Why I’m Grown-Up and Employed, but Still Need Mom to Co-Sign on My Home

cosign leaseJillian Pretzel

When I got my first apartment after college, I needed my mom to co-sign my lease.

The landlord required proof that I made three times the rent, but since I wasn’t making nearly enough, I called Mom to sign on that second dotted line.

Then, in my mid-20s, when I bought my first condo, I needed a co-signer again. Once again, my mom was there for me.

Now I’m almost 30, married, and expecting our first child. Both my husband and I are gainfully employed and have good credit histories, so you’d think we wouldn’t need any parent co-signing for us to rent a home! But alas, we’d recently moved to New York City, where rents were so high, snagging a half-way decent apartment would require Mom to co-sign once again.

What’s going on? Would I need my mother to co-sign forever?

Of course, I feel lucky to have a parent who’s so supportive. But I can’t help but think that there’s something wrong with me, where I was choosing to live, or perhaps the housing system in general.

So, I started looking into why co-signing is so often required, even in cases where it seems unnecessary. Here’s what I learned, and some words of wisdom from experts that could help you get through the inconvenient (and embarrassing) cycle.

Why co-signers are required

What bothered me most about needing a co-signer was that I felt like I wasn’t being taken seriously as a tenant. I had a good job and a college degree, why couldn’t I be trusted to pay my rent?

As it turns out, many people face this problem.

While landlords may have differing requirements, the industry standard is that your take-home income must be three times what you pay in rent. So if you make $3,000 a month, your monthly rent should not exceed $1,000.

But is this realistic with today’s runaway rent prices?

For instance, in 2013, as a fresh college graduate, I paid $1,600 a month for a one-bedroom, third-floor walk-up in Los Angeles. So based on the three-times rule, I should have been earning $4,800 a month, or $57,600 a year.

A salary that size was an unattainable dream for me right out of college. Even though I had a great sales job and a minimum-wage side hustle, I was making only about twice the annual rent, or $40,000.

And I was one of the lucky ones. The minimum wage in California is $12 an hour, but in 2013 it was $8. To afford a monthly rent of $1,600 in 2013, a minimum-wage worker would have needed to put in 150 hours a week.

Is the three-times rent rule realistic?

Because I needed a co-signer, I couldn’t help but wonder about the three-times rent rule, and the reason for it. Did this mean I’d overextended myself?

As it turns out, I had no reason for worry. With a monthly rent of $1,600, I had another $1,600 left for other expenses, and it was more than enough.

So I started wondering: If twice my income worked just fine for my bills, why do landlords want proof that renters make three times their rent?

“The exact origins of the three-times rule is unknown,” says Michael Dinich of Your Money Geek. Nonetheless, this rule has remained the industry standard—for renters and home buyers alike.

“Mortgage lenders have often used the guideline that housing costs should be no more than 30% of income,” Dinich says. “The three-times rule is likely a handy approximation based on those old guidelines.”

This guideline may even contribute to younger generations’ low rates of homeownership.

“The income of many people, particularly younger adults, has not kept up with home prices in many areas,” says Andrew Latham, managing editor of SuperMoney. “This is why millennials have lower homeownership rates than previous generations.”

Plus, experts say that most landlords (even the nice ones) don’t necessarily care if people aren’t making as much money as they used to. They care more about finding a renter who will be able to pay their rent on time. And if that means sticking to the tried-and-true method of renting to those who can prove they have plenty of income to spare, or can at least get a co-signer, they’ll do it.

How I pay my rent without a co-signer today

While it’s tough for young renters and home buyers almost everywhere to cover their housing costs, it’s even worse in New York City.

Sure, my mom agreed to co-sign the lease, as always. Yet with a baby on the way, my husband and I decided that, rather than taking my mom up on her kind offer, I’d try to find an apartment with a rent that fell comfortably within the three-times rule.

We started crossing things off our wish list. We moved our search from Manhattan to Brooklyn. We stopped looking at homes near subway stations and cute cafes and started touring apartments that were a bit farther out. In the end, we found a studio we liked, and the low rent didn’t require a co-signer.

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7 Tax Benefits of Owning a Home: A Complete Guide for Filing This Year

tax benefits of owning a homeTijana Simic / Getty Images

What are the tax benefits of owning a home? Plenty of homeowners are asking themselves this right around now as they prepare to file their taxes.

