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What is a secured loan? 

A secured loan is a loan backed by collateral. When you borrow money, the lender may or may not require you to pledge collateral to guarantee repayment of the debt. If collateral is pledged, then you have a secured loan. Collateral can be anything of value. (It can be money, real estate, automobiles, future interests, personal belongings, business assets, livestock, or anything else that has worth.) If you do not repay what you borrow, then the lender may use your collateral to satisfy the debt. For instance, your home mortgage is a secured loan. When you attended the closing, you signed a promissory note. This was your promise to repay the loan amount. You also signed a mortgage. This was your pledge of collateral. If you fail to make payments on the loan, the bank can foreclose on (take) and resell your home. If the bank sells your home, the sale proceeds are used to satisfy the loan. Other typical kinds of secured loans include car loans, boat loans, home equity loans, margin accounts, and retail store charge agreements.

What is an unsecured loan?

An unsecured loan is a loan that is not backed by collateral. When you borrow money, the lender may require nothing more than your promise to repay the debt. This is an unsecured loan. If you fail to repay an unsecured loan, the lender will not have any collateral to use for repayment of the debt.

Example(s): For instance, if you purchase a diamond ring using a major credit card, such as Visa® and Mastercard, you receive an unsecured loan. The credit card company loans you the money to buy the diamond ring. If you do not make payments on your account, the creditor is entitled to pursue you for payments, but it cannot repossess the ring to satisfy the debt.

Caution: Retail store charge cards are different from Visa® and Mastercard. They are issued by a particular store and may be used only in that store. Most retail stores do not extend unsecured credit. They assert a security interest in anything you purchase using their charge cards. This means that the merchandise you buy is considered collateral for repayment of the account balance. Check above the signature line on your charge slip for language referring to a security interest or a security agreement.

What are the advantages of a secured loan?

Lower interest rates.

You usually pay a lower interest rate when you borrow money on a secured basis. The rationale is that the lender carries less risk with a secured loan. If you don’t pay your secured loan, the lender can sell your collateral to pay off the balance. Because there is less risk, the lender is willing to accept a lower return (interest rate). This is why you will generally pay a lower rate of interest on your home mortgage loan than on your credit card balance.

Caution: In some instances, secured loans have extremely high interest rates. Many finance companies charge the highest legal interest rate for consolidation loans, even though they take a second mortgage on your home for security. Similarly, some retail stores charge the highest legal interest rate when extending credit. Always check the fine print. Similarly, be wary of low interest credit cards. The low interest rate is usually a promotion that expires after several months.

Relaxed credit requirements

Lenders know that if you do not make payments on your secured loan, they can use your collateral to satisfy the debt. For this reason, lenders will frequently offer secured loans to borrowers who have less than good credit. For instance, banks regularly make automobile loans of $10,000 or more to borrowers with poor credit, because the automobile secures repayment of the loan. If the borrower does not pay as agreed, the bank can repossess and resell the automobile to satisfy the debt. Banks rarely make unsecured loans of that size to borrowers with poor credit.

What are the disadvantages of secured borrowing?

Lenders can restrict your use of collateral

The disadvantage of secured borrowing is that the lender has rights in the collateral until the loan is paid off. This means that you don’t have complete control over the use and enjoyment of the collateral. Your agreement with the lender will set forth restrictions about what you can and can’t do with the collateral. Typically, you are prohibited from selling, altering, destroying, relocating, or depleting the collateral without the lender’s permission. You may be required to insure the collateral, allow the lender to inspect the collateral, or turn the collateral over to the lender for safe keeping. Restrictions vary, depending upon the nature of the collateral, but in all cases, you enjoy less than full ownership rights.

Collateral remains vulnerable in bankruptcy

Bankruptcy does not extinguish a lender’s rights with regard to collateral. Bankruptcy will discharge your obligation to repay the underlying debt, but it does not affect the creditor’s right to repossess the collateral, either during the bankruptcy case with leave of the court or after a bankruptcy discharge has been issued.

