Should I tap my home equity to pay off debt?

By Sabrina Karl

With credit card rates averaging over 16% and the national average for 30-year mortgages running in the mid 4% range, it’s easy to see why homeowners consider tapping home equity to pay off other, costlier debt. But it’s a risky maneuver that shouldn’t be taken lightly, and in some cases, should be avoided altogether.

First, it’s important to realize that paying off credit cards or any other debt with home equity doesn’t actually pay anything off. It only shifts your debt around.

Also, the move is unwise if it’ll drop your home equity below 80%, as you’ll then be hit with expensive private mortgage insurance, which would erase any gains you’re aiming for by refinancing.

You’ll also need to weigh the closing costs you’ll be charged. And recognize that although your expensive debt will move to a significantly lower rate, you’ll now be stretching it over 15 or more years. That means you may actually pay even more for those credit card expenses in the end.

The risk to your home is another serious consideration. Unlike card debt, mortgages and home equity loans are secured with your home as collateral. Default on your mortgage and your house could be in jeopardy. So it’s critical you can reliably afford the new monthly payment, as there is no “minimum payment” fallback on mortgages.

If you can get a lower mortgage rate or shorter term than you currently have, then “cash-out” refinancing to pay off debt can work. But it’s a much more dubious play if your rate or term will increase.

In that case, you’re better off adding a home equity loan that’s dedicated to paying off your expensive debt. Or, just keeping the card debt as is, but with a new vengeance to pay it off as aggressively as you can.