What Is a Mortgage?

mortgage definition

Mortgage Definition

Let’s start with the ultra basic: “What is a mortgage?”

You’ve undoubtedly heard the word “mortgage” thrown around a million times. In the literal sense, it is defined as a “death pledge” in the French language, meaning the mortgage is effectively terminated when paid off or the property is repossessed (foreclosed) if not paid as agreed.

A mortgage can be referred to in a variety of different ways, with the most common being a “home loan.” Some may refer to a mortgage as a “lien,” which represents a security interest by a lender on a piece of property. Whatever is left over from the original loan amount is referred to as the existing lien.

Others might refer to the mortgage as a trust deed, or deed of trust, which is a legal document that it used in some states to outline the terms of the agreement between the homeowner and the lender.

You can also use the word to describe the conveyance of property, which is the legal process of transferring ownership in real property from one owner to another.

How Mortgages Work

Regardless of the many terms, definitions, and variations, a mortgage is essentially an agreement between a bank and a borrower to lend money in exchange for a piece of property.  It’s a fairly simple concept.

Instead of paying for a home with cash, which most of us can’t manage, you take out a mortgage with a bank and repay it over a long period of time, typically 30 years.  The lengthy term allows payments to be affordable.

Bank/Mortgage Lender —> Mortgage —> Borrower/Homeowner

A bank, otherwise known as a mortgage lender, will loan you a specific amount of money that will need to be repaid in “X” amount of years at “Y” interest rate.

Generally, you must also provide a down payment for a portion of the sales price at the time of purchase, such as 5-20%.

Assuming you qualify for a mortgage, the bank will grant you a loan and you will go into contract with that bank and begin making regular monthly payments until your mortgage is paid in full or refinanced by another bank or lender.

The property acts as collateral in exchange for the mortgage. So if you don’t make your mortgage payments on time, the issuing bank has the right to take your home. This is known as foreclosure.

If you sell your home before the mortgage term ends, the proceeds of the sale will be used to pay off the remaining mortgage debt.

[How mortgage interest is calculated.]

There are four main types of mortgage transactions:

Purchase Money Mortgage
Rate and Term Refinance
Cash-out Refinance
Home Equity Line of Credit

While you’re here, you may also want to learn more about how refinancing works.

Most Mortgages Have 30-Year Terms

Most mortgages are due in full in 30-years and also based on a 30-year amortization. That is, the total loan amount, or lien(s) will need to be paid off in 30 years, or in 360 months.

Amortization refers to how the mortgage is paid off.  It is essentially the way your mortgage payments are distributed on a monthly basis, detailing how much interest and principal will be paid off each month for the duration of the mortgage term.

In the case of a 30-year fixed mortgage, the mortgage is paid off in equal amounts every month until the mortgage balance is zero.  At that point, you would have full ownership of the associated property.

[Why are mortgages mostly interest?]

The difference between the mortgage balance and the value of the property is known as home equity, which you can access via sale, refinance, or home equity line of credit.

Also note that there are other less common loan terms such as 15-year, 20-year, 40-year, and even 50-year loan programs. But for the sake of simplicity, let’s focus on the 30-year amortization type, which is far and away the most popular.

There Are Plenty of Mortgage Options Out There

When searching for a loan program, you will be presented with a variety of options from a six-month ARM to a 30-year fixed product.  Both are based on 30-year amortization, but they differ greatly in rate.

The 30-year fixed product is pretty clear.  It’s simply a fixed rate for the entire 30 years of the loan. It never changes, and the rate you pay the first month is also the rate you will pay the last month, or the 360th month to be exact.  Learn more about fixed-rate mortgages.

The six-month product is a bit more complicated. For the first six months, the interest rate will not change. But after those initial six months, the rate will become variable (adjustable), though it will still be based on a 30-year amortization. The loan program will be tied to a mortgage index, such as the LIBOR (London Interbank Offered Rate) and will also contain a margin agreed upon by the bank or lender.

When you combine the two, you will find your fully-indexed rate. The margin doesn’t adjust, but the index will do so on a daily basis, which will affect your monthly payment. Learn more about how adjustable-rate mortgages work.

If you’re looking for quick definitions to other mortgage-related terms, check out my mortgage glossary.  And if you’re not sure what mortgage to go with, see my article on which mortgage is right for me.


  1. Newman July 16, 2013 at 8:24 am -

    Thanks…now I finally know what a mortgage is. But seriously, there are some useful tidbits here too.

  2. Katie July 22, 2013 at 4:53 pm -

    Thanks for the basic run down. There are a lot of different names for a mortgage, such as lien and trust deed, so it’s helpful knowing they all basically refer to the same thing.

  3. Velda July 25, 2013 at 11:11 pm -

    Where should you get a mortgage? At your local bank or at a mortgage lender?

  4. Colin Robertson July 31, 2013 at 3:16 pm -

    There are a number of options, from your local bank to a credit union to a lender or a broker. See this post for more: http://www.thetruthaboutmortgage.com/how-to-get-a-mortgage/

  5. Tshepo Richard Rankoe August 8, 2013 at 1:21 am -

    It is so sad to see that sometimes we sign things we really do not have an idea about. I am so glad that I read this before my wife and I can sign anything for a house the bank is financing on our behalf

  6. Shayne March 5, 2014 at 9:46 pm -

    Good info for someone just looking to learn the basics!

  7. reba July 27, 2014 at 1:15 pm -

    i got a fha loan signed papers on friday today is sunday and monday will be 3 day the laon was more than the good faith and mortage not to high can i resend this type of loan

  8. Colin Robertson July 28, 2014 at 9:26 am -


    If the mortgage is on an owner-occupied refinance, you should have the ability to rescind if you wish. But maybe the bank will be willing to make things right as well.

  9. Colin Mills August 15, 2015 at 12:23 am -

    What they don’t tell you here, is that every mortgage is fraudulent.

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