Meet Jane.

Jane is a thirty-something homeowner with two young kids. She walks into her local bank one day to talk to someone about taking out a loan to replace her outdated furnace. She wanted to put it on her credit card, but she got herself into trouble with credit cards when she was younger, so she wants to look at other options. After talking with her a while, her personal banker, Joe, suggests a home equity line of credit, to which Jane replies, "A what?"

I met many customers like Jane during my time as a personal banker. Many people simply don't know what or how home equity lines of credit work.

A HELOC (home equity line of credit) isn't for everyone, but it often can be the perfect solution for many. First off, you have to be a homeowner and have equity in your home.

What is home equity?

The equity in your home is what you truly own, debt-free. Let's say Jane's house is valued at 200k and she has a mortgage balance of 60k. This would mean that Jane's home equity value is 140k. Over time, the more you pay off any lines against your house (mortgages), the higher your equity value goes. Home improvements that increase the value of your home also raise equity.

A home equity line of credit works much differently than a mortgage or home equity loan. I find it best to view it as working similarly to a credit card. You may draw funds out of the line of credit only as needed. Therefore, technically you can take out a HELOC without ever actually touching the money and having to pay it back.

How much do I qualify for?

Typically, most banks will let you borrow anywhere from 75% to 90% of the equity in your home. To figure this out yourself, take the value of your home, subtract any loans against your home, and multiply that number by the percent the bank will let you borrow. Jane's banker tells her she is able to borrow up to 80% of the equity in her home. You would multiply 140k by .80, coming to a figure of 112k being the maximum amount Jane can borrow. It's important to note that you do not need to borrow the max available. Keep in mind that your debt to income ratio and credit score can also affect how much you qualify for.

How much should I take out a line of credit for?

This is the number one question that was asked to me by customers looking to take out a line of credit. And really, there is no right or wrong answer. You can always take the max available, but you don't have to. There are things you need to consider when deciding how much to borrow. If you are a person who is easily tempted to use that money, even when it's not needed, it probably isn't best to request the max amount unless you know that you will be able to afford the monthly payments.

On the other hand, I also tell people it can be a good idea to take more than you need right now, so you have it as a "cushion." One of my customers came to me to request a HELOC to update her kitchen. Although she qualified for a much higher line, she insisted on only taking what she needed at that time. Not even a year later she came back to me. She had used up the entire amount available on the line of credit and now needed more to fix her roof. She had to go through the entire application process again to do a HELOC increase, and she wasn't happy that it wasn't as simple as saying "I need more money" and having the money readily available. This is the reason I tell people to have a cushion. That cushion can be a lifesaver in emergencies.

What can I use my HELOC to pay?

Most people assume HELOCs can only be used for home renovations, but, in reality, you can use the money for anything. A HELOC can be a great tool to consolidate credit card debt. According to the federal reserve, the average credit card rate was around 15% in 2019, and that rate is often higher for people without excellent credit standings. In contrast, the average HELOC interest rate, according to Bankrate, is around 6%.

What's the application and fee process?

Before heading to the bank, make sure you have the following documents:

  • W2s / 1099 forms
  • Last 2 years federal tax returns
  • Recent pay stubs
  • Proof of any other income

The application process usually takes anywhere from a few days to sometimes weeks, depending on how much information the underwriters may need. The bank typically does an appraisal of the house. In some instances, they may need access to the inside for appraisal, although this is typically not necessary.

After the HELOC is approved, the bank will schedule a closing date and time for you to come in and sign the mountain of paperwork. It can seem like a lot, but you will receive copies of everything, and you have three business days to look it over and cancel if you want.

Common fees associated with HELOCs are lender fees, annual fees, and cancelation fees. Do yourself a favor and research lender options before applying, as there are plenty of banks that do not charge most of these fees. When I worked at M&T Bank, the only fee applicable to a HELOC was a cancelation fee, and that only applied if the line was closed entirely within the first three months.

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