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HENRYs are turning to a little-known and risky type of mortgage as home prices soar

Eliza Relman   

HENRYs are turning to a little-known and risky type of mortgage as home prices soar
  • Some Americans who are high earners, but not rich yet are opting for non-traditional mortgages.
  • Interest-only mortgages offer lower monthly payments, at least initially, but can be risky.

With home prices and mortgage rates sky high, potential homeowners — even those with deep pockets — are looking for ways to ease the cost burden.

Some Americans who are high earners, but not rich yet, known as HENRYs, are opting for unusual interest-only mortgages that boost affordability, at least in the short-term. These loans allow the borrower to pay just interest and none of the principal for a certain number of years. The loans are generally reserved for more affluent buyers of higher-end property who can afford a sizeable down payment and have sufficient money saved.

There are some attractive benefits of this kind of loan. They offer lower monthly payments at first, which allow borrowers to invest the money they would otherwise spend to pay off their house on other, higher-return investments. They also allow borrowers whose incomes are expected to rise in the future to buy more expensive homes than they otherwise would be able to afford.

There are also higher risks than a conventional mortgage. Borrowers won't gain equity in their home, beyond the down payment they made. They're on the hook for potentially higher mortgage payments in the future, and if their home value declines, they could lose the equity they have or the ability to refinance. Some interest-only loans require borrowers to pay off the entirety of the principal once the interest-only period ends.

When Sam McNerney and his wife were looking to buy a home in Brooklyn in the spring of 2022, the homes they liked largely exceeded their budget, which was between $2–$2.5 million.

But one day they got an unexpected opportunity. Their neighbors directly across the street from their rental apartment in Carroll Gardens were about to put their three-bedroom brownstone on the market. The house was exactly what they were looking for, except it was priced at $3.1 million. But their neighbors offered to sell it to them before putting it on the market. Without broker's fees, the home would cost about $2.8 million.

McNerney, a self-employed marketing consultant, was initially concerned the house was just too risky and expensive of a purchase. The future of New York City real estate was still somewhat unclear as many who fled the city when the pandemic hit were slow to return.

But when First Republic bank offered him and his wife a 40-year interest-only loan, they sprung for it. They paid a 20% down payment and locked in a low mortgage rate of between 2.6 and 2.7% for the first 10 years of the loan, and a guarantee that their rate would double at that point.

Their monthly, interest-only mortgage payment is just under $5,000 per month, which is just a few hundred dollars more than they were previously spending on rent.

Eighteen months later, McNerney is still happy with their decision. They can easily afford their payments now, are saving up for the future rate-hike, and Brooklyn real estate is booming. The couple thinks they'll be in the house for fifteen or twenty years, at which point their kids will be through high school and they might downsize or leave the city.

"These days, it seems like a pretty safe bet that in 10 to 20 years from now, the value will be higher," he said. "I don't know if it's going to skyrocket or be a little bit higher, but we don't think it'll go down."

A deal for 'sophisticated investors'

McNerney and his wife are the target demographic suitable for an interest-only loan. But these mortgages can be very risky if a borrower doesn't have sufficient funds to handle higher payments down the line, or the property loses value, in which case borrowers have to be prepared for potentially higher interest rates after the initial stage of their loan is over.

These loans are a "niche product" that should be reserved for high-end real estate purchases by borrowers who are "sophisticated investors," said Chen Zhao, the head of economic research at Redfin. Since you're not building equity in your home under an interest-only mortgage, those who take out these loans should be investing their money in other ways that are likely to give them a better return, Zhao said.

The proliferation of interest-only mortgages could also even hurt buyers who can't afford to take advantage of them. Because they allow affluent borrowers to buy more expensive homes, they can help inflate prices in already high-cost markets. Claes Bäckman, a researcher at the Leibniz Institute for Financial Research SAFE in Germany who has studied the introduction of interest-only mortgages in Denmark, says the loan type doesn't significantly boost affordability or allow more young people to become homeowners.

"I think it will certainly help the buyers who can afford to get one of these, but if they are competing against other buyers who can also get an interest-only mortgage, they might not get much of a benefit in terms of affordability," Bäckman said.

A history of predatory lending

Interest-only mortgages were much more common, especially for less-affluent borrowers, in the years leading up to the 2008 financial crisis. At the time, many homebuyers were offered risky loans they couldn't afford, which ultimately led to the subprime mortgage crisis.

After the financial crisis, the federal government passed regulations on risky mortgages, making interest-only loans much less common. But with home prices soaring and interest rates stubbornly high, buyers are again opting for riskier loans, including interest-only.

Hillary, whose last name is known to Business Insider but requested partial anonymity to protect her husband's business, and her husband were victims of these predatory lending practices. In 2007, the couple took out an interest-only mortgage to buy a $585,000 home in San Diego. The house was down the street from Hillary's mother and the couple wanted it to be their forever home, so they splurged. While their real estate agent warned them against taking out such a large, high-interest loan, the bank encouraged them to take on two loans without any down payment — one at 8% and the other at 9% interest.

When the financial crisis hit, Hillary's husband, a commission-based financial advisor, saw his income plummet. Hillary, a self-employed photographer, also took a hit. Then the couple had a new baby. They were soon forced to take out loans to make their $4,000 monthly mortgage payments. When they asked their bank to modify the terms of the loan, it refused. The couple declared bankruptcy and ultimately sold the house in 2012 for just $365,000.

Looking back now, Hillary thinks she and her now ex-husband were too optimistic about their future income when they bought the house, but that her bank was reckless.

"They clearly should never have given us a loan," Hillary said. "But when you're young and it's the, quote, perfect home for you, you know, what are you supposed to do?"

She's concerned that some buyers are now falling into a similar trap of believing they'll be able to refinance their loans later for a better deal.

In the broader world of real estate, interest-only mortgages could be contributing to another crisis. These days, interest-only mortgages are increasingly popular among commercial real estate buyers. They made up 88% of new commercial mortgage-backed issuances in 2021 — an increase from 51% in 2013, The Wall Street Journal reported based on data from the company Trepp.

And it's not going well for borrowers. Commercial mortgage defaults are on the rise. With interest rates so high, many office building owners aren't able to secure new loans they can afford. In May 2023, Fitch Ratings estimated that 35% of pooled securitized commercial mortgages due between April and December of this year would be ineligible for refinancing.

Consumer protection advocates are are concerned that homebuyers are increasingly opting for non-traditional mortgages that carry higher risks. Some borrowers are attracted to interest-only loans by the lower monthly costs, but aren't prepared for worst-case scenarios, and to ultimately pay more to own their home.

"It's a question of, do people understand that this is a product that's going to be more expensive for them long term, or are they just enticed by the lower monthly payments?" Bäckman said.

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