Rate Moves Last call for mortgage refinancers, debt consolidators or anyone looking for a low rate
By Cybele Weisser

(MONEY Magazine) – Last year, as 11 Fed rate cuts and a slowing economy pushed consumer-loan rates to their lowest levels in years, millions of Americans cashed in--refinancing mortgages, paying off credit-card balances with sub-7% home-equity lines and buying new cars with interest-free loans. This year, with mortgage rates already inching up in anticipation of a recovery, the Fed looking unlikely to cut more and 0% financing becoming scarce, the story is different.

Or is it? At an average rate of 7.1%, a 30-year fixed-rate mortgage is still cheap by any standard. And until the Federal Reserve starts raising rates--a fall event, at the earliest, contends Mark Zandi, chief economist at Economy.com--loans with rates tied to the prime (4.75% in late January) will remain bargains. "It's fair to say there will still be deals right through the summer," says Zandi. That said, there's no reason to be complacent--rates on consumer loans have nowhere to go but up. With that in mind, here are your best moves for five different borrowing needs.

Mortgage refinancing. After hitting 35-year lows last November, mortgage rates--which move with 10-year Treasuries--have since crept up on signs that the recession has nearly run its course. Even so, at today's average fixed rate of 7.1%, about one in 10 homeowners can profit from a refinancing, says Zandi. The candidates? Anyone with a fixed rate of 7.75% or more should calculate monthly savings and a break-even point, says Dan Gilbert, CEO of Quicken Loans. You can do so at our website, www.money.com, at www.hsh.com or at virtually any lender's site. If, for example, you are four years into a $200,000 30-year mortgage at 7.75%, you'd save $142 a month by refinancing at 7.1% (and you'd recover your $2,000 in closing costs within 15 months). Other refi candidates include borrowers who have cleaned up their credit since getting a mortgage and homeowners with a jumbo mortgage who've paid off enough of the loan to qualify for a lower-rate conforming loan (balances of up to $300,700).

Home buying. Interest rates should be no obstacle to buying a home this year. Fixed rates, while unlikely to fall, aren't expected to spike any time soon either. "Our forecast is for long-term rates to stay around 7.25% through the middle of the year," says Douglas Duncan, chief economist at the Mortgage Bankers Association.

What's more, another type of loan could make a comeback: the adjustable-rate mortgage (ARM). With fixed rates so low in 2001, only one in eight borrowers opted for an ARM. But because rates on these mortgages track the Fed funds rate, they've been rising more slowly than fixed rates in recent months. The average rate for a one-year ARM is now 5.3%, making the spread between adjustable- and 30-year fixed-rate mortgages the widest it's been since 1999. The closer this spread gets to two percentage points, says Keith Gumbinger, vice president at mortgage tracker HSH Associates, the stronger the argument for ARMs. Here's why. With a standard ARM, annual rate increases are capped at two percentage points, so you're guaranteed to save money the first year and, at worst, break even the second. The third year is "where the gamble comes in," he says. If you figure you'll be able to afford higher payments in three years, consider an ARM as fixed rates rise.

A third option is to split the difference with a hybrid mortgage, a loan that's fixed for a certain number of years and then adjusts annually. As with ARMs, the gap between hybrid ARM rates and fixed rates has been widening. Today the average rate on a 5/1 ARM, which has a fixed rate for five years and then turns into a traditional ARM for the remainder of its 30-year term, is 6.2%, almost a point below a 30-year fixed.

Tapping home equity. Last year, home-equity loans and lines of credit were all the rage, as homeowners found that tapping equity was a great way to raise cash, consolidate debts or establish an emergency fund in case of a layoff. The appeal still stands. All that's changing is the cost.

Interest rates on home-equity lines of credit (HELOCs), which are variable-rate loans linked to the prime, have fallen to an average of 5.5%--a tremendous deal, notes Gumbinger. But remember, with the prime close to or at bottom, HELOC payments will only get more expensive.

Rates on home-equity loans have been rising for six months and now average 8.3%, but you can lock in today's rate, making it the best choice for a large loan that you'll need several years to repay.

If you have ongoing credit needs--several small renovations, helping a relative from time to time--a line of credit is the way to go, even though your rate will likely rise later this year or next. And with up-front or nonuse fees the exception, lines of credit are great insurance against layoffs or unexpected expenses.

For an immediate credit need that you expect to pay off quickly, search for an introductory rate as low as 1.99% for four months--a deal that's rapidly becoming scarce. According to HSH, just 15% of HELOCs have intro deals. You can find the best deals on HELOCs at small lenders. At www.bankrate.com you can search for the best deals by region.

With rates rising, you may soon see hybrid products that let you lock in a fixed rate and retain the flexibility of a line of credit. Wells Fargo is testing such a loan in seven states and may roll it out nationwide later this year.

Buying a car. Normally, rates on new-car loans run two to three points above prime. But last fall, no lender could beat the 0% deals offered by Detroit car makers. Many 0% promotions ended early this year. In their place you'll find a choice of low-interest loans or rebates. General Motors, for example, is offering 5.9% financing or $2,002 cash back on most 2002 models; DaimlerChrysler's latest incentive package is a cash rebate of $500 to $2,000 or a loan of 3.9% to 5.9% on most Chrysler, Dodge and Jeep vehicles. In general, the less you need to borrow, the more likely you'll come out ahead by taking the rebate and arranging your own loan. A good tool for comparing options is the calculator at www.cars.com.

Cutting your credit-card rate. Card-holders didn't fully enjoy the interest-rate cuts of 2001--the average credit-card rate fell from 16.6% to 14.4%, according to CardWeb.com. Why the small drop? Many variable cards, whose rates are commonly tied to the prime, reached their minimum interest rate. Fixed-rate cards, which now account for just under half of all cards, change at the issuer's discretion.

In 2002, rates on both types of cards are nearly certain to rise. Even fixed-rate cards are no shelter. "The jockeying around to find a low-rate card is really only half the equation," says Greg McBride, an analyst at Bankrate.com. "The real thing to do is pay down debt."

If you have excellent credit, you should be able to beat the averages. Capital One (800-548-4593; www.capitalone.com), for example, offers a no-fee fixed-rate card charging 8.9% interest. For more card deals, see By the Numbers on page 129. An even better option for paying off a balance is a teaser rate, and here 0% deals are still around. First USA, for instance, offers a 0%-for-six-months deal. Just watch for balance transfer fees, which, at the typical 2% to 4% of the balance, can negate the interest savings. Check to see whether the teaser rate applies only to the transferred balance, not new purchases--and remember that once the teaser period ends, rates usually climb into the double digits. Still, "these cards can stop the interest clock," says CardWeb.com's Robert McKinley. "Mark your calendar and hop on for the free ride."