While many people dream of paying for a home in cash, this goal can be extremely difficult to achieve. Housing prices are surging all over the country and some markets are so pricey it could take decades to save up enough the money you need for even a basic starter home. Plus, who wants to rent their whole life while they save up to buy a home?

couple signing mortgage papers

Fortunately, you don’t have to take out a traditional thirty-year loan and make only the minimum payment. Instead, you could take out a mortgage in any length and pay more than the minimum to pay your loan off faster. This strategy gives you the best of both worlds — a home to live in and the ability to get out of debt faster provided you can afford to pay extra toward your mortgage each month.

Before you decide to pursue this strategy, however, it’s important to make sure your mortgage doesn’t charge a prepayment penalty. While it may sound preposterous, some mortgages will charge you if you pay off too much of your home loan in any given year — even if you’re selling your home so you can move.

Prepayment Penalties: Soft vs. Hard

Before you borrow money for the purchase or a home, it’s crucial to understand if your mortgage has any prepayment penalties, and if so, which type. There are two types of prepayment penalties you should be aware of — hard and soft.

With a hard prepayment penalty, you will have to pay a fee if you sell your home or refinance your mortgage within a set number of years you agree to in your mortgage contract. While the prepayment penalty can vary, it could be up to 80% of six months of interest on your home loan.

With a soft prepayment penalty, on the other hand, you only have to pay a penalty if you refinance your mortgage. You do not have to pay a penalty if you sell your home for any reason, however.

While paying 80% of six months of interest may not sound like a lot, this fee could add up quickly. Imagine you have a $400,000 mortgage at 6% APR, for example.

At that rate, you would pay approximately $2,000 per month in interest for six months — or around $12,000. A fee equal to 80% of that amount would be around $9,600. That is a high price to pay for wanting to move or refinance your mortgage to get a better deal.

However, it’s important to note that most prepayment penalties only apply to the first three to five years you have a mortgage. After that, you can sell your home or refinance without paying for the privilege.

The Problem with Prepayment Penalties

While getting a mortgage with a prepayment penalty may not be the end of the world, you may face notable disadvantages if your housing situation or your finances change. With a hard prepayment penalty in particular, you would actually be penalized if you refinanced your home into a mortgage with a lower interest rate and better terms.

And, what if you need to relocate for a job or find yourself needing additional room for your growing family? A hard prepayment penalty would ding you then as well.

A soft prepayment penalty only applies if you refinance your mortgage (and not if you sell your home), but it’s still not much better. You’ll still be stuck paying a big fee if you need to change your mortgage terms, and this fee could come at the worst possible time if you’re refinancing as a result of financial distress.

How to Find the Right Mortgage

As you shop around for a mortgage for your new home, it’s crucial to read the fine print and understand any and all fees that may be charged, including prepayment penalties. While enduring a prepayment penalty clause may help you secure a lower interest rate, there are times when it just won’t be worth it.

Ideally, you should probably strive to avoid prepayment penalties if possible. While you may believe you won’t need to move or refinance your mortgage, you never know what life will throw your way.

It’s possible you could need to relocate for your job or need to upsize or downsize your home. If interest rates go down considerably, you could be in a position where you need to refinance your mortgage to get a better deal.

It’s also possible your financial situation could change in a way that refinancing could be the only way you could afford to stay in your home. If you face a loss in pay, for example, you could need to refinance your mortgage into a new loan with a longer repayment timeline in order to get a lower monthly payment.

With all this in mind, here are some steps to consider as you shop for a new mortgage:

  • Check your credit score and take steps to improve it. Remember that the best mortgage rates go to those with good or great credit. If your credit score is on the lower side, it may be worth taking some time to improve your credit before you apply for a mortgage. If your credit isn’t that great, you can also consider a government-sponsored home loan program like an FHA loan or USDA loan. Both loans come free of prepayment penalties and they may be easier to qualify for with poor credit.
  • Shop around and compare loans in terms of their interest rates and fees. Since mortgage lending is competitive and companies must compete for your business, it’s common for some lenders to offer loans with better rates and terms.
  • Read all the fine print and check for prepayment penalties. Before you make the final decision on your new mortgage, make sure to read through all the fine print and loan terms. If your mortgage has a prepayment penalty, make sure you understand how much it will cost and how long it lasts.

Bottom Line

Before you take out a mortgage, it’s important to make sure you’re not setting yourself up for an unpleasant surprise. You should know how much your mortgage payment will be each month and exactly when your loan will be paid off, for example. On top of that, you should also be aware of any fees you’ll be charged if you need to refinance or move for any reason.

Generally speaking, it’s wise to avoid mortgages that charge any type of prepayment penalty. You may think you’ll remain in your home forever, but you never know how life could change in the next five years. By choosing a mortgage without a prepayment penalty, you’re keeping your options open and protecting yourself from expensive fees.

At the end of the day, you should try to find a mortgage that is affordable and free of fine print and “gotchas” that can cost you big time when you least expect it. If you fail to read the fine print and wind up facing a big prepayment penalty, you could live to regret it.