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What Is Home Equity, And How Can You Use It?

7-Minute Read
Published on September 8, 2023
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One of the benefits of buying a home is that you can build equity and use it to pay for a major kitchen remodel, eliminate your high-interest credit card debt or even help cover your children’s college tuition.

But what exactly is equity, and how can you use it? Here’s a quick guide to how home equity works and why it’s so valuable.

What Is Home Equity?

Equity is the difference between what you owe on your mortgage and what your home is currently worth. If you owe $150,000 on your mortgage loan and your home is worth $200,000, you have $50,000 of equity in your home.

Your equity can increase in two ways. As you pay down your mortgage, the amount of equity in your home will rise. Your equity will also increase if the value of your home jumps. Your equity can fall, too, if your home’s value drops at a rate faster than the speed at which you’re paying down the current mortgage balance.

How Does Home Equity Work?

Here’s an example of how equity can change over time.

Say you buy a house for $200,000. You might come up with a down payment of 10% of your home’s purchase price – which would be $20,000. Your lender will then provide you with a mortgage loan of $180,000. If the home is worth that $200,000 sales price, you now have $20,000 in equity, or $200,000 minus $180,000.

Jump ahead 2 years. You’ve been making your mortgage payments on time, and you may now owe $170,000 on your mortgage. Maybe your home’s value has jumped during this time to $210,000. Now, you have $40,000 in equity, or $210,000 minus $170,000.

Your home’s value could work against you, too. Say you’ve paid down your mortgage loan to that same $170,000, but your home’s value has actually dipped to $195,000. Now you have $25,000 in equity, or $195,000 minus $170,000.

To calculate your equity at any given time, you’ll need to know the value of your home. Only a home appraisal can determine what your home is worth in today’s market. You can also estimate your home’s value by looking at comparable home sales in your area or by checking with online real estate listings that provide home value estimates.

Just remember that these estimates aren’t always accurate and exist just to give you a rough idea of your home’s current worth.

How To Build Home Equity

Fortunately, there are a number of ways you can build equity in your home.

Make A Big Down Payment

The fastest way to build equity is to make a large down payment. The bigger your down payment, the more equity you’ll immediately have in your home.

Say you buy a home for $180,000. If you put down $5,000, you’ll owe $175,000 on your mortgage. That leaves you with $5,000 in equity. If you put down $20,000, you’ll owe $160,000 on a home worth $180,000. That $20,000 in equity is far more impressive than $5,000.

Figuring out how much you can use toward your down payment is a big step in understanding how you’ll build equity in your home. Getting preapproved for a mortgage before you make an offer will help you understand how much of your savings you’ll need to use toward your down payment.

Focus On Paying Off Your Mortgage

A portion of each mortgage payment you make will go toward the principal balance of your home loan. The rest will usually go toward paying interest, property taxes and homeowners insurance.

When you first start making your mortgage payments, a smaller amount will go toward reducing your principal balance, and more will go toward your interest. The good news is that the longer you have your mortgage, the more money will go toward reducing your principal balance and building your equity.

But it’s important to be aware that some loans don’t operate this way. If you take out an interest-only or other non-amortizing mortgage, you won’t reduce your principal balance or build equity. Instead, your payments will only go toward your interest, property taxes and insurance. Eventually, you’ll need to pay a lump sum to pay off your loan principal balance.

Pay More Than The Minimum

If you want to build equity more quickly, you can always pay more than your required monthly payment.

Making an extra payment each year on your own through biweekly payments or paying an extra $100 a month can help you chip away at your loan’s principal balance and help increase your home equity at a faster rate.

Stay In Your Home 5 Years Or More

You’ll build equity if your home’s market value increases. Of course, no home is guaranteed to see its value jump, but you’ll increase your odds if you stay in your residence for a greater number of years.

Plan on staying in your home for 5 years or more if you want to see its value jump enough to give you an equity boost.

Renovate And Add Curb Appeal

You can help boost your home’s value by adding an extra bedroom, renovating an outdated kitchen or adding a bathroom to the primary bedroom. Investing in landscaping and adding curb appeal to your home can help, too.

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How To Use Home Equity

Equity is an important financial tool and one of the greatest financial benefits of owning a home.

You can tap into this equity when you sell your current home and move up to a larger, more expensive one. You can also use that equity to pay for home improvements, help consolidate other debts or plan for your retirement.

Using Equity To Buy A New Home

Perhaps you've lived in your home for 7, 8 or 9 years. Maybe your family continues to grow. Or maybe your job is taking you to a new city. Whatever the reason, you're ready to sell your home and find a new place to live. Equity can be your friend as you make this move.

Let’s say the home you’re selling is worth $220,000, and you've built $70,000 worth of equity in it. If you sell your home for what it’s worth, you'll leave the closing table with a profit. You probably won’t get the entire $70,000 in equity you’ve built because of expenses like your real estate agent’s commission, lender origination fees and other closing costs. But you’ll end up with a solid profit you can turn around and use for a large down payment on your next home.

