to worry about losing your home to foreclosure during a recession if your mortgage is paid off.
- Not having to pay your mortgage would be one less monthly expense to decrease your debt load.
- You could potentially sell your home, if you need money, assuming you can find a buyer in a recession.
- You lose liquidity if you use all your savings to pay off a mortgage.
- Your interest rate on your home may be low and hard to reproduce, should you buy another home in today’s market.
- Most recessions are mild; you might empty your cash reserves to pay off your home and regret it.
Good debt vs. bad debt
Owing money on a house can feel risky, but keep in mind where mortgages rank in the debt hierarchy.
Some debt is clearly harmful to your personal finances. Carrying a credit card balance is one obvious example of bad debt. In this case, you’re paying double-digit interest rates to finance meals, vacations and electronics years after charging them to the credit card. You should pay down that debt as quickly as possible, in good times or bad.
Mortgage debt, on the other hand, is one of the most attractive forms of consumer debt available. While interest rates today are higher than they were in 2020 and 2021, compared to other types of debt, the long-term nature of a mortgage can be an asset to your financial health.
What’s more, if you took out a loan or refinanced two or three years ago, you’re probably enjoying a rate around 3 percent. If that’s the case, there’s even less urgency to pay off the mortgage, says McBride. After all, you’ve locked in a historically low interest rate for decades to come.
For most consumers, the home loan should be the last thing you pay down, says McBride. Instead, retire any higher-rate debt you have, such as credit card balances and auto loans. Then, devote excess cash flow to building up your emergency savings and funding your tax-advantaged retirement accounts.
Think through your fears
While the word “recession” sounds scary, the term just means that the economy is shrinking. Even a small contraction in economic activity qualifies as a recession. Also worth remembering: Most recessions are mild, brief and forgettable. For instance, in the two decades after World War II, the booming U.S. economy experienced four recessions but still continued to grow at a breakneck pace overall.
After rocky periods in the 1970s and 1980s — the U.S. economy experienced two contractions in each decade — recessions have become somewhat rare. The U.S. economy went into recession in 1990 and again in 2001. While those downturns were sobering experiences for workers and investors, neither proved to be the sort of calamity that would merit paying down the mortgage or otherwise pulling the plug on a prudent financial plan.
The worst post-war downturn was the Great Recession of 2008, but there is little likelihood that a potential recession in 2024 would approach that financial crisis in severity.
Even if the economy crashes, what would you accomplish by paying off the mortgage? If you lose your job because of a downturn, you’re better off keeping the mortgage open and using your bank balance to not only make monthly payments but also to buy food and pay utility bills.
“Home equity is not going to pay the bills; money in the bank will,” says McBride. What’s more, if the worst-case scenario plays out and you lose your job, you no longer will be able to tap your home equity. Lenders require stable and steady income for a cash-out refinance or a home equity loan. Without an income, your home equity is locked away until you sell.
Homeowners should also be heartened to know that politicians, regulators and lenders extended generous support during the COVID recession. Most homeowners were allowed to skip mortgage payments for up to 18 months with no penalties.
While there’s no indication that the next downturn will be anything like the coronavirus shutdown, borrowers can take comfort in knowing that if things get really bad, the federal government might come through with another escape hatch.
Who should prepay their mortgage before a recession?
As with any rule of thumb, there are outliers — those folks in special circumstances who might consider paying off their home loan in advance of hard times.
One such group is made up of homeowners who are approaching both retirement and the end of their mortgage terms. If you owe a modest amount — $20,000 or $25,000, for example — and simply want to get rid of your monthly payment, writing a check for the remaining balance might make sense.
For most homeowners, however, the threat of a recession shouldn’t affect how you approach your mortgage.
Bottom line on prepaying your mortgage
If you are worried about an impending recession and trying to decide whether or not you should pay off your mortgage, consider that access to liquid cash is a much safer route to protecting your finances should you lose your job or face other economic hardships during a recession.
If you are nearing retirement or only owe a small amount of money on your mortgage, and you have the cash reserves to both pay off your mortgage and still retain some savings, then it might make sense to pay a mortgage off. Otherwise, it usually makes sense to keep your mortgage and ride out a recession.