I've tried a few times over the last year to refinance our mortgage at a better interest rate than the one we've got. A few times it seemed like it was going to happen, but for a variety of reasons it hasn't, even though our credit rating is excellent and we've proved ourselves good risks on this mortgage.
My most recent conversation was with our wonderful bank, USAA. (If you're eligible for their services but not using them, you really need to look into doing so. You'd be nuts to pass up this much value and genuine customer service.) During the course of the conversation I had with the loan officer, he mentioned recasting a mortgage, which was something I'd never even heard of. It turns out that recasting a mortgage is a pretty standard practice, if not so well known or widely available as refinancing.
Disclaimer: I am not a financial advisor or professional in any way. Speak to a qualified expert for more infomation rather than relying on what I'm about to say here.
Recasting can mean a few different things, but here's how it would most commonly work. Say you've had a mortgage for a few years, and during that time you've been a good little frugalite and have made extra principle payments each month. Or, you've taken a sizeable windfall in the form of a bonus, inheritance, or whatever, and applied it to your principle. In other words, you're ahead of schedule in repaying your loan. At some later point, either because of unemployment or some other financial difficulty, your budget changes and you want to reduce your required monthly mortgage payments. By recasting your mortgage with your current lender, the term of your mortgage and your interest rate will stay the same, but the loan is re-amortized to give you smaller monthly payments so that you will pay off the loan exactly according to the original term of the loan.
Got that? Let's say it again so that we're clear on the concept. You're five years into a 30-year mortgage, but you've been paying ahead. If you keep up the extra payments, you'll retire the mortgage 12 years ahead of schedule. But suddenly you can't make the regular payments very easily anymore, let alone pay extra. If you are able to recast your mortgage, your monthly payments go down. If you stick to that lower monthly payment, you'll pay off the mortgage exactly on the original 30-year schedule.
Why do lenders sometimes offer this? Because it works for both the lender and the borrower. Because you've paid off part of the mortgage ahead of schedule, either with those extra monthly principle payments or with one lump-sum paydown, you've shown yourself to be a pretty good risk, but a low return. Look at it a little more deeply from the lender's perspective. By lowering the monthly payment and keeping the original term of the loan, the lender stands to gain more over time, as opposed to having the borrower pay off the loan quickly and paying less interest in the bargain. More concerning to the lender is the issue that if you, as a borrower, are asking for a recast of the mortgage, you may now be in the market for a refinance from another lender. Worse yet, if the borrower's financial circumstances have changed, he or she may now be at risk of defaulting. Financial institutions don't like defaults on loans. As a lender, it makes sense to work something out that keeps the borrower paying, accepting smaller monthly payments, but making more money over the long run. It's a win-win situation if the borrower is in dire straits.
This is interesting to me as a mortgage holder who has been making substantial extra principle payments. The traditional argument against early repayment of a mortgage is that it's better to invest the money and earn a higher rate of return. (Well, I think we all know just how far out the window that idea has been tossed lately.) But the recasting of a mortgage looks to me like a sort of unofficial safety net for people who have their financial house in order and want to aggressively attack their debt. If you throw every extra dollar at your mortgage and make a significant dent in it, you're essentially putting yourself on a good footing to ask for a recast if your finances take a turn for the worse.
My understanding is that not all lenders offer recasting of mortgages. From what I've heard, if it is available to you, it should cost significantly less in fees than a refinance. Something in the hundreds of dollars range, rather than the thousands of dollars range.
I wouldn't recommend paying down mortgage principle instead of building up a cash savings emergency fund. But it's nice to know that our early repayment efforts give us a good chance at that latitude if need be. I'm not sure why I never heard of this before, but I'm glad I know about it now.