Consumer Handbook on Adjustable Rate Mortgages

We believe a fully informed consumer is in the best position to make a sound economic choice. If you are buying a home, and looking for a home loan, this booklet will provide useful basic information about ARMs. It cannot provide all the answers you will need, but we believe it is a good starting point.

People are Asking

Some newspaper ads for home loans show surprisingly low rates. Are these loans for real, or is there a catch?

Some of the ads you see are for adjustable rate mortgages (ARMs). These loans may have low rates for a short time--maybe only for the first year. After that, the rates can be adjusted on a regular basis. This means that the interest rate and the amount of the monthly payment can go up or down.

Will I know in advance how much my payment may go up?

With an adjustable-rate mortgage, your future monthly payment is uncertain. Some types of ARMs put a ceiling on your payment increase or rate increase from one period to the next. Virtually all must put a ceiling on interest-rate increases over the life of the loan.

Is an ARM the right type of loan for me?

That depends on your financial situation and the terms of the ARM. ARMs carry risks in periods of rising interest rates, but can be cheaper over a longer term if interest rates decline. You will be able to answer the question better once you understand more about adjustable-rate mortgages. This booklet should help.

Mortgages have changed, and so have the questions that need to be asked and answered.

Shopping for a mortgage used to be a relatively simple process. Most home mortgage loans had interest rates that did not change over the life of the loan. Choosing among these fixed-rate mortgage loans meant comparing interest rates, monthly payments, fees, prepayment penalties, and due-on-sale clauses.

Today, many loans have interest rates (and monthly payments) that can change from time to time. To compare one ARM with another or with a fixed-rate mortgage, you need to know about indexes, margins, discounts, caps, negative amortization, and convertibility. You need to consider the maximum amount your monthly payment could increase. Most important, you need to compare what might happen to your mortgage costs with your future ability to pay.

This booklet explains how ARMs work and some of the risks and advantages to borrowers that ARMs introduce. It discusses features that can help reduce the risks and gives some pointers about advertising and other ways you can get information from lenders. Important ARM terms are defined in a glossary on page 19. And a checklist at the end of the booklet should help you ask lenders the right questions and figure out whether an ARM is right for you. Asking lenders to fill out the checklist is a good way to get the information you need to compare mortgages.

What is an Arm?

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--for example, if interest rates remain steady or move lower.

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:

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.

The Index

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. (All the examples used in this booklet are based on this amount for a 30-year term. Note that the payment amounts shown here do not include items like taxes or insurance.)

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.

Consumer Cautions


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

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:

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 7.5% 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 7.5% 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.

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.

Prepayment and Conversion

If you get an ARM and your financial circumstances change, you may decide that you don't want to risk any further changes in the interest rate and payment amount. When you are considering an ARM, ask for information about prepayment and conversion.

Prepayment. Some agreements may require you to pay special fees or penalties if you pay off the ARM early. Many ARMs allow you to pay the loan in full or in part without penalty whenever the rate is adjusted. Prepayment details are sometimes negotiable. If so, you may want to negotiate for no penalty, or for as low a penalty as possible.

Conversion. Your agreement with the lender can have a clause that lets you convert the ARM to a fixed-rate mortgage at designated times. When you convert, the new rate is generally set at the current market rate for fixed-rate mortgages.

The interest rate or up-front fees may be somewhat higher for a convertible ARM. Also, a convertible ARM may require a special fee at the time of conversion.

Where to Get Information

Before you actually apply for a loan and pay a fee, ask for all the information the lender has on the loan you are considering. It is important that you understand index rates, margins, caps, and other ARM features like negative amortization. You can get helpful information from advertisements and disclosures, which are subject to certain federal standards.


Your first information about mortgages probably will come from newspaper advertisements placed by builders, real estate brokers, and lenders. While this information can be helpful, keep in mind that the ads are designed to make the mortgage look as attractive as possible. These ads may play up low initial interest rates and monthly payments, without emphasizing that those rates and payments later could increase substantially. Get all the facts.

A federal law, the Truth in Lending Act, requires mortgage advertisers, once they begin advertising specific terms, to give further information on the loan. For example, if they want to show the interest rate or payment amount on the loan, they must also tell you the annual percentage rate (APR) and whether that rate may go up. The annual percentage rate, the cost of your credit as a yearly rate, reflects more than just a low initial rate. It takes into account interest, points paid on the loan, any loan origination fee, and any mortgage insurance premiums you may have to pay.

Disclosures from Lenders

Federal law requires the lender to give you information about adjustable-rate mortgages, in most cases before you apply for a loan. The lender also is required to give you information when you get a mortgage. You should get a written summary of important terms and costs of the loan. Some of these are the finance charge, the annual percentage rate, and the payment terms.

Selecting a mortgage may be the most important financial decision you will make, and you are entitled to all the information you need to make the right decision. Don't hesitate to ask questions about ARM features when you talk to lenders, real estate brokers, sellers, and your attorney, and keep asking until you get clear and complete answers. The checklist at the back of this pamphlet is intended to help you compare terms on different loans.

Mortgage Checklist

Ask your lender to help fill out this checklist.

Mortgage amount                       ______________________

Basic Features for Comparison

                                      Mortgage A  Mortgage B

Fixed-rate annual percentage rate
(the cost of your credit as a yearly
rate which includes both interest and
other charges)                        __________  __________

ARM annual percentage rate            __________  __________

Adjustment period                     __________  __________

Index used and current rate           __________  __________

Margin                                __________  __________

Initial payment without discount      __________  __________

Initial payment with discount
(if any)                              __________  __________

How long will discount last?          __________  __________

Interest rate caps:      periodic     __________  __________

                         overall      __________  __________

Payment caps                          __________  __________

Negative amortization                 __________  __________

Convertibility or prepayment
privilege                             __________  __________

Initial fees and charges              __________  __________

Monthly Payment Amounts

What will my monthly payment be after twelve months if the index rate:

stays the same                        __________  __________

goes up 2%                            __________  __________

goes down 2%                          __________  __________

What will my monthly payments be after three years if the index rate:

stays the same                        __________  __________

goes up 2% per year                   __________  __________

goes down 2% per year                 __________  __________

Take into account any caps on your mortgage and remember it may run 30 years.

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