As home values have fallen, getting a home equity line of credit, or HELOC, has become nearly impossible in many markets. Instead, a personal line of credit might be the route to getting your hands on some extra cash.

Unlike a HELOC, a personal line of credit is an unsecured loan, meaning you don't have to use your house or other assets as collateral.

More banks and credit unions are offering these products, which can be used for just about anything, including paying down credit card debt, making home repairs or taking a vacation to Europe.

Like other loans, financial institutions look at your credit score, credit history, employment history and income when determining whether to give you the loan. Some also take your assets into account, while others do not.

Relationships count

In some cases, banks and credit unions prefer to deal with customers with whom they already have a relationship -- such as someone with a savings or checking account, or a mortgage -- at that particular financial institution.

Once the loan request is approved, it's set up so a consumer can tap into a set amount of money for an unending period of time and then borrow from the money as the need arises.

As funds are repaid, the consumer can tap into the money again and again without having to reapply for a loan. Interest is only charged on the amount of money borrowed.

Depending on the bank or credit union, a consumer might write checks, use an ATM card, make Internet transfers or stop by his or her local bank branch to access the cash.

One drawback is that the interest rates on personal lines of credit are higher than they are on HELOCs -- and the interest is not tax-deductible. On the other hand, the interest rate is far lower than it would be for a credit card cash advance.

Given today's real estate market, personal lines of credit are a ready source of cash when the need arises.