What Are Fixed Rate Mortgages and How Do They Work?

By Jamie Cattanach · October 06, 2022 · 7 minute read

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What Are Fixed Rate Mortgages and How Do They Work?

Buying a house is one of life’s most exciting milestones — not to mention one of the biggest purchases. With the median U.S. home sale price sitting at $428,700 in mid-2022, most people acquire a fixed-rate or adjustable-rate mortgage to fund their new domicile.

But if you’re preparing to take the homeownership plunge, how do you know which kind of loan is right for you and what the most important features are?

This article can help. We’ll introduce you to the wide (and slightly wacky) world of mortgages. You’ll learn:

•   What’s the definition of a fixed-rate mortgage?

•   Pros and cons of fixed-rate mortgages.

•   When is a fixed-rate mortgage the right choice?

What Is a Fixed-Rate Mortgage?

A fixed-rate mortgage is, as its name suggests, a mortgage loan whose interest rate is fixed across the lifetime of the loan. The rate is stated at the time the documents are signed and does not change at any point throughout the loan term (provided that all payments are made in full and on time). Fixed-rate mortgage terms can be 10, 15, 20, or 30 years. A mortgage broker or online calculator can help you work through the different monthly payments for each and see what best suits your situation.

Fixed-Rate Mortgages vs Adjustable-Rate Mortgages

If you’re deciding between a fixed-rate vs. adjustable-rate mortgage (or ARM), the difference is that with ARM, the interest rate can move up or down according to the market. The rate is calculated according to the index and margin — the index is a benchmark interest rate based on market conditions at large, and the margin is a number set by the lender when the loan is applied for.

You may see options like a 5/1 ARM, which means the rate is set for the first five years of the loan and then adjusts annually after that.

Long story short: A fixed-rate mortgage offers you a predictable interest rate and monthly payment, whereas an adjustable-rate mortgage can shift over the course of the loan term according to external factors, like inflation affecting the APR.

It is, however, important to understand that your total monthly housing bill can still change, even with a fixed-rate mortgage, if, for example, your property taxes or homeowners insurance rates change or if you miss several payments.

Types of Fixed-Rate Mortgages

There are a few variables to fixed-rate mortgages.

•   Conventional Loans: Conventional fixed-rate mortgages are offered by banks, credit unions, and other lending institutions. They typically have stringent requirements about credit score and debt-to-income ratio (or DTI) that an applicant must meet.

•   Government-Insured Loans: FHA, USDA, VA: Government-insured loans, such as FHA, USDA, and VA mortgages (more on these below), tend to have less tough requirements and target certain kinds of homebuyers, like those with lower income, in the military (past or present), and living in rural areas. They may offer no or low down payment and other perks, too.

•   Conforming and Non-Conforming Loans: Mortgages can also be considered “conforming” or “nonconforming,” depending on whether or not they meet the guidelines established by the Federal Housing Finance Agency (commonly known as Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac). In 2022, the conforming loan limit for one-unit properties was $647,200, or $970,800 in areas deemed “high cost.”

Of course, homes costlier than these limits exist, and it is possible to take out mortgage to buy one. Those loans are considered “nonconforming” and are also sometimes called “jumbo loans.”

Because the loans are so large, eligibility requirements tend to be more stringent, with borrowers usually needing a down payment well above 3%, cash in the bank, and a solid credit score.

Example of a Fixed-Rate Mortgage

Here’s an example of how a fixed-rate mortgage might work. If you buy a house for $428,700 with 20% down and take out a 30-year fixed-rate home loan. Your mortgage principal will be $342,960, and at a rate of 6.72% with a solid credit score of 740+, your monthly payment (not including any taxes or insurance) will be $2,217.

As you make your loan payments, at first most of the money goes towards interest. This is because the interest is “front-loaded,” to use the industry lingo. Perhaps 90% of your payment will be paying interest and 10% will be applied to the principal. As you get to the end of your loan payment, these figures may well be reversed. That is, 10% of the $2,217 goes towards interest and 90% towards the principal.

Pros and Cons of Fixed-Rate Mortgages

Fixed-rate mortgages are more common among homebuyers because of the predictability they offer. Still, there are both drawbacks and benefits to pursuing this kind of home loan.

Benefits of Fixed-Rate Mortgages

Because homebuyers who take out fixed-rate mortgages will know their rates at the time they sign on the dotted line, these loans provide long-term predictability and stability — which can help people who need to fit their housing expenses into a tight budget.

Fixed-interest mortgages, and other types of fixed-rate loans, shield borrowers from potentially high interest rates if the market fluctuates in such a way that the index significantly rises.

Drawbacks of Fixed-Rate Mortgages

Although fixed-rate mortgages are more predictable over time, they tend to have higher interest rates than ARMs — at least at first. Sometimes an ARM might have a lower interest rate but only for a relatively brief introductory period, after which the rate will be adjusted.

If the index rate falls in the future, homebuyers might end up paying more in interest than they would have with an ARM.

Because the principal balance is generally chipped away at more slowly with a fixed-interest rate mortgage than with an ARM, it can take longer for borrowers to build equity in their home.

Because lenders risk losing money on fixed-interest mortgages if index interest rates go up, these loans can be harder to qualify for than their adjustable-rate counterparts.

How to Calculate Fixed-Rate Mortgage Payments

Now that you know what a fixed-rate mortgage is and how it functions, you might wonder how much it could cost you. If you are curious about what fixed-rate mortgage payments would look like at different home price points, for varying terms, you can break out pencil and paper or your phone’s calculator function and do the math.

However, this gets fairly complicated because it’s not a matter of simple interest (and basic multiplication and division) when you try to replicate how banks come up with their numbers. You’ll need to get involved in calculating how the loan amortizes (gets paid down) over time.

Unless you’re a math major, your best option may be to use an online mortgage payment calculator. With a few simple pieces of data and clicks, you’ll get the numbers you need.

When Is a Fixed-Rate Mortgage the Right Choice?

Fixed-rate mortgages offer long-term predictability, which can be a must for those who need budget stability.

Furthermore, fixed interest rates can be beneficial for those who plan to stay in their home for a longer period of time — say, at least seven to 10 years.

Here’s why: Homebuyers are less likely to miss out on building home equity, as they might if they sold the house after making higher interest payments for a shorter period of time.

Finally, if homebuyers suspect that interest rates are about to rise, a fixed-interest loan can be a good way to protect themselves from those increasing rates over time.

That said, there are some instances in which an ARM may be a better choice. If a homebuyer is planning to sell in a short amount of time, for example, the low introductory interest rate on an adjustable-interest loan could save them money. You’ll have sold the property before the rate can tick upward.

💡 Recommended: Guide for First-Time Homebuyers

The Takeaway

When you’re in the market for a home, shopping for the right loan is almost as important as shopping for the house itself.

Although there are many mortgage lenders to choose from, including government-insured options, SoFi® offers competitive rates on conventional, fixed-rate mortgages with terms ranging from 10 to 30 years.

SoFi® offers mortgage loans with a down payment as low as 3% for qualifying first-time homebuyers, and a Mortgage Loan Officer can guide you through what can be a complicated process. Members can rest assured that questions they have will be answered by professionals who are just a phone call away.

Ready to learn your rate? Check out SoFi fixed-interest home loans today.

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