Mortgage Definition: Their Types, History, and Impact on the Economy

How Mortgages Affect the U.S. Economy

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A mortgage is a loan that makes it possible to buy real estate, whether it's your home or an investment property. The lender fronts the money necessary to make the purchase, and the creditor pays that money back—plus interest—in installments, usually over 15 to 30 years. A mortgage also allows the lender to seize your property if you don't make all the payments in a timely way.

Mortgages in the Great Depression

Home mortgages were 5- to 10-year loans for only about 50% of the value of the property in the years before the Great Depression. The principal was due as a balloon payment—a large, single, one-time payment at the end of the term.

Then housing prices fell by about 25% during the Depression, and homeowners couldn't afford their balloon payments. The banks wouldn't allow refinancing. Approximately 1,000 homes were foreclosed upon every day in 1933.

The New Deal

Then President Franklin D. Roosevelt changed five critical housing-related areas as part of the New Deal to respond to the economic catastrophe:

  1. The Home Owner’s Loan Corporation bought 1 million defaulted mortgages from banks. It changed them to long-term, fixed-rate mortgages and reinstated them. 
  2. The Federal Housing Administration provided mortgage insurance.
  3. The Federal National Mortgage Association created a secondary market for mortgages.
  4. The Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation insured bank deposits.
  5. The Glass-Steagall Act prohibited banks from investing depositors' funds in risky ventures like the stock market.

These changes weren't designed to be a homeownership policy, but they nonetheless made homeownership more affordable. They extended the term of loans, and this reduced monthly costs and eliminated the need to refinance. Banks funded these mortgages thanks to FDIC-insured bank deposits.

Some Help From the VA

The Department of Veterans Affairs mortgage insurance program lowered down payments in 1944. It encouraged returning war veterans to buy homes that were being built in the suburbs. This spurred economic activity in the home construction industry. Thanks to all the federal programs, homeownership rose from 43.6% in 1940 to 64% by 1980.

Introducing Savings and Loan Banks

The government created special legislation to create savings and loans banks to issue these mortgages. Almost all mortgages were issued through savings and loans throughout the 1960s and 1970s. These banks were successful because people deposited funds into their savings accounts.

The government insured the deposits, so people used the accounts even though the interest earned wasn't much. This was also regulated by the government. The S&Ls remained profitable by paying lower interest rates on deposits than they charged on the mortgages.

The 1970s Economy

President Richard Nixon created runaway inflation by severing all ties between the U.S. dollar and the gold standard in the 1970s. Banks lost deposits because they were unable to match the interest paid by money market accounts. This reduced the funding they needed to issue mortgages. 

Congress then passed the Garn-St. Germain Depository Institutions Act to help the banks. It allowed banks to raise interest rates and lower lending standards. It also allowed S&Ls to make commercial and consumer loans. This led to the savings and loan crisis and the failure of half the nation's banks. 

Year % of Household Income % of Household Assets % of GDP
1949 20 15 15
1979 46 28 30
2001 73 41 50
Growth of Mortgage Debt

How a Mortgage Works Today

The amount you borrow toward a home purchase is referred to as the principal. The bank will generally lend you up to 90% of the value of the real estate. You must pay the rest through a down payment.

The bank won't lend you the money for free. It will impose interest, typically 2.95% to 3.45% of the principal as of 2020, depending on the type of mortgage.

Your monthly payment will consist of a combination of principal and interest. You'll pay off the mortgage by making payments against the principal. Every time you make a payment against the principal, the loan amortizes.

Your equity in the property increases as you amortize the mortgage. Your equity can also increase as your home's value rises over time. In fact, your equity can increase dramatically in a hot housing market.

Each loan has its own combination of a down payment, an interest rate, and an amortization schedule. You must be aware of all of them to understand what you're paying each month.

Balance the terms of your mortgage against your situation and needs:

  • Take the one with the lowest payment if you don't plan to stay in the house long, and you don't think home prices will rise during that time.
  • Get one that allows you to pay as much principal as you can afford if you plan to stay in your home a long time and you think home prices will rise.

You might want to rent until you believe prices have hit bottom if you think housing prices will fall.

