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Top 10 mortgage tips for potential buyers in 2016

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First, refinance out of your adjustable-rate mortgage. Rates are going to go up. You don't want to be dealing with nasty payment increases down the road.

Also, look to reduce your monthly expenses by shopping for a lower-cost homeowners insurance policy. A lot of people have outdated policies, and they can save some money by looking at a new one.

Interest rates on mortgages hovered around 4% throughout 2015 but are expected to reach 4.5% by the end of 2016, according to the National Association of Realtors.

Additionally, the Federal Reserve could possibly increase the federal funds rate again, after announcing its initial rate hike at its December 2015 policy-setting meeting. This will have some effect on the housing market.

Although rates are creeping higher, they're still near record lows, so don't go into panic mode just yet. But do consider these tips as you jump on the homebuying bandwagon in 2016.

Couple looking at house pictures on a tablet © Andrey_Popov/Shutterstock.com

1. Improve your creditworthiness

Your credit profile is important to a lender. While you're preparing to buy a home, be sure you're responsibly managing your current debt. Always pay your bills on time and chip away at your outstanding balances by paying more than the minimum. In most cases, lenders like to see a borrower with a debt-to-income ratio of 36% or less.

Is your credit mortgage-ready? Get your free credit score at myBankrate.

2. Save for a down payment

Although a 20% down payment on a mortgage is ideal, it's not mandatory. Many lenders expect buyers to put down at least 3%, aside from the Federal Housing Administration, which requires a 3.5% down payment. However, if you're interested in building sizable equity right away, stash a hefty amount of cash to take to the closing table. Additionally, do your due diligence to find out about any local down payment assistance programs.

Find the best mortgage rates at Bankrate.com.

3. Seek preapproval

Before you rush into house-hunting mode, get a mortgage preapproval. This process is used to help determine how much money you're qualified to borrow for a home purchase. Once you're preapproved, you'll have a more realistic expectation of which for-sale houses fall within your budget. You may qualify for a loan that is roughly 3 times your gross annual income.

4. Shop for a lender

The homebuying process involves more than just chasing a favorable interest rate. You have to find the best mortgage lender for your financial situation. No two sets of lender fees are alike, so it's important to get loan estimates from multiple lenders before making a decision.

5. Research loan types

A fixed-rate mortgage isn't right for every homebuyer. Neither is an adjustable-rate mortgage. If you plan to stay put in a home to raise a family, you might consider a 30-year loan. Conversely, if you're moving in 10 years or less, an adjustable-rate mortgage, or ARM, could better suit you. Interest rates on ARMs are fixed for the first several years of the loan and often start out lower than rates on 30-year fixed loans. There are also jumbo loans, which are typically used to purchase luxury homes.

6. Consider your lifestyle

When you purchase a home, you're also investing in the community that surrounds it. More importantly, your home becomes central to every other aspect of your life. As you shop for homes, consider your work commute, nearby schools and any extracurricular activities in which you and your family might participate.

7. Remember to budget

Your monthly mortgage payment won't be the only expense you have as a homeowner. There's also homeowners insurance, property taxes, maintenance costs and, more than likely, homeowners association fees, which is why it's necessary to stick to a budget. Use Bankrate's "How much house can I afford?" calculator to determine a feasible home loan amount.

8. Consult a professional

The homebuying process is a challenging one, which is why it helps to have the assistance of qualified professionals. Ask questions of your lender and real estate agent, and reach out to a housing counseling agency approved by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development for further guidance.

9. Don't forget the closing costs

Not only do you need a solid down payment for a home purchase, you'll have to pay closing costs. The loan estimate you receive after applying for a mortgage gives you an idea of the "cash to close," or the money you need to complete the transaction. There are some closing costs for which you can shop and save money, and others that are fixed. Read Bankrate's primer on negotiating closing costs for more tips.

10. Beef up your savings account

It's unwise to drain your savings to fund your down payment or closing costs and leave nothing in the account to cover emergencies. A useful rule of thumb is to stockpile 3 to 6 months' worth of living expenses. This deters you from tapping credit cards or loans and amassing more debt.

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