Cash-Out Refinance vs. HELOC: What You Need to Know

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ByChristopher Boston
Reviewed byTimothy Manni
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ByChristopher Boston
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Reviewed byTimothy Manni
Edited byRae Osborn
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Updated: April 5, 2024

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Whether you need funds to finance a home renovation, pay off high-interest debts or bolster your retirement fund, tapping into your home equity may be a solid way to accomplish your goals. Two common options you have as a homeowner are cash-out refinance and home equity line of credit (HELOC).

While both cash-out refinances and HELOCs involve leveraging the equity in your home, they serve different needs and come with their own sets of rules. Cash-out refinances offer stability with fixed interest rates and monthly payments, while HELOCs provide the flexibility to borrow only what you need when you need it. Understanding their differences is crucial in determining the best option for your financial objectives.

Cash-Out Refinance vs. HELOC

Building equity in your home is like putting money in a specialized savings account, where every mortgage payment and increase in your home's value contributes to the balance. Essentially, home equity is the difference between your home's current market value and the amount you still owe on your mortgage. You can calculate it by taking the current market value of your home and subtracting the outstanding mortgage balance.

For instance, let's say your home is worth $300,000 and you owe $150,000 on your mortgage. In this scenario, you would have $150,000 in home equity. It's like having a financial cushion that grows over time as you make more mortgage payments and as your property appreciates in value.

Both cash-out refinance and HELOC are popular options for accessing this home equity. They allow you to unlock this built-up value and turn it into usable cash, albeit in different ways and with varying terms. Choosing between the two should be based on your individual financial needs, whether it's undertaking significant home improvements or consolidating high-interest debt.

What Is a Cash-Out Refinance?

A cash-out refinance is a financial strategy that involves taking out a new mortgage that's larger than your existing one. This is primarily aimed at homeowners who have built up significant home equity and want to convert some of that value into liquid cash. It can be useful for various purposes, from debt consolidation to funding major expenses like home renovations.

In a cash-out refinance, you'll replace your current mortgage with a new, larger loan. The difference between your old mortgage balance and the new loan amount is then paid out to you in a lump sum of cash. Essentially, you're borrowing against your home's equity but with the benefit of potentially more favorable loan terms or interest rates than your original mortgage.

    fairCredit icon

    Credit Score

    A credit score of at least 620 is generally required. A better score could qualify you for lower interest rates.

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    Home Equity

    Typically, lenders want to see that you have at least 20% equity in your home to ensure adequate collateral for the new loan.

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    Income

    You'll need to prove you have a consistent income to manage the new mortgage payments.

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    Debt-To-Income Ratio

    A debt-to-income ratio below 43% is ideal, as it indicates to lenders that your current debt levels are manageable.

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    Appraisal

    Your home will need to be appraised to confirm its current market value, which determines how much you can borrow.

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    Closing Costs

    Be prepared for closing costs, which usually range from 2% to 5% of the loan amount.

What Is a HELOC?

A home equity line of credit (HELOC) is a financial tool that allows homeowners to leverage the equity they've built up in their homes. It gives you a line of credit that you can draw from over a set period, often called the “draw period.” This approach offers flexibility and can help ongoing expenses such as home renovations, medical bills or educational costs.

The mechanics of a HELOC are similar to those of a credit card. You have a credit limit based on your home equity; you can borrow up to that amount during the draw period. Interest is only charged on the amount you've actually borrowed. Once the draw period ends, you'll enter the repayment phase, where you'll start paying back the principal along with any accrued interest.

To qualify for a HELOC, you'll generally need to meet the following criteria:

    fairCredit icon

    Credit Score

    A decent credit score is essential; lenders often look for scores above 620. A higher score can get you a better interest rate.

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    Home Equity

    You'll usually need at least 15-20% equity in your home. This ensures you have enough collateral to secure the line of credit.

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    Income

    Proof of consistent income is typically required to indicate that you can manage the payments.

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    Debt-To-Income Ratio

    Lenders prefer a debt-to-income ratio below 43% to ensure you're not taking on too much debt.

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    Appraisal

    An appraisal is usually needed to determine your home's current market value.

Learn the Key Differences

While both cash-out refinance and HELOC allow you to tap into your home equity, the similarities largely end there. Understanding the specific differences between them can help you choose the option that aligns best with your financial goals.

