Just about everybody with a wallet is impacted by the Federal Reserve. That means you—homeowners and prospective buyers. Whether you’re already nestled in to the house of your dreams or still looking to find it, you’ll probably want to track what happens to mortgage rates when the Fed cuts rates. When the Fed (as it’s commonly referred to) cuts its federal funds rate—the rate banks charge each other to lend funds overnight—the move could impact your mortgage costs.
The Fed’s overall goal when it cuts the federal funds rate is to stimulate the economy by spurring consumers to spend and borrow. This is good news if you are carrying debt because borrowing tends to become less expensive following a Fed rate cut (think: lower credit card APRs). But in the case of homeownership, what happens to mortgage rates when the Fed cuts rates can be a double-edged sword.
The connection between a Fed rate cut and mortgage rates isn’t so crystal clear because the federal funds rate doesn’t directly influence the rate on every type of home loan.
“Mortgage rates are formed by global market forces, and the Federal Reserve participates in those market forces but isn’t always the most important factor,” says Holden Lewis, who’s been covering the mortgage industry for nearly 20 years and is also a regular contributor to NerdWallet.
To understand which side of the sword you’re on, you’ll need an answer to the question, “How does a Fed rate cut affect mortgage rates?” Read on to find out if you stand to potentially gain on your mortgage in a low-rate environment:
How a fixed-rate mortgage moves—or doesn’t
A fixed-rate mortgage has an interest rate that remains the same for the entire length of the loan. If the Fed cuts rates, what happens to mortgage rates if you are an existing homeowner with a fixed-rate mortgage? Nothing should happen to your monthly payments following a Fed rate cut because your rate has already been locked in.
“For current homeowners with a fixed-rate mortgage set at a previous higher level, the existing mortgage rate stays put,” Lewis says.
If you’re a prospective homebuyer shopping around for a fixed-rate mortgage, the news of what happens to mortgage rates when the Fed cuts rates may be different.
For prospective homebuyers: If the Fed cuts its interest rate and the 10-year Treasury yield is similarly tracking, the rates on fixed-rate mortgages could drop, “and you could lock in interest at a lower fixed rate than before.”
The federal funds rate does not directly impact the rates on this type of home loan, so a Fed rate cut doesn’t guarantee that lenders will start offering lower mortgage rates. However, the 10-year Treasury yield does tend to influence fixed-rate mortgages, and this yield often moves in the same direction as the federal funds rate.
If the Fed cuts its interest rate and the 10-year Treasury yield is similarly tracking, the rates on fixed-rate mortgages could drop, “and you could lock in interest at a lower fixed rate than before,” Lewis says. It’s also possible that rates on fixed mortgages will not fall following a Fed rate cut.
How an adjustable-rate mortgage follows the Fed
An adjustable-rate mortgage (commonly referred to as an ARM) is a home loan with an interest rate that can fluctuate periodically—also known as variable rate. There is often a fixed period of time during which the initial rate stays the same, and then it adjusts on a regular interval. (For instance, with a 5/1 ARM, the initial rate stays locked in for five years and then adjusts each year thereafter.)
So back to the burning question: If the Fed cuts rates, what happens to mortgage rates? The rates on an ARM typically track with the index that the loan uses, e.g., the prime rate, which is in turn influenced by the federal funds rate.
“If the Fed drops its rate during the adjustment period, you could see your interest rate go down and, in turn, see lower monthly payments,” says Emily Stroud, financial advisor and founder of Stroud Financial Management.
Since ARMs are often adjusted annually after the fixed period, you may not feel the impact of the Fed rate cut until your ARM’s next annual loan adjustment. For instance, if there is one (or more) rate cuts during the course of a year, the savings from the rate reduction(s) would hit all at once at the time of your reset.
If the Fed cuts rates, what happens to mortgage rates for prospective homebuyers considering an ARM? An even lower rate could be in your future—at least for a specific period of time.
“If you’re looking for a shorter-term mortgage, say a 5/1 ARM, you could save considerably on interest,” Stroud says. That’s because the introductory rate of an ARM is usually lower than the rate of a fixed-rate mortgage, Stroud explains. Add that benefit to lower rates fueled by a Fed rate cut and an ARM could be enticing if it supports your financial goals and plans.
“If the Fed drops its rate during the adjustment period, you could see your interest rate go down and, in turn, see lower monthly payments.”
Benefits of other variable-rate loans following a rate cut
If you have a Fed rate cut and mortgage rates on your mind and are a borrower with other types of variable-rate loans, you could be impacted following a Fed rate cut. Borrowers with variable-rate home equity lines of credit (HELOCs) and adjustable-rate Federal Housing Administration loans (FHA ARMs), for example, may end up ahead of the curve when the Fed cuts its rate, according to Lewis:
- A HELOC is typically a “second mortgage” that provides you access to cash for goals like debt consolidation or home improvement and is a revolving line of credit, using your home as collateral. A Fed rate cut could result in lower rates for variable-rate HELOCs that track with the prime rate. If you are an existing homeowner with a HELOC, you could see your monthly payments drop following a Fed rate cut.
- An FHA ARM is an ARM insured by the federal government. If you’re wondering about a Fed rate cut and mortgage rates, know that this type of mortgage behaves much like a conventional variable-rate loan when the Fed cuts it rate, Lewis says. Existing homeowners with an FHA ARM could see a rate drop, and prospective homebuyers could also benefit from lower rates following a Fed rate cut.
Refinancing: A silver lining for fixed rates
When it comes to a Fed rate cut and mortgage rates, refinancing to a lower rate could be an option if you have an existing fixed-rate loan. The process of refinancing replaces an existing loan with a new one that pays off your old loan’s debt. You then make payments on your new loan, so the goal is to refinance at a time when you can get better terms.
“If someone buys a home one year and a Fed rate cut results in a mortgage rate reduction, for example, it presents a real refinance opportunity for homeowners,” Lewis says. “Just a small percentage point reduction could possibly trim a few hundred bucks from your monthly payments.”
Before a refinancing decision is made based on a Fed rate cut and mortgage rates, you should consider any upfront costs and fees associated with refinancing to ensure they don’t offset any potential savings.
Managing your finances as a homeowner
You might be expecting some savings in your future now that you’re armed with information on what happens to mortgage rates when the Fed cuts rates. Whether you’re a homebuyer and financing your new home is going to cost you less with a lower interest rate, or you’re an existing homeowner with an ARM that may come with lower monthly payments, Stroud suggests to use any uncovered savings wisely.
“Invest that cash back into your property, pay down your home equity debt or borrow with it,” she says.
While news of a Fed rate cut may entice you to analyze how your mortgage will be impacted, remember there are many factors that help to determine your mortgage rate, including your credit score, home price, loan amount and down payment. The Fed’s actions are only one piece of a larger equation.
Even though the Fed’s rate decisions may dominate headlines immediately following a rate cut, your home is a long-term investment and one you’ll likely maintain for years. To best prepare for what happens to mortgage rates when the Fed cuts rates is to always manage your home finances responsibly and be sure to make choices that will lead you down the right path based on your financial goals.
*This should not be considered tax or investment advice. Please consult a financial planner or tax advisor if you have questions.
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