Interest Rate Caps: What They Are, How They Work, and Examples


Interest rate cap structures are crucial for understanding how variable-rate credit products, such as adjustable-rate mortgages, function. These caps provide both borrowers and lenders with protection and flexibility. In this article, we will explore the concept of interest rate caps, their various structures, and how they work. We’ll also discuss the advantages and disadvantages, along with some practical examples. By the end, you’ll have a comprehensive grasp of this essential financial topic.

What is an interest rate cap structure?

An interest rate cap structure refers to the provisions governing interest rate increases on variable-rate credit products. An interest rate cap is a limit on how high an interest rate can rise on variable-rate debt. Interest rate caps can be instituted across all types of variable rate products.

How interest rate caps work

Interest rate cap structures serve to benefit the borrower in a rising interest rate environment. The caps can also make variable rate interest products more attractive and financially viable for customers.

Variable-rate interest products are designed to fluctuate with the changing market environment. Investors in a variable rate interest product will pay an interest rate that is based on an underlying indexed rate plus a margin added to the index rate. The combination of these two components results in the borrower’s fully indexed rate. Lenders can index the underlying indexed rate to various benchmarks with the most common being their prime rate or a U.S. Treasury rate. Lenders also set a margin in the underwriting process based on the borrower’s credit profile. A borrower’s fully indexed interest rate will change as the underlying indexed rate fluctuates.

How interest rate caps can be structured

Interest rate caps can take various forms. Lenders have some flexibility in customizing how an interest rate cap might be structured. There can be an overall limit on the interest for the loan. The limit is an interest rate that your loan can never exceed, meaning that no matter how much interest rates rise over the life of the loan, the loan rate will never exceed the predetermined rate limit.

Interest rate caps can also be structured to limit incremental increases in the rate of a loan. An adjustable-rate mortgage (ARM) has a period in which the rate can readjust and increase if mortgage rates rise.

The ARM rate might be set to an index rate plus a few percentage points added by the lender. The interest rate cap structure limits how much a borrower’s rate can readjust or move higher during the adjustment period. In other words, the product limits the number of interest rate percentage points the ARM can move higher. Interest rate caps can give borrowers protection against dramatic rate increases and also provide a ceiling for maximum interest rate costs.

Example of an interest rate cap structure

Adjustable-rate mortgages have many variations of interest rate cap structures. For example, let’s say a borrower is considering a 5-1 ARM, which requires a fixed interest rate for five years followed by a variable interest rate afterward, which resets every 12 months. With this mortgage product, the borrower is offered a 2-2-5 interest rate cap structure.

The interest rate cap structure is broken down as follows:

The first number refers to the initial incremental increase cap after the fixed-rate period expires. In other words, 2% is the maximum the rate can increase after the fixed-rate period ends in five years. If the fixed-rate was set at 3.5%, the cap on the rate would be 5.5% after the end of the five-year period.

The second number is a periodic 12-month incremental increase cap meaning that after the five-year period has expired, the rate will adjust to current market rates once per year. In this example, the ARM would have a 2% limit for that adjustment. It’s quite common that the periodic cap can be identical to the initial cap.

The third number is the lifetime cap, setting the maximum interest rate ceiling. In this example, the five represents the maximum interest rate increases on the mortgage.

So let’s say the fixed rate was 3.5% and the rate was adjusted higher by 2% during the initial incremental increase to a rate of 5.5%. After 12 months, mortgage rates rose to 8%, the loan rate would be adjusted to 7.5% because of the 2% cap for the annual adjustment. If rates increased by another 2%, the loan would only increase by 1% to 8.5%, because the lifetime cap is five percentage points above the original fixed rate.

Periodic interest rate cap

A periodic interest rate cap refers to the maximum interest rate adjustment allowed during a particular period of an adjustable-rate loan or mortgage. The periodic rate cap protects the borrower by limiting how much an adjustable-rate mortgage (ARM) product may change or adjust during any single interval. The periodic interest rate cap is just one component of the overall interest rate cap structure.

Limitations of an interest rate cap

The limitations of an interest rate cap structure can depend on the product that a borrower chooses when entering into a mortgage or loan. If interest rates are rising, the rate will adjust higher, and the borrower might have been better off originally entering into a fixed-rate loan.

Although the cap limits the percentage increase, the rates on the loan still increase in a rising rate environment. In other words, borrowers must be able to afford the worst-case scenario rate on the loan if rates rise significantly.


Here is a list of the benefits and the drawbacks to consider.

