Mortgages & Home Loans Financing Your Home Purchase What Is a First Mortgage? Definition and Examples of a First Mortgage By Aly J. Yale Aly J. Yale Twitter Aly J. Yale is the homebuying, home loans, and mortgages expert for The Balance. With over 10 years of experience as a freelance writer and journalist, Aly has also contributed to online media outlets including Forbes, The Motley Fool, CreditCards.com, and The Simple Dollar, with areas of focus covering real estate, mortgages, and related financial topics. She holds a bachelor's of science in communication from Texas Christian University. learn about our editorial policies Updated on November 29, 2021 Reviewed by Doretha Clemon Reviewed by Doretha Clemon Doretha Clemons, Ph.D., MBA, PMP, has been a corporate IT executive and professor for 34 years. She is an adjunct professor at Connecticut State Colleges & Universities, Maryville University, and Indiana Wesleyan University. She is a Real Estate Investor and principal at Bruised Reed Housing Real Estate Trust, and a State of Connecticut Home Improvement License holder. learn about our financial review board Share Tweet Pin Email In This Article View All In This Article What Is a First Mortgage? How Does a First Mortgage Work? First Mortgages vs. Second Mortgages Definition A first mortgage is the primary loan on a property. The original loan is referred to as the “first mortgage” or “first lien” when a piece of real estate is financed by multiple mortgage loans. The first lender has the first right to claim the home through foreclosure and sell it to collect on the mortgage debt in the event that the borrower defaults on the mortgage. Photo: Big Stock Photo What Is a First Mortgage? As an example, let's say you bought a home in 2018 with a first mortgage in the amount of $200,000. You wanted to remodel your kitchen in 2019, so you took out a home equity loan to pay for the work. The mortgage with which you purchased the home is your first mortgage, and the home equity loan is second. Now, let's look ahead to mid-2020. Suppose you fell into some rough times and you were three months behind on payments for both loans. The first mortgage lender started the foreclosure process and after a few months was able to sell the property for $150,000. The first mortgage lender uses that $150,000 to pay off your original loan. You'll recall it was for $200,000, but over the years you've made steady payments and now it has a balance of only $130,000. The proceeds that are left after the first mortgage is paid off amount to $20,000. So your first lender is happy, but your second loan is still unpaid. The $20,000 that remains from the sale goes to the second loan. It might or might not cover the full balance on the second lien, but the home equity lender would have little in the way of recourse because it held the second mortgage and was in line behind the first mortgage for payment. Alternate name: First lien Note A first mortgage does not refer to a mortgage on the first home a buyer has purchased. How Does a First Mortgage Work? There are two common reasons you might have a first mortgage and a second mortgage loan on a single property. Multiple mortgages can occur either upfront, when you first purchase the home, or down the line after you’ve been living there for some time, as in the example of the home equity loan. Some buyers use two mortgage loans to purchase their property. The first mortgage is used to cover the bulk of the purchase price of the home, minus a down payment. The second loan helps to cover the down payment and the closing costs that come with the transaction. This strategy is often called “piggybacking.” The second mortgage would be the piggyback loan, also referred to as a combo loan. Piggyback Loan Pros Lower out-of-pocket costs upfront Can help buyers avoid private mortgage insurance Piggyback Loan Cons Two monthly mortgage payments Two mortgage applications Higher interest rates Home equity second mortgages allow you to tap into the equity in your home to pay for renovations, medical bills, debts, or any other expenses you might have. Note Both home equity loans and piggyback loans are second mortgages; they result in having to make a second mortgage payment every month until the balances are paid off. First Mortgages vs. Second Mortgages The biggest difference between a first and second mortgage is first claim to the property in the event of default. The first lender can foreclose on the property and use the returns to pay off your loan if you don’t make your payments. The second lender can only claim any portion of the returns after the first loan is paid off. Second mortgages often have higher interest rates than first liens for this reason. They present more of a risk to the lender because the first lender has the right to claim the property if you don’t make your payments. It's possible the second lender won't receive anything from the sale at all. The second lender has to protect itself, and the higher interest rate is part of that. First Mortgage Has the first claim to the property in case of default Is eligible for the mortgage-interest tax deduction Second Mortgage Higher interest rates Doesn't have the first claim to the property in the event of default Might not be eligible for the mortgage-interest tax deduction Another big difference between first and second mortgages is how each is treated in the tax code, in particular the federal mortgage-interest tax deduction. You can deduct the interest you pay on your first loan up to certain limits, but the IRS does not allow you to deduct interest on home equity and second mortgages unless you use the money to “buy, build, or substantially improve” the home. Key Takeaways A first mortgage is the primary and original lien against a property or piece of real estate.A first mortgage can be the only loan or mortgage, or it can be one of two or more liens against the property.A first mortgage lender has the first right to claim the property and foreclose should the borrower default on payments or other loan terms.The first mortgage lender is paid first from sale proceeds. Other mortgage holders receive only what’s left, if and when the first mortgage balance is paid. Was this page helpful? Thanks for your feedback! Tell us why! Other Submit Sources The Balance uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy. U.S. Mortgage Insurers. "Low Down Payment Facts." Accessed Sept. 3, 2020. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. "What Is a Second Mortgage Loan or "Junior-Lien"?" Accessed Sept. 3, 2020. IRS. "Publication 936 (2019), Home Mortgage Interest Deduction." Accessed Sept. 3, 2020.