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Using a credit line to borrow against the equity in your home has become a popular source of consumer credit. And lenders are offering these home equity credit lines in a variety of ways.

You will find most loans come with variable interest rates, some come with attractive low introductory rates, and a few come with fixed rates. You also may find most loans have large one-time upfront fees, others have closing costs, and some have continuing costs, such as annual fees. You can find loans with large balloon payments at the end of the loan, and others with no balloons but with higher monthly payments. No one loan is right for every homeowner. The challenge, then, is to contact different lenders, compare options, and select the home equity credit line best tailored to your needs.

At the same time, home equity lines of credit require you to use your home as collateral for the loan. This may put your home at risk if you are late or cannot make your monthly payments. Those loans with a large final (balloon) payment may lead you to borrow more money to pay off this debt, or they may put your home in jeopardy if you cannot qualify for refinancing. And, if you sell your home, most plans require you to pay off your credit line at that time. In addition, because home equity loans give you relatively easy access to cash, you might find you borrow money more freely.

Remember too, there are other ways to borrow money from a lending institution. For example, you may want to explore second mortgage installment loans. Although these plans also place an additional mortgage on your home, second mortgage money usually is loaned in a lump sum, rather than in a series of advances made available by writing checks on an account. Also, second mortgages usually have fixed interest rates and fixed payment amounts.

You also may want to explore borrowing from credit lines that do not use your home as collateral. These are available with your credit cards or with unsecured credit lines that let you write checks as you need the money. In addition, you may want to ask about loans for specific items, such as cars or tuition.

Depending on your creditworthiness (your income, credit rating, etc.) and the amount of your outstanding debt, home equity lenders may let you borrow up to 85% of the appraised value of your home minus the amount you still owe on your first mortgage. Ask the lender about the length of the home equity loan, whether there is a minimum withdrawal requirement when you open your account, and whether there are minimum or maximum withdrawal requirements after your account is opened. Inquire how you gain access to your credit line -- with checks, credit cards, or both.

If you are considering a variable rate, check and compare the terms. Check the periodic cap, which is the limit on interest rate changes at one time. Also, check the lifetime cap, which is the limit on interest rate changes throughout the loan term. Ask the lender which index is used and how much and how often it can change. An index (such as the prime rate) is used by lenders to determine how much to raise or lower interest rates. Also, check the margin, which is an amount added to the index that determines the interest you are charged. In addition, inquire whether you can convert your variable rate loan to a fixed rate at some future time.

Once your home equity plan is opened, if you pay as agreed, the lender, in most cases, may not terminate your plan, accelerate payment of your outstanding balance, or change the terms of your account. The lender may halt credit advances on your account during any period in which interest rates exceed the maximum rate cap in your agreement, if your contract permits this practice.

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