Should You Pay Down PMI or High Interest Debt First?


Money Girl listener Danielle M. says:

I’ve been listening to your podcast for about five years now since I graduated from college. I greatly appreciate the tips and guidance you give to the community as a whole. Thank you for giving me the confidence and knowledge to build a solid financial foundation.

I recently purchased a home, which includes a PMI payment. I also have student loans and a small car loan. We have extra money every month to put toward our loans. I understand it’s best to pay down debt in order of the highest interest rate first. I’m wondering how to evaluate my mortgage since the interest rate doesn’t include PMI payments. Should I pay down my mortgage until the PMI is gone, or is it better to focus on my higher-rate student loans first?

Thanks for your great question, Danielle! Understanding where to put your extra money each month is incredibly important. In this post, I’ll explain what PMI is, the rules for eliminating it, and how to know when it should be your top financial priority.

What is Private Mortgage Insurance (PMI)?

If you take out a mortgage to buy a home or refinance an existing home loan, the last thing you want to hear is that you have to pay an additional charge, called private mortgage insurance or PMI. You might feel even worse when you find out that this insurance protects the lender, not you!

Borrowers have to shell out for PMI when they get a conventional mortgage but can’t put at least 20% down. The amount you borrow to buy a home is called the loan-to-value (LTV) ratio. For example, if you borrow $180,000 to buy a home valued at $200,000, you have a 90% LTV ($180,000 / $200,000 = 0.90)

Borrowers have to shell out for PMI when they get a conventional mortgage but can’t put at least 20% down.

When your LTV on a home mortgage is higher than 80%, lenders consider you to be a bigger risk than if you borrowed less. The lender mitigates that risk by requiring you to purchase PMI. The policy would cover a portion of their loss if you didn’t pay your mortgage and foreclosure proceeds don’t cover your outstanding loan balance.

However, there’s a bright side to paying PMI. It makes it possible for many borrowers who can’t afford to put 20% down to buy a home. And it can be eliminated at certain LTV thresholds, which we’ll cover.  

What’s the cost of PMI?

The cost of PMI varies depending on many factors. These include the type of mortgage you get, how much you put down, where the property is located, your credit, your loan term, and how lenders structure your PMI fee. In general, there are three ways lenders charge PMI:

  1. Monthly payments – which get added to your monthly mortgage payments. The premium could range from 0.2% to 1.5% of the balance on your loan each year. The annual cost is typically divided into 12 premiums and added to your monthly payments.
     
  2. Lump-sum payment – is a one-time premium that you pay upfront at closing. You may also pay both upfront and monthly premiums.
     
  3. Higher interest rate – a lender may charge a higher interest rate instead of itemizing separate PMI charges.

Monthly payments are the most common way that borrowers pay for PMI. Let’s say you get a 30-year, fixed-rate mortgage for $180,000 to buy a home valued at $200,000. With a 90% LTV and good credit, your PMI could cost about $100 per month.

Paying monthly PMI gives you the most transparency about the charge. It gets itemized on your mortgage statement, so you know exactly how much you’re paying. And more importantly, you can see when it finally gets eliminated, which we’ll cover next.

If your lender offers more than one way to pay PMI, ask for a detailed pricing comparison so you can weigh the pros and cons.

If you make a lump-sum PMI payment, it could turn out to cost more or less than the other options, depending on whether you choose to pay off your mortgage ahead of schedule. If you sell your home after just a few years or pay off your mortgage early, you don’t get a return of any PMI premium.

Since mortgage interest is tax-deductible, the option to pay a higher interest rate instead of separate PMI payments could cost less on an after-tax basis. Also, PMI is currently a tax-deductible expense, although there have been periods when it wasn’t. At the end of the year, lenders send out Form 1098, which lists how much PMI and mortgage interest you paid during the year so that you can claim it on your tax return.

However, you can only claim these deductions if you itemize them using Schedule A. When your total itemized deductions are less than the standard deduction for your tax filing status, you’ll save money claiming the standard deduction instead.

As you can see, knowing which option is best for paying PMI can be a bit complicated. If your lender offers more than one way to pay it, ask for a detailed pricing comparison so you can weigh the pros and cons and consider which option may cost less.

Rules for eliminating Private Mortgage Insurance

Now that you understand why and how lenders charge PMI, let’s review the rules for getting rid of it. That will help you know how high a priority it should be.

You should receive an annual notice from your mortgage lender that reminds you about your options to have PMI eliminated under certain conditions. Here are the ways you can get rid of monthly PMI payments.

When your mortgage balance reaches 78% of the original value of the property, PMI must automatically be canceled.

Request cancelation. After you pay down your mortgage balance to 80% of the original value of your home, you can ask for PMI to be canceled. Your original value can be either the price you paid for your home or its appraised value when you bought it (or refinanced it), whichever is less.