You may recall the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act—the most substantial overhaul to the U.S. tax code in more than 30 years—went into effect on Jan. 1, 2018. The result was likely a big change to your taxes, especially the tax perks of homeownership.

While this revised tax code is still in effect today, the coronavirus has thrown a few curveballs. For one, the Internal Revenue Service has delayed filing season by about two weeks, which means it won’t start accepting or processing any 2020 tax year returns until Feb. 12, 2021. (So far at least, the filing deadline stands firm at the usual date, April 15.)

In addition to this delay, many might be wondering whether the new realities of COVID-19 life (like their work-from-home setup) might qualify for a tax deduction, or how other variables from unemployment to stimulus checks might affect their tax return this year.

Whatever questions you have, look no further than this complete guide to all the tax benefits of owning a home, where we run down all the tax breaks homeowners should be aware of when they file their 2020 taxes in 2021. Read on to make sure you aren’t missing anything that could save you money!

Tax break 1: Mortgage interest

Homeowners with a mortgage that went into effect before Dec. 15, 2017, can deduct interest on loans up to $1 million.

“However, for acquisition debt incurred after Dec. 15, 2017, homeowners can only deduct the interest on the first $750,000,” says Lee Reams Sr., chief content officer of TaxBuzz.

Why it’s important: The ability to deduct the interest on a mortgage continues to be a big benefit of owning a home. And the more recent your mortgage, the greater your tax savings.

“The way mortgage payments are amortized, the first payments are almost all interest,” says Wendy Connick, owner of Connick Financial Solutions. (See how your loan amortizes and how much you’re paying in interest with this online mortgage calculator.)

Note that the mortgage interest deduction is an itemized deduction. This means that for it to work in your favor, all of your itemized deductions (there are more below) need to be greater than the new standard deduction, which the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act nearly doubled.

And note that those amounts just increased for the 2020 tax year. For individuals, the deduction is now $12,400 ($12,200 in 2019), and it’s $24,800 for married couples filing jointly ($24,400 in 2019), plus $1,300 for each spouse aged 65 or older. The deduction also went up to $18,650 for head of household ($18,350 in 2019), plus an additional $1,650 for those 65 or older.

As a result, only about 5% of taxpayers will itemize deductions this filing season, says Connick.

For some homeowners, itemizing simply may not be worth it. So when would itemizing work in your favor? As one example, if you’re a married couple under 65 who paid $20,000 in mortgage interest and $6,000 in state and local taxes, you would exceed the standard deduction and be able to reduce your taxable income by an additional $1,200 by itemizing.

__________

Watch: Ready To Refinance? Ask These 5 Questions First

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Tax break 2: Property taxes

This deduction is capped at $10,000 for those married filing jointly no matter how high the taxes are. (Here’s more info on how to calculate property taxes.)

Why it’s important: Taxpayers can take one $10,000 deduction, says Brian Ashcraft, director of compliance at Liberty Tax Service.

Just note that property taxes are on that itemized list of all of your deductions that must add up to more than your particular standard deduction to be worth your while.

And remember that if you have a mortgage, your property taxes are built into your monthly payment.

Tax break 3: Private mortgage insurance

If you put less than 20% down on your home, odds are you’re paying private mortgage insurance, or PMI, which costs from 0.3% to 1.15% of your home loan.

But here’s some good news for PMI users: You can deduct the interest on this insurance thanks to the Mortgage Insurance Tax Deduction Act of 2019—aka the Setting Every Community Up for Retirement Enhancement (SECURE) Act—which reinstated certain deductions and credits for homeowners.

“These include the deduction for PMI,” says Laura Fogel, certified public accountant at Gonzalez and Associates in Massachusetts. (This credit is retroactive, so talk to your accountant to see if it makes sense to amend your 2018 or 2019 tax return in case you missed it in past years.)

Also note that this tax deduction is set to expire again after 2020 unless Congress decides to extend it in 2021.

Why it’s important: The PMI interest deduction is also an itemized deduction. But if you can take it, it might help push you over the $24,800 standard deduction for married couples under 65. And here’s how much you’ll save: If you make $100,000 and put down 5% on a $200,000 house, you’ll pay about $1,500 in annual PMI premiums and thus cut your taxable income by $1,500. Nice!

