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With a fixed-rate mortgage, the interest rate stays the same during the life of the loan. But with an ARM, the interest rate changes periodically, usually in relation to an index, and payments may go up or down accordingly.

Lenders generally charge lower initial interest rates for ARMs than for fixed-rate mortgages. This makes the ARM easier on your pocketbook at first than a fixed-rate mortgage for the same amount. It also means that you might qualify for a larger loan because lenders sometimes make this decision on the basis of your current income and the first year's payments. Moreover, your ARM could be less expensive over a long period than a fixed-rate mortgage.

Against these advantages, you have to weigh the risk that an increase in interest rates would lead to higher monthly payments in the future. It's a trade-off--you get a lower rate with an ARM in exchange for assuming more risk.

Here are some questions you need to consider:

* Is my income likely to rise enough to cover higher mortgage payments if interest rates go up?

* Will I be taking on other sizable debts, such as a loan for a car or school tuition, in the near future?

* How long do I plan to own this home? (If you plan to sell soon, rising interest rates may not pose the problem they do if you plan to own the house for a long time.)

* Can my payments increase even if interest rates generally do not increase?


HOW ARMS WORK:
THE BASIC FEATURES


The Adjustment Period


With most ARMs, the interest rate and monthly payment change every year, every three years, or every five years.
However, some ARMs have more frequent interest and payment changes. The period between one rate change and the next is called the adjustment period. So, a loan with an adjustment period of one year is called a one-year ARM, and the interest rate can change once every year.


Most lenders tie ARM interest rate changes to changes in an "index rate." These indexes usually go up and down with the general movement of interest rates. If the index rate moves up, so does your mortgage rate in most circumstances, and you will probably have to make higher monthly payments. On the other hand, if the index rate goes down your monthly payment may go down.

Lenders base ARM rates on a variety of indexes. Among the most common are the rates on one-, three-, or five-year Treasury securities. Another common index is the national or
regional average cost of funds to savings and loan associations. A few lenders use their own cost of funds, over which--unlike other indexes--they have some control. You should ask what index will be used and how often it changes. Also ask how it has behaved in the past and where it is published.


The Margin


To determine the interest rate on an ARM, lenders add to the index rate a few percentage points called the "margin." The amount of the margin can differ from one lender to another, but it is usually constant over the life of the loan.

Let's say, for example, that you are comparing ARMs offered by two different lenders. Both ARMs are for 30 years and an amount of $65,000.

Both lenders use the one-year Treasury index. But the first lender uses a 2% margin, and the second lender uses a 3% margin. Here is how that difference in margin would affect your initial monthly payment.

In comparing ARMs, look at both the index and margin for each plan. Some indexes have higher average values, but they are usually used with lower margins. Be sure to discuss the margin with your lender.


Some lenders offer initial ARM rates that are lower than the sum of the index and the margin. Such rates, called discounted rates, are often combined with large initial loan
fees ("points") and with much higher interest rates after the discount expires.

Very large discounts are often arranged by the seller. The seller pays an amount to the lender so the lender can give you a lower rate and lower payments early in the mortgage term. This arrangement is referred to as a "seller buydown." The seller may increase the sales price of the home to cover the cost of the buydown.

A lender may use a low initial rate to decide whether to approve your loan, based on your ability to afford it. You should be careful to consider whether you will be able to afford payments in later years when the discount expires and the rate is adjusted.

Here is how a discount might work. Let's assume the one-year ARM rate (index rate plus margin) is at 10%. But your lender is offering an 8% rate for the first year. With the 8% rate, your first year monthly payment would be $476.95.

But don't forget that with a discounted ARM, your low initial payment will probably not remain low for long, and that any savings during the discount period may be made up during the life of the mortgage or be included in the price of the house. In fact, if you buy a home using this kind of loan, you run the risk of...


Payment shock may occur if your mortgage payment rises very sharply at the first adjustment. Let's see what happens in the second year with your discounted 8% ARM.

As the example shows, even if the index rate stays the same, your monthly payment would go up from $476.95 to $568.82 in the second year.

