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To Arm or Not to Arm? 7 Plain Questions To Ask Your Lender!

Real Estate Agent with Keller Williams Capital Properties DC AB15253

This year has not been kind to buyers.  First it was hard to win a house because there were so many multiple offer situations where you had to compete with lots of other equally motivated buyers.  Now the inventory levels are improving and there are more homes to choose from.  You can actually get a home inspection!  Just as you thought the market was turning in your favor, interest rates have shot up!  Last year you had to pay a premium for a home  - this year, you have to pay a premium in the mortgage market!   

If you’re shopping for a mortgage, you need to decide whether to choose one with a fixed or adjustable interest rate. Last year ajustable rate mortgages only accounted for 4% of mortgages in the US, but now they are as much as 10% of mortgages - a real reflection of the higher interest rates.

An adjustable-rate mortgage, or ARM, might be a good idea if you’re only planning to stay in your home for a defined number of years, but you need to ask questions and read the fine print first. You might be surprised by increased payments if you don’t understand the terms clearly.


Each lender sets its own terms and conditions for adjustable-rate mortgages, so you’ll have to check your loan agreement for specifics. But ARMs today commonly offer three types of rate caps that protect borrowers from unreasonable rate hikes. Most ARMs have:

1. A cap on how much your rate can increase at the end of the fixed-rate period. It can’t exceed the cap, no matter how high interest rates have risen.

2. Another cap on subsequent annual adjustments, meaning your rate can only increase by a certain amount each year.

3. A third cap on how high your rate can go over the entire life of your mortgage. This protects homeowners from seeing their rates rise astronomically if the market takes a dramatic upswing.


The main difference between a fixed- and an adjustable-rate loan is that the interest rate will never change for a fixed-rate mortgage. On the other hand, an ARM’s interest rate can change multiple times over the loan term. The monthly mortgage payment will change, too, if the index rises and falls.

For example, a 5/1 ARM means the mortgage has its initial fixed rate for the first five years and then the rate can adjust once per year for the remaining 25 years. Other common options include a 7/1 or 10/1 ARM, meaning your initial rate is fixed for 7 or 10 years before it can adjust.

So you could save a small fortune in monthly payments by opting for an ARM, at least over the first five to 10 years of your loan. Alternatively, you could afford a much nicer, more costly home with the same payments you’d make on a smaller, fixed-rate mortgage.

Of course, an ARM isn’t for everyone. If you plan to stay in your home longer than 10 years, an ARM might not be the best choice. But if an adjustable-rate loan works for your financial situation, you could have a much better shot at affording a home in today’s market.  In addition, you can always finance out of your ARM and into a fixed rate mortgage when rates return to a level that is more acceptable to you. 



Your ARM rate can never fall below a certain margin specified in your loan documentation. For example, if the margin specified is 3%, the margin is added to the current index number on the date your rate adjusts.


ARM loans have rate caps that limit the amount your interest rate can rise or drop in a single period and over the lifetime of your loan. Your loan might not increase or decrease exactly along with the market if it hits its cap.An initial cap is the maximum percentage your rate can increase or decrease in a single period after your fixed-rate period expires. A periodic cap limits the maximum amount that an interest rate can change from one adjustment period to the next.  A lifetime cap puts a limit on the total amount that your interest rate can increase or decrease from the introductory rate over the mortgage term. Your lender will express your ARM caps as a series of three numbers separated by forward slashes in this format: initial cap/periodic cap/lifetime cap. This is your “cap structure.”  So, an ARM with a 2/1/5 cap structure means that your loan can increase or fall 2% during your first adjustment and up to 1% with every periodic adjustment after that. Finally, your interest rate can’t increase or decrease more than 5%  above or below the initial rate over the entire lifetime of your home loan.


1. How is the rate determined? After the initial repayment period ARM rates are based on a benchmark market index plus a set rate known as the margin.  For example, when I had my adjustable rate mortgage, the rate was set according to the one year T Bill rate plus an additional amount, which is my case was 1.5%.  For example, if the 1 year T Bill rate was 3%, then my mortgage rate was 4.5%. 

2. How volatile is that index?  The 1 year T Bill rate was pretty stable, but not every index is slow moving.  Ask your lender to review the history of the index to which you are going to be tied. 