Property Taxes and Insurance Add-Ons

Banks might also collect property taxes. It will hold these in an escrow account for safekeeping and pay the taxes for you from that account when they come due. The bank might also collect and pay for your homeowners' insurance.

The bank will also charge you for mortgage insurance if your down payment is less than 20% of the home's value.

Common Mortgages Today

All mortgages are either fixed rate or adjustable rate loans. They're tailored to meet your personal financial needs. The less you pay each month, the longer it will take you to pay it off.

Fixed Rate Mortgages

The most popular type of mortgage is the conventional 30-year fixed interest rate loan. It's represented between 70% and 90% of all mortgages since 1999.

The 15-year fixed rate loan is also widely used. It allows people to pay down their debt in half the time.

Adjustable Rate Mortgages

Adjustable rate mortgages offer lower interest rates and monthly payments than fixed-rate loans.

FHA Loans

An FHA loan is guaranteed by the Federal Housing Administration. As a result, banks require as little as 3.5% down payments. You can use gifts from others to make this down payment, but there are some pitfalls. You must find out from your lender if you qualify for an FHA loan.

Second Mortgages, Home Equity Loans, or Lines of Credit

You can borrow against your equity with a second mortgage. A home equity loan is a one-time loan that you make payments against in addition to your first mortgage.

You can use a home equity line of credit (HELOC) something like a credit card. You can borrow what you need when you need it and pay interest on the outstanding amount you've borrowed until you've repaid the principal.

Reverse Mortgages

A reverse mortgage also allows you to borrow against the equity in your home. The difference is that the bank pays you each month. It doesn't expect repayment until you move out or die. The loan will be repaid from the proceeds of the sale of the property at that time.

These loans are only available to homeowners age 62 or older.

Exotic Sub-Prime Loans

Subprime lenders created a host of exotic loans based on adjustable rate mortgages. They attracted customers by offering low "teaser" rates for the first couple of years. These can be dangerous for first-time borrowers who might not be aware that their payments will rise dramatically after the initial sweetheart phase. Some of the most popular of these loans include:

  • Interest-only loans that offer super-low payments that don't reduce the principal for the first few years
  • Option ARM loans that allow borrowers to choose how much they pay each month for the first five years
  • Negative amortization loans that increase the principal each month while charging interest only
  • Ultra-long fixed-rate loans that are 40- to 50-year conventional mortgages 
  • Balloon loans that must be refinanced or paid off entirely after five to seven years
  • No-money-down loans that allow the borrower to take out another loan for the down payment

How to Get the Best Rate

Make sure your credit score is 720 or better. Longer-term loans with a higher down payment will have lower rates than short-term loans, but the lowest rate might not meet your personal financial goals, depending on your personal situation.

It pays to shop around, but be sure to do so within a 45-day period of time. Otherwise, it could affect your credit score.

When to Use a Mortgage Broker

Mortgage brokers charge a fee that usually works out to 1% and 2% of the loan amount, but it could be worth using one if they find a better rate than you could on your own. A broker can be especially helpful for borrowers who are self-employed, have bad credit, who don't have time to shop loans, or who just aren't good with numbers.

Article Sources

  1. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. "What Is a Balloon Payment? When Is One Allowed?" Accessed March 2, 2020.

  2. Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis Review. "The Federal Response to Home Mortgage Distress: Lessons from the Great Depression." Page 6. Accessed March 2, 2020.

  3. Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum. "FDR and Housing Legislation." Accessed March 4, 2020.

  4. National Affairs. "A Home of One's Own." Accessed March 2, 2020.

  5. University of Pennsylvania. "The American Mortgage in Historical and International Context." Page 97. Accessed March 4, 2020.

  6. Federal Reserve History. "Garn-St Germain Depository Institutions Act of 1982." Accessed March 4, 2020.

  7. Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis Economic Research. "30-Year Fixed Rate Mortgage Average in the United States." Accessed March 2, 2020.

  8. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. "What Is Mortgage Insurance and How Does It Work?" Accessed March 2, 2020.

  9. HUD.gov. "Let FHA Loans Help You." Accessed March 2, 2020.

  10. Federal Trade Commission Consumer Information. "Reverse Mortgages." Accessed March 2, 2020.