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Military Finances 101: What Is a Mortgage and How Does It Work?

Managing Your Finances

Buying a home may be something you'd like to do at some point during or after your military career. In most cases, you'll need a mortgage, conventional or VA, to buy a home

Below we’re going over the ins and outs of obtaining a mortgage - and what you should expect your monthly mortgage payments to look like.

What Is a Mortgage?

A mortgage is a secured loan used to buy a house or piece of property. As a reminder, a secured loan is a type of loan that requires collateral from the borrower - such as a house, car or other form of property.  

The most common length for a fixed mortgage is 30 years, with about 90 percent of homebuyers utilizing this option. 15-year loans are the second most popular - six percent of homebuyers choose this loan length.1    

How Does a Mortgage Work?

If you choose to use a mortgage to purchase your home, the lender (your bank, credit union or other financial institution) will actually own the home outright. You will make regular payments (typically monthly) to the lender for a predetermined length of time. As mentioned before, the most common loan lengths are 30-year and 15-year fixed loans. These payments will include the principal amount and interest. It may also include other expenses like property taxes, private mortgage insurance and homeowner’s insurance. 

Your mortgage’s interest rate is typically determined in one of two ways - fixed or adjustable.

Fixed-Rate Mortgages

Just as it sounds, a fixed-rate mortgage offers an interest rate that will not change over the lifetime of your mortgage. From year one to the final payment, you can expect to pay the same interest rate for the entirety of the loan. 

Adjustable-Rate Mortgages (ARMs)

Unlike a fixed-rate mortgage, an ARM will include varying interest rates over the lifetime of the loan. With an ARM, the lender will offer a set interest rate for the first few years (anywhere from the first three to 10 years typically). Once that time has passed, the interest rate could increase. In turn, this would increase the borrower’s monthly payments.

While ARMs usually offer a lower initial interest rate than fixed-rate mortgages, the borrower is taking a chance on whether or not that rate will eventually rise. Though ARMs are typically not encouraged, they could be useful for those who plan on selling the home sooner rather than later, or for those who know they will be refinancing their mortgage before the rate increases.

How Is a Mortgage Payment Calculated?

Let’s assume you’re taking out a 30-year fixed-rate loan for a $200,000 house. Here’s what your mortgage payment will likely include:

  • The principal amount: This is how much you bought the property for, minus your down payment (unless you used a VA loan). If you bought a $200,000 home and put down $20,000 (10 percent) upfront, your principal amount for the loan would be $180,000. 
  • The interest: If you’re obtaining a fixed-rate mortgage, your interest rate will not change over the life of the loan. If your annual interest rate is four percent, you’d need to divide that amount by 12 to determine how much you’ll be paying in interest per month. In this case, you’d be paying 0.33 percent per month. 
  • Private mortgage insurance (PMI): Unless you use a VA loan, if you plan on making a down payment of less than 20 percent when buying a home, you will likely be required to pay a monthly PMI (private mortgage insurance) premium. In most cases, this insurance will no longer be required once you have paid up to the 20 percent in mortgage payments. According to Freddie Mac, you should be prepared to pay between $30 and $70 per month for every $100,000 borrowed.2
  • Property taxes: It’s common for your lender to establish an escrow account in which things like property taxes are collected. That’s why they will often be included in your monthly mortgage payments. When it comes time for the government to collect, your lender will pay the amount on your behalf using what you’ve already put in to escrow.
  • Homeowners insurance: Most lenders will require a borrower to obtain a homeowners insurance policy, which again will typically be lumped in to that monthly mortgage payment. 

If you’re considering purchasing a home, it’s important to do your homework first. Speak to your financial professional and begin researching mortgage types and rates before visiting your first open house. This can help eager homebuyers like yourself stay level-headed and realistic about what you’ll be able to afford.


If you found this article useful, you might like the following blog posts:

Military Finances 101: 8 Real Estate Books to Read Before Buying Your First Home


Military Finances 301: The Potential Tax Tripwire When You Refinance Your Mortgage


Military Finances 101: 8 Often Over-Looked Costs of Buying a Home



  1. http://www.freddiemac.com/perspectives/sean_becketti/20170410_homebuyers_communities_fixed_mortgage.page
  2.        
  3. https://myhome.freddiemac.com/buying/breaking-down-pmi.html

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