Escrow Payments

A theme I stick to in this blog is that you need to watch your money. I’ve talked about ways that I’ve fought to get money back where it wasn’t billed correctly (e.g., medical bills), and today’s warning is about escrows.

An escrow account, in the sense that I want to talk about it, is tied to your mortgage. Your monthly payment includes an amount that goes into a separate account held by your mortgage company, and they manage paying out your taxes and insurance on your behalf.

The benefit of an escrow is that you don’t have to manage your insurance and tax payments. You don’t have to pay out a large sum of money once (or twice) a year because you’re paying towards this account every month that will manage that billing for you. The downside is that this escrow account requires you to maintain a balance, so it’s holding your money where your money isn’t working for you. Another downside is that your money movement is less transparent, and you just expect that the payments will be made accurately. The bank basically takes on the administrative burden of paying these bills on your behalf, in exchange for continually holding this money without paying you interest.

Each month your mortgage payment includes principal, interest, and escrow. For example, I have a mortgage payment that is $615.34. The P&I total will remain the same amount each month, but the principal portion of each payment will slowly increase while the interest slowly decreases. In my example, the total P&I is always $428.11, but the breakdown of what’s principal and what’s interest changes (e.g., October’s payment due included principal of $119.58 and interest of $308.53; November’s was $120.03 of principal and $308.08 of interest). The escrow amount each month for this mortgage is now $187.23; this number stays the same until there’s an escrow re-analysis.

An escrow analysis is conducted once per year to verify that the escrow account will have sufficient funds to pay out the bills received (typically taxes and insurance), while maintaining the required minimum balance. Sometimes the increase is known ahead of time because you can see that the estimates for the initial escrow contributions were off (or in our case, new construction uses estimates based on last year’s tax payment, which only included land value and not the final sale of the home, so we know there will be an escrow shortfall in our future). A shortfall may also occur when there’s been a drastic change in your property value assessment, causing taxes to increase more than an expected amount (like in 2021!), or when insurance costs change more than projected.

Below is an escrow analysis of one of our accounts. The highlighted row shows that when our taxes are paid, the balance will fall below the required minimum. The document says that the minimum “is determined by the Real Estate Settlement Procedures Act (RESPA), your mortgage contract, or state law. Your minimum balance may include up to 2 months cushion of escrow payments to cover increases in your taxes and insurance.” If you are projected to dip below the required minimum, they’ll offer you the opportunity to make a one-time contribution to the escrow account or your monthly payment will increase to cover that projected shortfall.

The increase is calculated in the image below. My payment to escrow at the time of this analysis was $126.18. They take my insurance and taxes owed, divide by 12, and come up with my monthly base escrow payment ($149.81). At the lowest point in my escrow balance (highlighted in yellow above), the account will be -149.43. The difference between this balance and the required balance of $299.62 is $449.05. Divide this number by 12 to get the $37.42 in the image below indicating the monthly shortage for the account.

The new escrow payment is added to my P&I payment (which stays the same), and this is my new monthly mortgage payment.

An escrow analysis showing that we’ll fall below the balance required inevitably means that my monthly cash flow will decrease (because we always opt for the change in monthly payment instead of a one-time contribution). As taxes and insurance increase, so does your requirement to fund your escrow account. While the reason for the escrow increase is to cover the taxes and insurance, which I would have to pay anyway, the escrow increase is higher because of the required minimums. One of our houses started with $766.96 as the monthly payment, and it is now $802.96 due to the escrow analysis. Another one started at $477.77, and it’s now at $537.60.

SO WHAT HAPPENED?

Honestly, the only way I’ve checked my escrow balances in the past is at the end of the year when I’m verifying the insurance and tax payments “make sense.” I’m not even verifying the details behind the numbers, just that it was similar to last year’s amount as I update my spreadsheet. Well this time, I logged in to update my spreadsheets with the new mortgage balances for the October Financial Update, and I saw my escrow account was negative by over $1000! That makes no sense because these accounts are reviewed annually through an escrow re-analysis to ensure you’re not projected to dip below their required minimum balance, and if it were to be negative, it would only be by a much smaller amount.

We had recently changed our insurance. Usually when we change insurance providers, we pay the current year on our credit card (to get those points!), and then all future billing goes to our escrow account. I don’t know why we didn’t do it this way for the most recent change, but I’m inclined to blame the fact that the process took months to get new insurance because this company hasn’t been responsive, so we just wanted it done and weren’t thinking. Since we didn’t get the new policy issued before our old policy was billed, both insurances were paid out by our escrow. Sure, that should have affected our escrow balances, but still not by $1000.