Tax break 4: Energy efficiency upgrades

The Residential Energy Efficient Property Credit was a tax incentive for installing alternative energy upgrades in a home. Most of these tax credits expired after December 2016; however, two credits are still around (but not for long). The credits for solar electric and solar water-heating equipment are available through Dec. 31, 2021, says Josh Zimmelman, owner of Westwood Tax & Consulting, a New York–based accounting firm.

The SECURE Act also retroactively reinstated a $500 deduction for certain qualified energy-efficient upgrades “such as exterior windows, doors, and insulation,” says Fogel.

Why it’s important: You can still save a tidy sum on your solar energy. And—bonus!—this is a credit, so no worrying about itemizing here. However, the percentage of the credit varies based on the date of installation. For equipment installed between Jan. 1, 2020, and Dec. 31, 2020, 26% of the expenditure is eligible for the credit (down from 30% in 2019). That figure drops to 22% for installation between Jan. 1 and Dec. 31, 2021. As of now, the credit ends entirely after 2021.

Tax break 5: A home office

Good news for all self-employed people whose home office is the main place where they work: You can deduct $5 per square foot, up to 300 square feet, of office space, which amounts to a maximum deduction of $1,500.

For those who can take the deduction, understand that there are very strict rules on what constitutes a dedicated, fully deductible home office space. Here’s more on the much-misunderstood home office tax deduction.

The fine print: The bad news for everyone forced to work at home due to COVID-19? Unfortunately, if you are a W-2 employee, you’re not eligible for the home office deduction under the CARES Act even if you spent most of 2020 in your home office.

Tax break 6: Home improvements to age in place

To get this break, these home improvements will need to exceed 7.5% of your adjusted gross income. So if you make $60,000, this deduction kicks in only on money spent over $4,500.

The cost of these improvements can result in a nice tax break for many older homeowners who plan to age in place and add renovations such as wheelchair ramps or grab bars in bathrooms. Deductible improvements might also include widening doorways, lowering cabinets or electrical fixtures, and adding stair lifts.

The fine print: You’ll need a letter from your doctor to prove these changes were medically necessary.

Tax break 7: Interest on a home equity line of credit

If you have a home equity line of credit, or HELOC, the interest you pay on that loan is deductible only if that loan is used specifically to “buy, build, or improve a property,” according to the IRS. So you’ll save cash if your home’s crying out for a kitchen overhaul or half-bath. But you can’t use your home as a piggy bank to pay for college or throw a wedding.

The fine print: You can deduct only up to the $750,000 cap, and this is for the amount you pay in interest on your HELOC and mortgage combined. (And if you took out a HELOC before the new 2018 tax plan for anything besides improvements to your home, you cannot legally deduct the interest.)

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A Guide To Everything You Need To Know About Home Ownership Costs [Free Download]

Along with the excitement of purchasing a new home, comes the additional costs that you will be expected to pay as a homeowner. Apart from covering the mortgage of your home, you’ll have additional expenses – such as home insurance – that you will be expected to cover. If you’re looking to budget for a home purchase, it’s important that you consider these costs as they can add up to thousands of dollars each year.

To help you make educated decisions when budgeting, we’ve compiled a list of the major home ownership costs in one free, downloadable guide. Get the Home Ownership Costs to Consider guide here.

Home Insurance

Home insurance policies help protect against serious damage and destruction, like fires, leaks, floods, or break-ins. It also protects a homeowner from personal liability. Some banks may offer home insurance products, although you can typically purchase a home insurance policy through a home insurance agent or broker. 

Tip: You may get better rates if you use a broker or agent. It’s also important to keep in mind that policies typically renew on an annual basis.

Condo Fees

The cost of maintenance fees should be taken into account when you’re buying a condo. This recurring cost is in addition to your mortgage and impacts how much home you can afford. 

Your mandatory monthly fee will vary by your building and square footage. It typically covers:

  • Utilities (such as water and garbage collection)
  • Building insurance
  • Maintenance of common areas (such as the gym, pool, front desk, hallways, landscaping)
  • Building reserve fund (covers emergencies and long-term maintenance projects such as a new roof or elevators repairs)

What Are Status Certificates?

