What Is the Difference Between Secured and Unsecured Loans?

Personal loans come in two distinct flavors – secured and unsecured – and the one you choose will make a big difference in how much you can borrow and how much interest you pay.

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What Is a Secured Loan?

Flavor No. 1 is known as “secured loans” and is safest for the lender since it contains a built-in backstop. Secured loans require that the borrower have collateral, typically a home, car, boat or property, that can be repossessed if the borrower defaults. These are among the most common loans made.

Examples of Secured Loans


  • Qualifying can be difficult: Repossessing a car or foreclosing on a house can take time, and the condition of the collateral is never certain, so lenders want to know a lot about a borrower’s income and credit history before issuing a secured loan.
  • You Can Borrow More Money: Typical collateral for a secured loan is a high value item, such as a home or car, therefore you can usually qualify for a larger sum of money for a secured loan.
  • Longer Repayment Schedule: Repayment schedules for secured loans tend to be five years for a car loan, and the most popular home loan is the 30-year mortgage.


  • Lower interest rates and longer repayment schedules
  • You can improve your credit score by making consistent, on-time payments toward secured loans


  • If you fail to make payments, you can lose the collateral: your home or vehicle.
  • If you fail to make payments, your credit score will tumble 100 points or more.

Secured loans are the backbone of the housing and automobile economy. Without home mortgages, very few people would be able to afford America’s real estate prices. And most would balk at new car prices since they seldom keep large reserves of cash in their bank accounts.

Secured loans make big ticket items affordable. Better still, the ability to seize the item being purchased if the loan goes into default makes these loans desirable for lenders. Security lowers risk for the lender and helps keep interest rates down.

Housing loans are normally considered good debt. Lenders will want to know a lot about you and the value of the real estate you’re buying for two reasons: They want to feel confident you will repay a big loan for 10 to 30 years and they want to know that if you don’t, they can take your house and sell it to cover the debt.

Car loans tend to have higher interest rates than home loans because the value of the collateral – your car – decreases with time. A lender can seize the collateral, but it might not be worth enough to cover what’s left on the loan. A higher interest rate helps offset the risk of that happening.

What Is an Unsecured Loan?

The other type of debt, “unsecured loans,” are even more common. High risk loans don’t require collateral, so the lender is taking a very big risk. He’s accepting the word of the borrower that the loan will be repaid. If the borrower defaults, the lender might try to take the borrower to court and get a lien against his property, but otherwise it’s hard to collect a debt.

Examples of Unsecured Loans

  • Credit Cards
  • Student loans
  • Personal Loans
  • Payday Loans

With credit cards, you can buy things today as long as you repay the card issuer when you get a bill. If you don’t repay the full balance when the bill is due, high interest rates kick in and it becomes very costly for the card owner. Student loans that go into default become a negative mark on a consumer’s credit report, until the consumer resumes regular payments.


  • Loan amounts are smaller: With the exception of student loans, the size of an unsecured loans is often much smaller than secured ones and the amount of interest charged on balances due is usually much greater.
  • Interest rates are higher: Interest rates on unsecured loans tend to be significantly higher. The average credit card interest rate over the past several years ranges from 15-18%, while payday loans can cost you 300%-400%.


  • Unsecured loans are convenient, and usually easy to qualify for. They can help you buy things and make payments when money is short.
  • Unsecured loans, when paid on time each month, can help you improve your credit score and eventually qualify for lower interest secured loans.


  • Higher interest rates mean paying significantly more for goods and services than you would otherwise spend.
  • Missing payments will harm your credit score.

Unsecured loans lack collateral, which for lenders is a huge drawback. The inability to seize an asset if a debt goes into default leaves lenders’ money vulnerable, and millions of borrowers with unsecured loans bring that point home every day.

Credit cards are the biggest source of unsecured borrowing. More than 160 million U.S. households use credit cards with an average debt of $7,519 per household. The nation’s total credit card debt is $770 billion in the middle of 2021, according to the Federal Reserve.

Though on-line lenders, often called peer-to-peer lenders, and banks make unsecured personal loans, credit cards dwarf them. In fact, most consumers with debt problems fall into the trap through unsecured borrowing. Illness and job loss also cause major problems, but even these are made worse if the unfortunate person has a lot of consumer debt tied up in credit cards.

Lenders can’t seize an asset to compensate for an unsecured debt gone bad, but they can put a lot of pressure on borrowers. Taking the consumer to court and getting either a property lien against them or garnishing wages are ways they can collect unpaid debts. Even if a debt goes uncollected, the borrowers in default likely will find it hard to get a loan at a reasonable rate for years to come. When consumer debts fall in arrears, reports are filed with the nation’s three large consumer-credit rating agencies, resulting in the borrowers’ credit scores dropping. The lower one’s score, the harder it is to get credit and the more expensive that credit is.

