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Equity into cash, by flood or trickle

Who knew houses could float? Real estate keeps proving itself to be a life preserver at a time when pretty much every other component of Americans' personal finances feels like a lead belt.

Still-rising home values mean more equity for those fortunate enough to have already "bought in."

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And how about those interest rates? The Fed cut short-term rates 11 times last year. That pushed down long-term bonds, to which mortgages are keyed. Loan officers have been staying up late ever since, handling all the applications.

Some borrowers just want lower payments and a little more monthly cash flow. Others see a chance to tap swollen equity, gaining a chunk of change for whatever purpose.

In "cash-out" refinancing deals, borrowers obtain new loans for more than they owed on their old ones. It's a piggyback arrangement.

But it's not for everyone.

A straight-out refinancing can be simpler, and cheaper. The bank that holds my 30-year mortgage, for example, promises a "streamlined" no-points refinance – in 15 days, now considered very swift, with "no paperwork." It will also absorb some of the closing costs.

Those taking extra cash can face added fees based on a percentage of the amount borrowed. Those fees are set to rise early next year.

They also must carefully choose how the wad of cash they take out will be used. It may be easier to manage the trickle of extra money that a regular refinance yields.

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Nearly a third of refinancers polled by the Cambridge Consumer Credit Index this month said they would use lower payments to boost savings. Others planned to pay off high-interest debt.

Good plans for backing up a life preserver that may not last forever.