Unsecured Loans: Definition and Explanation

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Unsecured loans are loans that are approved without the need for collateral. Instead of pledging assets, borrowers qualify based on their credit history and income. Lenders do not have the right to take physical assets (such as a home or vehicle) if borrowers stop making payments on unsecured loans.

These loans are also known as “signature loans” because your signature on the loan agreement is all that you bring to the table. You promise to repay, but you don’t back up that promise by pledging collateral.

Types of Unsecured Loans

Unsecured debt comes in several forms.

  • Credit cards are a common form of unsecured loan. Even though you might not think of them as “loans,” you borrow money when you spend with a credit card.
  • Student loans are often unsecured. Although some people take cash out of their homes to pay for school, pure student loans through the Department of Education are typically unsecured.
  • “Personal” loans, available from banks, credit unions, and online lenders are unsecured loans you can use for any purpose you want.

Compare and Contrast

To reinforce the concept, it may be helpful to look at loans that are not unsecured loans.

Auto loans are usually secured loans. When you borrow to buy a car (or borrow against your car title), the lender has the right to take your car away if you stop making payments.

Home loans are also secured. Whether you borrow for your home purchase or you get a second mortgage, you risk being forced out of your home through foreclosure if you fail to repay the loan.

Business loans can be secured or unsecured. If your lender requires that you make a personal guarantee, you may have to pledge your home or other assets as collateral.

Even with secured loans, it’s possible to damage your credit if you stop making payments. The fact that the lender takes your collateral doesn’t change that.

In fact, sometimes lenders sell collateral, but the sales proceeds are not enough to pay off your loan balance. When that happens, you lose the asset, damage your credit, and still owe money on the deal because of a deficiency judgment.

What’s more, lenders may charge penalty fees, which increase the amount you owe. Eventually, lenders may take legal action, and they may be able to take cash from your bank accounts or garnish your wages.

Approval for Unsecured Loans

To get a secured loan, you do not need to pledge anything as collateral. Instead, the lender will evaluate your loan application based on your ability to repay (as opposed to the lender’s ability to sell your assets and collect what you owe).

Lenders look at several factors to decide whether or not you’re likely to repay.

Your Credit

Lenders check your borrowing history to see if you’ve successfully paid off loans in the past. Based on the information in your credit reports, a computer creates a credit score, which is a shortcut for evaluating your creditworthiness. To get an unsecured loan, you’ll need good credit. If you’ve done very little borrowing in the past (or you have bad credit because you’ve fallen on hard times in your past), it is possible to rebuild your credit over time.

Your Income

Lenders want to be sure that you have enough income to repay any new loans. When you apply for a loan (whether secured or unsecured), lenders will ask for proof of income. Your pay stubs, tax returns, and bank statements will most likely provide sufficient proof of income. Then, lenders will evaluate how much of a burden your new loan payment will be relative to your monthly income. They typically do this by calculating a debt-to-income ratio.

If you can’t qualify for an unsecured loan based on your credit and income, you might still have options.

  • Co-signer: One approach is to ask a co-signer to help you get approved, but this can put everybody in a difficult situation. The co-signer will be 100 percent responsible for repaying the debt if you’re unable to do so for any reason.
  • Secured debt: You can also try pledging collateral. However, you risk losing assets if you’re unable to keep up with payments. You can pledge physical assets, but you can also use cash in a bank account or other financial assets to secure a loan.
  • Borrow less: If your debt-to-income ratios are causing problems, a smaller loan should result in lower monthly payments. If you can still accomplish what you need with less debt, that might work well for everybody.

It may help to learn more about how to boost your loan approval odds.