Even homeowners who refinanced a year or two ago could do well to try again -- if they meet the tighter credit standards.
As interest rates have slid over the past couple of years, Gabriel Bousbib of Englewood, N.J., refinanced his 15-year mortgage not once but twice, cutting his interest rate in two steps from about 4.6 percent to 3.375 percent.
He's one of a number of homeowners who refinanced just a year or two ago but decided it was worth considering again as mortgage rates hit record lows -- now averaging around 4 percent for a 30-year loan.
"When you're quoting rates in the high 3s, people are saying, 'It's worth it to me,'" said Steve Hoogerhyde, executive vice president at Clifton Savings Bank.
"My monthly payments are going down a few hundred dollars; it adds up over 15 years," said Bousbib, a financial services executive. "And if rates keep going down, I would refinance again."
Refinance applications have more than doubled over the past year, though they're not as high as in previous refinancing booms because it's harder to qualify in the current atmosphere of tighter credit standards, according to the Mortgage Bankers Association. With the volume of home purchases still low, refinancing accounts for about 80 percent of recent activity.
Although the old guideline used to be that you should consider refinancing only when rates drop at least 2 percentage points, the new wisdom is that it can be worthwhile even with smaller drops.
"For most people, if you can shave three-quarters of a percentage point off your interest rate, it's worth looking at," said Greg McBride, an analyst with Bankrate.com, a personal finance website.
For homeowners who plan to stick with the same loan term and want to lower their monthly payments, the math is straightforward. Find out how much it will cost to refinance, figure out how much you'll save each month and then how long it will take to break even. If you can save enough to offset the refinancing costs within a year or two -- or even longer if you expect to stay in the house for a number of years -- it's worth considering.
Though low-interest rates are incredibly low, the refinancing climate has changed from the easy-money days of five years ago. Generally, to get the best rates, homeowners need a 740 FICO credit score, well above the median score of 711. They also usually need at least 10 to 20 percent equity in the property. A recent expansion in the federal Home Affordable Refinance Program should allow refinancing this year by more so-called underwater borrowers, those who owe more than their homes are worth.
Lenders are also demanding much more documentation -- including pay stubs, tax returns and bank statements -- than they did five years ago, at the insistence of government regulators as well as Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, which buy mortgages from lenders.
"You have to have a taste for doing paperwork," said Keith Gumbinger of HSH Associates, a Pompton Plains, N.J., company that tracks mortgage data. "You're going to be asked for lots of documents. No one loves the process to begin with, and in today's environment, it's even less palatable."
These stricter requirements are simply a return to the kind of underwriting standards that prevailed before lending standards slackened a few years back, leading to the housing bust and foreclosure crisis, McBride said.
"We're in this mess because money was too easy to get," he said.
Refinancing costs roughly $3,000, according to several mortgage companies. That covers costs like an appraisal, title insurance, application fees, attorney's fees and recording the mortgage. Some lenders also offer low- or no-cost options, which they can do by either adding the closing costs to the mortgage amount or charging a slightly higher interest rate.
Bousbib, for example, took a no-cost refinance with Equity Now, a New York-based lender that also lends in New Jersey. "It didn't cost me a penny," he said. Equity Now says it charges a slightly higher interest rate on no-cost loans.
Lowering the monthly payment is not the only reason people are refinancing. Many are shifting from a 30-year loan to shorter terms, said Matthew Gratalo of Real Estate Mortgage Network in River Edge, N.J. He has worked with clients in their 40s who hate the thought of carrying a mortgage into retirement.
"They're looking ahead and saying, 'I don't want to pay a mortgage forever; can I get this done in 15 years? Can I be done with this and have it paid off?' " Gratalo said.