15-Year Fixed Mortgage vs. 30-Year Fixed Mortgage: The Pros and Cons

May 17, 2011 4 Comments »
15-Year Fixed Mortgage vs. 30-Year Fixed Mortgage: The Pros and Cons

Today’s mortgage match-up: “15-year fixed mortgage vs. 30-year fixed mortgage.”

It’s that time again, where I take a look at a pair of popular mortgage programs to determine which may better suit certain situations. As always, there is no one-size-fits-all solution because everyone is different and may have varying real estate and financial goals.

For example, it depends if we’re talking about a home purchase or a mortgage refinance. Additionally, for home buyers who can only muster a low down payment, a 30-year fixed-rate mortgage will likely be the only option from an affordability and qualifying standpoint.

That being said, let’s compare the 15-year fixed-rate mortgage to the 30-year fixed mortgage, two of the most commonly utilized home loan products available to homeowners today.

They are very similar to one another in the way they function (both offer fixed rates), but one is paid off in half the amount of time. That can amount to some serious cost differences and financial outcomes.

While it’s impossible to universally choose one over the other, we can certainly highlight some of the benefits and drawbacks of each.

15-Year Fixed Mortgages Aren’t Nearly as Popular

The 30-year fixed-rate mortgage is easily the most popular loan program available today. Around 70% of all mortgages are 30-year fixed products, whereas the percentage of mortgages that are 15-year fixed loans is roughly 15%.

Over time this number can fluctuate, but this should give you a good idea of how many borrowers go with a 30-year mortgage vs. 15-year mortgage.

If we drill down further, about 90% of purchase mortgages are 30-year fixed loans, and just about six percent are 15-year fixed loans. But why?

Well, the simplest answer is that the 30-year mortgage is cheaper, much cheaper than the 15-year, because you get twice as long to pay it off.

Most mortgages are based on a 30-year amortization, whether they are fixed or not (even mortgage ARMs), meaning they take 30 full years to pay off.

This lengthy mortgage term allows home buyers to purchase relatively expensive real estate without breaking the bank, even if they come in with a low down payment. It also means paying off your mortgage will take a long, long time…

Additionally, the 30-year fixed never adjusts for that entire duration, making it one of the most simple and straightforward home loan programs out there.

In short, it’s safe and easy to wrap one’s head around, not to mention affordable due to that long loan term, and as such very popular. This is why it’s heavily advertised and touted by most housing counselors and mortgage lenders alike.

With the 30-year, you can afford more house, which explains that 90% market share when it’s a home purchase.

Meanwhile, the 15-year fixed-rate market share is significantly higher on refinance mortgages because borrowers don’t want to restart the clock once they’ve already paid down their loan. Well, at least if you’re intent on paying off your mortgage at some point in this lifetime.

Despite the overwhelming popularity, there must be some drawbacks to the 30-year mortgage, right? Of course there are…

15-Year Mortgage Rates Are Lower

15-year mortgage rates

First and foremost, you pay a premium for a 30-year mortgage vs. a 15-year mortgage in the form of a higher interest rate, even though both offer fixed rates.

Put simply, because you get more time to pay off the mortgage, there is a cost associated. After all, mortgage lenders are agreeing to give you a fixed interest rate for double the amount of time, which is certainly a risk for them, especially if interest rates rise significantly during that period.

For that reason, you’ll find that 15-year mortgage rates cost quite a bit less than those on a 30-year loan product. In fact, at the time this was written, mortgage rates on the 30-year fixed averaged 4.63% according to Freddie Mac, while the 15-year fixed stood at 3.82%.

That’s a difference of 0.81%, which is certainly very significant and should not be overlooked. In general, you may find that 15-year mortgage rates are about 0.50% – 0.75% lower than 30-year fixed mortgage rates. But this spread can and will vary over time.

I charted 15-year fixed mortgage rates since 2000 using Freddie Mac annual averages, as seen above. Since that time, the lowest spread compared to the 30-year was 0.31% in 2007, and the highest spread was 0.88% in 2014.

In the year 2000, the 15-yr mortgage rate averaged 7.72%, while the 30-yr was a slightly higher 8.05%.

In 2016, these rates were 2.93% and 3.65%, respectively. So the 15-year has been enjoying a wider spread lately, though that could narrow over time.

But before you get ahead of yourself, know that the lower interest rate on the 15-year fixed-rate mortgage comes with a higher monthly mortgage payment because you have 15 fewer years to pay it off.

Monthly Payments Are Higher on 15-Year Mortgages

15-year fixed

If we consider a $200,000 loan amount, which isn’t necessarily that large, the monthly mortgage payment would be $432.52 higher on the 15-year mortgage because it’s paid off in half the amount of time.

