Adjustable Rate Mortgage: How an ARM Works, Who It’s For

Adjustable rate mortgages have interest rates that can change over time. Here is how an ARM works.
Holden Lewis
By Holden Lewis 
Updated
Edited by Mary Makarushka Reviewed by Michelle Blackford

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Nerdy takeaways
  • With an adjustable-rate mortgage, your monthly payment can go up if interest rates rise.

  • An ARM mortgage has limits on how fast and how high the rate can rise.

  • ARMs are best suited for borrowers who plan to sell the home or pay off the loan within a few years.

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What's an adjustable-rate mortgage?

An adjustable-rate mortgage has an interest rate that changes periodically with the broader market.

An ARM starts with a low fixed rate during the introductory period, which typically is three, five, seven or 10 years. When the introductory period expires, the interest rate changes regularly, based on a benchmark index.

If the index is lower than when you got the loan, your interest rate and mortgage payment will decrease. But if it's higher, your interest rate and mortgage payment will go up. ARM rates continue to change periodically after the introductory period — usually once every six months — until you sell the home, refinance or pay back the mortgage in full. ARMs usually have 30-year terms.

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ARMs vs. fixed-rate mortgages

The main difference between ARMs and fixed-rate mortgages is that ARMs have an interest rate and monthly payments that can go up and down over time, whereas fixed-rate mortgages have an interest rate that never changes, so the monthly principal-and-interest payments stay the same.

ARMs gain popularity when their introductory interest rates are lower than those for fixed-rate mortgages. The resulting smaller monthly payments give borrowers more homebuying power. But the rate and monthly payment on an ARM have the potential to rise, which could make the payments difficult to afford. Borrower beware.

Is an ARM a good idea?

Here are some scenarios when an ARM might be a good choice.

  1. You're not buying a forever home. If you move in several years, an ARM could save you money. You'd benefit from the low introductory fixed rate, then sell the home before the adjustable period starts.

  2. You plan to pay off the mortgage quickly. Say, for instance, you expect a financial windfall, such as an inheritance. With an ARM, you would save money with the low introductory fixed rate and then pay off the balance with the windfall. Ideally, the money would come in before the fixed-rate period ended.

  3. You want initial low payments and are comfortable with the risk of higher payments later. There's also the possibility of the benchmark index dropping, which would mean your rate would decrease after the fixed period. But don't count on it. No one can accurately predict where interest rates will be years from now.

If you plan to set down roots and own the home for the long haul or if you'll rest easier with a consistent mortgage rate and monthly payment, then a fixed-rate mortgage is probably the better choice.

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