As part of a complete personal finance education, I submit that the longread article Financing the American Home by Marc Rubenstein should also be required reading. I learned a lot of important facts about the history and meaning behind the 30-year fixed-rate fully prepayable mortgage:

From the consumer’s perspective, it’s an amazing product. It’s a simple loan that offers stable repayments, kept low because they are spread out over such a long period of time. Its kicker is a free option to prepay, which shields the borrower from interest rate risk. If rates go up, borrowers can commend themselves on a great bargain; if they go down, stay calm—the loan can be refinanced without penalty. Win/win.

You’ll only find it in the United States (except for one small European country):

Yet, with the exception of Denmark, it doesn’t exist anywhere else in the world. Even baseball exists in more countries.

Which leads to an interesting observation:

To many, the idea that the US, a beacon of the free market, should support its mortgage market so directly seems odd. The former Governor of the Bank of England, Mervyn King, once remarked: “You Americans are so strange. Most countries have socialised healthcare and a private market in mortgages. You have socialised mortgages and a private market in healthcare.

The article goes on to explore how individual homeownership as a widespread goal has been widely accepted in the US for hundreds of years. Yet, every time the US government tries to shift the mortgage market back towards free-market capitalism, there are no takers. The 30-year fixed mortgage is a clear example of government subsidization (even though they try to obscure it). If the government were to exit the market today and remove their backstop guarantee, mortgage rates (and home values) would have to find a new market-based equilibrium. In other words: tighter lending standards, higher interest rates, and thus at least somewhat lower home values.

So we should be really happy that we have the 30-year fixed mortgage and never pay it off, right? Cheap, dependable leverage forever! I happen to also be reading the book How I Invest My Money by Joshua Brown and Brian Portnoy, where “25 finance experts reveal how they save, spend, and invest”. I’m only about six interview in, but you know what every. single. person. has in common so far? They own their primary home, outright with no mortgage! So even with all of the potential financial benefits of low interest rates, tax deductions, and refinance optionality, they felt the psychological benefits outweighed all of that. Wow. These familiar names that I’ve read and linked to many times, including Joshua Brown, Morgan Housel, Christine Benz, and Bob Seawright (with more to add I’m sure) – they’ve all gotten “the letter” that we got when we paid off our mortgage:

So what’s the best move? Here’s my two cents. If you want to own a home and live in it for the foreseeable future, then buy one for both psychological and financial reasons. Use that nifty 30-year fixed mortgage, but don’t necessarily borrow the max that they’ll allow. Then roughly time the mortgage payoff with your retirement date. Love your awesome job and want to work until 65? Then take your time. Serious about early financial independence? Then refinance when you can to a shorter term, and pay it off as part of one of your final goalposts. I have to agree that a paid-off primary residence offers well-being benefits that are hard to put a price upon.

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The Intriguing History of the 30-Year Fixed Rate Mortgage from My Money Blog.


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