Q&A: How to get rid of home-equity loan headaches

Dear Liz: We have taken several withdrawals from our home equity line of credit. Now the balance is close to $100,000. It’s the interest-only type. We don’t know how to pay off this amount systematically. Can you help?

Answer: As you’ve discovered, it’s not a good idea to pledge your home as collateral when you don’t know how you’ll pay off the debt. Home equity lines of credit can be an inexpensive way to borrow initially, but the interest-only period doesn’t last forever and eventually your payments will get a lot more expensive.

Many homeowners who tapped their equity before the financial crisis are discovering this fact — and some risk losing their homes. The initial “draw” period where you pay only interest typically lasts 10 years. After that, you can’t make further withdrawals and you’re expected to pay both interest and principal over the next 20 years. Your payments may jump 50% or more, depending on prevailing interest rates.

A better way to use HELOCs is for short-term borrowing that’s paid off well before the draw period expires. If you can increase your current payments to do that, you should.

If you can’t make pay more than your minimum, though, you’ll need to explore other alternatives. You may be able to arrange a cash-out refinance that combines the HELOC balance with your current mortgage and gives you 30 years to pay it off. If not, you can make an appointment with a housing counselor (you can get referrals at www.hud.gov) to see what options may be available to you as a distressed borrower. If you can’t restructure the debt, a short sale or a deed-in-lieu of foreclosure may be a better option than letting the lender take your home.

Q&A: Getting through to Social Security

Dear Liz: I read your article about checking your Social Security earnings record and benefits. I tried to set up an account with the Social Security Administration to track my retirement benefits (I turn 65 in December). Apparently the Social Security Administration will only text a required security code to a cellphone. I do have a cellphone but live in an area with very sketchy reception. I couldn’t get a signal the day I tried to set up the account. Do you have any suggestions about an alternate source or method for accessing my benefits?

Answer: The Social Security Administration briefly required people to use a one-time code sent to their cellphones in order to set up an online account. You weren’t the only one who was having trouble with this new hurdle, and the administration has since dropped the requirement.

People still have the option of getting and using a code if they’re comfortable doing so. This so-called two factor authentication — which uses both something you know, such as a password, and something you have, such as a code sent to your phone — is a smart idea for any sensitive online account. Banks and brokerages should offer this option to further protect customers’ security, but many of them don’t.

By the way, the Social Security Administration allows only one account per Social Security number, so you’d be smart to continue setting up your account. That will prevent someone else from doing so and making unauthorized claims or changes.

Q&A: Free credit score? Be careful

Dear Liz: As a financial planner, I am surprised you pointed someone in the direction of paying for a credit score. Your score can be accessed at several credit sites for free. Why would you want your readers to pay for something they could get free? 

Answer: As a financial planner, you should understand that “free” is a squishy concept.

Some sites do offer free credit scores in return for your private financial information, including your Social Security number. Most of these sites are committed to protecting your information — the credit bureaus they’re working with insist on that — but the sites may use your data to market financial products and services to you. As the saying goes, if something on the Internet is free, then the product being sold is you.

Many people are comfortable with that trade-off. Others aren’t. The other and perhaps more important reason to buy your credit scores from MyFico.com is that you’ll be getting numbers created from the same FICO formulas that most lenders use. The sites handing out free scores typically offer VantageScores, which is a FICO competitor. This particular reader wanted to see the auto FICO scores his lenders would use, and for that the best source is MyFico.com.

Q&A: Getting a new mortgage after a foreclosure

Dear Liz: Is it true that we can’t refinance our home until seven years after a foreclosure? We lost a rental property six years ago. Our credit scores now are in the 740 range, and we are anxious to take advantage of lower rates since our mortgage rate is 5.75%. Other than the foreclosure, our credit is perfect.

Answer: As foreclosures surged, the agencies that buy most mortgages increased the amount of time troubled borrowers had to spend in the “penalty box” before being allowed another mortgage.

Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac still have a seven-year waiting period after foreclosures. But that has been shortened to three years when borrowers can prove “extenuating circumstances,” such as a prolonged job loss or big medical expenses. Waiting times for other negative events, such as bankruptcy or short sale, have been reduced to two years with extenuating circumstances. Otherwise, it’s four years.

There are other loan programs that are even more forgiving. For example, the FHA has a three-year waiting period that can be shortened to one year if borrowers participate in its “Back to Work” program, which requires they document a significant loss of household income, that their finances have fully recovered from the event and that they’ve completed housing counseling. The Veterans Administration, meanwhile, makes loans available one to two years after foreclosure.

Q&A: Could new job affect credit rating?

Dear Liz: I have been employed at a small business, a sole proprietorship, for 34 years. My boss is going to just shut down the business, with no plan for succession. I have a job offer from a rival firm, so I don’t plan on being out of work for very long. How will this affect my credit rating? If I apply for a loan after being employed for, say, six months at the new firm, will the short time at that job be a negative mark against me? Should I hurry to apply for a loan before the business shuts down? Would that be illegal or unethical, since I know that I won’t be there much longer?

Answer: Few people know with any certainty how long they’ll remain in their current jobs. If only those who planned to stick with their employers indefinitely were allowed to apply for credit, lenders would go out of business.