Feature
Cash-out refinance
HELOC

Length of loan

Typically 15 to 30 years

Draw period of 5-10 years, followed by a repayment period of 10-20 years

Interest rate

Fixed

Typically variable, though some offer fixed-rate options

Monthly payments

Fixed monthly payments covering both principal and interest

Variable payments during the draw period; may switch to fixed during repayment

Accessing funds

Lump sum upfront

Revolving line of credit; draw as needed

Closing costs

2% to 5% of the loan amount, can often be rolled into the loan

Varies, but generally lower than cash-out refinance; may include annual fees

Each of these features impacts how you'll manage your loan and what you'll end up paying over time. A fixed interest rate and monthly payment might provide the stability you need, making a cash-out refinance more appealing. On the other hand, if you prefer the flexibility only to borrow what you need when you need it, a HELOC could be a better fit. Keep these differences in mind as you weigh your options.

Pros and Cons of Cash-Out Refinance

While cash-out refinance can provide you with a sizable lump sum and possibly better loan terms, it also means taking on a new mortgage with its own set of obligations. Understanding the specific pros and cons can offer valuable insights into whether this is the right move for your unique financial situation.

Pros & Cons

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PROS

  • Potentially lower interest rates: If market conditions are favorable, you could secure a lower interest rate than your original mortgage. This could result in long-term savings, making your new loan more cost-effective over time.
  • One loan, one payment: A cash-out refinance allows you to consolidate various debts, like credit cards or personal loans, into your mortgage. This centralization simplifies your financial management by reducing multiple payments down to one. Over time, this streamlined approach may decrease your total monthly financial obligations.
  • Tax benefits for home improvements: If you use the cash to make home improvements, the mortgage interest will be tax-deductible. This tax incentive offers a unique financial benefit and can make your home improvement projects more economically efficient.
  • Fixed repayment schedule: Unlike revolving credit options, a cash-out refinance offers a fixed repayment timeline. This provides financial discipline and can be comforting for those who prefer to know exactly when their debt will be paid off.
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CONS

  • Longer mortgage term: Refinancing essentially resets your mortgage term, often extending the years you're in debt. This longer timeline can interfere with other long-term financial objectives, like saving for retirement or investing in other opportunities.
  • Additional closing costs: The closing costs for a cash-out refinance can be substantial, typically ranging from 2% to 5% of the loan amount. These costs directly reduce the amount of cash you'll receive, and if they're rolled into the loan, they increase your overall indebtedness.
  • Potential loss of your home: Because your home is collateral for the loan, failure to meet payment obligations puts your property at risk. This is especially concerning for those with unstable or unpredictable income streams.
  • Risk of negative home equity: Should housing markets decline, you could end up owing more than your property's worth. This negative equity scenario can make it challenging to sell the home or refinance in the future, trapping you in an unfavorable financial position.

Pros and Cons of HELOC

A HELOC provides a revolving credit line, much like a credit card, using your home as collateral. This financial instrument offers certain unique advantages but also has inherent risks that should be carefully weighed.

Pros & Cons

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PROS

  • Flexibility in fund usage: A HELOC allows you to draw funds as needed, making it particularly useful for ongoing expenses like a multi-phase home renovation project. You only pay interest on the borrowed amount, not the entire line of credit. This provides more control over your debt and interest payments.
  • Interest-only payment options: Some HELOCs offer interest-only payment options during the draw period, allowing for lower initial payments. This can be advantageous when you anticipate a higher cash flow in the future, like a job promotion or new business venture generating income.
  • Potential tax advantages: If you use the funds for substantial home improvements, the interest paid on a HELOC will be tax-deductible. This financial perk can make certain large expenditures, such as remodeling or adding an extension to your home, more financially palatable.
  • Variable rates can work in your favor: When interest rates are falling, the variable rate of a HELOC could result in cost savings. This is in contrast to fixed-rate loans like a cash-out refinance, which would lock you into a set rate even if market rates decline.
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CONS

  • Variable interest rates add uncertainty: Unlike fixed-rate options, HELOCs often come with variable rates that can increase, sometimes dramatically. If rates rise, your monthly payments could become unmanageable, affecting your financial stability.
  • Risk of overspending: Because a HELOC functions similarly to a credit card, there's a temptation to draw more funds than needed. This behavior can lead to mounting debt and potential financial hardship, especially when coupled with rising interest rates.
  • Potential for foreclosure: Your home is collateral in a HELOC. Failure to meet your repayment obligations could result in the loss of your home. This is a critical consideration for anyone thinking of leveraging their home equity through a HELOC.
  • Fees and closing costs: HELOCs often come with a range of fees, including an application fee, an annual fee and potentially a cancellation or early closure fee. These additional costs can eat into the utility of the credit line and should be factored into your decision-making process.

