Considering selling your home, refinancing your mortgage or making extra mortgage payments? Any of these actions could potentially trigger a prepayment penalty from your mortgage lender, which could set you back thousands of dollars if you’re not careful.

What is a prepayment penalty?

A prepayment penalty is a fee charged by a lender to discourage a borrower from paying more than their scheduled periodic payment or completely paying off their loan under the terms of the loan agreement.

The good news is that most borrowers aren’t subject to a prepayment penalty nowadays, but it’s important to confirm one way or the other before you get or refinance a mortgage, list your home for sale or attempt to pay off your mortgage early.

Lenders use prepayment penalties to incentivize people to keep the loan for more than just a year or two.

— Kate BulgerDirector of Business Development, Money Management International

Mortgage lenders and banks make more money when you pay off your loan over a longer period, such as with a 30-year mortgage. That’s because interest accrues over the life of a loan. If you pay off your loan early by selling your home, refinancing to a new loan or making extra payments toward your principal, the lender won’t earn as much on that loan.

“Lenders use prepayment penalties to incentivize people to keep the loan for more than just a year or two,” says Kate Bulger, director of business development for Money Management International in Atlanta.

What kinds of mortgages have prepayment penalties?

Fortunately, prepayment penalties are less common than they were years ago. The Dodd-Frank Act prohibits most prepayment penalties for current residential home loans, but they’re still allowed for loans that were executed before Jan. 10, 2014, according to Charles Gallagher, an attorney in St. Petersburg, Florida.

“They’re associated with non-conforming mortgages — loans not sold or insured by government-sponsored enterprises such as Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac — and they don’t apply to conventional, FHA, VA or USDA home loans,” says Anna DeSimone, New York City-based personal finance expert and author of “Housing Finance 2020.” 

A prepayment penalty is not necessarily a bad thing, says DeSimone. You may have had to pursue a loan that comes with a prepayment penalty in order to get financing. For example, if you are self-employed and run a small business with less than a two-year history required by conventional lenders, you might have to get a non-qualified mortgage that comes with a prepayment penalty.

How much are prepayment penalties?

Although prepayment penalties are rare today, when applicable, the fee can be steep. The penalty can be 2 percent of your loan balance within the loan’s first two years and 1 percent of your loan balance in year three.

For example, say you want to sell your home only one year after you took out a non-conforming mortgage loan to purchase it. Suppose your remaining balance is $300,000. At closing, you’ll likely be charged a prepayment penalty of $6,000, which amounts to 2 percent.

“Before the Dodd-Frank Act, prepayment penalties were even worse — often running anywhere from 3 to 5 percent,” Gallagher says.

How a prepayment penalty works

The Dodd-Frank Act established limitations for prepayment penalties. Today, a mortgage prepayment penalty can only be assessed during the first three years of the loan term. Also, the penalties are capped at 2 percent of the loan balance for the first two years and 1 percent of the loan balance for the third year.

“The penalty is always disclosed with your mortgage rate quote when you shop around for a loan,” says DeSimone. “Typically, you’ll see a statement such as ‘prepayment penalty fee equal to three months’ interest shall be paid in the event the mortgage is terminated within 12 months.’”

When you are assessed a prepayment penalty, it will be charged by and paid as a lump-sum fee to the lender. It is assessed upon the refinance or sale of your home and is usually collected from closing proceeds.

Types of prepayment penalties

There are two types of prepayment penalties: soft and hard.

Soft prepayment penalties

“A soft prepayment penalty is only assessed when you refinance your home,” says Gallagher, “and it would conform to the language of an agreed percentage penalty found in your mortgage loan documents.”

Hard prepayment penalties

A hard penalty occurs when you sell your home or refinance. You can also incur a prepayment penalty if you attempt to pay off more than 20 percent of your loan balance in any given year.

“Making a few extra payments toward your principal or paying a little extra every month usually isn’t enough to trigger a prepayment penalty,” says Bulger.

Example of a prepayment penalty

Here’s another prepayment penalty scenario. Say you bought a house 19 months ago and borrowed $200,000 via a non-conforming mortgage loan to finance it. Now, interest rates have dropped much lower, and you want to refinance to lower your monthly payments. 

“In this case, because you are refinancing within the first two years of the loan, you would be charged a $4,000 penalty — equating to 2 percent of your balance,” says Bulger.

Another example: Imagine you inherit a windfall and decide to use $30,000 of it to help pay off your $200,000 mortgage more quickly.

“In this scenario, you would not be charged a prepayment penalty,” says Bulger. “That’s because your $30,000 accelerated payment is less than the 20 percent maximum your lender will allow annually as a prepayment amount.”

How to avoid a prepayment penalty

The best way to avoid a prepayment penalty is to take a pass on loans that impose the fee.

“Shop the market carefully with more than one lender and inquire around about different loan products,” says Gallagher. “Request a loan without a prepayment penalty, and read over the terms of your loan and paperwork thoroughly before signing it at closing.” 

If you’re not sure if a prepayment penalty applies to your current mortgage, calling your mortgage lender or servicer to ask. Another method is to check the fine print on your monthly statement or closing documents.

If you learn that you might be subject to a prepayment penalty, find out all the details. Try to time a home sale, refinance or accelerated payment strategy carefully so that you can avoid paying any penalties. 

“Also, call your lender and try to negotiate a lower prepayment penalty fee,” says Bulger. “They aren’t required to lower the penalty, but in some circumstances they may agree to a lower amount.”