3. How long is your rate fixed before it starts to adjust?  In my case it was fixed for 7 years before it could begin adjusting.  A lot can happen to rates in 7 years.  In my case rates started going down and so did my mortgage rate when the time came to adjust.  I got down below 2% one year! 

4, What is the lifetime cap and the annual cap on your mortgage.  For example, in my case, the cap was 6% for the lifetime cap and 2% for the annual cap.  I got my mortgage in 2003 when fixed rates were very high and my initial rate was 8.5%.  The lifetime cap was 6% so that meant that the mortgage rate could go up to 14.5%.  Yes that was scary, but it could not happen for 10 years.  The rate was fixed at 8.5% for 7 years and then it could not go up higher than 10.5% in the 8th year, 12.5% in the 9th year and 14.5% in the 10th year.  I was willing to take a chance that the interest rates would get better before that and I could refinance before that.  

5. Is there a floor on how low your mortgage can go?  You should always be optimistic and interest rates will come down again! 

6. Is there any possibility of negative amortization. Many people have gotten into trouble with ARMs because of negative amortization. That happens when the amount of payments made is not enough to cover interest. The amount of unpaid interest is added to the loan, and then interest is charged on that. This means the total balance on the mortgage can actually increase, even if you make payments on time every month. RUN AWAY from an ARM if negative amortization is possible.

7. Is there a prepayment penalty?  You might have to pay thousands of dollars if you decide to sell your house or refinance your mortgage before the fixed period ends. 


The most attractive feature of an ARM is the low, fixed rate for the first several years. This could help you save a significant amount of money if you plan to sell your house before the rate adjusts. If you decide to stay in your house longer, your payments could become too much for you to handle. Before you choose an ARM, think carefully about your future plans and make sure you understand the terms.


In a shifting market like this one, it is more important than ever to work with a knowledgable team - not just the Realtor, but also the lender, title attorney and home inspector.  Be sure to talk to your agent about the rest of his or her team.  Interview several lenders and ask them about fixed rate mortgages versus ARMS.  How well can the lender explain the differences and help you understand which is best for you.  There are several ARMS to consider.  Is a 5 year rate better for you than a 10 year rate?  

If you live in the DC metro area and are thinking about buying a home this year, then please give us a call at the Lise Howe Group at 240-401-5577 or email us at lise@lisehowe.com.  It is important to us that you find the right home for your financial situation and that you get the best mortgage rate for your future. 



Lawrence "Larry" & Sheila Agranoff. Cell: 631-805-4400
The Top Team @ Charles Rutenberg Realty 255 Executive Dr, Plainview NY 11803 - Plainview, NY
Long Island Condo and Home Specialists

I'm nor a fan, and buyers really need to explore this with an expert to find out about all the pros and cons on this before signing on the dotted line.

Oct 30, 2022 07:23 AM
Dorie Dillard Austin TX
Coldwell Banker Realty ~ 512.750.6899 - Austin, TX
NW Austin ~ Canyon Creek and Spicewood/Balcones

Good afternoon Lise,

Knowledge is power and no one size fits all. Talking with a lender is the best way to sort out what type of financing you should use use.

Oct 30, 2022 11:32 AM
Michael Jacobs
Pasadena, CA
Pasadena And Southern California 818.516.4393

Hello Lise - connecting with the right mortgage partner is so important to making a successful real estate transaction (or any home financing project) possible.  

Oct 30, 2022 03:13 PM
Patricia Feager, ABR,CRS,GRI,MRP
Selling Homes Changing Lives

Lise Howe - this is an OUTSTANDING article and something buyers need to print out and study before sitting down with a Lender or talking to a Lender by phone. There is a lot of information that a consumer needs to know and it has to sink in before applying for a loan. For so many years, and sadly for so many buyers, they did not know fully or understand how the mortgage worked. One cannot focus on the house with the pretty kitchen and great curb appeal by omitting the lending process and knowing how to choose the right avenue that leads to home ownership, then understanding the full consequences for not paying back or paying back the loan works. 

I wish posts like were FEATURED for the author who wrote it who is Active in the Real Estate Business. You deserve it!

Oct 31, 2022 04:55 AM
Kristin Johnston - REALTOR®
RE/MAX Platinum - Waukesha, WI
Giving Back With Each Home Sold!

Great information.   Thanks for sharing and enjoy your day!

Oct 31, 2022 06:25 AM
Roy Kelley
Retired - Gaithersburg, MD

Good Monday morning, Lise. 

