YOU CAN CASH IN ON TODAY'S LOW RATES Lenders are offering great deals on mortgages, car loans -- even & credit cards. But the bargains won't last. Now is the time to cut your borrowing costs.

(MONEY Magazine) – Vice President Al Gore is so tickled about today's low interest rates that when he gives a speech, he often asks for a show of hands from those who have recently refinanced their mortgages. ''Usually about one-third say yes,'' reports Gore, who in 1991 swapped the 12% mortgage on his Carthage, Tenn. home for a variable-rate loan that carries a rate of 7% today. For the Veep, low rates are a double-barreled blessing, adding to his cash on hand and his political capital as well. For you, they mean only money in the bank. Only? Consider: If you traded a $150,000 11.3% mortgage (the average rate just three years ago) for one at 7.6% (the current average), you would cut your payments by a hefty $406 a month. The rate on fixed-rate mortgages is the lowest it's been in 20 years, with some lenders charging as little as 7%. Adjustable rates average a remarkable 4.7%, with some going for 3.5% (see Banking Scorecard on page 52 for the best deals in your area). But you don't have to be a homeowner to get in on the action. Car loans are idling at a horn-honking 8.6%, down from double-digit levels just last spring. And even credit-card rates are falling. The national average is still an outlandish 18.3%, down from 18.7% a year ago. But more than 500 issuers now offer rates below 15%, and about a dozen cards are available nationally with rates below 12%. Says Robert McKinley, president of RAM Research in Frederick, Md.: ''At no time in history have credit-card customers had so many low-rate options.'' No one knows how long the good times will last. Mortgage rates, for example, have already climbed slightly from their recent lows. Economists believe rates in general may edge up for the remainder of the year. So if you are in the market for a new home or car, or want to reduce the cost of existing debt, don't wait too long. Here's a guide to getting today's best borrowing deals.

MORTGAGES The recent rate dip ''is especially great for those people who missed the boat last September, when rates were in the mid-8% range,'' says Jim Ferriter, a vice president at Chase Manhattan Bank in New York City. But even with rates at record low levels, you must shop around to get the best deal. Keith Gumbinger, an analyst with HSH Associates in Butler, N.J., recommends checking with six to 12 banks and mortgage companies to compare terms, including the interest rate, points and closing costs. By the way, the old advice that it isn't worth refinancing unless you can reduce your rate by two percentage points is too simplistic; improving your interest rate by as little as a quarter of a point can save you money in the long run -- although perhaps not enough to justify the effort. The crucial question is how long you'll be living in your home. If you are planning to remain well beyond the time it would take to recoup your closing costs through lower monthly loan payments, it makes sense to refinance. Here are some other borrowing decisions you may face: Points or no points. With most lenders, you can get a lower rate by paying an up-front fee of one or two discount points -- a percentage of the loan amount. For instance, you may be offered an 8% rate with no points, 7.7% with one point and 7.6% with two points. How do you decide which is best for you? By figuring out how long you plan to stay in your home. Let's say you can get a $100,000 fixed-rate 30-year mortgage at the terms described above. The monthly payment on the no-point loan would be $734; on the two-point loan, it would be $706. Saving $28 a month, it would take you 73 months to recoup the $2,000 in points. Thus paying points to get the lower rate would make sense if you planned to stay in the home for at least 73 months. Adjustable vs. fixed rate. Again, the main factor in your decision should be how long you plan to stay put: If it's less than five years, the ARM will almost certainly be a better deal. The rate on most ARMs cannot increase more than two percentage points a year and six points over the life of the loan. So even if your rate jumped by the maximum each year, a 4% ARM would cost you less than a 7.3% fixed-rate mortgage over periods of four years or less. Fifteen-year vs. 30-year mortgages. The interest rates on 15-year mortgages are usually a quarter to a half percentage point lower than those on comparable 30-year loans, since the shorter term slightly reduces the lender's risk. And because you pay off your loan more quickly, you save even more interest costs. The downside, of course: higher monthly payments on the shorter loan. And it isn't a given that you should go for the interest savings if you can afford the higher payments. Bill Brennan, a partner at Ernst & Young in Washington, D.C., points out that if you invest the monthly cash freed up by a 30-year loan, your investment earnings may more than offset the extra interest costs. . Home-equity loans vs. ''cash-out refis.'' If you want to raise a chunk of cash right away, consider a cash-out refi -- which means trading in your current mortgage for a larger one and pocketing the extra loot. The catch here is that with a cash-out refi, most lenders will not let you borrow more than 70% to 75% of the value of your home, so if you have a high mortgage already or the value of your home has declined, you may not qualify. You might still be able to raise cash, however, by taking out a home-equity loan. Home-equity lenders will generally let you borrow as much as 80% of the value of your home.

AUTO LOANS Credit unions usually offer the best deals on car loans; historically, their average rate has been about half a percentage point below the banks' and a full point below auto finance companies'. Credit unions are not open to the general public, however. To find one that you may be eligible to join, call the Credit Union National Association at 800-358-5710. When dealing with a bank, you may be able to knock a quarter to a half percentage point off the car-loan rate if you have an existing account or if you agree to open one. Rates have fallen so much that it may even make sense to refinance a car loan. For example, if you have at least two years of payments remaining on a four-year, $16,000 loan, and if you can cut your rate by at least two percentage points, you'll profit from a refinancing, according to Hugo Ottolenghi, editorial director of Bank Rate Monitor, a financial publisher in North Palm Beach, Fla. Only a few banks actively promote car-loan refinancings, and others do not offer them at all. So figure on having to shop around for a willing lender.

CREDIT CARDS Even credit-card companies have joined the march to reduce rates. But be warned: Qualifying for the lowest-rate cards can be tougher than getting picked for Attorney General. The dozen or so issuers that charge less than 12% reject nine of every 10 applicants. Among their requirements: You must have a pristine credit history and a low level of debt. For a rundown of other criteria, consult Exactly How to Get a Low-Interest-Rate Credit Card ($5 from Bankcard Holders of America; 800-553-8025). You may be able to lower your rate without switching cards. Many big issuers offer special deals to customers who have good credit records, spend a lot of money or simply ask for a rate reduction. The nation's top 10 issuers charge - an average rate of 18.1%. But thanks to cut-rate offers to their best customers, half their 106 million cardholders now pay less than 16.5%. The money you save by switching to a lower-rate card won't make you rich, but it will buy a few groceries. If you're paying 18% on the national average credit-card balance of $2,500, switching to a 15% rate will save you $75 a year. A card with a 12% rate will save you $150. Of course, the smartest credit move, as always, is to pay off your balance in full. Even with today's low rates, ridding yourself of credit-card debt is one of the best no-risk investments you can make.