Home Equity: What It Is, How It Works, and What It Can Be Used For

By Jamie Cattanach · January 10, 2024 · 4 minute read

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Home Equity: What It Is, How It Works, and What It Can Be Used For

There are many reasons to pursue homeownership, from obtaining a yard for your dog to painting the bathroom whatever darn color you want. But one of the biggest financial reasons to own your own home is to start building home equity.

Home equity is considered one of the most common and accessible ways to build wealth over time, thanks in large part to the appreciation of real estate over time. You can even leverage your home equity to take out loans and fund your retirement. But what, exactly, is home equity, and how does it work?

What Is Home Equity?

Home equity is the amount of your home value that you actually own. It’s calculated by subtracting your mortgage balance from the market value of your property.For example, if your home is worth $350,000, and you’ve paid enough toward your down payment and home loan that your mortgage balance is $250,000, you have $100,000 in home equity. (Keep in mind that the $350,000 value might not be what you initially purchase your home for — that figure may have increased over time, which is part of how equity is built!) Once you have home equity, you can borrow against it. If you sell the home, your equity is the amount of cash you will walk away with (minus any costs associated with the sale).

In short, home equity is pretty great to have. But how is it built?

First-time homebuyers can
prequalify for a SoFi mortgage loan,
with as little as 3% down.

Building Home Equity

Home equity is primarily built in two ways: paying down your mortgage and seeing the value of your home appreciate over time. Both of these can be nudged a bit to help you build equity faster. Here’s how.

Putting Down a Larger Down Payment

Many buyers, especially first-time homebuyers, take advantage of programs that allow small down payments — sometimes as little as 3% of the home purchase price. But when it comes to building equity, a higher down payment could help. The more you put down when you’re first purchasing your house, the more equity you have right out of the gate — and if you put down more than 20%, you’ll be able to avoid the additional cost of private mortgage insurance, commonly called PMI.

When calculating mortgages, you’ll also see that the higher the down payment you can afford, the lower your monthly mortgage bill. That said, substantial down payments can be prohibitive for many buyers, and it may make more sense to get in with a lower down payment and start building equity rather than waiting a long time to save up tens of thousands of dollars.

Paying Off Your Mortgage

If making a larger down payment isn’t possible, you might also be able to speed up your equity earnings — and save money on interest over time — by paying off a mortgage early. Of course, you’ll need to consult your mortgage documentation to ensure that your lender doesn’t charge a prepayment penalty, or if it does, that it would still be a cost-efficient decision to make. Only some lenders charge a prepayment penalty, and of those that do, only within the first few years (usually three to five).

Paying More Than the Minimum on Your Mortgage

If you can’t afford to pay off your mortgage early in its entirety all at once, you can chip away at the loan over time by making more than the minimum monthly payment. It’s a good idea to ensure that the additional funding is going directly toward your principal balance (the amount of money you borrowed in the first place). That way, you’re dialing down the amount of interest you’ll pay before it can even accrue.

Staying in Your Home for Five or More Years

Along with chipping away at the amount you owe, the other function that increases equity is allowing your home to appreciate. Although that rise in value isn’t guaranteed, if it’s going to happen, it takes time. Thus, staying in your home for a longer amount of time (at least five years) gives you a better chance at building enough equity for all the other costs of homeownership to be worth it.


Allowing your home to naturally increase in value over time is one thing, but you can also take matters into your own hands and help drive up the value by renovating or remodeling. (Not sure about renovations vs. remodels? Essentially, remodels are more extensive — and expensive.)

While even lower-cost renovations, like painting, can increase the home value a little, major repairs may have major costs associated with them. Sometimes, though, the equity increase you’d gain makes it worth going to the expense in the short term; home improvement loans can help make these efforts more accessible (but again, always look ahead to ensure that debt won’t eclipse the equity you’d stand to build).

💡 Quick Tip: A reverse mortgages, don’t require repayment until the borrower moves out or dies.

That said, it’s important to think through the pros and cons of reverse mortgages, as borrowing against your home equity comes with risk. (For example, if the loan total ends up being more than the value of the home, heirs might lose the house, or need to refinance, if they can’t pay off the reverse mortgage in full.)

Home Equity to Purchase a New Home

Even if you end up moving, your home equity value can be borrowed against to help purchase a new home. In fact, some people end up taking out home equity loans to purchase a second or investment home.