Suppose that the index rate increases 2% in one year and the ARM rate rises to a level of 12%. That's an increase of almost $200 in your monthly payment. You can see what might happen if you choose an ARM impulsively because of a low initial rate. You can protect yourself from increases this big by looking for a mortgage with features, described next, which may reduce this risk.


HOW CAN I REDUCE MY RISK?


Besides an overall rate ceiling, most ARMs also have "caps" that protect borrowers from extreme increases in monthly payments. Others allow borrowers to convert an ARM to a fixed-rate mortgage. While these may offer real benefits, they may also cost more, or add special features, such as negative amortization.


Interest-Rate Caps


An interest-rate cap places a limit on the amount your interest rate can increase. Interest caps come in two versions:

* Periodic caps, which limit the interest rate increase from one adjustment period to the next; and

* Overall caps, which limit the interest-rate, increase over the life of the loan.

By law, virtually all ARMs must have an overall cap. Many have a periodic interest rate cap.

Let's suppose you have an ARM with a periodic interest rate cap of 2%. At the first adjustment, the index rate goes up 3%. The example shows what happens.

A drop in interest rates does not always lead to a drop in monthly payments. In fact, with some ARMs that have interest rate caps, your payment amount may increase even though the index rate has stayed the same or declined. This may happen after an interest rate cap has been holding your interest rate down below the sum of the index plus margin.

Look below at the example where there was a periodic cap of 2% on the ARM, and the index went up 3% at the first adjustment. If the index stays the same in the third year, your rate would go up to 13%.

In general, the rate on your loan can go up at any scheduled adjustment date when the index plus the margin is higher than the rate you are paying before that adjustment. The next example shows how a 5% overall rate cap would affect your loan.

Let's say that the index rate increases 1% in each of the first ten years. With a 5% overall cap, your payment would never exceed $813.00--compared to the $1,008.64 that it would have reached in the tenth year based on a 19% indexed rate.


Payment Caps

Some ARMs include payment caps, which limit your monthly payment increase at the time of each adjustment, usually to a percentage of the previous payment. In other words, with a 7½% payment cap, a payment of $100 could increase to no more than $107.50 in the first adjustment period, and to no more than $115.56 in the second.

Let's assume that your rate changes in the first year by 2 percentage points, but your payments can increase by no more than 7½% in any one year. Here's what your payments would look like:

Many ARMs with payment caps do not have periodic interest rate caps.


Negative Amortization

If your ARM contains a payment cap, be sure to find out about "negative amortization." Negative amortization means the mortgage balance is increasing. This occurs whenever your monthly mortgage payments are not large enough to pay all of the interest due on your mortgage.

Because payment caps limit only the amount of payment increases, and not interest-rate increases, payments sometimes do not cover all of the interest due on your loan. This means that the interest shortage in your payment is automatically added to your debt, and interest may be charged on that amount. You might therefore owe the lender more later in the loan term than you did at the start. However, an increase in the value of your home may make up for the increase in what you owe.

The next illustration uses the figures from the preceding example to show how negative amortization works during one year. Your first 12 payments of $570.42, based on a 10% interest rate, paid the balance down to $64,638.72 at the end of the first year. The rate goes up to 12% in the second year. But because of the 7½% payment cap, payments are not high enough to cover all the interest. The interest shortage is added to your debt (with interest on it), which produces negative amortization of $420.90 during the second year.

To sum up, the payment cap limits increases in your monthly payment by deferring some of the increase in interest. Eventually, you will have to repay the higher remaining loan balance at the ARM rate then in effect. When this happens, there may be a substantial increase in your monthly payment.

Some mortgages contain a cap on negative amortization. The cap typically limits the total amount you can owe to 125% of the original loan amount. When that point is reached, monthly payments may be set to fully repay the loan over the remaining term, and your payment cap may not apply. You may limit negative amortization by voluntarily increasing your monthly payment.

Be sure to discuss negative amortization with the lender to understand how it will apply to your loan.