If you’re looking to purchase a condo, you’ll want to look into obtaining a status certificate so that you have as much information about the building and your unit as possible before buying. A status certificate provides valuable information about the condo corporation and its financial

situation. It includes details on the budget, legal issues, the reserve fund, maintenance fees, and any fee increases expected in the future. 

Tip: You’ll want to carefully review your status certificate with your lawyer before making a purchase.

Property Tax

Property taxes are paid annually by homeowners to their municipality. These taxes are ongoing and are separate from your mortgage. Your annual property tax can often be paid in installments.

Tip: It’s important to remember that this cost is not due at closing, but is a recurring cost.

How Are Property Taxes Calculated?

Your property tax rate will vary depending on the value of your property as assessed by your provincial assessment authority. This is then multiplied by a rate that falls between 0.5% to 2.5%.

How Do You Pay Property Taxes?

You can pay your property taxes either through your mortgage provider or directly to your municipality. 

Your Utility Bills

When you purchase a home, you’ll have to set up or transfer your utility bills to your new home. If you live in a condo, these costs may be included in your monthly maintenance fee. Your utility bill will include:

  • Hydro (electricity)
  • Heat
  • Water and Garbage
  • Internet, Phone, Cable

For the full details on the home buyer’s journey including examples, advice, pictures and sample calculations, download a copy of our free Home Ownership Costs to Consider Guide here.

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COVID-19 Gives a Boost to Estate Planning: How You Can Get a Will Done—and Fast

courtneyk/Getty Images

Here’s the macabre truth: With hundreds of thousands of confirmed cases of COVID-19 across the country—and the death toll steadily rising—estate planners are reporting an increase in calls and transactions by people wanting to put their affairs in order in case of their death.

But estate planning isn’t just for those with a life-threatening diagnosis. In fact, if you’ve never considered who will inherit your assets, or whom you’d appoint to be your power of attorney, now’s probably a good time. We spoke with several experts to find out everything you need to know about quickly securing your assets during the pandemic—or beyond. Keep reading for all the details.

Estate planning with a lawyer vs. online

If you’re panicked about getting your estate planning done quickly, maybe you’ve wondered: Can’t I just do it online?

While many lawyers advocate for working with a professional, there are situations in which it might make sense to take the do-it-yourself online approach.

“If you’ve already taken stock of your assets and decided on how it should be managed, creating an estate plan is rather straightforward,” explains Felix Sebastian of Legal Templates. “An attorney can draft one up for you in a matter of hours, or you can do so yourself by using forms provided by your state government.”

For those with relatively simple estate planning goals (i.e., a limited number of assets and beneficiaries, and no special circumstances), online services can be a great option, with the added perk of having an incredibly fast turnaround time.

“We have streamlined the process to make it easy and efficient,” says Patrick Hicks, head of legal at Trust & Will. “Most people finish in 15 to 30 minutes, but the process is driven by the individual, so anyone can take more or less time as they desire.

“Our process is much like TurboTax,” he adds. “One easy question at a time, and each question will then lead you through the process to collect and synthesize all of your information and decisions. Most people can complete it all with no preparation and no other documents needed.”

__________

Watch: Our Chief Economist’s View on the Pandemic, Mortgage Rates, and What’s Ahead

__________

The downsides of DIY estate planning

If this sounds good to you, you wouldn’t be alone. Hicks says their service has seen a 50% increase in activity even compared with other busy times of the year, and Mary Kate D’Souza, founder of online estate planning service Gentreo, reported a 143% increase in membership over the past week alone.

And while there are certainly potential perks of using an online service (e.g., getting documents faster or saving money on lawyer fees), just be sure you understand what you’re actually getting: a set of unnotarized forms that will likely not include any sort of legal advice.

“Creating an estate planning document such as a will only gets you halfway there,” Sebastian says. “Pretty much every single state and territory of the U.S. requires that these documents be signed by witnesses and/or notarized.”

And on that note: While putting your online forms together can be done relatively quickly, it may end up taking you much longer to get those forms notarized, even if you have the option to do so remotely.

Lawyers urge clients not to delay their wills and trusts

If you’re considering working with a lawyer for your estate planning, the experts are advising you get to it—and fast.

