Twice-monthly mortgage payment alternatives

The debate whether making a twice-monthly mortgage payment saves money is making the rounds on some popular blogs right now. The idea is paying your mortgage every two weeks rather than every month in order to save money. Whether this trick works depends on several things, but the most important part is that you shouldn’t pay a penny extra for this service. You should also consider twice-monthly mortgage payment alternatives.

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End of the innocence

Honeymoon’s over. The purchase is getting rocky. I’ll tell you about my troubles so you hopefully don’t repeat them.Mistake: We used the mortgage broker our realtor recommended. She got us preapproved quickly enough for us to get our bid in… barely. The rest of the process to get approval went at a sloth’s pace. And then? She slapped us with a 5.625% interest rate and $2,600 in closing costs. She had a vaguely plausible explanation for both, but the closing costs were highway robbery and the interest rate was half a percent higher than it could have been.<p>

Having been lectured by my accountant once about closing costs, I tried to negotiate. Everything’s negotiable, he said. Nothing’s negotiable, she said.

"So I really should just pay cash for this house?" I asked.

She laughed. "If you can." She thought she had me over a barrel and she was going to take advantage of me.

Hopefully she learned a lesson, but I doubt it. Don’t give a Scotsman reason to reconsider parting with money, because once you do, you’ve lost him.

I was out of fight at that point, but my wife called the bank we use most of the time. She told the agent about our 5.625% interest rate and $2,600 closing costs, and asked if she could beat that, and if she could, how we get out of the bad deal.

She talked to us about our goals and our finances and suggested a Home Equity loan. The rate would be low, the payments would be flexible, we could get approved quickly, and there would be no closing costs.

It’s an unconventional answer to the problem. But for a first property, with uncertain expenses, it gives some flexibility. Let things stabilize for a year or two, then get a conventional mortgage if need be. The conventional mortgage gives long-term flexibility, but a HELOC gives short-term flexibility.

So it pays to call around until you find a loan officer with some creativity.

And true to her word, we had approval on the HELOC in three days. That’s how long it took sloth lady to get us just a preapproval.

The house: Now I know why the house was cheap. Superficially, it looked good. But when we started poking around with an inspector, we found out the house was an Uncle Louie Special. Uncle Louie re-did the wiring, the siding, the plumbing, and almost everything else in sight. Uncle Louie did a reasonably good job of laying tile and painting, but when it came to anything else… Well, the inspector said, "He sure didn’t let not knowing what he was doing get in the way of him finishing a project."

He said a few other things too, but it’s probably best not to repeat them.

Unfortunately, it’s going to take professionals to fix most of Uncle Louie’s work. And it won’t be cheap.

The inspector’s advice: Make the decision with the numbers, not with your heart. Which is good advice. The realtor’s job is to make you fall in love with the property. The inspector’s job is to bring you back to reality.

Sometimes the reality isn’t what it first seems. But sometimes you can still make it work anyway.

That’s what we have to learn next.

Paid in full.

This week, my wife and I drove to the bank and signed some papers initiating a wire transfer to our mortgage company.

Yesterday, I had the satisfaction of logging into the mortgage company’s web site, clicking on my account, and seeing the words “paid in full.”

I moved into this house in October 2002. Five years and eight months later, I own it outright. Between the house and our cars, my wife and I have paid off nearly $180,000 in debt in those five-plus years.We aren’t completely debt-free yet. We still have some student loans from my wife’s college education.

Some would argue we should have paid those before the house. I opted against it because one of the loans has a very low interest rate (lower than the house), and because the payments are small. If I walk into work tomorrow and find out I no longer have a job (that very thing happened to me not once but twice in 2005), I can easily make those student loan payments. Scraping together enough for a mortgage payment is harder.

But I’ve gotten ahead of myself. Here’s how we did it.

The debt snowball
The trick is to make your minimum payments on all debts, but pick one debt to pay off first. Then scrape together some extra money to pay it off sooner.

In my case, I started with my car. The payment was about $300. I tried to pay at least $600 on it. Sometimes I paid $900. When I got my tax refund, I paid a whole lot more than that.

By mid-2005, I owned the car outright.

By then I was also married, so we turned our attention to my wife’s car. Her payment was also about $300. So we paid $300 plus $600, the amount I’d been paying on the other car. I had a better job that summer, and we had my wife’s income too, so it wasn’t all that long before I realized we had enough surplus piled up in the bank to pay that off too. So we did.

And that left the house. The mortgage payment was around $1,000. So we paid $1,900. When we started making more money, we increased that. In recent months, I’ve been paying $3,000 on the house since I now make quite a bit more than I made in 2005.