That said, a recent job change can complicate the process for getting some loans, such as a mortgage. If you’re planning to borrow the money anyway and can complete the loan process before changing jobs, you’ll likely have an easier time getting approved.

While some lenders take job stability into account, your credit scores do not. Credit scoring formulas don’t include any information about employment or income. You get and keep good scores by using credit responsibly. But part of responsible credit management is not applying for loans you don’t need, so don’t rush out to borrow money just because you can.

Q&A: Survivor benefits for divorcees

Dear Liz: I am 76 and widowed. I’ve been collecting half of my ex-husband’s Social Security payment for the last nine years. We were married for 20 years. He remarried in 1987 and his wife is still living. He is now terminally ill with cancer. Am I eligible for survivor benefits?

Answer: You will be. If you qualify for divorced spousal benefits while your ex is alive, you will qualify for divorced survivor benefits when he dies. Instead of collecting an amount equal to half his benefit, your check will increase to 100% of the amount he was receiving.

Survivor benefits differ from spousal benefits in another key way. If you remarry, divorced spousal benefits end. Survivor benefits can continue after marriage, as long as you’re 60 or over when you re-tie the knot.

By the way, your benefits don’t take any money away from his current wife. She, too, will be eligible for a survivor benefit equal to what he was getting, unless her own retirement benefit is greater. One primary earner’s work record can support a number of divorced spouses in addition to a current spouse, as long as the previous marriages lasted at least 10 years each.

Q&A: Factors to consider for refinancing into a 15-year mortgage

Dear Liz: I am considering refinancing my home from a 30-year mortgage to a 15-year loan and wondered if it would be a wise decision. I am 57, divorced and make a little over $100,000 a year as a high school teacher (and I plan to keep working until at least age 65). Other than a car loan, I have no debts and an excellent credit rating. I will receive a pretty decent teacher’s pension and I have about $150,000 in mutual funds in retirement accounts. I can afford the larger payment on a shorter loan. Do you think this would be a good move for me?

Answer: For most people, a 30-year mortgage is a good option. People can always make extra principal payments to pay down the loan faster, but the lower monthly payment is easier to handle if they face financial setbacks such as a job loss.

Your employment situation seems pretty stable, though, and you’re in good shape with a pension plus savings. If you can swing the payments, you’d be building equity much faster and while paying less interest. You’ll still have home debt into your 70s, which isn’t ideal, but it’s certainly better than having a mortgage in your 80s.

Q&A: Where to find FICO scores

Dear Liz: I’m looking to buy a car and I’d like to see the FICO scores that lenders use. I already visited MyFico.com, but I want another site that shows my real FICO scores for auto lending. If you could point me in the right direction, that would be great.

Answer: You were at the right site. When you buy one credit score for $19.95 from MyFico.com, you actually get several scores from the same credit bureau. Those include FICO 8, the most commonly-used score, as well as the FICOs that bureau typically supplies to mortgage, auto and credit card lenders. If you want to see FICOs from all three bureaus, you can buy them for $59.85 and get a total of 25 different scores.

The scores lenders actually use to price your loan may be somewhat higher or lower from the ones you’ll see because credit scores change all the time. But if you apply for a loan shortly after buying your scores, they should be pretty close to the ones you see.

Q&A: Accessing Social Security account data

Dear Liz: I read your answer to the gentleman trying to locate his W-2 forms to add missing years to his Social Security account. I wonder why, even as you give advice about keeping old W-2 forms indefinitely, you didn’t mention that the Social Security Administration allows everyone who has paid into the system to receive an annual report showing the income, year-by-year, that was subject to Social Security taxes. I have been receiving that report for most of my adult life (I’m 60 now) and I don’t find the need to keep old W-2’s past seven years if I’ve already compared their totals against the annual SSA report. I wonder why this gentleman didn’t do likewise over the years.

Answer: You may not have noticed, but those annual statements went missing for a few years.

Social Security began mailing annual reports to workers 25 and over starting in 1999 but suspended those as a cost-saving measure in 2011. The suspension saved the government about $70 million each year in printing and mailing costs, but workers lost easy access to information about their future benefits and their earnings.

People with access to the Internet could create online accounts to check their earnings records, and about 26 million have done so. But that still left the majority of workers in the dark about whether their earnings were being properly credited to their accounts.

In 2014, mailings resumed but only for workers reaching ages 25, 30, 35, 40, 45, 50, 55 and 60 and over.

Q&A: When to take Social Security benefits

Dear Liz: I’m about to turn 66 and my wife is 60. I plan to delay Social Security benefits until I’m 70. My benefit will be large enough that whenever she starts benefits, her spousal benefit will be larger than what she earned on her own. Here’s the question: I think that the time for her to start taking benefits will be immediately upon reaching her full retirement age, not waiting until 70, as I am doing. Correct?

Answer: Correct. You will earn delayed retirement credits that will boost your benefit by 8% for each year you put off applying. Spousal benefits don’t get those credits. The maximum spousal benefit is 50% of your primary insurance amount, or the amount you would get if you applied at age 66. She’ll receive that maximum if she applies for spousal benefits at her own full retirement age.