“Since the COVID-19 outbreak, we have experienced a 30% increase in calls from people wanting us to draft powers of attorney, health care powers of attorney, and wills,” says family law and estate planning attorney Chelsea Chapman of McIlveen Family Law Firm.

Plus, beyond those new clients, estate planners are trying to juggle their existing roster of clients, too—who are, understandably, concerned.

“With the COVID-19 outbreak, we’re receiving an exponentially greater number of existing-client calls than usual,” says Judith Harris, an attorney and co-chair of the Estate Trust and Tax Group at Norris McLaughlin.

Although many law offices typically take several weeks to complete estate planning packages, exceptions can be made for emergency situations.

“In the event of an emergency, we can get documents done in 48 hours,” says Eido Walny, founder of the Walny Legal Group. “That’s one heck of a rush job, however, and would require skipping over a lot of other people in the process. As a result, clients who ask for that kind of turnaround should expect to offer all the cooperation that is asked of them and also to pay a hefty premium for the service. But it can be done.”

The final word

Ultimately, however you choose to get your estate planning done, there’s one key takeaway.

“Don’t wait,” Walny says. “Get the planning process started now. Estate planning is not death planning—these documents will help you during life, during illness, and also in death. Hopefully this crisis will pass, and when it does, these documents will continue to be valuable, unlike the 1,200 rolls of toilet paper hidden in the basement.”

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How to Prepare For Closing Day [Free Downloadable PDF]

After you’ve successfully put in an offer for your dream home and set a date for closing, you’ve come to the final steps of your home buying journey. However aside from getting the keys, you’ll want to be prepared for the additional costs, and steps that will be required for a successful home purchase.

The Preparing For Closing Day guide contains information, tips, and more about what to expect on the big day. The guide will also include a checklist of what to prepare and an example of how to calculate the funds needed for closing.

To learn more about how you can best prepare for closing day, get our free buyer’s guide here.

Pre-Closing Day Checklist

To ensure a smooth process for your home transaction, you’ll still have a few steps to go through before you get your keys. Here are 6 steps to check off your list before closing day:

  1. Review your contract
  2. Complete a final walkthrough
  3. Meet with your lawyer
  4. Purchase home insurance
  5. Know how much cash is required at closing
  6. Secure cash required for closing

Cash Required At Closing

Understanding the costs that will be required at closing day is important to know even before you start your home search. Not only will you be prepared for what to expect, but this can help you with budgeting your costs.

Some examples of costs to include in your calculation:

  • Down payment
  • Title insurance
  • Legal fees
  • Land transfer tax

Statement of Adjustments

Another important document is your statement of adjustments, which will display any credits to both the buyer or seller as well as the final amount payable by the buyer on closing day. You can expect the following to be listed in the statement:

  • Purchase price
  • Your deposit
  • Prepaid property taxes, utilities or fuel
  • Prepaid rents 
  • Appraisal fee
  • Land survey fee

For a sample calculation of cash required at closing, download our Preparing For Closing Day guide here.

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6 Things Your Mortgage Lender Wants You To Know About Getting a Home Loan During COVID-19

mortgage during coronavirusGetty Images

Getting a mortgage, paying your mortgage, refinancing your mortgage: These are all major undertakings, but during a pandemic, all of it becomes more complicated. Sometimes a lot more complicated.

But make no mistake, home buyers are still taking out and paying down mortgages during the current global health crisis. There have, in fact, been some silver linings amid the economic uncertainty—hello, record-low interest rates—but also plenty of changes to keep up with. Mortgage lending looks much different now than at the start of the year.

Whether you’re applying for a new mortgage, struggling to pay your current mortgage, or curious about refinancing, here’s what mortgage lenders from around the country want you to know.

1. Rates have dropped, but getting a mortgage has gotten more complicated

First, the good news about mortgage interest rates: “Rates have been very low in recent weeks, and have come back down to their absolute lowest levels in a long time,” says Yuri Umanski, senior mortgage consultant at Premia Relocation Mortgage in Troy, MI.

That means this could be a great time to take out a mortgage and lock in a low rate. But getting a mortgage is more difficult during a pandemic.

