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The pros and cons of saving in an escrow account

Susan Ladika

When you get a mortgage, the lender usually adds real estate taxes and insurance premiums to the monthly house payment. The lender sets aside this money in what is called an escrow account (sometimes it’s called an impound account). An escrow account ensures that the taxes and insurance will be paid on time. This protects the lender from tax liens and uninsured losses that the borrower can’t repay.

How escrow accounts are managed: The amount in the escrow account varies during the year due to tax assessments and insurance premium adjustments. The lender typically will cover any shortfalls until it can adjust your monthly payment to make up for tax hikes and premium increases. Your monthly mortgage payment will fluctuate from year to year, even on long-term fixed-rate loans.

Can I avoid escrow? In some cases, you can avoid escrow. Some lenders allow you to pay your own property taxes and home insurance premiums, especially if your loan-to-value ratio is below 80 percent. But don’t be surprised if the lender boosts your interest rate to compensate for the additional risk it is assuming.

Once an escrow requirement is in place, it can be difficult to persuade a lender to cancel it. If your loan is sold, as is common, and there is nothing in the lending agreement that provides for cancellation of the escrow requirement, you’ll have to live with the decision of your new mortgage servicer.

Federal Housing Administration-insured mortgages require escrow accounts.

Should you avoid escrow? Should you set up an escrow account for a new home or shoulder the responsibility of paying taxes and homeowners insurance on your own? The simple answer: It depends.

“There’s always a different reason for different people,” says Adriana Mollica, a real estate agent with Keller Williams Realty Westside in Los Angeles.

Without an escrow account, you have to pay tax and insurance bills when they are due, and they often are large sums.

Here are some questions to consider if you’re trying to determine whether to establish an escrow account.

Am I a good saver? The first thing to ask yourself is whether you’re a saver by nature. If not, you’re better off having an escrow account, Mollica says. If money burns a hole in your pocket, it may be tempting to use the money you set aside for taxes and insurance and take a pricey vacation instead.

Pat Hellman, Wells Fargo’s senior vice president of mortgage servicing operations in Des Moines, Iowa, says escrow accounts help homeowners with their budgeting as insurance and taxes fluctuate from year to year.

However, those who are self-employed or receive commissions — thereby experiencing monthly income fluctuation — have more flexibility if they pay for insurance and taxes directly, says Joe Chatham, who ran Chatham Mortgage Partners Inc. in Westlake Village, Calif., for many years. They can set aside extra money in months when their earnings are strong.

Where else can I put my cash? If you’re good at saving money, Mollica says it doesn’t make sense to make monthly payments for something you need to pay only once or twice a year. “It’s free money for the banks,” Mollica says.

If you don’t like handing your money over to the bank each month and are wary of the vagaries of the stock market, then savings, money market accounts and certificates of deposit could be alternatives. Even if the rates are low today, the rates will go higher in the long term, Mollica says.