So despite the lower interest rate on the 15-year fixed, the monthly payment is still significantly higher. Take a look at the numbers below, using those Freddie Mac average mortgage rates:

30-year fixed payment: $ 1,028.88 (for rate of 4.63%)
15-year fixed payment: $ 1,461.40 (for rate of 3.82%)

This means loan amounts might be limited for those who opt for the shorter term.

Okay, so we know the payment is a lot higher, But wait, and this is the biggie; you would pay $170,396.80 in interest on the 30-year mortgage over the full term, versus just $63,052.00 on the 15-year mortgage!

That’s more than $100,000 in interest saved over the duration of the loan if you went with the 15-year fixed as opposed to the 30-year mortgage. Pretty substantial, eh.

You’d also build home equity a lot faster, as each monthly payment would allocate much more money to the principal loan balance as opposed to interest.

But there’s another snag with the 15-year fixed option.  It’s harder to qualify for because you’ll be required to make a much larger payment each month, meaning your DTI ratio might be too high as a result.  So for some borrowers, the 15-year mortgage won’t even be an option.

Most Homeowners Hold Their Mortgage for Just 5-10 Years

Now obviously nobody wants to pay an additional $100,000 in interest, but who says you will?

Most homeowners don’t see their mortgages out to term, either because they refinance, prepay, or simply sell their property and move.

So who knows if you’ll actually benefit long-term? You may have a well-thought-out plan that falls to pieces in 2-3 years, and those larger monthly mortgage payments could come back to bite you if you don’t have adequate savings.

What if you need to move and your home has depreciated in value? Or what if you take a pay cut or lose your job? Those larger mortgage payments will be more difficult, if not impossible, to meet each month.

And perhaps your money is better served elsewhere, such as in the stock market or tied up in another investment, one that’s more liquid, which earns a better return.

Make 15-Year Fixed Sized Payments on a 30-Year Mortgage

Even if you’re determined to pay off your mortgage, you could go with a 30-year fixed and make larger payments each month, with the excess going toward the principal balance.

This flexibility would protect you in periods where money was tight, and still knock several years off your mortgage, assuming larger payments were made fairly regularly. And there are always biweekly mortgage payments as well, which you may not even notice leaving your bank account.

It’s also possible to utilize both loan programs at different times in your life. For example, you may start your mortgage journey with a 30-year loan, and later refinance your mortgage to a 15-year term to stay on track if your goal is to own your home free and clear.

In summary, mortgages are, ahem, a big deal, so make sure you compare plenty of scenarios and do lots of research (and math) before making a decision.

Most consumers don’t bother putting in much time for these mortgage basics, but planning now could mean far less headache and a lot more money in your bank account later.

Pros of 30-Year Fixed Mortgages

  • Lower monthly payment (more affordable)
  • Easier to qualify at a higher purchase price
  • Ability to buy “more house” with smaller payment
  • Can always make prepayments if wanted
  • Good for those looking to invest money elsewhere

Cons of 30-Year Fixed Mortgages

  • Higher interest rate
  • You pay a lot more interest
  • You build equity very slowly
  • If prices go down you could fall into an underwater quite easily
  • Harder to refinance with little equity
  • You won’t own your home outright for 30 years!

Pros of 15-Year Fixed Mortgages

  • Lower interest rate
  • Much less interest paid during loan term
  • Build home equity faster
  • Own your home free and clear in half the time
  • Good for those who are close to retirement and/or conservative investors

Cons of 15-Year Fixed Mortgages

  • Higher payment makes it harder to qualify
  • You may not be able to buy as much house
  • You may become house poor (all your money locked up in the house)
  • Could get a better return for your money elsewhere

Also see: 30-year fixed vs. ARM


4 Comments

  1. Colin Robertson December 20, 2016 at 8:51 pm -

    Gwen,

    Not sure why you’d have a balance on a 15-year mortgage for 18 years. Did you refinance at some point and restart the clock?

  2. Gwen December 19, 2016 at 7:15 am -

    We have a 15 year mortgage & we make all of our payments, most of the time we pay at least a hundred dollars more. We have been paying for 18 years & still owe a lot. We had a second mortgage but it was with a bank & that’s paid off. Why do I still owe over half of our mortgage?

  3. Bernard Campbell July 1, 2016 at 5:01 pm -

    I share the same feeling as the above writer. Wanting to refinance from 30-yr mortgage to 15-yr but only intended to work for another 7 years.

  4. Michelle August 9, 2015 at 12:52 pm -

    I was able to refinance my mortgage into a 15 yr. loan at 3.75% as of Aug. 2012. It sounded great at the time, but I have decided I’d like to retire from my job in a couple years when my retirement fund matures. Since my monthly payment went up slightly, my retirement pay will cover, but it will not leave me with much left over. I have been looking at refinancing back into a 30 yr fixed to lower my monthly payment, but I am really torn about doing this. I suppose I could get another job when I retire *sigh* I am extremely unhappy at my current job. I love my house and want to stay, but I don’t want to be cash poor either! Such a quandary!! Thanks for this article.

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