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You have a hundred decisions to make when it comes to buying a home, like “can we live without a pool?” or “can we replace the stairs with a slide”. But one of the biggest decisions of all is how you’re going to pay for it.

You have a few options. A home loan will help you pay for the property, allowing you to repay what you borrow – along with interest and fees – over time. The interest on this loan can be calculated in a few different ways, though: that’s where variable and fixed rates come in.

Read on to learn more about variable rate home loans, how they work, and how they’re different to other types of home loans.

Home loan jargon explained:

  • Principal: the amount you borrow from a lender to pay for your home.
  • Interest: calculated as a percentage of the principal and repaid in installments.
  • Outstanding balance: the amount owing on the loan, which includes the principal, interest and any fees.

What is a variable interest rate home loan?

A variable rate home loan has an interest rate that can go up and down over the life of the loan, rather than being locked in at a set percentage for a period of time like a fixed rate. Your lender will periodically decide what to set this interest rate at, and your repayments will go up or down as a result.

Here’s an example. Consider Pete: he’s purchased a house with a variable rate home loan. Pete’s home loan has an interest rate of 2.50% p.a.

Following the Reserve Bank of Australia’s (RBA) cash rate reduction, Pete’s bank decides to reduce the interest rate of Pete’s variable rate home loan to 2.25%. Now, Pete doesn’t have to pay as much each month, although he can choose to pay more if he wants.

How often do variable interest rates change?

Your bank will decide when to change its own rates and by how much, but they’ll be influenced by the RBA. The RBA meets on the first Tuesday of every month (except January). During this meeting, the RBA decides the official cash rate. Depending on the decision made, it can place upward or downward pressure on lending rates, although it doesn’t mean that home loan rates will change. Some lenders choose not to pass on any interest rate decreases or increases, and no matter what they do, they’re required by law to tell you in writing.

How is a variable interest rate calculated?

There is a formula to describe how much interest you actually get charged with a variable rate loan:

(Outstanding loan balance x interest rate) / number of days per year = your daily interest charge

Your daily interest charges are then added together and generally charged to your home loan monthly but can also be charged fortnightly or weekly.

Man using a calculator with paperwork and a laptop

Are there different types of variable rate home loans?

There are multiple types of home loans beyond just variable and fixed. You can also get a principal and interest (P&I) loan or an interest-only (IO) loan.

  • Principal and interest loans: The more common home loan repayment type where you pay back the principal, as well as the interest on this principal, in monthly repayments.
  • Interest-only loans. An interest-only home loan will only require you to pay for the interest component of your loan for a period, usually one to five years. This typically means you’ll pay less each month to start with (as you’re not even touching the principal), but you’re not actually repaying the loan itself. As such, you’ll eventually revert to a P&I loan once the interest-only term ends, which can cause the repayments to increase.

Different variable home loan features

Variable home loans tend to be a bit more flexible than their fixed counterparts and can offer the following common features. These features might not be available in some cases, like if you have an interest-only loan.

Redraw facility

Every time you make a repayment to your home loan, it decreases the amount owing on the loan, and making extra repayments can help pay off the loan faster. If your home loan has a redraw feature, you can also withdraw these extra repayments when you need them up to the loan limit. This can cancel out the benefit of making these extra repayments, however.

Mortgage offset account

An offset account is a type of bank account connected to your home loan. The amount that sits in the offset account will reduce the interest payable on your home loan. Say you have $100,000 owing on your home loan. If you have $10,000 in a 100% offset account, your lender will only charge interest on $90,000.

Split facility

Some lenders will let you ‘split’ your home loan between variable and fixed repayments for a period, and this split can be flexible based on what you want. For example, you could have a 50:50 variable-fixed split, which means 50% of your home loan will have a fixed interest rate, and the other 50% of your home loan will have a variable interest rate. A split home loan can sometimes get you the best of both worlds.

Which is better: fixed or variable loans?

You need to decide for yourself whether a fixed or variable interest rate is right for your situation. Both types of loans have their benefits.

Benefits of a variable rate mortgageRisks of a variable rate mortgage
Generally more features than fixed-rate productsAdditional features can be misused
Allows you to enjoy a lower interest rate if your bank decides to pass one on.At the mercy of the market and your lender when it comes to future rate rises.

Can I switch from a fixed (or split) loan to a variable one?

You can apply to switch from a fixed loan to a variable one at any time in most cases. But to switch lenders you’ll have to be approved for refinancing, and on top of the various home loan switching charges you might face, you could possibly cop a high break fee, which can be thousands of dollars.

Ideally, a good time to switch from a fixed home loan to a variable one is at the end of your fixed-term, as your interest rate might revert to your lender’s standard variable rate. These are often much higher than what you can get by shopping around.

Compare variable rate home loans today

Whether you’re refinancing, a first home buyer or an investor, we can help you compare your options. Our home loans comparison service makes it easy to review multiple products in just a few clicks.

We can help you compare all the essential parts of a home loan, including interest rates, comparison rates, fees, and features. We also provide options for credit checks, property valuations and more!

So, what are you waiting for? Compare home loans with Compare the Market today.

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