One house had a policy that cost $573.31 and the other had a policy that cost $750.06. The new policy includes both houses under one policy (this becomes annoying and it makes me uncomfortable for reasons I can’t seem to articulate to the agent) and costs $1,180.87. Each mortgage escrow paid out the original policy amounts since we didn’t execute the new policies timely. After these were paid out, the mortgage company received a bill for $1,180.87. For reasons I can’t quite figure out, the company paid $1042 from each of our escrow accounts, and then one escrow account paid $138.87 (which is the balance of 1180.87-1042). The $138.87 covers the policy fees; so someone realized that there was a separate line item for policy fees, but didn’t realize that the $1042 should have been split between two houses (even though they knew there were two houses because they took from both escrows).

I questioned the process with the new insurance company, but he didn’t take responsibility for it. He claimed that the mortgagee had to know to split it and they don’t manage any of that. I explained that I’ve had multiple houses insured by one company and have never been given one policy number for it. He acted surprised. My gut says this is wrong and isn’t going to work, both for future billing and the possibility of a need for a claim. We did receive a check in the mail for $903.13 (the difference of $1042-138.87), but we still have paid the $138.87 and want it reimbursed. I sent an email this morning explaining again that I’ve confirmed with my mortgage company that this insurance company was paid $1042+$1042+$138.87. He again responded that the $138.87 is the fees portion of the bill, and I again said that I know, but it’s been paid twice, and I’d like it back. So now I’ll stay on top of that $138.87 to make sure we get it back.

You need to fight for yourself. You need to know what companies are owed and know what you’ve paid. Then don’t back down to keep asking for an update. I recently discussed how I had to fight for medical bills (multiple times) for a year at a time to get the money reimbursed that I was owed. I even recently had to call on another medical bill that I paid before realizing it hadn’t been submitted to insurance (I would love to understand why this keeps being an issue that my medical bills aren’t submitted to my insurance before billing me). Then they submitted it to insurance and sat on my reimbursement until I called twice asking for the reimbursement (that both times they agreed I was owed and it was “in process.”). Manage your money. Especially because that $138 that I’m waiting for now could mean a big difference to a family in need or living paycheck to paycheck.

Amortization Schedules

An amortization schedule is a document that is a huge spreadsheet of numbers that tells banks and their software how to apply your monthly mortgage payment. It defines the amount of each payment going to principal to pay off the loan balance, and the amount going to interest for the bank allowing you to borrow their money.


Let’s rewind. How does the bank figure out how much your monthly principal and interest payment is going to be? This is a function of several things:

  • Loan amount (purchase price minus down payment)
  • Interest rate
  • Loan term (length)

Want to see a formula for that?

  • loan amount = x
  • interest rate = y
  • loan term (months) = z

Looks like a blast doesn’t it? I saved this formula into my spreadsheet for evaluating properties so that once I fill in the purchase price, expected down payment, loan length, and the predicted rate from my lender, it will auto-populate the monthly mortgage payment amount. I then take that number and can calculate predicted cash flow based on a rent estimate.


Back to the point of the post. Loans with long terms borrow the money for a long time. Loans with high rates borrow the money more expensively. In both cases, the early stages of the amortization schedule give much more money to the bank as your fee for borrowing (interest) than they do to pay down the loan. This is because every dollar of that loan principal is being borrowed and needs paid for.

In the first payment, the entire principal amount borrowed is in that formula above, so it’s expensive to the bank to give you that money. Fast forward 15 years of a 30 year loan and you have far less outstanding principal left, so the interest charge associated with that is less. Since your total monthly mortgage payment (principal and interest, ignoring escrows) total doesn’t change, the interest applied towards a smaller balance leaves more ‘room’ to pay toward more principal. Basically, the bank gets its money out of your monthly payment first, and what is left over can go to principal pay-down.

DAILY INTEREST

To better explain the cost of borrowing each dollar over time, it’s likely easier to break it down into daily interest. An amortization schedule calculates the cost to the borrower for giving you the bank’s money on a per day basis. So while I have access to $X for the whole month, I owe the bank for every day I’m carrying that principal. Multiply by 30 and that’s what the bank charges me for interest for the month. Then, remember that the leftover is what goes to the principal pay-down.

How to calculate. Divide your annual interest rate by 365 to get your daily interest rate. Multiply that rate by the outstanding principal to get your daily interest charge. Multiply that by the days in the month (or most banks use a standard month length = 365/12) and come up with the interest the amortization schedule charges you for that month’s payment.

