The recent surge in mortgage refinancing is expected to increase disposable income for many families, but it will not necessarily lead to an increase in consumer spending, according to economists.
Instead, homeowners who have recently refinanced are expected to increase personal savings, reduce existing debt or make "life-style" changes they may have longed for but could not afford.
"I don't expect to see a big surge in consumer spending because of the refinancings," said Mark Obrinsky, economist for the U.S. League of Savings Institutions. "Consumers have been spending at high levels since last fall and have high levels of personal debt right now. Instead of new spending, we expect the personal savings rate to improve and debt to be paid off."
The current rush to refinance, which is expected to continue through the summer, is being fueled mainly by families with mortgages above 12 percent who want to lock in lower mortgage interest rates, now down to 9 1/2 percent.
Mortgage lenders say there are no national figures on the number of loans that are refinancings, as opposed to new loans, but many lenders report half their volume is refinancings and that the rate is expected to increase. According to the Mortgage Bankers Association of America, there is still $95 billion of mortgage debt outstanding with interest rates above 12 percent that has not yet refinanced and which could be expected to be in the next few months.
"If all the people who are now refinancing spent 100 percent of their savings, it would be a significant boost in consumer spending," said Obrinsky. "But that's not what is happening."
Instead, economists say, many people are using the savings -- which mortgage bankers estimated averaged from $200 to $300 a month in the Washington area -- to change their spending or living habits.
Interviews with 20 Washington-area families who have recently refinanced showed that a fourth planned to use the savings to reduce other debt, and hoped to hold down their spending.
"I've been on a tight month-to-month schedule," said Peter Elmer, a credit analyst with the Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corp. "The $200 a month from my refinancing will give me some breathing room, let me pay off some lines of credit and, after that, maybe use some of it to fix up the house a bit."
Robert Andrukonis, a government architect who refinanced, said he took enough equity out of his house to pay off a home improvement loan, reducing his monthly mortgage payment by only about $80 a month, which he plans to save.
David Wyss, vice president of Data Resources Inc., an economic consulting firm in Boston, said that he expects many people who have refinanced to save the extra money, particularly families that may have had to deplete savings accounts to pay for the cost of refinancing, which averages between 4 to 6 percent of the total loan amount.
"The personal savings rate hit a record low in the third quarter of last year, and it now shows signs of recovering," Wyss said. "We expect that to continue, possibly even to get a boost because of the refinancings. At least in the short term, we expect to see more saving than spending."
Cyndy Davison said she and her husband plan to use the addition $200 a month they had saved through refinancing to replenish their savings account, which was depleted by refinancing fees. Davison said points and fees on their transaction totaled $4,000, and they want to build up their "nest egg" again.
Of the 20 interviewed, only three said they planned to spend the money on big-ticket consumer items that economists categorize as consumer spending, such as cars.
Several families said they wanted to use the money to purchase a vacation home or land in a vacation area, but would have to squirrel-away the savings for several years to be able to afford it.
Of those interviewed, a third said they were comfortable with their mortgage payments and, instead of reducing them, had decided to increase the amount of their mortgage -- by taking equity out of the house -- or to switch to a shorter-term loan.
"We need more room and have wanted to build an addition," said Jane DeMarines, public relations specialist for the Mortgage Bankers Association of America, who is in the process of refinancing. "We decided to take the money out of the house -- instead of a taking a lower monthly payment -- in order to finance the addition."
DeMarines said she and her husband Ronald are refinancing a 13 3/8 percent loan to 9 1/2 percent and are planning to take out between $15,000 and $20,000 in equity from their Bethesda home. She said they plan to build a new bedroom and enclose a screened porch to make a new family room.
Two homeowners said they had chosen to reduce the length of their mortgage from 30 to 15 years instead of taking lower monthly payments.
Daniel J. Opitz, a research analyst with the Treasury Department, said he opted for the 15-year loan because he wants to get his house paid off before his children start college.
"We plan to live in this house for a long time, and since we are just starting a family now, a 15-year loan will be paid off by the time our children go off to college," he said.
Wyss said that reducing the term of the loan is particularly attractive to older homeowners.
"We have seen some of that, mostly from people in the 50s who want to pay off the mortgage before they retire," Wyss said.
Economists say an interesting result of the refinancing wave is that is is allowing some families to use the savings for life-style changes they could not otherwise afford.
Barbara Andrukonis, who has two children, now will be able to afford to quit her job as an analyst for an accounting firm and stay at home.
"The savings from our refinance was one of the factors that helped us make the decision to have Barbara quit working," said Andrukonis' husband David. "We'll be saving about $200 a month, and it will all go straight into household spending."
Refinancing also has allowed Georgi Barker to give up a demanding, well-paid job as an accountant for the Marriott Corp. for something she has wanted to do for years: take care of children for other working mothers.
"She loves kids and did a lot of babysitting when she was young and wanted to go back to it," said Barker's husband Jim. "For the first time since we were married two years ago, this refinance has enabled us to get our finances really under control. It's a good, secure feeling to know I can carry the mortgage with my own salary. When we have our own children, we now know that Georgi can afford to stay home with them."
Another family said the savings from their refinancing would allow them to enroll their child in a private school, a move they have wanted for months.
"We are seeing that this wave of refinancing is easing finances for people and allowing them to make changes, such as trading up to a larger house or moving to a better school district or allowing mothers to switch from full- to part-time employment," said Wyss. "It shows how the high cost of housing has pushed families into lifestyles they didn't really want, and now that rates are easing, people are making changes."