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Loan Modification vs Loan Refinancing: The Differences and Similarities

By Janet Schaaf · January 19, 2024 · 11 minute read

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Loan Modification vs Loan Refinancing: The Differences and Similarities

Both a loan modification and a loan refinance can lower your monthly payments and help you save money. However, they are not the same thing. Depending on your circumstances, one strategy will make more sense than the other.

If you’re behind on your mortgage payments due to a financial hardship, for example, you might seek out a loan modification. A modification alters the terms of your current loan and can help you avoid default or foreclosure.

If, on the other hand, you’re up to date on your loan payments and looking to save money, you might opt to refinance. This involves taking out a new loan (ideally with better rates and terms) and using it to pay off your existing loan.

Here’s a closer look at loan modification vs. refinance, how each lending option works, and when to choose one or the other.

What Is a Loan Modification?

A loan modification changes the terms of a loan to make the monthly payments more affordable. It’s a strategy that most commonly comes into play with mortgages. A home loan modification is a change in the way the home mortgage loan is structured, primarily to provide some financial relief for struggling homeowners.

Unlike refinancing a mortgage, which pays off the current home loan and replaces it with a new one, a loan modification changes the terms and conditions of the current home loan. These changes might include:

•   A new repayment timetable. A loan modification may extend the term of the loan, allowing the borrower to have more time to pay off the loan.

•   A lower interest rate. Loan modifications may allow borrowers to lower the interest rates on an existing loan. A lower interest rate can reduce a borrower’s monthly payment.

•   Switching from an adjustable rate to a fixed rate. If you currently have an adjustable-rate loan, a loan modification might allow you to change it to a fixed-rate loan. A fixed-rate loan may be easier to manage, since it offers consistent monthly payments over the life of the loan.

A loan modification can be hard to qualify for, as lenders are under no obligation to change the terms and conditions of a loan, even if the borrower is behind on payments. A lender will typically request documents to show financial hardship, such as hardship letters, bank statements, tax returns, and proof of income.

While loan modifications are most common for secured loans, like home mortgages, it’s also possible to get student loan modifications and even personal loan modifications.


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What Is Refinancing a Loan?

A loan refinance doesn’t just restructure the terms of an existing loan — it replaces the current loan with a new loan that typically has a different interest rate, a longer or shorter term, or both. You’ll need to apply for a new loan, typically with a new lender. Once approved, you use the new loan to pay off the old loan. Moving forward, you only make payments on the new loan.

Refinancing a loan can make sense if you can:

•   Qualify for a lower interest rate. The classic reason to refi any type of loan is to lower your interest rate. With home loans, however, you’ll want to consider fees and closing costs involved in a mortgage refinance, since they can eat into any savings you might get with the lower rate.

•   Extend the repayment terms. Having a longer period of time to pay off a loan generally lowers the monthly payment and can relieve a borrower’s financial stress. Just keep in mind that extending the term of a loan generally increases the amount of interest you pay, increasing the total cost of the loan.

•   Shorten the loan repayment time. While refinancing a loan to a shorter repayment term may increase the monthly loan payments, it can reduce the overall cost of the loan by allowing you to pay off the debt faster. This can result in a significant cost savings.

Recommended: What Are Personal Loans Used For?

Refinance vs Loan Modification: Pros and Cons

Loan refinance is typically something a borrower chooses to do, whereas loan modification is generally something a borrower needs to do, often as a last resort.

Here’s a look at the pros and cons of each option.

Loan Modification

Refinancing

Pros

Cons

Pros

Cons

Avoid loan default and foreclosure Could negatively impact credit May be able to lower interest rate You’ll need solid credit and income
Lower your monthly payment Cash out is not an option May be able to shorten or lengthen your loan term Closing costs may lower overall savings
Avoid closing costs Lenders not required to grant modification May be able to turn home equity into cash You could reset the clock on your loan

Benefits of Loan Modification

While a loan modification is rarely a borrower’s first choice, it comes with some advantages. Here are a few to consider.

•   Avoid default and foreclosure. Getting a loan modification can help you avoid defaulting on your mortgage and potentially losing your home as a result of missing mortgage payments.

•   Change the loan’s terms. It may be possible to increase the length of your loan, which would lower your monthly payment. Or, if the original interest rate was variable, you might be able to switch to a fixed rate, which could result in savings over the life of the loan.

•   Avoid closing costs. Unlike a loan refinance, a loan modification allows you to keep the same loan. This helps you avoid having to pay closing costs (or other fees) that come with getting a new loan.

Drawbacks of Loan Modification

Since loan modification is generally an effort to prevent foreclosure on the borrower’s home, there are some drawbacks to be aware of.

•   It could have a negative effect on your credit. A loan modification on a credit report is typically a negative entry and could lower your credit score. However, having a foreclosure — or even missed payments — can be more detrimental to a person’s overall creditworthiness.

•   Tapping home equity for cash is not an option. Unlike refinancing, a loan modification cannot be used to tap home equity for an extra lump sum of cash (called a cash-out refi). If your monthly payments are lower after modification, though, you may have more funds to pay other expenses each month.

•   There is a hardship requirement. It’s typically necessary to prove financial hardship to qualify for loan modification. Lenders may want to see that your extenuating financial circumstances are involuntary and that you’ve made an effort to address them, or have a plan to do so, before considering loan modification.

