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How to get rid of home-equity loan headaches

How to get rid of home-equity loan headaches
Tapping your home's equity is risky if you don't have a plan to repay the borrowing. (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

Dear Liz: We have taken several withdrawals from our home equity line of credit. Now the balance is close to $100,000. It’s the interest-only type. We don’t know how to pay off this amount systematically. Can you help?

Answer: As you’ve discovered, it’s not a good idea to pledge your home as collateral when you don’t know how you’ll pay off the debt. Home equity lines of credit can be an inexpensive way to borrow initially, but the interest-only period doesn’t last forever and eventually your payments will get a lot more expensive.

Many homeowners who tapped their equity before the financial crisis are discovering this fact — and some risk losing their homes. The initial “draw” period where you pay only interest typically lasts 10 years. After that, you can’t make further withdrawals and you’re expected to pay both interest and principal over the next 20 years. Your payments may jump 50% or more, depending on prevailing interest rates.

A better way to use HELOCs is for short-term borrowing that’s paid off well before the draw period expires. If you can increase your current payments to do that, you should.

If you can’t make pay more than your minimum, though, you’ll need to explore other alternatives. You may be able to arrange a cash-out refinance that combines the HELOC balance with your current mortgage and gives you 30 years to pay it off. If not, you can make an appointment with a housing counselor (you can get referrals at www.hud.gov) to see what options may be available to you as a distressed borrower. If you can’t restructure the debt, a short sale or a deed-in-lieu of foreclosure may be a better option than letting the lender take your home.

Getting through to Social Security

Dear Liz: I read your article about checking your Social Security earnings record and benefits. I tried to set up an account with the Social Security Administration to track my retirement benefits (I turn 65 in December). Apparently the Social Security Administration will only text a required security code to a cellphone. I do have a cellphone but live in an area with very sketchy reception. I couldn't get a signal the day I tried to set up the account. Do you have any suggestions about an alternate source or method for accessing my benefits?

Answer: The Social Security Administration briefly required people to use a one-time code sent to their cellphones in order to set up an online account. You weren’t the only one who was having trouble with this new hurdle, and the administration has since dropped the requirement.

People still have the option of getting and using a code if they’re comfortable doing so. This so-called two factor authentication — which uses both something you know, such as a password, and something you have, such as a code sent to your phone — is a smart idea for any sensitive online account. Banks and brokerages should offer this option to further protect customers’ security, but many of them don’t.

By the way, the Social Security Administration allows only one account per Social Security number, so you’d be smart to continue setting up your account. That will prevent someone else from doing so and making unauthorized claims or changes.

Free credit score? Be careful

Dear Liz: As a financial planner, I am surprised you pointed someone in the direction of paying for a credit score. Your score can be accessed at several credit sites for free. Why would you want your readers to pay for something they could get free? 

Answer: As a financial planner, you should understand that “free” is a squishy concept.

Some sites do offer free credit scores in return for your private financial information, including your Social Security number. Most of these sites are committed to protecting your information — the credit bureaus they’re working with insist on that — but the sites may use your data to market financial products and services to you. As the saying goes, if something on the Internet is free, then the product being sold is you.

Many people are comfortable with that trade-off. Others aren’t. The other and perhaps more important reason to buy your credit scores from MyFico.com is that you’ll be getting numbers created from the same FICO formulas that most lenders use. The sites handing out free scores typically offer VantageScores, which is a FICO competitor. This particular reader wanted to see the auto FICO scores his lenders would use, and for that the best source is MyFico.com.

Liz Weston is a personal finance columnist for NerdWallet. Questions may be sent to her at 3940 Laurel Canyon, No. 238, Studio City, CA 91604, or by using the "Contact" form at asklizweston.com. Distributed by No More Red Inc.

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