Last month, I noticed we were very close to having enough in the bank to pay the house off while still leaving a comfortable emergency fund. I called the mortgage company to find out exactly how much we’d need to do it, and to get payoff instructions. I figured out that every month we didn’t pay the house off was costing us more than $200. So scraping was worth it.

Finding extra money
I’ve always been a tightwad (just ask my family), but in my late 20s I fell into some bad habits. I didn’t rack up debt, but I definitely wasted more money on conveniences than I needed to. I saved a lot of money the last five years or so by packing a lunch and bringing my own coffee and breakfast to work.

Do the math. I used to spend $2 on coffee and breakfast, plus $5-$6 for lunch. Call it $8/day. Figure 240 working days a year, and that’s $1,920.

I figure I whittled my daily food bill down to about $3 per day, so I saved $1,200 per year. That’s $4,800 over the course of four years. That alone allowed me to pay the house off at least nine months early.

Don’t let other people spend your money
But this is the big one. Everyone has their own ideas what kind of car you should drive, what home improvements you should be making, and other status things that really don’t matter that much.

I drive a 2002 Honda Civic with more than 100,000 miles on it. I know some people look down on that. But the car is still in nice shape, still runs like new, and has never needed anything more than routine maintenance. Plus it consistently gets 35 MPG.

If I had traded that car in after driving it for three years like the marketers say you’re supposed to, it would have slowed down the house payoff by six months. Had we done the same with my wife’s car, we could make it a year.

Frankly I’d rather have the house. In fact, if I could turn back the clock to 2003, I wouldn’t buy the same Civic I bought then. I would have been better off buying an older one that I could pay off more quickly. I could have saved an extra $4,000 or even $6,000, and we would have had everything finished a couple of months sooner.

So what about the cars now? Well, what about them? Remember, I was used to paying $3,000 a month on the house, and that obligation is gone. A year from now, there’ll be enough cash piled up in the bank to buy two cars outright if necessary. Not that I expect to need that, since Civics are famous for going 200,000 miles and beyond. The last time I went to the dealer, they told me someone had traded in a Civic with 500,000 miles on it.

As for home improvements, yes, now it’s time to do some. But why do them sooner? The boob tube tells you to do it to increase the value of the house. But why would I want to do that? So I can pay more taxes? Without me doing a thing, the paper value of this house has risen nearly $40,000 since I bought it, at least according to the county assessor. That means I paid $400 more in taxes in 2007 than I did in 2003.

Unless I was planning to move, there’d be no reason whatsoever to be concerned about property value.

On the other hand, at this point in the life of the mortgage, I was paying more than $200 per month in interest. Now that I’m not paying interest, that’s like getting $2,400 per year for free. That’s enough to finance a modest home improvement project.

But then again, if there’s something else my wife and I want that costs $2,400, we’re entirely free to go after that instead.

In what order should you pay off loans?
This is the paralyzing question for some people. Mathematically speaking, you should pay them off in order of interest. If you have a credit card balance at 19%, a car loan at 7%, a mortgage at 5%, and a student loan at 3%, then you should pay them off in that order.

I’m not enough of a math genius to run the figures, but paying them off in the worst-possible order (reverse order), generally only slows you down by a month or two.

We paid ours off somewhat less than optimally because the student loan is less paralyzing than the mortgage. The minimum payment on the student loans is about 1/5 what the mortgage payment was. When I was out of work, the mortgage was a bit of a struggle to make during a couple of those months, whereas the loans are comparable in size to a utility bill.

If nothing changes between now and then, we can have those loans wiped out in another year. If the economy tanks and I lose my job and my income drops to nearly zero, I can nurse those loans along almost indefinitely, since I have numerous options for making the $1,000 per month it would take to cover utilities, groceries, and those loans.

What about retirement?
Some people argue you should give retirement planning priority over your debts, while others say the reverse. My wife and I haven’t done much for our retirement since we got married in 2005. Frankly I can see the arguments both ways. But we’re still in our early 30s, and now we’re in position to contribute the legal limit into Roth IRAs from now until the government starts making us collect. There’s still time for both of us to pile up enough to retire.

The counter argument is that it’s foolish to invest when paying down debt gives you a guaranteed return. In this economy, given the choice between investing or paying down debt at 6 percent, what’s safer?

While there’s room for criticism if you go either way, either way is preferable to doing nothing. Unfortunately there are all too many people who have lots of debt and little or nothing saved for retirement.

Don’t refinance!
This is another big one. I refinanced in 2004. I got a lower interest rate, and I switched from a 30-year mortgage to 15. The interest rate dropped, but I got nailed for a $2,000 closing cost.

I saved $500 in interest the first year, but I didn’t have the loan long enough to recoup the closing costs.