Borrowing Against Home Equity

Along with the above-mentioned ways to use home equity, there are many other equity home loan types that can be used to liquify the cash wrapped up in your home and make it spendable. Just be aware that these loans come with costs and risks. For example, if the housing market suddenly shifts and your home’s value decreases substantially, you may find yourself in a hole. In fact, if you can’t make the payments, you could even lose your home. Your home, after all, is the collateral for these loans.

Here are a few of the most common ways to borrow against your home equity:

•   A home equity loan offers a borrower a lump sum of cash up front in return for fixed payments on a regular basis throughout the life of the loan.

•   A home equity line of credit (HELOC), on the other hand, works kind of like a credit card: Those who take out HELOCs have the opportunity to tap into their equity and convert it to spendable cash as needed, up to a certain limit. Neither interest rates nor payments are usually fixed. Closing costs may be lower than those for a home equity loan, and sometimes waived entirely if you keep the credit line open for a number of years.

   💡 For more info on HELOCs, check out our Guide to Home Equity Lines of Credit.

•   With a cash-out refinance, a borrower takes out an entirely new mortgage while borrowing a portion of their existing home equity in cash. Closing costs are involved. (Deciding between different loan types can be dizzying. Look carefully at differences between home equity loans, HELOCs, and cash-out refinance options.)

💡 Quick Tip: If you refinance your mortgage and shorten your loan term, you could save a substantial amount in interest over the lifetime of the loan.

Calculating Home Equity

Phew! That’s a lot of information. To recap, here’s how to calculate your home equity:

Total home value – remaining mortgage balance = home equity

Keep in mind, again, that “home value” isn’t the same as “purchase price.” To know for sure what your home value is in the current market, you’d need an up-to-date appraisal, but you can use estimates from your favorite real estate site or agent.

The Takeaway

While nothing is a surefire ticket to wealth, building home equity is one of the most historically reliable ways to grow your net worth. And down the line, home equity can be leveraged for a variety of loans.

Looking for an affordable option for a home mortgage loan? SoFi can help: We offer low down payments (as little as 3% - 5%*) with our competitive and flexible home mortgage loans. Plus, applying is extra convenient: It's online, with access to one-on-one help.

SoFi Mortgages: simple, smart, and so affordable.

Photo credit: iStock/PC Photography

SoFi Loan Products
SoFi loans are originated by SoFi Bank, N.A., NMLS #696891 (Member FDIC). For additional product-specific legal and licensing information, see SoFi.com/legal. Equal Housing Lender.

SoFi Mortgages
Terms, conditions, and state restrictions apply. Not all products are available in all states. See SoFi.com/eligibility for more information.

*SoFi requires Private Mortgage Insurance (PMI) for conforming home loans with a loan-to-value (LTV) ratio greater than 80%. As little as 3% down payments are for qualifying first-time homebuyers only. 5% minimum applies to other borrowers. Other loan types may require different fees or insurance (e.g., VA funding fee, FHA Mortgage Insurance Premiums, etc.). Loan requirements may vary depending on your down payment amount, and minimum down payment varies by loan type.

²To obtain a home equity loan, SoFi Bank (NMLS #696891) may assist you obtaining a loan from Spring EQ (NMLS #1464945).

All loan terms, fees, and rates may vary based upon individual financial and personal circumstances and state.

You may discuss with your loan officer whether a SoFi Mortgage or a home equity loan from Spring EQ is appropriate. Please note that the SoFi member discount does not apply to Home Equity Loans or Lines of Credit brokered through SoFi. Terms and conditions will apply. Before you apply for a SoFi Mortgage, please note that not all products are offered in all states, and all loans are subject to eligibility restrictions and limitations, including requirements related to loan applicant’s credit, income, property, and loan amount. Minimum loan amount is $75,000. Lowest rates are reserved for the most creditworthy borrowers. Products, rates, benefits, terms, and conditions are subject to change without notice. Learn more at SoFi.com/eligibility-criteria.

SoFi Mortgages originated through SoFi Bank, N.A., NMLS #696891 (Member FDIC), (www.nmlsconsumeraccess.org). Equal Housing Lender. SoFi Bank, N.A. is currently NOT able to accept applications for refinance loans in NY.

In the event SoFi serves as broker to Spring EQ for your loan, SoFi will be paid a fee.

Financial Tips & Strategies: The tips provided on this website are of a general nature and do not take into account your specific objectives, financial situation, and needs. You should always consider their appropriateness given your own circumstances.


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