Example(s): Hal purchased new furniture for $5,000 using his department store charge card. The language on the charge card said that the purchase was made pursuant to the charge card security agreement that Hal had signed when he first opened the account. Subsequently, Hal ran into financial difficulty and was forced to file for bankruptcy. The bankruptcy court discharged the debt that Hal owed to the department store in the amount of $5,000. However, the department store was able to enforce its rights with respect to the collateral. It repossessed the furniture and resold it in its clearance center.

Tip: Frequently, retail stores have no real interest in the items you purchase using your charge card. Merchandise such as clothing, bedding, and personal care items have no real resale value. However, the retailer may use the threat of repossession as a negotiating tool or collection tactic.

What are the advantages of an unsecured loan?

Simpler documentation

Unsecured loans usually involve less documentation. Obtaining an unsecured loan is usually quicker and does not require a formal closing. There is usually just an application, a promissory note, and perhaps a payment schedule. This differs from a loan involving collateral. As any homeowner can tell you, you can get writer’s cramp signing all the papers that are required to document a mortgage or home equity loan.

More control over use of loan funds

When you borrow unsecured funds, there is generally no restriction on the use of the funds. You can spend the money anywhere and on anything. When the loan is secured, you may be restricted. In the case of an automobile loan, the lender’s draft will likely be made out to you and the car dealership, with the identification number of the car you intend to buy typed on the draft. You are required to use the loan proceeds to buy that car. In the case of an unsecured loan, the funds are paid out directly to you.

Lender gets no rights in items purchased with loan proceeds

If you buy a TV with unsecured funds, the creditor has no rights with respect to the TV. It has no right of repossession upon default and does not restrict your use of the TV. This is the same whether you buy the TV using an unsecured credit card, such as Visa, or funds from a personal bank loan. You can sell the TV. You can ship the TV overseas. You can smash the TV.

Technical Note: The unsecured creditor can sue you for payments if you are in default. The unsecured creditor may be able to attach your assets to satisfy a judgment, but it must proceed pursuant to local law. Its rights arise from local law, not from your credit agreement.

Can a secured loan become an unsecured loan?

Secured loans become unsecured when collateral is destroyed

Secured loans often become unsecured when the value of the collateral declines. A loan is a secured loan only to the extent of the value of the collateral. Lenders typically make certain their collateral is worth more than the balance of the loan. This is why lenders require a down payment for automobile purchases and why mortgage lenders rarely loan you 100 percent of the value of a home.

However, the unexpected sometimes occurs, and the value of your collateral can drop below the loan balance or even to zero. A flood washes out a home that secures a mortgage loan. A disease wipes out a herd of cattle that secures a farm loan. A long drive off a short pier ruins the value of a car that secures an auto loan. In these situations, the creditor finds his once-secured loan unsecured. Usually, there is insurance to cover the loss, but not always. The creditor may try to demand replacement collateral, but you may not have any.

Secured loans become unsecured when filing expires

Under state laws, a security interest in certain collateral is only valid if notice is given to the public by filing certain documents with the secretary of state or local registry. There are different rules for different states and different types of collateral. Filing errors can invalidate a lender’s security interest.

Can a loan be both secured and unsecured?

Yes. As stated, a loan is secured to the extent of the value of the collateral. If the balance of the loan is $100,000 and the value of the collateral is $40,000, then the loan is secured to the extent of $40,000 and unsecured to the extent of $60,000.

Technical Note: This loan is undersecured. The significance of having an undersecured loan is rarely important to the borrower, except in cases of financial hardship. In bankruptcy, the lender could take the collateral and use it to satisfy $40,000 of the debt, but the borrower might obtain a complete discharge of the remaining $60,000 of debt. This would be a severe loss for the lender. Accordingly, lenders are typically willing to renegotiate the terms of an undersecured loan if it will keep the borrower out of bankruptcy.