Have a great day

Happy Halloween GIFs | Tenor


Oct 31, 2022 08:19 AM
Debe Maxwell, CRS
Savvy + Company (704) 491-3310 - Charlotte, NC

Absolutely fantastic information, Lise! Thank you so much for sharing. This is a great article to share with our buyers who are on the proverbial fence.

Nov 01, 2022 01:23 PM
Jeff Dowler, CRS
eXp Realty of California, Inc. - Carlsbad, CA
The Southern California Relocation Dude

This is such a thoughtful and helpful post, Lise. Buyers who need a loan DO have options but need to understand them by talking with a reputable lender who can provide the appropriate guidance and education. ARMS may be a good solution but perhaps not the right one for every borrower.


Nov 01, 2022 08:51 PM
Patricia Feager, ABR,CRS,GRI,MRP
Selling Homes Changing Lives

Lise Howe - Congratulations on this FEATURE Post! I was delighted to see you were featured. It really was feature worthy and you are extra special. 

Nov 02, 2022 06:05 AM
Peter Mohylsky, Destin BeachPro
PMI. Destin - Miramar Beach, FL
Call me at 850-517-7098

People tend to fear those things they do not understand.  Thanks for explaining this.  

Nov 02, 2022 11:36 AM
Grant Schneider
Performance Development Strategies - Armonk, NY
Your Coach Helping You Create Successful Outcomes

Good morning Lise - I knew ARM's would be on their way back.  I remember having one in the early eighties.  Fortunately, it adjusted down after 3 years.

Nov 03, 2022 03:33 AM
Ben DeHaven
Haven Realty & Investments - Lakeland, FL
Proudly serving Winter Haven & Lakeland, Florida

An ARM is not for me, but surely is for some people. 

Nov 03, 2022 07:22 AM
Joan Cox
House to Home, Inc. - Denver Real Estate - 720-231-6373 - Denver, CO
Denver Real Estate - Selling One Home at a Time

Lise, congrats on this feature, and thinking many buyers will need to go this route if they want to buy right now.

Nov 03, 2022 07:43 AM
Roy Kelley
Retired - Gaithersburg, MD

Good Thursday morning, Lise.

I hope you are having a productive week. Enjoy this beautiful day.

Nov 03, 2022 08:40 AM
M.C. Dwyer
Melody Russell Team at eXp Realty of California, Inc. - Felton, CA
MC Dwyer-Santa Cruz Mountains Property Specialist

Congrats on getting your post featured - well deserved.    I'm grateful you allowed us to reblog it!

Nov 04, 2022 11:26 AM
Ray Henson
eXp Realty of California, Inc. (lic. #01878277) - Elk Grove, CA

Very thorough information regarding ARM loans.  It was the first loan we had in 1990.  They have changed over the years for sure.

I have had three offers in a row cross my desk asking for a seller credit for paying down the interest rate.  One asking for $20,000.  Interestingly, I have never had an offer asking for this credit.  It is amazing how quickly the market has changed form buyers will do anything to get a home to step up to the plate sellers. 

Nov 05, 2022 05:32 AM
Michael J. Perry
KW Elite - Lancaster, PA
Lancaster, PA Relo Specialist

To be honest , I’ve never been a fan of ARM’s . I see it as a last resort ( in being able to qualify for buying a home). If you must do this , get a fixed rate for as long as possible ( before it starts adjusting)

Nov 08, 2022 08:04 AM
Diana Dahlberg
1 Month Realty - Pleasant Prairie, WI
Real Estate in Kenosha, WI since 1994 262-308-3563

Great information!  Every buyer needs to beware of the pros and cons of an ARM ...

Nov 09, 2022 12:34 PM
faye schubert
Retired - Branson, MO
Living the Branson Lake Life

When I purchased my home in the late 80's, we had to get an ARM as the interest rates were crazy high!

Jun 15, 2023 07:09 AM
Dan Hopper
Dan Hopper - Gold Way RE - Westminster, CO
Colorado Broker / Referral Services

There were times when we would present the ARMS 5/1 or 7/1 with clients that relocated for job situations and may be moving within the next 3-6 yrs.  At those times, the interest rates were above 6-7%.  Made sense for some to go with the ARMS, a few did relocate again with their companies.

Jul 20, 2023 10:46 AM