If your mortgage is the last thing you’re going to pay off and if you can drop the rate, or if refinancing will allow you to consolidate some higher-interest debt, it might make sense to do it, but factor in that closing cost. If you can pay off the mortgage in less than five years, it makes more sense to just pay it off rather than go to the expense and hassle of refinancing.

In my case, if I hadn’t refinanced, I may have owned the house a month sooner.

What about the tax deduction?
Short answer: Forget about the tax deduction. The tax deductions for mortgages are more overrated than Derek Jeter.

Let’s say you’re in the 25 percent tax bracket. I’d have to ask my accountant if such an animal exists this year, but the numbers are convenient. If I’m in the 25 percent tax bracket and I paid $1,200 in interest this calendar year, then that means in return for me paying my bank $1,200, the government is giving me back $300.

Every other time you spend $1,200 and get $300 back, it’s called losing $900.

For the past five years, I’ve been paying a lot more in interest than I ever got back as a tax refund. Eliminating the mortgage won’t completely eliminate my tax refund, but it did eliminate that interest. In effect, by paying off the house, I gave myself a $1,200 raise this year.

So there’s no sense in keeping a mortgage solely for tax purposes. If you need tax deductions, take your tax return to a good accountant. The accountant’s fee is tax deductible, and the accountant will probably find you additional deductions you didn’t think of.

If you’re in a higher or lower tax bracket, it can make a little more or a little less sense, but you’re still trading dollars for small change in any case.

In conclusion?
There are any number of things we could have done differently. But the important thing is we now own our home and two cars outright. It’s possible that doing a few more things might have made it happen a month or two sooner. But if I’d done everything the traditional way, I wouldn’t own the house outright until age 58 (if I’d kept the original 30-year mortgage) or 44 (since I refinanced to a 15-year mortgage). Compared to 11 additional years of paying interest, what’s an extra month or two if I get a couple of details wrong?

Pay off a mortgage in five years

Thanks to some circumstances where somebody knew somebody who knew somebody, I found myself tonight at a seminar where John Cummuta was speaking. He’s the guy who you may have heard on the radio hawking a system called Transforming Your Debt into Wealth. From him, I learned how to pay off a mortgage in five years.

Hopefully I won’t get into too much trouble by presenting the simplified version of his plan.The secret of credit is that creditors will not extend you more credit than you can conceivably pay off in a fairly short length of time (like, less than a decade). The secret is to make that work for you, rather than for them.

His system is simple enough that you can plug it into an Excel worksheet. Mine has three equations in it. Here’s what you do.

Take 10 percent of your monthly income and use it to pay down debt. Pick the debt you can pay off the fastest. Forget interest. Pay the minimum monthly payment on all of your debts except the one you can pay the fastest. Add that 10 percent of your monthly income to the debt you’re working on. So if it’s a credit card balance with a minimum payment of $22, and you make $2,000 a month, you pay $222 towards that credit card.

Then, when that credit card balance is paid off, you take the debt you can pay off second, add its minimum monthly payment to that $222. Keep cascading the payments until you’ve paid everything off.

Using that formula, I can have my car paid off in a year and two months, and my house paid off in five years and two months after that.

The more money you can plow into paying off debts, the faster it goes.

He said the interest rates are pretty much irrelevant because you are paying the debts off so quickly. So it doesn’t make sense to refinance or consolidate debts or anything like that because you won’t recoup the closing costs.

The formula is a bit crude because it doesn’t take into effect the minimum monthly payments you are making, nor the accumulated interest on the on which debts you’re making minimal progress. But he said those numbers pretty much end up in a wash. Following this crude formula, you’ll be within a couple of months or two.

Also, he suggested putting off investments until you have your debt eliminated. The exception is 401(K) or similar plans where employers match your contributions. The logic is that the compound interest on your debts will almost always be larger than the compound interest your investments can earn.

However, he did not say you should empty your bank accounts to pay debt. If you have enough money in the bank to be able to take half of it and pay your smallest debt, go ahead and do it, but otherwise leave your existing bank accounts and investments alone, suspend contributing to them (or do the minimum), and then, when you have the debt paid off, you can afford to contribute to them very aggressively. Remember, at the end of the plan, you no longer have those monthly house and car payments to make.

Someone who makes $40,000 a year and works 40 years will make $1.6 million over the course of that career. The idea is to pay as little of it as possible in interest, so that money is working for you instead of your creditors.

It seems to me that debt ought to be like college. It ought to be something we do for a few years in order to get something we need, but after a few years, it’s over. And if we have to make a few sacrifices along the way, just like we did for college, we ought to do them.

Update: It worked. Thanks to finding better paying jobs and applying that, we were able to pay the mortgage off ahead of schedule.

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