Fixed-rate loans are a common type of financing used by consumers to make large purchases or pay for expenses over an extended repayment period. With interest rates locked in, fixed-rate loans provide the reliability of having the same monthly payment for the life of the loan. This stability comes with tradeoffs, however. Understanding how fixed-rate loans work and analyzing the pros and cons allows borrowers to make informed decisions when evaluating loan options.
What Are Fixed-Rate Loans?
A fixed-rate loan is a loan that has an interest rate that remains unchanged over the full term of the loan. This differs from variable or adjustable-rate loans, where the interest rate fluctuates over time based on market conditions.
With a fixed-rate loan, the interest rate is set at the time the loan is originated and does not change. Common examples of fixed-rate loans include:
- Auto Loans
- Personal Loans
- Student Loans
Because the interest rate stays constant, the monthly principal and interest payment on a fixed-rate loan is the same each month for the duration of the loan. This predictability makes financial budgeting straightforward for the borrower.
When researching fixed-rate loans, there are some key terms to understand:
Interest Rate – The interest rate is the cost of borrowing money, expressed as a percentage rate. On fixed-rate loans this stays constant.
Principal – The principal is the original loan amount borrowed by the consumer. This is the base amount excluding interest.
Term – The term is the length of time over which the loan must be fully repaid. Common terms are 15 years, 20 years, 30 years.
Monthly Payment – This is the regular monthly amount paid by the borrower. It includes both principal and interest portions.
Amortization – Amortization describes how each monthly payment is applied to both interest and principal over time. In the beginning of the loan, payments go mostly to interest. Towards the end, they go mostly to principal.
How Do Fixed-Rate Loans Work?
When a lender issues a fixed-rate loan, they charge an interest rate based on current market conditions and the borrower’s creditworthiness. This rate stays the same over the full term, whether market rates increase or decrease in the future.
Each month, the borrower makes a payment that goes towards both repaying the principal and paying interest on the outstanding loan balance. In the early part of the loan, the payment is primarily interest. As the loan amortizes over time and the principal declines, the interest portion gets smaller and the payment goes more towards principal.
For example, a borrower takes out a $200,000 fixed-rate mortgage at 4% interest over 30 years. The monthly principal and interest payment will be around $955, every month for the full 30-year term.
If market interest rates rise to 6% a year later, the borrower’s 4% fixed rate remains unchanged, along with their $955 monthly payment. The stability continues even if market rates fall to 2% years later. The rate and payment stay the same per the loan terms.
Benefits of Fixed-Rate Loans
Opting for a fixed interest rate has several potential benefits:
Interest Rate and Payment Stability
The primary benefit of fixed-rate loans is stable interest rates and payments. Borrowers appreciate knowing their monthly payment amount will not change. This simplifies household budgeting.
For example, someone with a fixed-rate mortgage can expect their housing costs to remain the same from month to month and year to year for budget planning purposes.
Protection From Rising Rates
Choosing a fixed rate protects the borrower if market interest rates increase substantially later. Even if rates rise, the borrower’s locked-in fixed rate does not change.
This provides peace of mind and ensures the monthly payment will not increase over time as it could with an adjustable-rate loan.
Easier Comparison Shopping
Since the interest rate and payments do not change over the loan term, borrowers can easily compare pricing and total costs between lenders when shopping for the best deals.
The stability allows for an apples-to-apples comparison without trying to predict unknown future rate fluctuations.
Drawbacks of Fixed-Rate Loans
While fixed-rate loans have advantages, there are also potential disadvantages to consider:
Paying More if Rates Fall
If interest rates decrease significantly after originating a fixed-rate loan, the borrower will be stuck paying a higher rate than what is available in the market. The rate cannot be lowered to match lower market rates.
This typically only becomes a major disadvantage if rates fall dramatically for an extended period of time, allowing market rates to diverge substantially from a fixed loan rate.
Missed Refinancing Opportunities
Related to being stuck with a higher rate, borrowers lose the option to refinance their fixed-rate loan to capture savings if rates decline in the marketplace.
Without being able to refinance, borrowers can miss out on reducing their interest expenses if rates trend much lower in future years.
Paying More Interest Over Long Terms
Opting for a longer repayment term allows for a lower monthly payment, but results in more total interest paid over the life of the loan.
For example, a 30-year fixed-rate mortgage comes with higher total interest costs than a 15-year fixed mortgage, given the longer period of accumulating interest.