We mentioned the different types of amortization we’ve seen in the House 1 post. This loan calculated your monthly principal part of the payment by the exact number of days in the month so each month’s proportion of principal to interest varied up and down.┬áThis is in contrast to what most banks do that I mention above.

THEORETICAL EXAMPLES

A pretty standard rate in the last decade is 4% on a 30 year fixed mortgage. Lets say the loan amount is $100k. Plugging that into my formula above, we get a monthly payment of $477.42. Above are the first 10 payments on that loan. Only about 30% of your monthly payment is actually paying down principal at the beginning. It takes 153 payments (i.e., months) before the amount of each payment going to principal is actually more than paying interest. Total interest on the full loan in this scenario is $71,869.


Now lets look what happens when we change it to a 15 year loan. The total payment jumps to $739.69 because you are paying the principal down twice as fast. But, the first payment you make is already $406.35 worth of principal pay down. Compare it to the first loan example in the terms of daily interest. The rate is the same. The amount is the same. So the interest due for the month is the same. But because your amortization schedule knows that you’re paying the loan off much earlier and requires a larger total payment, the leftover for principal pay-down is far more substantial.

Next, look how much quicker the interest charge drops after just 10 payments compared to the first example. $320.98 vs $328.95. This is because you are paying principal down more quickly, so the outstanding balance decreases and the daily interest is then lower too. Total interest in this scenario is $33,143.


In this example, we move back to a 30 year loan, still at $100,000, but we bumped the rate to 6%. The total payment rises to nearly $600, and the principal to interest ratio of the beginning payments is quite poor. Only 17% of the payment is going to principal pay down, which means that the daily interest is high, and stays high for many months. It’s not until month 223 (18 years later!) before the amount of principal in each payment is higher than the interest payment. Total interest in this scenario is $115,838.


Side story – Mr. ODA’s parents paid off their 30 year mortgage on their residence in 12 years. As a child, Dad would explain to me their process. They printed out the amortization schedule and put it on the fridge. Each month, based on their regular cash flow of life, they would choose ‘how many months’ they wanted to pay to the loan. So they’d make their regular payment, then they’d pay the principal portion of the next 2-3 months on the amortization schedule also. They’d make some really gnarly extra payments with weird dollars and cents, but it was a calculated decision. Then they’d cross those months off the schedule, knowing that with that extra payment, the interest that was tied to that principal portion on the schedule was simply avoided/canceled, by paying that principal early. This was a powerful tool to help me understand how the loan process worked, and one that help create the foundation for me to look at time value of money, opportunity cost, guaranteed return vs potential invested return, etc. Dad missed a lot of stock market gains by accelerating a 30 year mortgage to 12 years, but very few people ever regret owning the roof over their head free and clear – with a byproduct of NO MORTGAGE PAYMENTS for the 18 years that would’ve been remaining! Now he can make more investments with that leftover cash flow of life.


Amortization schedules are one of the largest “gaps” in understanding for the typical mortgage customer. They typically get told what to pay each month and ascribe to a “set it and forget” mantra that they know in 30 years, their house will be owned free and clear. Anytime before that, why bother understanding the background math?

As you can see in the examples, a shorter loan means faster pay down with less interest overall, and a lower interest rate means a smaller payment. When looking at loan options, understanding how the math operates to get to your options can help you determine what your priorities and goals are, and how to execute them.

In our recent refinancing post we talked about analyzing when was a good time to refinance our existing loans and which ones we’d target first. Simple advice you can find on the internet is that it’s a good idea to refinance if you plan to keep the property for longer than the result of closing costs divided by monthly payment. Most times this was about 2 years for us. You can see above that the 6% example had a $123 larger monthly payment than the 4% example (30 year term). So if closing costs are $2,000, it would only take 16 months (2000/123=16) to “break even” on a refi to go from a 6% loan to a 4% loan. No brainer!

There’s another hidden benefit there too, that gets missed to make it even shorter than 16 months. Look at the principal portion of the monthly payment. On the 6% example, it’s only $99 on payment 1, but on the 4% example it’s $144. That’s another $45 benefit! You’re paying down the principal at a faster rate. Add that extra principal portion embedded within the monthly payment to the $123 lower payment savings ($123+45=$168) and you get a “break even” point of only 12 months ($2000 closing costs/$168=11.9)!

Understand how your mortgage math works so that you can speak intelligently to a lender, ask good questions, and set yourself up with the best scenario for your finances and your future.