private mortgage insurance (PMI) protects the lender in the event that you default on your mortgage payments and your house isn't worth enough to entirely repay the lender through a foreclosure sale. Unfortunately, you foot the bill for the premiums, and lenders almost always require PMI for loans where the down payment is less than 20%. They add the cost to your mortgage payment each month, in an amount based on how much you've borrowed. The good news is that PMI can usually be canceled after your home's value has risen enough to give you 20% to 25% equity in your house.
When the Law Requires a Lender to Cancel PMI
Some baseline rules about cancellation were established by the federal Homeowners' Protection Act, which applies to people who bought their homes after July 29, 1999. The Act says that you can ask that your PMI be canceled when you've paid down your mortgage to 80% of the loan, if you have a good record of payment and compliance with the terms of your mortgage, you make a written request, and you show that the value of the property hasn't gone down, nor have you encumbered it with liens (such as a second mortgage). If you meet all these conditions, the lender must grant your request to cancel the PMI.
What's more, when you've paid down your mortgage to 78% of the original loan, the law says that the lender must automatically cancel your PMI. But don't count on the lender to notice -- keep track of the date yourself. Unfortunately, it may take years to get to this point. Thanks to the wonders of amortization, your schedule of payments is front-loaded so that you're mostly paying off the interest at first.
When You Can Get Your PMI Canceled
Even if you haven't paid down your mortgage to one of these legal limits, you can start trying to get your PMI canceled as soon as you suspect that your equity in your home or your home's value has gone up significantly, perhaps because your home's value has risen along with other local homes or because you've remodeled. Such value-based rises in equity are harder to prove to your lender, and some lenders require you to wait a minimum time (around two years) before they will approve cancellation of PMI on this basis.
How to Get Your PMI Canceled
The exact procedures for getting your lender to cancel your PMI are largely in the hands of your lender -- or, to be more accurate, in the hands of the company from whom your lender buys the insurance (though you'll never deal with that company directly). You'll most likely need to:
- Contact your lender to find out the appropriate PMI cancellation procedures. It's best to write a letter to your mortgage lender, formally requesting guidelines.
- Get your home appraised by a professional to find out its current market value. Your lender may require an appraisal even if you're asking for a cancellation based on your many payments, since the lender needs reassurance that the home hasn't declined in value. Although you'll normally pay the appraiser's bill, it's best to use an appraiser whom your lender recommends and whose findings the lender will therefore respect. (Note: Your tax assessment may show an entirely different value from the appraiser's -- don't be concerned, tax assessments often lag behind, and the tax assessor won't see the appraiser's report, thank goodness.)
- Calculate your "loan to value" (LTV) ratio using the results of the appraisal. This is a simple calculation -- just divide your loan amount by your home's value, to get a figure that should be in decimal points. If, for example, your loan is $200,000 and your home is appraised at $250,000, your LTV ratio is 0.8, or 80%.
- Compare your "loan to value" (LTV) ratio to that required by the lender. Most lenders require that your LTV ratio be 80% or lower before they will cancel your PMI. Note: Some lenders express the percentage in reverse, requiring at least 20% equity in the property, for example. When your LTV ratio reaches 78% based on the original value of your home, remember that the Homeowners' Protection Act may require your lender to cancel your PMI without your asking. If the loan to value ratio is at the percentage required by your lender, follow the lender's stated procedures for requesting a PMI cancellation. Expect to have to write another letter with your request, stating your home's current value and your remaining debt amount, and including a copy of the appraisal report.
If Your Lender Refuses to Cancel the PMI
Most lenders recognize that there's little point in requiring PMI after it's clear that you're making your mortgage payments on time and that you have enough equity in your property to cover the loan if the lender has to foreclose. Nevertheless, many home buyers find their lenders to be frustratingly slow to wake up and cancel the coverage. The fact that they'll have to spend time reviewing your file for no immediate gain and that the insurance company may also drag its feet are probably contributing factors.
If your lender refuses, or is slow to act on your PMI cancellation request, write polite but firm letters requesting action. Such letters are important not only to prod the lender into motion, but to serve as evidence if you're later forced to take the lender to court. If court action becomes your best option, small claims court can be a good avenue, and you won't need a lawyer to accompany you. For more information, including how to write polite but forceful demand letters, see Everybody's Guide to Small Claims Court, by Ralph Warner (Nolo). (Or, for online information on going to small claims court, also see Nolo's Small Claims Court FAQ.)
To learn more about PMI and other aspects of buying a home, see Nolo's Essential Guide to Buying Your First Home, by Ilona Bray, Alayna Schroeder, and Marcia Stewart (Nolo).