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Does a zero-point / zero-fee loan really exist?

Zero-Point/Zero-Fee Loans

Whatever happened to the conventional wisdom of waiting for the rates to drop 2% before refinancing?

You have a 30-year fixed loan at 8.5%. A loan officer calls you up and says they can refinance you to a rate of 8.0% with no points and no fees whatsoever.
What a dream come true! No appraisal fees, no title fees and not even any junk fees! Is this a deal too good to pass up? How can a bank and broker do this? Doesn't someone have to pay? Whose money is being used to pay these closing costs?

No––this is not a scam. Thousands of homeowners have refinanced using a zero-point/zero-fee loan. Some refinanced multiple times, riding rates all the way down the curve in 1992, 1993 and, more recently, in 1996. Some homeowners used zero-point/zero-fee adjustable loans to refinance and get a new teaser rate every year.

The way this works is based on rebate pricing, sometimes also known as yield-spread pricing, and sometimes known as a service-release premium. The basic idea is that you pay a higher rate in exchange for cash up front, which is then used to pay the closing costs. You will pay a higher monthly payment––so the money is really coming from future payments that you will make.

You can also think of this as negative points! For example, a 30-year fixed loan may be available at a retail price of:

8.0% with 2 points or
8.25% with 1 point or
8.5% with 0 points or
8.75% with -1 point or
9% with -2 points

On a $200,000 loan, the loan officer can offer you 8.75% with a cost of -1 point, which is a $2,000 credit towards your closing costs. A mortgage broker can use rebate pricing to pay for your closing costs and keep the balance of the rebate as profit.

What are the benefits of a zero-point/zero-fee loan?

The main benefit is that you have no out-of-pocket costs. As a result, if the rates drop in the future, you could refinance again even for a small drop in rates. So if you refinanced on the zero-point/zero-fee loan to get a rate of 8.75% and if the rates drop 1/2%, you can refinance again to 8.25%. On the other hand, if you refinanced by paying 1 point and got a rate of 8.25%, it may not make sense to refinance again. Now, if the rates drop another 1/2%, a zero-point/zero-fee loan can drop your rate to 7.75%, whereas if you paid points, you may have to do a break-even analysis to decide if refinancing will save you money.

The zero-point/zero-fee loan eliminates the need to do a break-even analysis since there is no up-front expense that needs to be recovered. It also is a great way to take advantage of falling rates.

Some consumers have used zero-point/zero-fee loans on adjustable loans to refinance their adjustables every year and pay a very low teaser rate.

What are the disadvantages of a zero-point/zero-fee loan?

The main disadvantage is that you are paying a higher rate than you would be paying if you had paid points and closing costs. If you keep the loan for long enough, you will pay more––since you have higher mortgage payments. In the scenario where you plan to stay in the house for more than 5 years, and if rates never drop for you to refinance, you could wind up paying more money. If, on the other hand, you plan to stay at a property for just 2-3 years, there really is no disadvantage of a zero-point/zero-fee loan.
Whose money is it?

Since you are being paid "cash" up-front in exchange for a higher rate, it really is your own money that will be paid in the future through higher payments. Investors who fund these loans hope that you will keep the loans for long enough to recoup their up-front investment. If you refinance the loans early, both the servicer and the investor could lose money.

To summarize, zero-point/zero-fee loans in many cases are good deals. Make sure, however, that the lender pays for your closing costs from rebate points and NOT by increasing your loan amount. So if your old loan amount was $150,000, your new loan amount should also be $150,000. You may have to come up with some money at closing for recurring costs (taxes, insurance, and interest), but you would have to pay for these whether you refinanced or not.

Zero-point/zero-fee loans are especially attractive when rates are declining or when you plan to sell your house in less than 2-3 years.

Zero-point/zero-fee loans may not be around forever. Lenders have discussed adding a pre-payment penalty to such loans, however few lenders have taken steps to implement such a measure.

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