Here we go again…it’s that special time where I compare two popular home loan programs to see how they stack up against each other. Today’s match-up: “5/1 ARM vs. 30-year fixed.”
Everyone has heard of the 30-year fixed-rate mortgage – it’s far and away the most popular type of mortgage loan out there. Why? Because it’s the easiest to understand and presents no risk of adjusting during the entire loan term.
It’s basically the default home loan option whenever mortgage lenders advertise interest rates, and the pre-selected option when using a mortgage calculator.
But what about the 5/1 ARM? Do you even know what a 5/1 ARM is? What the heck is that slash doing there!? This looks confusing…calm down, we’ll get through it.
What Is a 5/1 ARM?
- It’s an adjustable-rate mortgage with a 30-year term
- That is fixed for the first five years
- And adjustable for the remaining 25 years
- It can adjust once each year after the first five years
Put simply, the 5/1 ARM is an adjustable-rate mortgage with a 30-year loan term that’s fixed for the first five years and adjustable for the remaining 25 years.
So during years one through five, the interest rate never changes. If it starts at 4%, it remains at 4% for 60 months. Nothing to worry about there.
But after the first five years are up, the interest rate can adjust once annually, either up or down. That’s where the “1” comes in, as in one adjustment per year.
This means it’s a hybrid ARM – partially fixed, and partially adjustable.
Whew! There you have it, the 5/1 ARM broken down into simple terms we can all understand. Oh, and don’t get hung up on that pesky slash.
While not as popular as the 30-year fixed, it’s a pretty popular adjustable-rate mortgage product, if not the most popular. And as such, just about all mortgage lenders offer it.
It’s an option for conventional loans, FHA loans, and VA loans (but not USDA loans). So you won’t have any trouble finding it. This should make comparison shopping quite easy too.
5/1 ARM Rates Are Lower. That’s the Draw
- 5/1 ARM mortgage rates are cheaper than comparable 30-year fixed rates
- Because your rate is only fixed for a short period of time
- And can increase significantly once it becomes adjustable
- The discount might range from .25% to 1%+ over time
The biggest advantage to the 5/1 ARM is the fact that you get a lower mortgage rate than you would if you opted for a traditional 30-year fixed.
You get a discount because your interest rate isn’t fixed, and is at risk of rising once the initial five-year period comes to an end. Of course, if you refinance your mortgage at that time you can avoid the rate changing.
As you can see from the chart I created above, the 5/1 ARM is always cheaper than the 30-year fixed. That’s the trade-off for that lack of mortgage rate stability.
But how much lower are 5/1 ARM rates? Currently, the spread is 0.63%, with the 30-year averaging 3.78 percent and the 5/1 ARM coming in at 3.15 percent, per Freddie Mac data.
Since Freddie began tracking the five-year ARM back in 2005, the spread has been as small as 0.27% and as large as 1.30% in 2011.
If the spread were only 0.25%, it’d be hard to rationalize going with the uncertainty of the ARM. Conversely, if the spread were a full percentage point or higher, it’d be pretty tempting to choose the ARM and save money for at least 60 months.
Either way, take the time to compare lenders since rates (and loan payments) can vary considerably, just like fixed interest rates.
Let’s look at an example of the potential savings:
Loan amount: $350,000
30-year fixed monthly payment: $1,626.87
5/1 ARM monthly payment: $1,504.08
So you’d be looking at a difference in monthly mortgage payment of roughly $122, or $1,464 annually ($7,320 over 5 years), using our example from above. Not bad, right?
This lower payment mortgage may also free up cash to pay off credit card debt, student loans, an auto loan, or any other higher-APR debt you hold, or for home improvements.
You’d also pay down your mortgage faster because more of each payment would go toward principal as opposed to interest. So you actually benefit twice. You pay less and your mortgage balance is smaller after five years (more home equity and a higher net worth).
After five years, the outstanding balance would be $315,427.87 versus $312,017.26 on the five-year ARM. That’s roughly another $3,400 in savings for a total benefit of nearly $11,000.