Cash-Out Refinance vs. HELOC: Which Should You Choose?

When it comes to tapping into your home's equity, you can either choose cash-out refinance or HELOC. While both can provide much-needed cash, each shines in different scenarios, depending on your specific needs, risk tolerance and long-term financial goals. Knowing when to opt for one over the other can profoundly impact your financial well-being.

WHEN CASH-OUT REFINANCE MAKES SENSE:
  • Debt consolidation at a lower interest rate: If you have high-interest debts like credit cards and the current mortgage rates are substantially lower, a cash-out refinance can be a smart way to consolidate and pay off those debts. You'll not only simplify your finances by having one monthly payment but also save money over time due to lower interest rates.
  • Large-scale home improvements: When you're looking at substantial home improvement projects that require a significant lump sum upfront, a cash-out refinance can be the better option. The fixed rate offers predictability in repayment, making it easier to budget for long-term expenditures.
  • Diversifying investments: If you're a seasoned investor and see an investment opportunity that requires a sizable lump sum, a cash-out refinance can provide the funds at a lower interest rate compared to other loan types. However, this move involves considerable risk and should only be undertaken with thorough research and a well-thought-out investment strategy.
  • Children’s higher education: If you need to finance your child’s college education and scholarships or federal student loans aren't covering all the costs, a cash-out refinance can offer a more structured, long-term repayment plan. The rates are usually lower than private student loans, providing a more economical option.
WHEN HELOC MAKES SENSE:
  • Ongoing medical expenses: If you’re facing recurring medical costs that are hard to quantify upfront, a HELOC offers the flexibility to draw funds as needed. It's more adaptable than a lump sum, allowing you to manage unforeseen expenses more effectively.
  • Multi-phase renovation projects: For home renovations that happen in stages, the draw-as-you-go nature of a HELOC can be highly beneficial. You can borrow just what you need for each phase, thus avoiding interest on a large lump sum you’re not yet using.
  • Bridging short-term income gaps: If you're transitioning between jobs or waiting for a bonus, a HELOC can serve as a financial bridge. The usually lower initial, interest-only payments can be easier to manage temporarily, before your income stabilizes.
  • Variable rate benefits in a falling-rate environment: If you have a good handle on market trends and anticipate a period of falling interest rates, a HELOC could offer short-term cost savings. Keep in mind this strategy carries risk, as rates can go up and down.
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MONEYGEEK EXPERT TIP

A driving force behind your decision here should be current interest rates. If current rates are significantly higher than the rate on your primary mortgage, a cash-out refinance won't make financial sense because you may be hit with a double dose of higher rates over a longer term. HELOCs can be more advantageous, especially when interest rates are high because you can retain the lower rate on your first mortgage while gaining access to a flexible financing tool you can tap into over time. — Timothy Manni, Mortgage and Real Estate Consultant

Frequently Asked Questions

When considering ways to leverage your home equity, it's natural to have questions about whether a cash-out refinance or a HELOC would better suit your needs. To help you navigate this decision, we answered some frequently asked questions that go beyond the basics and offer unique insights.

What happens to my original mortgage in a cash-out refinance?
Can I still qualify for a HELOC if I've recently refinanced my home?
Is the interest rate fixed in both options?
Do I have to use the money for specific purposes?
Can I opt for both a cash-out refinance and HELOC?
What are the tax implications for each?
Can I change from a variable to a fixed rate with a HELOC?

About Christopher Boston


Christopher Boston headshot

Christopher (Croix) Boston was the Head of Loans content at MoneyGeek, with over five years of experience researching higher education, mortgage and personal loans.

Boston has a bachelor's degree from the Seattle Pacific University. They pride themselves in using their skills and experience to create quality content that helps people save and spend efficiently.