subprime is still suspect

ss-subprime

Subprime lending has been making a comeback.  As banks slowly returned to the market, they offered harsh terms involving large down payments (25% or more) and charged rates between 8-10%.  As reported in the Wall Street Journal, the down payment requirements have recently been dropped to 5% of the loan. Considering subprime borrowers will most likely want to refinance as soon as possible to get better terms on the loan, would prospective subprime borrowers be better off taking out the loan or waiting and rehabilitating their credit to become a prime borrower?

Assume that it is possible to go from subprime credit to prime credit in 2 years.  This assumption is convenient to use because of terms in subprime lending contracts, but it is reasonably realistic, assuming there are no bankruptcies or judgments in the borrowers recent history.  If there are, then the borrower’s ability to refinance out of the loan in a timely manner is questionable to begin with. Using the average housing price of $272,000, I assume a subprime borrower would have a down payment of 5%, or $13,600, and that they borrow at 8%.  For this analysis I will include the requirement that the loan be held for 2 years.  This is not unreasonable; banks often require such a condition to ensure they get enough interest for the risk they are taking.  I will not include a prepayment penalty for simplicity, but for subprime loans, there will generally be a prepayment penalty. Calculations are done in nominal terms, as that is what the borrower would see on their statements.

Whether the subprime loan is better comes down to whether or not the buyer can accumulate enough equity to refinance the home out of the subprime loan and into a prime loan at the 2-year mark.  The amortization schedule of a subprime loan with the above assumptions is in this Google doc.  For those that wish to play with it, the values at the top can be changed as inputs, but there must be a % symbol with the rates.  Assuming the house price stays the same, the schedule shows when various equity milestones, as well as credit rehab events would occur in the life of the sub prime loan.

Assuming that the loan is for 30 years, the subprime borrower would have a monthly payment of almost $1,900, yet all but $173 of the initial payment goes to interest, assuming it is not an interest only loan.  By month 24, the borrower can finally get out of the loan, but they have paid about $41,000 in interest, and only about $4,500 of the principal.  With the down payment, they have $13,600 + $4,500 = $18,100 in equity, or about 6.65% equity.  They have also spent the equivalent of $1,708 a month in interest.  While shorter loans would result in equity accumulating faster, it would also result in a much larger monthly payment. The results would only get worse if we included a prepayment penalty.

In order to refinance the loan, the owner needs to have equity in the house, typically around 20%.  Since the borrower isn’t going to have anywhere near that amount of equity, the house would have to appreciate to roughly $317,000, a return of 16.5% on the purchase price.  This is possible, but in a sense the subprime borrowers are speculating on the value of the house in two years, where the payoff is the ability to refinance your mortgage before it ruins you.

Contrasting that with a prudent alternative, a borrower that lived in a modest apartment with only $1,200 per month rent would accumulate an additional $12,000 to add to what ever else they had saved, resulting in a much larger down payment.  Assuming they rehabilitated their credit to prime, they get a much lower rate, and a more manageable monthly payment.

Many subprime borrowers cite the investment benefits of owning a home, tired of paying rent, they want to start building equity.  However, by taking on a subprime loan, they are gambling with their financial future with very little to gain.  Since so much of the early payments go to interest, the owners may end up paying more in interest then they would have in rent for the same period, and should they fail to refinance the loan, they will most likely lose thousands, if not the house entirely.

The analysis presented here shows some of the math that needs to be done by subprime borrowers.  Subprime loans are not inherently bad, but borrowers need to understand the assumptions they are making when they sign up for them.  They may find that patience could pay off.