Discussion over, the ARM wins! Right? Well, there’s just one little problem…
It might not always be this good. In fact, you might only save money for the first five years of your 30-year loan.
After those initial five years are up, you could face an interest rate hike, meaning your 5/1 ARM could go from 3.25% to 4.50% or higher, depending on the associated margin, the rate caps, and the mortgage index. And the adjusted rate may not be affordable.
5/1 ARMs Are Cheap But Will Likely Adjust Higher
- While the start rate on a 5/1 ARM can be enticing
- Expect the rate to be higher in year six and beyond
- Since ARMs typically adjust higher, not lower
- But if you only keep it for a short time it can be a big money-saver
Currently, both ARMs and mortgage indexes are super low, but they’re expected to rise in coming years as the economy gets back on track, which it will eventually.
And you should always prepare for a higher interest rate adjustment if you’ve got an ARM.
In fact, during the loan application process mortgage lenders typically qualify you at a higher expected rate to ensure you can make more expensive mortgage payments in the future should your ARM adjust higher.
To that end, qualifying shouldn’t be any easier relative to fixed-rate mortgages.
So that’s the big risk with the 5/1 ARM. If you don’t plan to sell or refinance before those first five years are up, the 30-year fixed may be the better choice.
Although, if you sell or refinance your mortgage within say seven or eight years, the 5/1 ARM could still make sense given the savings realized during the first five years. And most people either sell or refinance within 10 years despite taking out fixed loans with 30-year terms.
The big question is where will refinance rates be when it comes time to make your move? And home prices.
If you came in with a low down payment and home values drop and it’s difficult or impossible to refinance, you could be trapped if you don’t sell your home. That’s the great unknown of going with an ARM – and trying to time the real estate market is nearly impossible.
If you do decide to go with an ARM, make sure you can actually handle a larger monthly mortgage payment should your rate adjust higher. Paying the mortgage with your credit card isn’t a good strategy.
Also realize that refinancing won’t always be an option; you may not qualify if your credit score goes down or your income takes a hit, or refinance rates may be too expensive to justify a refi. It’s never a guarantee.
If you actually plan to pay off your mortgage, an ARM loan could be a bad idea unless you seriously luck out with rate adjustments. Or you serially refinance before the ARM adjusts and pay extra to shorten the amortization period.
Otherwise, there’s a good chance you’ll pay a lot more than you would have had you gone with the 30-year fixed rate mortgage.
Why? Because each time you refinance to another ARM, you’re getting a brand new 30-year term. That means more interest is paid over a longer period of time, even if the rate is lower. If you don’t believe that, grab a mortgage calculator and do the math.
However, if you’re a savvy investor and have a healthy risk-appetite, the 5/1 ARM could mean some serious savings, despite the potential of the rate changing, especially if the extra money is invested somewhere else with a better return for your money.
Just know what you’re getting into first with this loan type and how high the rate can climb during the life of the loan.
Your financial advisor probably won’t recommend it, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a good deal. In reality, a ton of home buyers could probably benefit from an ARM because they don’t hold their mortgages for more than a few years anyway. So why pay more?
Five years not enough for you? Check out the 30-year fixed vs. the 7-year ARM, which provides another two years of interest rate stability compared to the 5/1 ARM. The rate may not be as low, but you’ll get a little more time before that first rate adjustment.
Or go the other way and check out the 3/1 ARM, which gives you two less years of fixed-rate goodness but might come with a slightly lower interest rate.
Pros and Cons of 5/1 ARMs
- Cheaper than 30-year fixed mortgages
- Interest rate won’t change for a full 60 months
- Rate can adjust lower or not at all
- Might be able to refinance or sell before it adjusts higher
- Could be a good choice if you have bad credit and want a lower rate
- Can switch loan products once you’re more financially fit and have excellent credit
The Potential Bad:
- The rate can adjust much higher
- Five years can go by very quickly
- Housing payments may become unaffordable
- No guarantee you can sell your home or refinance before that time