Study your credit
Good credit is the key to snagging a mortgage in this tight lending environment. Get copies of your credit scores and credit history from the three main credit reporting bureaus. Study the reports carefully to make sure there are no errors or issues to resolve before applying.
Most lenders require a minimum credit score of 680 to comply with Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac's guidelines. Federal Housing Administration loans, which are guaranteed by the FHA, allow for lower scores, but most lenders want to stay away from scores lower than 620.
Prepare before you start
There are some basic documents every lender requests when you apply for a mortgage. Don't wait for them to ask.
Have these documents ready when you walk into the lender's office: your last two pay stubs, W-2s, income tax returns and bank statements.
Save these documents and any additional ones the lender requests in an electronic format, so you can easily resend them if anything gets lost in the process.
Know how much you can afford
Don't rely on your lender to tell you how much mortgage you qualify for and then borrow the maximum amount. Plan your budget, and leave room for unexpected expenses. That's especially the case when you are buying a house.
Bankrate's calculators can help you determine how much house you can afford and estimate your monthly mortgage payments.
Shopping around for a mortgage should go beyond comparing interest rates. Rates are important, but would-be borrowers must consider points, closing costs and different types of loans. Get estimates from three banks and three mortgage brokers before you decide which combination works for you.
Time is of the essence
Once you submit your mortgage application to the lender, the clock starts ticking. Make sure you quickly send in any documents requested during the approval process.
For buyers, a delay in closing the loan could kill the purchase and cost them their deposits. When refinancing, a delay could mean losing the interest rate the borrower originally locked in. Ask for an expected closing date, and follow up with the lender periodically until the loan closes. Keep in mind, some lenders close more quickly than others.
Mortgage approved? Your credit must stay put until closing
After the lender pulls your credit and says you've been approved, don't assume you've won the battle. Most lenders will pull your credit again before the loan closes.
It's wise to avoid any moves that may affect your credit. Don't apply for new credit cards or credit lines. Pay your bills on time. Don't close any accounts. Don't finance a new car. Stay put until closing.
Consider a refi with no closing costs
You don't always have to spend money to save money when refinancing. Many lenders offer mortgages with no closing costs. No, it's not a free ride. Lenders usually make up for those costs by charging the borrower a slightly higher interest rate. Sometimes the slight increase translates into a few extra dollars in the monthly payment, and the borrower can save thousands in closing costs.