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Mortgages: Is a 30-year mortgage better than a 15-year loan?

Over at Room Farm, proprietor Chance is offering an article she wrote some time back for Living Almost Large, in which she argues that it’s better to stretch your finances (and by implication, to select a cheaper house) and get a 15-year mortgage than to pay for real estate with a 30-year mortgage. Readers at LAL squawked that it’s impossible to afford a 15-year loan, given the outrageous cost of real estate, and when last seen, Room Farm readers were echoing that and suggesting it’s better to go for 30 years and pay extra toward principal. This strategy gives you an “out” if you run into hard times, in the form of payments-due that are really smaller than what you habitually into the loan.

Let’s consider how affordable a 30-year mortgage really is when compared to a 15-year loan. Real estate has dropped so drastically, it’s now possible to find good housing at prices that allow buyers to consider the shorter repayment term.

As an example, one of my research assistants and her husband just purchased a house in the high-rent district of my part of town. Buying the place out of an estate (it wasn’t a foreclosure—the heirs just wanted to unload it fast), they grabbed a nice house with a pool on a big corner lot amid a cluster of $500,000 homes. Their cost: $225,000.

The dollar difference between payments on 15- and 30-year loans is a lot when you’re talking about the $200,000 range. Let’s say the young people put only 10 grand down and finance $215,000. Right now a 30-year fixed mortgage from our credit union is at 4.625 percent: monthly principal & interest would be $1,105. A 15-year mortgage is at 4.375 percent: $1,631 a month.

However: On the 15-year loan, the first payment covers $847.18 of principal and $783.85 of interest. For the 30-year loan, only $276.74 goes toward principal; the remainder forks over $828.65 in interest.

Three years later, the principal on the 15-year loan is $962.26, and the interest is $668.77. The 30-year loan is applying $316.63 toward principal and charging $788.76 in interest.

How does this look halfway through each loan?

Seven and a half years into the 15-year loan, the buyer would be putting $1171.22 toward principal and only $459.81 into interest. The 30-year loan doesn’t reach its halfway point for 15 years (by then the person with the 15-year mortgage is having a mortgage-burning party!). After 15 years, the buyer with the 30-year loan is still shoveling half the payments into interest: $550.96 pays down principal, and $554.43 goes toward interest.

Let’s say each buyer stays in the house until the mortgage is paid off. At the end of the loan periods, assuming neither buyer has paid extra toward principal, the 15-year loan has cost its purchaser $78,526.24, but the 30-year loan has relieved its buyer of $182,948.10.

For the borrower, interest is money down the toilet. You might as well shred hundred-dollar bills and flush them. Seventy-eight grand is quite enough to fork over for the privilege of paying an astronomical amount to keep a roof over your head!

I would agree with Chance: you’re better off buying a lesser house and straining every muscle and sinew to pay it off in 15 years than you are to diddle away 2.32 times as much interest on the 30-year loan. The alleged savings in taxes are negligible compared to the amount you’re paying on interest over the term of the loan.

If, as some people suggest, you apply an amount equivalent to 10% of the monthly payment to principal, you’re not paying as much interest as you would on the 15-year loan, but neither are you knocking down principal much. Ten percent of our proposed loan payment is only $110: that’s +-$526 short of the amount needed to reduce the 30-year loan to 15 years. Although it is true that the extra payment toward interest would mean that 15 years into the loan principal payments would be higher than interest ($659.96 vs. $445.43), at the end of the loan this buyer has still paid $146,783.23 in interest. That’s almost twice as much she would have paid had she taken out a 15-year loan.

If our buyers can’t afford the higher payment needed to pay their loan in 15 years, maybe they would be wise look for a cheaper house.

Principal and interest figures calculated in Quicken 2006 for Mac.