What Is Private Mortgage Insurance (PMI)?

Private Mortgage Insurance (PMI) Explained

This illustration shows what private mortgage insurance is, including details that it is for homeowners who put less than 20% down on a home, it protects the lender and not the borrower, and that it may come with hefty fees.

Bailey Mariner ©The Balance 

Private mortgage insurance is a policy that protects your lender in the event that you default on repaying the loan. It covers all or a portion of your remaining mortgage. The borrower pays for the policy although it benefits the lender, and it's sometimes required.

Like other insurance policies, private mortgage insurance comes with an annual premium and sometimes an upfront premium as well. There's at least one thing you can do to avoid paying for it, however.

Definition and Examples of Private Mortgage Insurance

Private mortgage insurance has been a component of some home loans since 1957. It effectively guarantees the lender that its loan will be paid, so having such a policy in place can help some borrowers get approved for a loan they wouldn't otherwise qualify for. This insurance is often required if you make a down payment of less than 20%.

  • Acronym: PMI

Some lenders will allow you to make a down payment of less than 20% without PMI, but these loans usually come with steeper interest rates.

How Private Mortgage Insurance Works

Like any other type of insurance policy, you're paying premiums to cover damages should an unfortunate event occur. The insurance company is liable for paying off your loan if for some reason you find yourself unable to do so.

Lenders consider that this is more likely to happen if you have less of an ownership stake in the property—your equity is less than 20% at the outset because you didn't put this much money down.

Private Mortgage Insurance vs. Mortgage Protection Insurance

PMI is different from mortgage protection insurance (MPI). Mortgage protection insurance won't pay off the entire balance of your loan if you default, but will make some payments for you for a while if you fall victim to certain covered hardships, such as job loss, disability, or serious illness.

Private Mortgage Insurance Mortgage Protection Insurance
Insures against total default on the loan Covers some missed mortgage payments
Insures the lender Insures the borrower
Pays in the event of foreclosure May pay in the event of the borrower's death
Is sometimes required by lenders Is a voluntary election by the borrower

Pros and Cons of Private Mortgage Insurance

There are both advantages and disadvantages to PMI. On the upside, it can make it easier to qualify for a loan because it lowers the risk you present to a lender. They might be more willing to overlook a low credit score or smaller down payment. And premiums are tax deductible, at least through December 31, 2020.

PMI also gives you more buying power because it lowers the down payment you’re required to bring to the table. This can be extremely helpful if you’re short on funds or just want a less significant initial investment.

The main drawback of PMI is that it increases your monthly mortgage payment and sometimes your closing costs, too. PMI payments are also no longer tax deductible, although you might still be able to write off the premiums on a loan taken out before 2017, depending on your income and the terms of your mortgage.

Another downside is that mortgage insurance exists solely to protect the lender in case you default. It offers no protection for you at all if you fall behind on payments.

  • May make it easier to qualify for a mortgage

  • Allows you to make a smaller down payment

  • May increase your monthly payment

  • May increase your closing costs

  • Provides no protection for the borrower

  • Premiums are not usually tax-deductible

Do I Need to Pay for Private Mortgage Insurance?

PMI typically costs between 0.5% and 1% of your loan value on an annual basis, but the cost of PMI can vary. Your lender will detail your PMI premiums on your initial loan estimate, as well as on your final closing disclosure form. You can expect to pay your premium either upfront at closing, monthly as a part of your mortgage payments, or both.

Avoiding PMI typically requires making a down payment of 20% or more. This isn’t true of all lenders, but it’s a good rule of thumb. 

You might consider delaying your home purchase until you can gather the cash, or asking for gift money from a parent or family member if you don't yet have 20% saved up. There are also crowdfunding platforms you can use to boost your down payment savings, as well as down payment assistance programs if you qualify.

The good thing about PMI is that it’s not permanent. You can typically request that your PMI be canceled and removed from your payments once you've built up 20% equity in the home. The process for this varies by lender, but the request must always come in writing, and it often requires another appraisal of your home.

Reach out to your lender as you near the 20% mark to get full details on how you can cancel yours.

Your lender is required to terminate PMI on your behalf once your balance falls to 78% of the home’s value. You must be current on your payments before they can cancel your policy.

Key Takeaways

  • Private mortgage insurance (PMI) protects lenders against potential default by borrowers. It will pay off the mortgage balance in the event of foreclosure.
  • PMI is often required when homebuyers make less than a 20% down payment on the loan.
  • This insurance offers borrowers a better chance of being approved for a mortgage if their credit is less than stellar, or if they don’t have a lot of money to put down.
  • PMI is usually included in mortgage payments, so it can make them higher than they otherwise would have been.