“Across the industry, underwriting a mortgage has become an even more complex process,” says Steve Kaminski, head of U.S. residential lending at TD Bank. “Many of the third-party partners that lenders rely on—county offices, appraisal firms, and title companies—have closed or taken steps to mitigate their exposure to COVID-19.”

Even if you can file your mortgage application online, Kaminski says many steps in the process traditionally happen in person, like getting notarization, conducting a home appraisal, and signing closing documents.

As social distancing makes these steps more difficult, you might have to settle for a “drive-by appraisal” instead of a thorough, more traditional appraisal inside the home.

“And curbside closings with masks and gloves started to pop up all over the country,” Umanski adds.

2. Be ready to prove (many times) that you can pay a mortgage

If you’ve lost your job or been furloughed, you might not be able to buy your dream house (or any house) right now.

“Whether you are buying a home or refinancing your current mortgage, you must be employed and on the job,” says Tim Ross, CEO of Ross Mortgage Corp. in Troy, MI. “If someone has a loan in process and becomes unemployed, their mortgage closing would have to wait until they have returned to work and received their first paycheck.”

Lenders are also taking extra steps to verify each borrower’s employment status, which means more red tape before you can get a loan.

Normally, lenders run two or three employment verifications before approving a new loan or refinancing, but “I am now seeing employment verification needed seven to 10 times—sometimes even every three days,” says Tiffany Wolf, regional director and senior loan officer at Cabrillo Mortgage in Palm Springs, CA. “Today’s borrowers need to be patient and readily available with additional documents during this difficult and uncharted time in history.”

3. Your credit score might not make the cut anymore

Economic uncertainty means lenders are just as nervous as borrowers, and some lenders are raising their requirements for borrowers’ credit scores.

“Many lenders who were previously able to approve FHA loans with credit scores as low as 580 are now requiring at least a 620 score to qualify,” says Randall Yates, founder and CEO of The Lenders Network.

Even if you aren’t in the market for a new home today, now is a good time to work on improving your credit score if you plan to buy in the future.

“These changes are temporary, but I would expect them to stay in place until the entire country is opened back up and the unemployment numbers drop considerably,” Yates says.

4. Forbearance isn’t forgiveness—you’ll eventually need to pay up

The CARES (Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security) Act requires loan servicers to provide forbearance (aka deferment) to homeowners with federally backed mortgages. That means if you’ve lost your job and are struggling to make your mortgage payments, you could go months without owing a payment. But forbearance isn’t a given, and it isn’t always all it’s cracked up to be.

“The CARES Act is not designed to create a freedom from the obligation, and the forbearance is not forgiveness,” Ross says. “Missed payments will have to be made up.”

You’ll still be on the hook for the payments you missed after your forbearance period ends, so if you can afford to keep paying your mortgage now, you should.

To determine if you’re eligible for forbearance, call your loan servicer—don’t just stop making payments.

If your deferment period is ending and you’re still unable to make payments, you can request delaying payments for additional months, says Mark O’ Donovan, CEO of Chase Home Lending at JPMorgan Chase.

After you resume making your payments, you may be able to defer your missed payments to the end of your mortgage, O’Donovan says. Check with your loan servicer to be sure.

5. Don’t be too fast to refinance

Current homeowners might be eager to refinance and score a lower interest rate. It’s not a bad idea, but it’s not the best move for everyone.

“Homeowners should consider how long they expect to reside in their home,” Kaminski says. “They should also account for closing costs such as appraisal and title insurance policy fees, which vary by lender and market.”

If you plan to stay in your house for only the next two years, for example, refinancing might not be worth it—hefty closing costs could offset the savings you would gain from a lower interest rate.

“It’s also important to remember that refinancing is essentially underwriting a brand-new mortgage, so lenders will conduct income verification and may require the similar documentation as the first time around,” Kaminski adds.

6. Now could be a good time to take out a home equity loan

Right now, homeowners can also score low rates on a home equity line of credit, or HELOC, to finance major home improvements like a new roof or addition.

“This may be a great time to take out a home equity line to consolidate debt,” Umanski says. “This process will help reduce the total obligations on a monthly basis and allow for the balance to be refinanced into a much lower rate.”

Just be careful not to overimprove your home at a time when the economy and the housing market are both in flux.

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Source: realtor.com