Even those who don’t default or fall behind on their credit card debts can damage their scores by carrying large balances. In financial-speak, the percentage of your credit line in use at any time is called credit utilization. If your utilization is too large – generally considered to be 30% or more of your credit limit – it will weigh negatively on your credit score. 

Getting Help with Secured Loans

If you run into problems paying monthly installments on your car or house, help is available. Don’t wait until you are already in default before acting.

Having your car repossessed can happen quickly if you fail to pay your loan, so it’s important to do whatever you can to remain current with your payments. Laws vary from state-to-state, but if you violate the terms of your loan agreement, lenders can repossess your car without notice.

Review your car loan agreement to learn what it takes to be found in default. Some agreements give you a 30-day grace period to make your loan current. Others require written notification from the lender before your car can be repossessed. If you fall behind because of a temporary financial problem and you have the money to bring the loan current, contact the lender to reinstate the loan.

If your car is repossessed, remember that you might owe more than it is worth. Lenders can go to court to request a deficiency judgment, which is a court order that requires you pay the difference between the car’s value and the amount you owe. To avoid this, try negotiating with the lender when you can’t make payments. Sometimes, if you voluntarily surrender the car, the lender will forego a deficiency judgment filing. Also, you can try to sell the car yourself if you think you can net enough to repay the loan.

Not paying a mortgage can have more serious consequences. If you fail to make payments, the lender will file a notice to foreclose. Failure to remediate the payment problem leads to the lender moving ahead with the foreclosure, which typically ends with you losing your home,

Foreclosure was a particularly common problem following the financial industry crisis of 2008 when real estate prices dropped dramatically in many markets. Borrowers found that they owed more on their hones – often far more – than their market values, and they tried to negotiate with lenders to exit their mortgages. Lenders often allowed short sales, where the owner sold the home for less than the amount owed and the lender agreed not to pursue a deficiency judgment.

For more information on the options opened to distressed homeowners, visit the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development website, www.hud.gov.

Debt Help for Unsecured Debt

Getting out of unsecured loan debt can be complicated. Often a debtor has defaulted on several credit cards and owes more than his or her income is capable of repaying. If that is the case, borrowers should contact the debt holder, usually the credit card company or a collection agency, to discuss debt settlement options.

First, try to organize your finances to pay down your credit card balances. Focus on the cards with the highest interest rates first while making minimum payments on the rest. In order to reach your payment goals, go on a personal austerity program – brown bag lunches instead of eating out; cut the cord on cable TV, find a cheaper cellphone plan, cancel vacation plans and look for ways to trim your electric bills.

If that doesn’t work, the next-best solution could be a debt management program through a nonprofit credit counseling agency. The agency will work with credit card companies to reduce interest rates on your cards and design an affordable monthly payment. This process eliminates the debt over time – usually 3-5 years – and requires discipline and commitment.

The goal of these programs is to settle debts with the least damage to the debtors’ credit ratings. Often, they accomplish their goals, but sometimes the debtor is unable to resolve what is owed. Bankruptcy might be the only solution in such cases. Though bankruptcy can severely limit the filer’s ability to borrow money in the years ahead, it is sometimes the only way to clear off crippling debt.

Bankruptcy can discharge many personal debts, but not all. Student loans and child support are prime examples of non-dischargeable debt, meaning you are still obligated to pay them even after your other debts have been removed through bankruptcy.

About The Author

Tom Jackson

Tom Jackson focuses on writing about debt solutions for consumers struggling to make ends meet. His background includes time as a columnist for newspapers in Washington D.C., Tampa and Sacramento, Calif., where he reported and commented on everything from city and state budgets to the marketing of local businesses and how the business of professional sports impacts a city. Along the way, he has racked up state and national awards for writing, editing and design. Tom’s blogging on the 2016 election won a pair of top honors from the Florida Press Club. A University of Florida alumnus, St. Louis Cardinals fan and eager-if-haphazard golfer, Tom splits time between Tampa and Cashiers, N.C., with his wife of 40 years, college-age son, and Spencer, a yappy Shetland sheepdog.


  1. N.A. (2021, May 12) Credit Card Balances See Second Largest Quarterly Decline in Series’ History, Driven by Paydowns Among Borrowers and Constrained Consumption Opportunities. Retrieved from https://www.newyorkfed.org/newsevents/news/research/2021/20210512
  2. Comoreanu, A. (2021, June 8) Credit Card Debt Study. Retrieved from https://wallethub.com/edu/cc/credit-card-debt-study/24400