For many of us, a mortgage is one of the biggest financial commitments we’ll ever make, so it’s crucial to ensure you’re getting the best interest rate possible. That’s because a seemingly small increase in your rate could end up costing you thousands more over time.
The best way to maximize your chances of scoring the lowest interest rate is by shopping around to compare mortgage rates. If you’re thinking of buying a home or refinancing your current mortgage, here’s how to approach it.
How often should you compare mortgage rates?
Mortgage interest rates are in constant flux, changing every day. That’s because there are a lot of different factors that influence mortgage rates, including economic conditions, inflation and U.S. Treasury bonds. This year, rates have fallen steadily, driven mainly by pandemic-induced policy, and are expected to remain at historic lows for the foreseeable future.
Because mortgage rates fluctuate frequently, it’s important to check rates regularly when you’re looking to purchase a home or refinance an existing loan, and ideally daily until you pull the trigger and apply. At the least, comparison-shopping gives you peace of mind knowing you’ve found the best rate available to you. At best, if interest rates go down, comparing your options gives you an opportunity to save.
As you check rates, understand that the average mortgage rate isn’t necessarily the one you’ll qualify for. Your interest rate depends on your risk profile as a borrower, which includes your credit score, the type of loan and term, the home’s location, the type of rate, your down payment amount and more.
How to compare mortgage rates
Your mortgage rate helps determine how much you pay each month for the loan, as well as your total interest charges over the length of the mortgage. As you compare mortgage rates, here are some questions to consider:
1. What loan do you qualify for?
Different loan types carry different interest rates, so you’ll want to make sure you’re comparing apples to apples based on the kind of loan you can be approved for. For example, adjustable-rate loans typically start with a lower rate than fixed-rate loans — though that’ll change after the initial period — and 15-year loans tend to charge lower rates than 30-year loans.
2. How much are you putting down?
The higher your down payment, the better your chances of scoring a lower interest rate. Instead of estimating during the preapproval process, make sure you know exactly how much you’re putting down so you can get an accurate quote from the lenders you’re considering.
3. What’s a ‘good’ mortgage rate?
Because mortgage rates fluctuate daily, it can be hard to know if the rates you find are the lowest you could possibly get. Each day, Bankrate provides benchmark rates, including for the 30-year and 15-year fixed-rate mortgage, based on a survey of the largest mortgage lenders in the U.S. Depending on the type of loan you’re getting, you can use this information to judge whether an offer is a “good” one, or if there may be better choices out there.
Remember, though, that any actual rate offers you receive are based on your credit score, income and more. The more you shop around, the easier it will be to understand what a good rate is for your credit and financial profile.
4. How much is the APR?
The terms interest rate and APR are often used interchangeably, but they’re not the same thing.
The interest rate on a mortgage represents the interest on the loan expressed as a percentage. In contrast, the APR, or annual percentage rate, indicates the cost of the loan including the interest, closing costs and other fees, also expressed as a percentage. The APR is a more accurate picture of your all-in cost, and is always higher than the interest rate.
By law, lenders are required to disclose the APR on a loan offer, but they may only include some of the costs in the APR that’s advertised. You can ask what fees the lender factored into the APR and use that information when comparing your options.
5. What are the closing costs and fees?
In some cases, the interest rate a lender gives you includes mortgage points, which are fees you pay at closing in exchange for a lower rate. If you’re negotiating with multiple lenders, this may be the lever some pull to beat the competition — but, depending on how the math works out, it may not be worth it to pay more to get the same rate or a slightly lower one, so compare these scenarios carefully.
Some lenders also have flexibility when it comes to other closing costs, like the origination fee, or may be able to waive a certain cost altogether, like the appraisal or application fees. It can be helpful to know this information when making your comparisons.
6. What’s your timeline?
Once you find a rate you like, you can lock it in, typically for 30 to 60 days, but sometimes up to 120 days. However, if you’re not planning to close on a mortgage within that time frame, it might be best to continue to keep an eye on rates, but maybe not take the next step to apply for a loan yet.
7. Have you already locked a rate?
If you’ve already locked in a rate, you can still continue to compare mortgage offers, but lenders typically won’t let you break the lock without paying a fee. If your lock doesn’t have a float-down provision, you won’t be able to take advantage of lower rates at all unless you restart the mortgage process with a new lender. Depending on the difference in rate, though, it can be worth it.
Note that if you’re working with a mortgage broker, the broker can do some of this work for you as they work with multiple lenders to help you find a good rate. However, it’s also a good idea to do your own research so you can compare rate offers with what your broker provides.
Once you have an idea of what rate you may qualify for and you’re ready to move forward with the purchase or refinancing process, you can begin the application process. Be sure to discuss the rate lock with your lender and find out how long it will last and whether there’s a float-down guarantee.
As your application is being processed and the loan underwritten, avoid anything that could change your approval status, such as switching jobs, applying for other credit accounts or making other major money moves.
Also, it’s important to read through every document your lender sends to ensure you understand what you’re signing. Sometimes, the terms of the loan can change between the initial approval and final approval, so keep an eye out so there are no surprises.
Once you close on your new loan, you’ll benefit from your due diligence with a cheaper loan and long-term savings.