With this big down payment, you may be able to get into a larger, more expensive home because your mortgage will be smaller. And with a smaller mortgage, your monthly payment will be lower, too.

Using Equity For Your Retirement

If you're 62 or older and considering retirement, you may explore a reverse mortgage1. With a reverse mortgage, you’ll stop making your monthly mortgage payments and will instead receive money based on the equity in your home. The loan amount you can borrow depends on your age, how much equity you have in your home and current interest rates.

You can elect to receive your proceeds in one lump sum, regular monthly payments or as a line of credit. Any combination of the three payment types is also possible. And you won't pay back your loan unless you sell your home, move out for more than 6 months out of a year or pass away. If you sell the property, you can use the profits from your home sale to pay back the loan.

If you pass away, your heirs have options. They can choose to sell the home (keeping any profits after the loan is paid off), refinance into a regular forward mortgage or walk away and let the lender sell the home. A reverse mortgage is a nonrecourse loan, meaning your heirs won’t be forced to pay back anything more than what they can get from the sale of the home.

Options For Borrowing Against Home Equity

There are three main ways you can borrow against your home’s equity: a home equity loan, a home equity line of credit (HELOC) or a cash-out refinance.

Cash-Out Refinance

With a cash-out refinance, you refinance for more than what you owe on your mortgage. You receive this extra money in cash that you can use however you want.

Say you owe $180,000 on your mortgage. You can refinance for $220,000 and then take the extra $40,000 in cash. You will repay the $220,000 total in monthly payments with interest. How much extra you can include in your cash-out refinance depends on the equity in your home.

With a cash-out refinance, you’ll borrow against the equity in your home rather than relying on your credit. This can give you access to greater funds, typically with lower interest rates than other types of financing. You typically have to leave at least 20% equity in your home after your cash-out refinance, so be sure you have enough equity to accomplish your goals. And once you refinance, you’ll continue to have a single mortgage.

Home Equity Loan

While a cash-out refinance loan effectively replaces your original mortgage, a home equity loan works like a second mortgage.

Say you have $50,000 in equity. You might qualify for a home equity loan of $40,000. Once the loan closes, your lender will lend this $40,000 in a single payment. You can use this money however you want. Afterward, you pay this fixed-rate loan back in regular monthly installments with interest while continuing to make your monthly payments on your original mortgage.

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Home Equity Line Of Credit

Better known as a HELOC, a home equity line of credit is more like a credit card, but the credit limit is tied to the equity in your home.

If you have $40,000 in equity, you might qualify for a HELOC with a maximum spending limit of $30,000. This means you can borrow up to $30,000 during the draw period – but no more. As with a credit card, you only pay back what you borrow. So, if you borrow $20,000 for a kitchen renovation and the HELOC’s repayment period begins, that $20,000 is all you pay back, not the entire $30,000.

Home Equity FAQs

Learn more about using your home equity with answers to these commonly asked questions.

Is it a good idea to use a home equity loan?

Using equity can be a smart way to borrow money because home equity loans can have lower interest rates. If you turned to personal loans or credit cards, the interest you’d pay on the borrowed money could be far higher.

However, there is a potential danger to home equity lending. Your lender can seize your home through foreclosure if you fail to make on-time payments. This can’t happen when you take out a personal loan or charge purchases on your credit cards.

How do I get a home equity loan or HELOC?

Many traditional banks, credit unions and online lenders offer home equity loans and HELOCs. Eligibility requirements can vary between financial institutions, but you’ll need to make sure you have enough equity, a decent credit score and a sufficiently low debt-to-income (DTI) ratio to qualify.

Can I use my home equity for anything?

Technically, you have the flexibility to use a home equity loan or HELOC for anything. The funds you receive can be used for a wide variety of purposes, including paying off credit cards, funding home improvement projects or purchasing a vehicle. However, this doesn’t mean home equity lending is the best financing option for everyone. Sometimes, it may make more sense to use a different type of loan or wait until you have enough equity to borrow against.

The Bottom Line

Understanding how equity works is an essential step in preparing to buy a new home or refinancing your current mortgage. By leveraging the equity you build in your home, you can consolidate debt, pay for renovations or make updates that increase your home’s property value in the long run.

However, it’s important to explore your options and choose the right type of home equity financing for your needs. Before deciding on any of these home equity choices, speak with a mortgage professional who can help you understand the pros and cons of each option.

If you’re ready to use your home equity, see if a home equity loan or a cash-out refinance might be right for you. Get started online today!

1 Homeowners are still responsible for taxes, insurance and maintenance.

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Andrew Dehan

Andrew Dehan is a former writer for Rocket Mortgage. He writes about real estate and homeownership. He is also a published poet, musician and nature-lover. He lives in metro Detroit with his wife, two children and dogs.