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What Is A Fixed-Rate Mortgage And How Does It Work?

Victoria Araj5-minute read

June 16, 2021

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If you are new to the home buying game, you’re probably astonished at the amount of lingo you’ve been hearing and reading about. You can have a fixed-rate, or adjustable-rate mortgage. It can have a term of 15 or 30 years, or even a custom term. And so much more!

Turns out, you have to decide which type of mortgage is right for you. But before you can decide whether a fixed-rate mortgage makes sense for you, you need to know the basics about what these types of mortgages are and how they work.

What Is A Fixed-Rate Mortgage?

When it comes to fixed-rate mortgages, the name says it all. You initiate the process by choosing a lender and applying for preapproval. Your lender will review your documentation, credit score and calculate your debt-to-income ratio. If you are successful, your lender will tell you how much they’ll loan you and at what interest rate. If you’re working with Rocket Mortgage®, you can lock in your mortgage rate once you enter into a purchase agreement with a seller, or you can wait until your mortgage is officially approved.

When you get one of these mortgages, your interest rate will remain the same for the entire time you’re paying off the loan. In other words, the interest rate is fixed.

Today's Rates

Loan Option Rate / APR
30-Year Fixed* 2.75% / 3.141%
These rates are current as of 2:18 AM UTC on August 5, 2021

Pros And Cons Of Fixed-Rate Mortgages

Fixed-rate, or conventional, mortgages are the backbone of the mortgage industry for a lot of good reasons.

Pro: Consistent Payments Make Budgeting Easy

The main benefit of a fixed-rate mortgage is that your monthly mortgage payment will remain the same throughout the life of the loan. With a fixed-rate mortgage, the amount you pay toward the mortgage itself, the part that’s made up of your principal and interest, won’t change.

There’s only one caveat: if your homeowners insurance premium or property taxes go up or down, your payments will change to reflect your new costs. Those factors are outside of your lender’s control, but your monthly mortgage payments will probably include these expenses. Your lender will hold those additional expenses in an escrow account and pay them for you when they come due. This makes your life easier and prevents liens or loss that could jeopardize their interest in your home.

Pro: Your Loan Fully Amortizes Over The Term Of The Mortgage

As you learn about fixed-rate mortgages, you’ll also hear the term amortization. Mortgage loans typically have a set length of time that dictates when they’ll be paid off. For example, you may have a 30-year fixed-rate mortgage, which means that after 30 years of monthly payments, your mortgage will be fully paid off.

To achieve this, your lender spreads out your payments according to an amortization schedule, which is a plan for how and when your loan will be paid off. In the early years of your mortgage, your payment will be used to pay your lender’s interest. Although your payment each month is the same, the ratio between principal and interest changes with each payment. As time goes on, more and more of your payment will go toward principal as you build equity in your home.

How Amortization Works: An Example

In the first few years of making mortgage payments, the majority of your payment will be paying off interest, rather than the principal (the original loan amount). For example, say you have a fixed-rate loan with a monthly payment of $800. When you first begin paying off your mortgage, you’ll pay the full $800, but $600 of it might go toward interest while only $200 goes toward the principal. But as you progress through the life of your loan, the balance changes. At one point, you may pay an equal amount in interest and principal. By the end of your loan’s amortization schedule, you’ll be paying mostly principal and very little in interest; for example, maybe you pay $750 toward the principal and only $50 in interest.

Con: You’ll Pay A Little More Initially

Fixed-rate mortgages will have higher rates than the introductory rate you’ll get on an ARM (discussed below). You’re paying a bit more in exchange for the peace of mind you’ll have a low rate locked in for the entire time you’re paying off the loan.

How Long Are Fixed-Rate Mortgage Terms?

A loan’s term refers to how long you’ll be paying it off. The most common loan terms for fixed-rate mortgages are 30 years and 15 years, each with their own pros and cons.

30-Year Fixed

Thirty-year fixed-rate mortgages tend to be the most popular option for borrowers. Because the loan term is so long, you can keep your monthly payments nice and low, even with a slightly higher interest rate. Though borrowers can save money on interest by going with a shorter term, 30-year loans often present the most affordable option for those who are more concerned about keeping their monthly housing costs down than the overall costs over the loan’s lifespan.

If you’re considering a 30-year mortgage term, think about what’s more important: lower monthly payments, or paying off your loan faster and paying less in interest over the life of the loan? You can check this using our mortgage calculator.

