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15-year mortgages, albeit with higher payments, have pluses

If a car buyer wants to reduce monthly payments, he can take out a 48-month loan instead of the 36-month variety. But homeowners can't look for a 35- or 40 -year mortgage as a way to cut payments. Instead, they have to look for some sort of ''creative'' home financing, like an adjustable-rate mortgage or a ''balloon'' loan.

So it might seem odd that someone would sign up for a 15-year mortgage, where payments are even higher. Yet that is just what more people seem to be doing, says Allan Friedman, spokesman for the United States League of Savings Institutions. Although the payments are somewhat larger than those for a 30-year mortgage, they aren't that much more, and the benefits to both the borrower and the lender can make the effort worthwhile.

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On a $75,000 mortgage, for instance, the monthly payments on a 30-year loan would be $903.52, assuming a 141/4 percent interest rate, which is the average at savings-and-loans, Mr. Friedman says. That same $75,000 mortgage would require monthly payments of $998.81 - $95.29 more - if it were written over 15 years. Part of the reason the payments are not higher is that the current average rate is slightly lower, in this case, 14 percent.

That same $75,000 mortgage, with an adjustable rate, would start out with monthly payments of $779.55, using a current ARM rate of 12.14 percent.

One reason for the lower rate on 15-year loans, Friedman explained, is that S&Ls, banks, and other lenders like the fact that the loan is outstanding - and subject to the risk of interest rate changes - for only half as long. Also, the higher payments mean the lenders are getting more principal back faster. For these reasons, he says, some lenders are writing 15-year mortgages and adjustable mortgages, but not 30-year fixed-rate loans.

''The clients we've been advising have had no problem going out and getting 15-year mortgages,'' says Wade Webster, president of W.J. Webster Planners Inc. of Timonium, Md.

A 15-year mortgage does mean the interest deduction on federal income taxes will be smaller, but only slightly, Mr. Webster says. In the first two years, for example, the interest payments on the 30-year loan would be $21,328, compared with $20,565 on the 15-year mortgage. Even after five years, the total interest comes to $53,092 on the 30-year mortgage and $49,256 on a 15-year mortgage.

''The tax consequences, especially in the early years, are insignificant,'' Webster said.

The equity consequences, however, can be very significant indeed.

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If the house with a $75,000, 30-year mortgage is sold after seven years, the homeowner will have paid $1,842 toward principal, Friedman figures. But with the 15-year mortgage, the principal will have been cut by $17,500. This additional equity - which can be used for a larger down payment - may be enough to help qualify for a more expensive new home.

The 15-year mortgage is not just for people taking out loans on a new home. It is also possible to refinance an existing 30-year mortgage. You should expect to pay some fees to the lender, including closing costs and up to four ''points'' (each point is 1 percent of the mortgage), Webster says. However, you may be able to negotiate these down if you're dealing with the same lender. After all, Friedman points out, the lender is coming out ahead by writing a loan that will be retired sooner.

Before jumping into the 15-year mortgage, or refinancing into one, you'll have to make sure you can afford the higher payments. The bank or S&L will help here, Friedman says, by ''qualifying'' the buyer at both 15- and 30-year payment schedules.

''A lot of people are stretching it to buy a house with a 30-year mortgage,'' he notes. ''If they want a 15-year, they may have to buy a smaller house.''

If you would like a question considered for publication in this column, please send it to Moneywise, The Christian Science Monitor, One Norway Street, Boston, Mass. 02115. No personal replies can be given by mail or phone. References to investments are not an endorsement or recommendation by this newspaper.

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