Your lender will require you to pay for a property appraisal to verify that your home’s value is the same or higher than when you purchased it. The appraisal fee could range from $300 to $1,000, depending on the size and location of your home.

Automatic termination. When your mortgage balance reaches 78% of the original value of the property, PMI must automatically be canceled. In this case, you don’t have to request it or pay for an appraisal.

Midpoint termination. When your mortgage balance reaches its midpoint, PMI must be automatically canceled. For example, if you have a 30-year mortgage, your lender must cancel your PMI after 15 years.

But keep an eye out for situations that might allow you to cancel PMI early, like when your home value appreciates due to market conditions. When your home value goes up, it lowers your LTV. Likewise, if you make additional mortgage payments that reduce your principal loan balance, it lowers your LTV. The faster you get to the 78% threshold, the sooner you can request a PMI cancellation.

Keep an eye out for situations that might allow you to cancel PMI early, like when your home value appreciates due to market conditions.

However, be aware that your lender can deny your request for PMI cancelation in certain situations, such as if you’ve made late payments. You must get current on any outstanding payments to have PMI canceled either as a request or automatically. Also, don’t forget that taking out a home equity loan or line of credit increases your LTV.

When should eliminating PMI be a financial priority?

Now that you understand when you must pay PMI and when you can eliminate it, let’s turn to Danielle’s question. She’s considering whether to send extra money to her mortgage and get closer to canceling PMI or if it’s better to pay off her student loan or car loan faster.

First, I’d recommend that Danielle zoom out and look at any other top financial priorities. She didn’t mention if she’s regularly contributing to a retirement account or has emergency savings. If she doesn’t have a healthy emergency fund, or she isn’t investing a minimum of 10% to 15% of her gross income for retirement, that’s where her extra money should go first.

We know that Danielle doesn’t have any dangerous debts, such as accounts in collections, credit cards with sky-high interest rates, or expensive payday loans. If she did, those would need attention before addressing any other type of debt. As she mentioned in her question, it’s generally best to pay off debt in order of highest to lowest interest rate.

So, assuming that Danielle’s finances are in good shape, how does paying PMI compare with a student loan and a small auto loan balance? While ongoing PMI payments aren’t an interest expense, you can pretend that they are as a technique for understanding their place in your financial life.

Let’s say you borrowed $180,000 for a $200,000 home, giving you a 90% LTV. As I previously mentioned, you need a 78% LTV to request PMI cancellation. So, you’d have to pay down your mortgage to $156,000 to get there. If you’re at the beginning of a loan term, you’d need to shell out $24,000 ($180,000 – $156,000 = $24,000).

If you were paying $100 a month or $1,200 a year for PMI, you could calculate it as a proxy for annual interest on a $24,000 loan. That comes out to an effective interest rate of 5% ($1,200 / $24,000 = 0.05). That’s an amount you’re paying on top of your mortgage interest rate. So, if your mortgage costs 4% in this example, you’d really be paying more like 9% during the years that you pay PMI.

The benefits of accelerating mortgage payments to get rid of PMI decrease if you’re able to deduct mortgage interest and PMI on your taxes.

However, this is an imperfect calculation because it’s doesn’t account for many factors. These include how much extra you pay toward your principal mortgage balance, how quickly equity builds as you prepay it, and any home appreciation.

Also, the benefits of accelerating mortgage payments to get rid of PMI decrease if you’re able to deduct mortgage interest and PMI on your taxes. A fixed-rate mortgage that costs 4% may only cost you 3% on an after-tax basis, depending on your effective income tax rate.

In general, prepaying a mortgage to eliminate PMI ahead of schedule may not help you as much as paying down other types of debt. Depending on where you live, factors such as real estate appreciation and general inflation are likely to work in your favor, making you eligible for PMI cancellation sooner than you may think.

A super simple way to evaluate the interest rate you’re paying for a mortgage with PMI is to tack on a percentage point or two. For instance, if your pre-tax mortgage rate is 4%, consider it actually costing you 5% to 6% tops. Or if you deduct interest and PMI, don’t factor in the tax implications and just consider the mortgage costing you the same as its stated interest rate, or 4% in my example.

If your other debts cost more than these very rough mortgage interest calculations, I’d be aggressive about getting rid of them first. Again, go in order of highest interest rate to lowest.

However, if you have a small outstanding balance that you just want to wipe out, there’s nothing wrong with that. Even if it costs you slightly less in interest, sometimes it just feels good to get rid of a small debt that’s been weighing you down.

What’s most important is that you understand how much you owe, the interest rates you’re paying, and that you have a plan for eliminating debt. Even if you don’t have extra money to pay off debt ahead of schedule, tacking them in the right order helps you save the most interest so you can eliminate debt as quickly as possible.



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