15-Year Fixed

When you opt for a 15-year mortgage term, you’ll save quite a bit of money on interest. Not only do 15-year loans typically have lower rates than 30-year loans, but because the loan has a shorter amortization period, you’ll save even more on interest. This holds true even if you were to have the same interest rate on both a 15-year loan and a 30-year loan. Let’s look at an example of this.

30-Year Fixed Vs. 15-Year Fixed, By The Numbers

Say you get a mortgage for $200,000 with an interest rate of 4%. With a 30-year fixed-rate mortgage, not only will you pay back the original $200,000, you’ll also pay around $143,739 in interest over the life of the loan. Take the same situation, but swap the 30-year for a 15-year loan. Over the course of a 15-year loan, the total interest paid will be around $66,288.

Seems like the 15-year is the obvious choice, right? Don’t forget to consider your monthly payment. On the 15-year loan, your monthly payment would be around $1,479, not including taxes and insurance. With the 30-year loan, your monthly payment would be a significantly more affordable $955.

If you can afford the larger payments and are most interested in building equity and paying off your home quickly, the 15-year may be a better choice. It just depends on what your finances can comfortably handle.

Other Fixed-Rate Mortgage Terms

Depending on the lender, you may also find other loan terms that better fit your needs. Perhaps you’d like a loan that balances the affordability of a 30-year term with the interest-saving benefits of a 15-year. Twenty-year terms are a good example of this and are another popular option for borrowers, though not as commonly touted as the 15- or 30-year.

You can even find lenders that will allow you to pick your own term, such as the Quicken Loans® YOURgage®,which offers fixed-rate terms that range from 8 – 29 years.

Today's Rates

Loan Option Rate / APR
15-Year Fixed* 2.125% / 2.636%
These rates are current as of 2:18 AM UTC on August 5, 2021

What Is An Adjustable-Rate Mortgage (ARM)?

With an ARM, you will pay a lower interest rate during an introductory period, which can vary in length. Within the loan document, you’ll find a benchmark rate, like SOFR, mentioned, and your rate after the introductory period  Thereafter, you might pay more or less, depending on what happens with the SOFR rate.

What Are The Differences Between Fixed-Rate And Adjustable-Rate Mortgages (ARMs)?

The question of whether you should opt for a fixed-rate mortgage or an ARM depends on a few different factors.

ARMs Come With Risk

You are assuming a risk with an ARM that interest rates will go up, and if that happens, you’ll pay more in interest every month. If you are applying for a mortgage at a time when interest rates are high, you might be making a good bet. If mortgage rates are low, however, you're probably better off with a fixed-rate mortgage.

ARMs Are Initially Cheaper

Fixed-rate mortgages typically come with slightly higher rates than ARMs. However, once the lower introductory rate period on an ARM is over, your rate could increase, causing your monthly payments to go up. If your rate continues to increase, you could end up paying substantially more than what you initially paid. On the other hand, if SOFR goes down, you might end up saving more with an ARM.

ARMs Might Make Sense If You Don’t Plan To Stay In The Home Long

An ARMs low introductory rate can be very attractive, especially if you don’t plan on remaining in your home for a long time. Typically, your introductory rate remains fixed for the first 5, 7 or 10 years you have the loan. If you know you’ll be selling your house before your rate adjusts, you can save money by opting for an ARM. Plus, if interest rates are currently relatively high, an ARM can help you get a lower rate.

Disclaimer: Rocket Mortgage® does not currently offer 5-year ARMs.

Is A Fixed-Rate Mortgage Right For You?

As we’ve seen, fixed-rate mortgages are great for stability. If you don’t want to have to worry about your monthly payments changing down the road, a fixed-rate loan can make a lot of sense. They can also be a good choice if interest rates are low, as they are currently.

The Bottom Line: A Fixed-Rate Mortgage Offers Certainty In A Constantly Changing World

Ultimately, the type of mortgage you choose will depend on your own financial situation, and what you’re comfortable with. If you’re ready to get started with the mortgage process, you can begin your application online with Rocket Mortgage.

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Victoria Araj

Victoria Araj is a Section Editor for Quicken Loans and held roles in mortgage banking, public relations and more in her 15+ years with the company. She holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism with an emphasis in political science from Michigan State University, and a master’s degree in public administration from the University of Michigan.