When Do Fixed-Rate Loans Make Sense?
In many cases, the stability and predictability of fixed-rate loans make them a viable and sometimes preferable option.
Good candidates for fixed-rate loans typically include:
- Borrowers who value having consistent, stable monthly payments for budgeting purposes. This includes homeowners who prefer knowing their mortgage payment will remain steady.
- Borrowers who want protection from potential rate increases in the future. Having an interest rate locked in provides peace of mind.
- Borrowers who plan to keep loans long term. Having a fixed rate can provide big savings if rates rise substantially later during the loan term.
- Borrowers who qualify for low current fixed rates, allowing them to lock in favorable rate conditions.
- Borrowers with short repayment terms, reducing the risk of rates falling much lower later on. The impact is lower over shorter 5-15 year loans.
In general, fixed rates are a smart choice when the priority is payment stability and managing risks from rising rates outweighs the inability to benefit from rate decreases.
Alternatives to Fixed-Rate Loans
Two common alternatives to fixed-rate loans include:
Adjustable-Rate Mortgages (ARMs) – With ARMs, the interest rate fluctuates based on market indexes and resets at specified intervals, usually every 1, 3, or 5 years. Monthly payments can increase or decrease with rate changes.
Variable-Rate Loans – These loans have variable interest rates that can change at any time based on market conditions. Monthly payments can go up or down as rates adjust up or down.
Adjustable and variable loans provide more flexibility to capture rate decreases, but monthly payments are less stable and predictable.
Key Factors When Comparing Loan Options
When deciding between a fixed-rate loan and adjustable-rate alternatives, key factors to consider include:
- Expected loan duration – Shorter planned terms favor variable rates, longer terms favor fixed rates.
- Market rate forecast – If rates are expected to fall, variable rates may provide more opportunity to benefit.
- Risk tolerance – Borrowers who value payment stability may prefer fixed rates to limit risk.
- Loan costs – Weigh origination fees and lender charges between different loan products.
- Flexibility needs – Assess the value of flexibility to refinance versus rate/payment stability.
Thoroughly researching options including rate history trends, market forecasts, and personal financial factors allows borrowers to make informed loan choices.
Fixed-rate loans provide unchanging interest rates and monthly principal and interest payments over the full loan term. This reliability helps with budgeting but also limits flexibility. Weighing the stability benefits against drawbacks like potentially higher long-term costs allows borrowers to decide if a fixed rate aligns with their financing needs and risk preferences. Being informed on how fixed-rate loans work enables smarter borrowing decisions.
- Fixed-rate loans have interest rates that remain unchanged over the full loan term
- Benefits include predictable payments and protection from rate increases
- Drawbacks can include paying more if market rates fall lower
- Stability and risk management are key factors favoring fixed-rate loans
- Be informed by researching historical rate trends and considering personal financial factors
Frequently Asked Questions
What is a fixed-rate loan?
A fixed-rate loan is a loan with an interest rate that is set at origination and remains the same over the entire term of the loan. Monthly principal and interest payments also remain the same.
How is a fixed-rate loan different than an adjustable-rate loan?
Adjustable-rate loans have interest rates tied to market indexes that reset periodically. Monthly payments increase or decrease as the interest rate changes. Fixed-rate loans maintain the same rates and paymentsWhat types of loans typically offer fixed rates?
Common fixed-rate loans include mortgages, auto loans, student loans, and personal loans. Almost any type of amortizing installment loan can offer fixed interest rates.
How does the loan term impact a fixed-rate loan?
Longer terms (like 30 years for a mortgage) result in lower monthly payments but higher total interest paid over the life of the loan. Shorter terms have higher monthly payments but less interest paid in total.
Can you ever refinance or change a fixed-rate loan?
In most cases fixed-rate loans can be refinanced, but the new loan would be subject to the current interest rates being offered for a new loan. The existing fixed rate cannot be lowered without refinancing.
How do fixed rates on mortgages compare to ARMs?
Fixed mortgage rates are often slightly higher than adjustable-rate mortgages (ARMs) initially, but remain stable over time while ARM rates and payments can fluctuate up or down.
Should I get a fixed or adjustable-rate mortgage?
Factors like how long you plan to stay in the home, interest rate forecasts, and personal risk tolerance determine if a fixed or adjustable mortgage works better for your situation. Talk to a lender.