Recommended: Guide to Mortgage Relief Programs

Benefits of Refinancing a Loan

For borrowers with a strong financial foundation, refinancing a mortgage or other type of loan comes with a number of benefits. Here are some to consider.

•   You may be able to get a lower interest rate. If your credit and income is strong, you may be able to qualify for an interest rate that is lower than your current loan, which could mean a savings over the life of the loan.

•   You may be able to shorten or extend the term of the loan. A shorter loan term can mean higher monthly payments but is likely to result in an overall savings. A longer loan term generally means lower monthly payments, but may increase your costs.

•   You may be able to pull cash out of your home. If you opt for a cash-out refinance, you can turn some of your equity in your home into cash that you can use however you want. With this type of refinance, the new loan is for a greater amount than what is owed, the old loan is paid off, and the excess cash can be used for things like home renovations or credit card consolidation.


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Drawbacks of Refinancing a Loan

Refinancing a loan also comes with some disadvantages. Here are some to keep in mind.

•   You’ll need strong credit and income. Lenders who offer refinancing typically want to see that you are in a solid financial position before they issue you a new loan. If your situation has improved since you originally financed, you could qualify for better rates and terms.

•   Closing costs can be steep. When refinancing a mortgage, you typically need to pay closing costs. Before choosing a mortgage refi, you’ll want to look closely at any closing costs a lender charges, and whether those costs are paid in cash or rolled into the new mortgage loan. Consider how quickly you’ll be able to recoup those costs to determine if the refinance is worth it.

•   You could set yourself back on loan payoff. When you refinance a loan, you can choose a new loan term. If you’re already five years into a 30-year mortgage and you refinance for a new 30-year loan, for example, you’ll be in debt five years longer than you originally planned. And if you don’t get a lower interest rate, extending your term can increase your costs.

Is It Better to Refinance or Get a Loan Modification?

It all depends on your situation. If you have solid credit and are current on your loan payments, you’ll likely want to choose refinancing over loan modification. To qualify for a refinance, you’ll need to have a loan in good standing and prove that you make enough money to absorb the new payments.

If you’re behind on your loan payments and trying to avoid negative consequences (like loan default or foreclosure on your home), your best option is likely going to be loan modification. Provided the lender is willing, you may be able to change the rate or terms of your loan to make repayment more manageable. This may be more agreeable to a lender than having to take expensive legal action against you.

Recommended: 11 Types of Personal Loans & Their Differences

Alternatives to Refinancing and Loan Modification

If you’re having trouble making your mortgage payments or just looking for a way to save money on a debt, here are some other options to consider besides refinancing and loan modification.

Mortgage Forbearance

For borrowers facing short-term financial challenges, a mortgage forbearance may be an option to consider.

Lenders may grant a term of forbearance — typically three to six months, with the possibility of extending the term — during which the borrower doesn’t make loan payments or makes reduced payments. During that time, the lender also agrees not to pursue foreclosure.

As with a loan modification, proof of hardship is typically required. A lender’s definition of hardship may include divorce, job loss, natural disasters, costs associated with medical emergencies, and more.

During a period of forbearance, interest will continue to accrue, and the borrower will still be responsible for expenses such as homeowners insurance and property taxes.

At the end of the forbearance period, the borrower may have to repay any missed payments in addition to accrued interest. Some lenders may work with the borrower to set up a repayment plan rather than requiring one lump repayment.

Mortgage Recasting

With a mortgage recast, you make a lump sum payment toward the principal balance of the loan. The lender will then recast, or re-amortize, your remaining loan repayment schedule. Since the principal amount is smaller after the lump-sum payment is made, each monthly payment for the remaining life of the loan will be smaller, even though your interest rate and term remain the same.

Making Extra Principal Payments

With any type of loan, you may be able to lower your borrowing costs by occasionally (or regularly) making extra payments towards principal. This can help you pay back what you borrowed ahead of schedule and reduce your costs.

Before you prepay any type of loan, however, you’ll want to make sure the lender does not charge a prepayment penalty, since that might wipe out any savings. You’ll also want to make sure that the lender applies any extra payments you make directly towards principal (and not towards future monthly payments).

The Takeaway

Loan modification vs loan refinancing…which one wins?

It depends on your financial situation. If you’re dealing with financial challenges and at risk of home foreclosure, you may want to look into a loan modification, which could be easier to qualify for than loan refinancing.

If you’re interested in getting a lower interest rate or lowering your monthly debt payment, refinancing likely makes more sense. A refinance may also make sense if you’re looking to tap your home equity to access extra cash. With a cash-out refi, you replace your current mortgage with a new, larger loan and receive the excess amount in cash.

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FAQ

What are the disadvantages of loan modification?

A loan modification typically comes with a hardship requirement. A lender may ask to see proof that your financial circumstances are involuntary and that you’ve made an effort to address them before considering loan modification.

A loan modification can also have a temporary negative effect on your credit.

Is a loan modification bad for your credit?

A lender may report a loan modification to the credit bureaus as a type of settlement or adjustment to the loan’s terms, which could negatively impact on your credit. However, the effect will likely be less (and shorter in duration) than the impact a series of late or missed payments or a foreclosure on your home would have.


Photo credit: iStock/AlexSecret

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