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What You Need to Know About Personal Loans

In recent years, personal loans have become one of the fastest growing loan products. They’re appealing for many reasons: they can offer low interest rates for people with good to great credit, they can be for smaller loan amounts, and they can be used to pay for a range of life’s expenses, including consolidating debt, covering an unexpected expense, or making home improvements.

To determine if a personal loan is the right option for you, you’ll need to understand the loan’s terms and consider your other options for the getting the cash or line of credit you need.

Terms of a Personal Loan

Personal loans are typically unsecured and aren’t backed by collateral that the lender can use to repay the loan if the borrower defaults on payments. If a lender offers secured personal loans, they will usually use the borrower’s savings account, CD, or share certificate as collateral.

A personal loan is also an installment loan where a fixed amount of money is paid back, with a fixed interest rate, in monthly installments over the life of the loan. This period can be anywhere from 12 to 84 months. As with other loans, selecting a longer repayment period lowers the monthly loan payment, but it also means paying more interest overall.

Loan amounts range from $1,000 to as high as $50,000. Interest rates vary from five to 36 percent. Both the loan amount and its interest rate will depend on the lender and the borrower’s determined creditworthiness.

Most lenders charge a one-time fee, called an “origination fee,” to cover their cost of processing the loan. This fee ranges from one to six percent of the loan amount. Usually this fee is included in the advertised APR of the loan. This means if someone needs a $10,000 personal loan from a lender that charges a five percent origination fee, the total loan will actually be $10,500, and this will be the number the interest rate is calculated on, not the lower $10,000 amount.

Some lenders also charge a prepayment penalty if the loan is paid off early. It’s sometimes included in the interest fee (often under the term “pre-computed interest”). If possible, it’s best to avoid taking out a loan with kind of charge as part of the loan terms.

Other Lending Options

The two other lending options often considered alongside a personal loan are credit cards or a HELOC (home equity line of credit). Which of the three options is the best will largely depend on the borrower’s credit score and if they own a home.

Credit cards offer both disadvantages and advantages over a personal loan. In general, credit cards have higher interest rates, those interest rates can increase (on future purchase made on the card or if a payment is made 60 days past due), and it can take up to 30 years to pay off the balance if only minimum payments are made each month.

However, on the flip side, if you use a credit card to pay for the expense instead of a personal loan, you could benefit from the card’s rewards, like cashback. With good credit, you could qualify for a balance transfer credit card with a 0 percent introductory APR, allowing you to make the purchase and subsequent monthly payments without interest for a whole year. The last advantage is that a credit card gives you a revolving line of credit—as you pay off the balance, more credit is freed up for you to use again, whereas a personal loan is only for a set amount.

For homeowners, they have the option of a HELOC. These are usually for larger loan amounts and they use the equity built up in the home as the collateral in the loan. Like a credit card, a HELCO is a form of revolving credit, allowing you to borrow more as you pay off the credit amount. A HEL, or home equity loan, works on similar principles, but it’s an installment loan. In both cases, if payments aren’t made on the loans, the lender has the right to foreclose on the home as payment.

Application Process

The application process for a personal loan is similar to other loans. The lender will make a hard inquiry on your credit report. They will consider your income, total debt, and credit score to determine your creditworthiness, which in turn will affect the amount they are willing to lend and at what rate.

The hard inquiry on your credit report will affect your credit score, lowering it by a few points. The good news is that consistent, on-time loan payments will earn those points back, plus a few more. While shopping for the best rates and terms on a personal loan, be sure that the lenders are only doing soft pulls as part of the pre-approval process so that your score isn’t lowered further.

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