Refinance activity continues to boom, fueling the home-loan market. Low interest rates have created a class of "serial refinancers" — those lucky enough to borrow at lower rates — and given them new opportunities to spend their freed up cash.
Settlement attorney Robert Gratz never used to be on a first-name basis with his clients.
"In the past, our practice was such that you'd see people, and that was the end of it," he says.
Gratz now sees the same faces all the time, of clients refinancing again and again — these days in the mid-3 percent range.
"At one point, we used to joke it's almost like going to the dentist," he says. "There are people that we see almost every year when rates were dropping. But now that they've locked in, I think we're done."
Gratz himself refinanced his house in Maryland about six times. You could say it's one of the benefits — or hazards — of the job.
"You're sitting across the table from people at a closing looking at their interests, and then mentally saying, 'Hmm, mine's higher,' " he says.
Not Everyone Qualifies
Refinancing is not available to everyone. There are millions who don't qualify: Homeowners with bad credit or who are underwater, owing more than their homes are worth, cannot do so. But those who can, switch from adjustable- to fixed-rate mortgages, locking money in at rates their parents in the 1980s never dreamed of. Gratz says many clients shave a couple of hundred dollars off their monthly mortgage payment; some get an even bigger windfall.
"The money goes somewhere, either toward savings or spending, and certainly both of those are good for the economy," he says.
The Mortgage Bankers Association expects nearly $1 trillion worth of home loans will be refinanced this year — an 8.6 percent increase over last year. The greatest annual increases are in areas hard hit by the housing crisis: Nevada, Michigan, Florida and Arizona. Revamped government programs are making it easier to refinance.
Shelley Hall, who lives in Brea, Calif., has refinanced four times. But she says she's careful about bringing up the subject.
"I don't mention refinancing to some of my friends, because if they bought in the last couple of years, they're either underwater or they just don't have enough equity to do it," she says.
Hall says she tires of the process — all that finding, printing and signing of documents. There's also the gamesmanship of trying to time the market just so — like she did when she refinanced in April.
"They had been a tenth of a point lower the week before, and I tried not to kick myself for more than a few seconds over that," she says. " 'Cause, you know, it's human nature."
Hall's mortgage has gone from $2,000 to $1,500 a month.
"I think at 3.75, I think we're done," she says.
The extra money she's saving is going toward retirement and, she says, her family is considering buying another house and renting out their current one.
Refis, as they're known, have changed the face of Ellen Sandler's Chevy Chase, Md., neighborhood. Over the years, savings enabled Sandler to double the size of her house and remodel it a few times.
"I have neighbors who are also doubling the size of their house," she says.
Sandler started out decades ago paying nearly 13 percent interest, but recently refinanced, yet again, at a 2.75 percent rate.
"Each time I refi'd I was sure it wouldn't get lower. And don't forget, when you start with double-digit numbers, you become accustomed to that," she says. "And then all of a sudden, 9 becomes a wonderful rate. And things got to 7, everyone was sitting there saying they can't possibly go lower."
Sandler, a real estate agent, doesn't think the reverse might also be true — that homeowners who've gotten cheap rates won't buy or sell houses again when rates eventually rise — because people still have to make choices that require moves. But right now, she says, those who can are enjoying the cheap money.