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Making extra mortgage payments can pay off, but should you?

By Alex Veiga Associated Press

It’s a strategy that crosses the mind of many borrowers when they take on a home loan: Make an extra mortgage payment or two every year and save tens of thousands of dollars in interest.

The move can shave off costs for a home loan and ensure it’s paid off faster. Even one additional payment a year can translate into big savings.

On a $250,000, 30-year mortgage with a fixed rate of 4 percent, making an extra payment every year would save the homeowner roughly $27,724 over the life of the loan. It would also cut the amount of time needed to pay back the loan by four years and one month.

Even so, there are potential financial drawbacks to consider. Borrowers who can afford to make extra mortgage payments tie up cash that could be put toward retirement or used for emergencies.

“It’s really important to look at your financial health in the broader sense,” said Suzanne Martindale, staff attorney at Consumer Union. “The most important thing is to maintain in good standing all of your debts.”

Here are some tips to consider before taking steps to make extra payments on your home loan:

Weigh your priorities

It may be tempting to double down on your mortgage payments, but doing so before you’ve taken care to shore up your finances overall isn’t a good idea.

Financial advisers recommend ensuring that you are saving for retirement and have set aside three to six months’ salary to cover emergencies. If you have children, you’ll also want to put saving for their college tuition ahead of making extra mortgage payments.

“At today’s low mortgage rates, if you are cutting into your retirement savings to pay off a mortgage, you are likely making a mistake,” said David Mullins, an independent financial adviser in Richlands, Virginia. “You don’t want to have your nest egg tied up in a property where you can’t easily convert it to cash.”

Slash other debt first

Paying off high-interest debt such as credit cards is another priority that should be put before focusing on paying down your home loan faster. Consider paying off car loans, too.

That’s because home loans are likely the least costly debt a borrower will have, especially if they took advantage of low mortgage interest rates. In addition, homeowners are allowed to take a deduction on their income taxes for the interest paid on their home loan.

Do it yourself

You’ve decided to accelerate payments on your mortgage, so what is the best approach?

There are many ways to get there, including paying a little bit extra every month, or making a lump-sum payment at the end of the year. Another approach involves paying half of your monthly mortgage bill every two weeks. Over the course of a year, you end up making 26 transfers, which works out to an additional monthly payment.

Contact your lender to make sure they allow extra payments and will apply the funds toward the principal on your loan, not the interest.

Try this extra payments calculator from Bankrate to compare how much money the different approaches to making extra mortgage payments can save you.

Watch out for fees

Regardless of the payment plan, steer clear of businesses that offer to handle your extra payments for a fee, said Martindale.

“Consumers need to be very wary from sales pitches from third-party companies,” she said. “If they’re charging a fee for their service, it can undercut any potential benefits they might be offering.”

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has sued several companies that offer to handle borrowers’ twice-monthly mortgage payments. The agency claims the companies misled consumers about how much they could save in interest on their home loan.

One company, Paymap Inc., agreed last year to pay a $5 million civil penalty and return $33.4 million in fees to consumers. Another firm in the biweekly mortgage payment collection business, LoanCare LLC, agreed to pay a $100,000 civil penalty.

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