  • Interest rate caps provide protection against dramatic rate increases on variable-rate debt.
  • They make adjustable-rate mortgages (ARMs) and other variable rate products more attractive to borrowers by offering a ceiling on maximum interest rate costs.
  • Interest rate caps can be customized to fit different financial situations and preferences, providing flexibility for borrowers.
  • Understanding interest rate caps is essential for borrowers considering variable-rate products like ARMs, allowing them to make informed decisions.
  • Interest rate caps cannot prevent all rate increases, and borrowers may still experience some adjustments in their monthly payments as rates change.
  • The specific terms and limits of interest rate caps can vary between different ARMs and lenders, potentially causing confusion for borrowers.
  • Interest rate caps may not shield borrowers from all financial difficulties, so it’s essential to have a solid financial plan in place for unforeseen circumstances.

Frequently asked questions

What are the disadvantages of an adjustable-rate mortgage?

The disadvantages of an adjustable-rate mortgage include the fact that if interest rates rise, your monthly payments could increase to a point where you may not be able to afford them. If you cannot make your mortgage payments, your home is at risk of foreclosure.

Can you pay off an ARM early?

Whether you can pay off an adjustable-rate mortgage (ARM) early will depend on the terms of your mortgages. Some lenders allow early payoffs with no penalties, while others will charge a fee if you pay off the loan before the terms end.

Can you refi out of an ARM?

You can refinance an adjustable-rate mortgage just as you would a traditional mortgage. You will essentially take out a new loan to pay off the original loan so you will have new terms.

Are interest rate caps the same for all adjustable-rate mortgages (ARMs)?

No, interest rate caps can vary between different types of ARMs and even between lenders. The specific terms and limits of interest rate caps are typically outlined in your mortgage agreement, so it’s important to review this document carefully.

Can I negotiate the interest rate caps with my lender?

While some aspects of your mortgage agreement may be negotiable, interest rate caps are often set by the lender or are based on market standards. It’s advisable to discuss these terms with your lender during the mortgage application process to ensure you understand and are comfortable with the caps in place.

How often can interest rates be adjusted in an ARM with interest rate caps?

The frequency of interest rate adjustments can vary, but most ARMs with interest rate caps feature annual adjustments after an initial fixed-rate period. However, you should check your specific ARM agreement to confirm the adjustment frequency.

Can I convert my adjustable-rate mortgage to a fixed-rate mortgage if I’m concerned about rising interest rates?

Yes, in many cases, you have the option to refinance your ARM into a fixed-rate mortgage. This can provide stability in your monthly payments and protect you from potential interest rate hikes. Be sure to discuss this option with your lender.

What should I consider when comparing different interest rate cap structures?

When evaluating interest rate cap structures, pay attention to the initial rate, the periodic adjustment caps, and the lifetime cap. Consider your financial stability and how much you can afford if rates increase. Also, weigh the benefits of a lower initial rate against the potential for higher future payments.

How do interest rate caps affect my monthly mortgage payments?

Interest rate caps can directly impact your monthly mortgage payments. If your interest rate is subject to periodic adjustments, the caps determine how much your payment can increase during each adjustment period. This can affect your budgeting and financial stability.

Can I get a mortgage with no interest rate caps?

It’s uncommon to find mortgages with no interest rate caps. Most lenders and borrowers prefer the security and predictability that caps provide. Interest rate caps help protect borrowers from extreme rate increases and keep mortgages more manageable.

Are interest rate caps the same for all types of variable-rate loans?

No, while interest rate caps are commonly associated with adjustable-rate mortgages, different types of variable-rate loans may have varying cap structures. These structures can differ based on the lender, the loan terms, and the specific product you choose.

Can I remove or change the interest rate caps on my existing mortgage?

Modifying the interest rate caps on an existing mortgage is generally not possible without refinancing the loan. If you wish to change the terms of your caps, you’ll need to discuss this with your lender and explore the possibility of refinancing.

Do interest rate caps protect against economic downturns?

Interest rate caps primarily protect against interest rate increases. While they can provide some financial stability in challenging economic times, they may not shield you from all financial difficulties. It’s essential to have a solid financial plan in place for unforeseen circumstances.

Key takeaways

  • Interest rate caps limit how high an interest rate can rise on variable-rate debt, commonly used in adjustable-rate mortgages.
  • These caps provide protection against dramatic rate increases and set a ceiling on maximum interest costs.
  • Interest rate caps can have an overall limit on the interest for the loan and also be structured to limit incremental increases in the rate of a loan.
  • Understanding the cap structure is essential for borrowers considering variable-rate products like ARMs.
View Article Sources
  1. National Rates and Rate Caps – Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation
  2. With an adjustable-rate mortgage (ARM), what are rate caps and how do they work? – Consumer Financial Protection Bureau
  3. What is an Adjustable-Rate Mortgage? – SuperMoney
  4. 7/6 ARM: Definition and How It Works – SuperMoney