calculatorDo you treat your home like your ATM card?

Many Americans apparently do, according to recently released housing data. The Wall Street Journal reports that in the first quarter this year, homeowners took out more than 230,000 home-equity lines of credit, also known as HELOCs, giving them access to some $23.4 billion—the highest quarterly figure since 2008.

What’s behind the peak in borrowing? Lenders are offering more attractive interest rates (the average HELOC rate was 5.01% in June, down from 5.16% a year ago) and allowing people to borrow a greater percentage of their home’s value. Homeowners are taking advantage of the lower rates and greater access to help pay for renovations or even to buy new homes, as well as to pay off non-housing-related costs like emergency expenses and higher-interest credit card balances or personal loans.

While it might be tempting to take on new debt in order to pay off old ones, there’s a hidden danger in doing so: Defaulting on a HELOC could carry far worse consequences than defaulting on a credit card or other type of loan. Because you’re putting up your home as collateral, a lender can foreclose if they don’t get their money back.

And homeowners who use their lines of credit to buy a new home put themselves at risk because a drop in home prices could mean that, with your mortgage and what you’ve borrowed from your HELOC combined, you end up owing more for your property than you could sell it for.

Still, there are some benefits to HELOCs over conventional loans. For starters, unlike with a home-equity loan, you’re not receiving a lump sum of cash; you’re only borrowing the amount you need, which may or may not be up to the full line of credit. And if you draw down only a small amount at a time, you only have to pay interest on that amount—just make sure you’re aware of changing interest rates, as HELOCs typically have adjustable rates rather than fixed ones.

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