What’s The Difference Between a Mortgage & a Promissory Note?

Tara Mastroeni
Published: May 29, 2015 | Updated: March 09, 2024

If you’re not in real estate, learning the difference between a mortgage vs. promissory note can get complicated and convoluted. They both are important documents that you’ll sign when you buy a home. However, while these documents are both meant to ensure that the lender gets repaid, there are some major differences between the two. 

Put simply, a promissory note is a promise to repay your loan. Meanwhile, a mortgage is a security instrument that allows the lender to foreclose on the home if you do default on your payments. 

Difference note vs mortgage

With that said, below is a closer look at each of these two instruments. We’ll take the time to define what they are, how they work, and the difference is between them. Read on below to learn more. Armed with this knowledge, you should have the ability to understand the role that each of these documents plays in a real estate transaction.

Key takeaways

By the end of this article, you will know that:

  1. A promissory note, also sometimes called a mortgage note, is essentially an IOU, a legally binding promise to pay a loan.
  2. A mortgage or mortgage note (or its equivalent in some states, a deed of trust) describes the collateral on the loan, and what happens if the loan isn’t repaid according to the terms set out.
  3. Promissory notes, and not mortgage deeds, are bought and sold on the secondary market. Mortgage deeds are kept as part of publicly available records, but promissory notes generally are not.
  4. You can sell a property with just a promissory note, but it’s usually advisable to have both that and a mortgage deed.

What is a promissory note?

In layman’s terms, it can be helpful to think about a promissory note as an IOU. Also sometimes known as a mortgage note, this document serves as a legally-binding promise to repay a loan. Notably, while a bank can certainly issue a promissory note, so can an individual or private company. Truthfully, anyone who is lending money has the power to do so.

Information in a promissory note

Typically, a promissory note will also contain details about the loan and its repayment terms. In general, you can expect the following information to be included:

The lender: The person or entity lending the money.

The borrower: The person or persons responsible for repaying the debt.

The contract origination date: The date on which the agreement was signed and becomes effective.

The principal loan amount: The amount of money that’s being borrowed by the payer.

The interest rate: The amount you have to pay for the privilege of borrowing money. It’s typically expressed as a percentage, in annual terms, of the total amount owed.

The date of your first payment: The day when your first regular payment on the loan is due.

The maturity date: The date that the loan will be paid off in full if all the payments are made on time.

A promissory note is traditionally kept by the payee until the loan is paid off in full. When that happens, usually after many years, the note is marked as such and given back to the payor, who then has full control over the property they bought.

What is a mortgage?

Meanwhile, a mortgage — which is sometimes referred to as a mortgage deed — describes the property collateral and what happens if you do not hold up your end of the bargain and keep making payments on your loan. 

However, it’s important to note that not all states use mortgage deeds. In fact, some states use a document called a “deed of trust” to give lenders recourse over the property if a borrower defaults on the loan. For the purposes of this article, though, all you need to know is that those two documents essentially serve the same purpose.

Typically, in a traditional lending scenario, the mortgage deed gives the lender the right to accelerate repayment of the loan, or ask to be repaid in full, if the borrower is not diligent in making their installment payments. When this happens, if the borrower doesn’t pay what is requested, the lender has the option to foreclose on the home or to sell it to try to recoup some of their losses.

In addition, your mortgage deed will more than likely lay out some responsibilities that the lender requires you to fulfill. Generally, homeowners are required to keep the property in good condition, to pay their taxes, and to maintain an up-to-date homeowner’s insurance policy. This is all meant to ensure that if the lender has to foreclose on your home, they don’t have to contend with expensive liens or repairs, which might cause further losses.

Information in a mortgage

The key information typically included in a mortgage includes:

Identification of parties: The names and contact details of the borrower (mortgagor) and the lender (mortgagee).

Property description: A detailed description of the property being mortgaged, including its address and legal description, to clearly identify the property being used as collateral for the loan.

Loan amount: The total amount of money being borrowed.

Interest rate: The rate at which interest will accrue on the loan amount.

Loan term: The duration over which the loan will be repaid, including the start date and the maturity date.

Repayment terms: Details about the payment schedule, including the amount of each payment, the frequency of payments (e.g., monthly), and the total number of payments.

Legal obligations: The borrower’s obligations under the mortgage, such as maintaining homeowners’ insurance, paying property taxes, and keeping the property in good condition.

Default and foreclosure: Conditions under which the lender can declare the loan in default and the process for foreclosure if the borrower fails to meet the repayment terms.

Rights of the lender: Any rights reserved by the lender, such as the right to inspect the property or to require the borrower to take specific actions to protect the lender’s interest in the property.

Riders or addenda: Additional documents or clauses that modify or add to the terms of the mortgage based on specific circumstances or requirements (e.g., an adjustable-rate rider for an adjustable-rate mortgage).


difference between note and mortgage

What is the difference between a promissory note and a mortgage?

Now that you know what promissory note and mortgage deeds are, it’s time to take a look at the other differences between the two. With that in mind, we’ve laid them out below for your consideration.

Is it required to finance the purchase of a property?

While a promissory note and a mortgage deed go hand-in-hand when you are using a traditional bank loan to finance your purchase, technically, a promissory note is all that is needed to finance a property. 

That said, even though it is more common to see promissory notes used independently in owner-financing scenarios, it is still recommended that you use a promissory note in conjunction with a mortgage deed. The combination of the two ensures that you have proper recourse if the borrower stops making payments on their loan.

Does it get recorded as a matter of public record?

Mortgage deeds are typically recorded as a matter of public record. Promissory notes, on the other hand, are generally not recorded and are merely kept in the payee’s records until such time as they are paid in full. After they are paid in full, they are usually given to the payor as proof that they own the property outright.

Can it be sold?

Lastly, when people talk about selling mortgage notes in the secondary markets, they are talking about promissory notes. If, for example, someone used a promissory note to secure an owner financing deal and then decided that they didn’t want to wait many years for repayment, they would have the option of selling their note to one of the many companies that buy mortgage notes. In exchange, they typically receive a lump-sum payment.

Mortgage deeds, on the other hand, cannot be sold. Though, notably, some mortgage deeds do contain what’s known as a “due sale clause,” which calls the entire loan due if the property is being sold. These clauses have a tendency to make it much harder to sell your home without paying off your loan in full first.

Can a mortgage be used without a promissory note?

While it’s uncommon, a mortgage could exist without an accompanying promissory note if the arrangement solely involves the right to the property as collateral without a formal promise of repayment. However, in practice, this scenario is highly unusual and not practical for typical lending transactions. Lenders usually require both documents to provide a clear legal obligation for repayment and a means to enforce that obligation through the property if the borrower defaults.

Can a promissory note be used without a mortgage? 

Yes, a promissory note can be used without a mortgage. Promissory notes are versatile financial instruments, and they are not exclusively tied to real estate transactions. They can be used in various lending situations ranging from personal loans between individuals to business financing, where no collateral is necessarily involved. 

Unlike a mortgage, which secures a loan through a lien on real property, a promissory note does not inherently require collateral to be valid and enforceable. This flexibility makes promissory notes a common choice for a wide array of lending agreements beyond the realm of real estate, where the borrower’s promise to repay the lender is based on trust, creditworthiness, or other forms of security rather than a specific claim on property. 

Mortgage note vs promissory note: the bottom line

Even though these two documents often go together, the mortgage note definition and the promissory note definition are very different. Use this post as your guide to the differences between the two. Armed with this knowledge, you should be able to tell the two apart and to understand what can be done with each one.