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How to get a mortgage

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With rates on the rise, you might be looking to fast track your home purchase. Locking in a rate now protects you from rate increases in the future, but getting a mortgage can take some time and effort.

Whether you know a little about the mortgage process or have no idea how to get a home loan, don’t fret. This guide to getting a mortgage breaks down every step of the process so you’ll know what to expect.

What documents do you need to get a mortgage?

Getting a mortgage involves a lengthy underwriting process. Your lender is likely providing hundreds of thousands of dollars to purchase a home, so it wants to make sure that you’ll be able to repay that loan.

Expect to need the following documents to complete the lending process.

  • Previous years’ tax returns
  • Proof of income
  • Proof of employment and employment history
  • Bank statements
  • Brokerage statements
  • Documentation of other assets and debts
  • Documents outlining any gifts you’ve received to help pay for the home
  • Identification
  • Rental history

Your lender will request the specific documents it wants to see.

How to get a mortgage, step by step:

Step 1: Strengthen your credit

A strong credit score demonstrates to mortgage lenders that you can responsibly manage your debt. So, you’re likely to get approved for a mortgage with a competitive interest rate if you have good or excellent credit. If your credit score is on the lower side, you could still get a loan, but you’ll likely pay more in interest.

“Having a strong credit history and credit score is important because it means you can qualify for favorable rates and terms when applying for a loan,” says Rod Griffin, senior director of Public Education and Advocacy for Experian, one of the three major credit reporting agencies.

To improve your credit before applying for your mortgage, Griffin recommends these tips:

  • Make all payments on time and reduce your credit card balances. Your payment history on your report goes back two years or longer, so start now if you can.
  • Bring any past-due accounts current, if possible.
  • Review your credit reports for free at AnnualCreditReport.com. Check for errors on your credit reports, and contact the reporting bureau immediately if you spot any. An error might be a paid-off loan that hasn’t been recorded as such, or an incorrect address, for example.
  • Check your credit score (often available free from your credit card or bank) at least three to six months before applying for a mortgage. When you review your score, you’ll see a list of the top factors impacting it, which can tell you what changes to make to get your credit in shape, if needed.
  • Follow these steps to help boost your score and nab a lower interest rate on a home loan.

Step 2: Know what you can afford

It’s fun to fantasize about a dream home with every imaginable bell and whistle, but it’s much more practical to only purchase what you can reasonably afford. With rates rising, monthly payments will be higher, so you might have to lower your budget to find an affordable home.

“Most analysts believe you should not spend more than 30 percent of your gross monthly income on home-related costs,” says Katsiaryna Bardos, associate professor of finance at Fairfield University in Fairfield, Connecticut. This includes home maintenance and utilities.

Bardos says one way to determine how much you can afford is to calculate your debt-to-income ratio (DTI). This is calculated by summing up all of your monthly debt payments and dividing that figure by your gross monthly income.

“Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac loans accept a maximum DTI ratio of 45 percent. If your ratio is higher than that, you might want to wait to buy a house until you reduce your debt,” Bardos suggests.

Even with the 45 percent threshold, the lower your DTI ratio, the more room you’ll have in your budget for expenses not related to your home. That’s why many financial advisors recommend keeping the ratio closer to 36 percent, if feasible.

Andrea Woroch, a Bakersfield, California-based finance expert, says it’s essential to take into account all your monthly expenses — including food, healthcare and medical costs, childcare, transportation, vacation and entertainment expenses — and other savings goals.

“The last thing you want to do is get locked into a mortgage payment that limits your lifestyle flexibility and keeps you from accomplishing your goals,” Woroch says.

You can determine what you can afford by using Bankrate’s calculator, which factors in your income, monthly obligations, estimated down payment and other details of your mortgage, including the interest rate and homeowners insurance and property taxes.

Step 3: Build your savings

Your first savings goal should be your down payment.

“Saving for a down payment is crucial so that you can put the most money down — preferably 20 percent to reduce your mortgage loan, qualify for a better interest rate and avoid having to pay private mortgage insurance,” Woroch explains.

It’s equally important to build up your reserves. One general rule of thumb is to have the equivalent of roughly six months’ worth of mortgage payments in a savings account, even after you fork over the down payment. This can help safeguard you if you lose your job, for example, or something else unexpected happens.

Also, don’t forget closing costs, which are the fees you’ll pay to finalize the mortgage. They typically run between 2 percent to 5 percent of the loan’s principal. They don’t include escrow payments, either, which are a separate expense. Generally, you’ll also need around 3 percent of the home’s price for annual maintenance and repair costs.

Overall, aim to save as much as possible until you reach your desired down payment and reserve savings objectives.

“Start small if necessary but remain committed. Try to prioritize your savings before spending on any discretionary items,” Bardos recommends. “Open a separate account for down payment savings that you don’t use for any other expenses. This will help you stick to your savings goals.”

Step 4: Choose the right mortgage

Once your credit score and savings are in an adequate place, start searching for the right kind of mortgage for your situation. You’ll also want to have an idea of how mortgages work before moving forward.

The main types of mortgages include:

  • Conventional loans – These are best for homebuyers with solid credit and a decent down payment saved up. They’re available at most banks and through many independent mortgage lenders.
  • Government-insured loans (FHA, VA or USDA) – These can be great options for borrowers who do not qualify for a conventional loan or meet specific criteria, such as being a member of the military for a VA loan.
  • Jumbo loans – These loans are for more expensive properties. Conforming loans have a maximum allowable value, and if you need to finance more than that ($647,200 in most parts of the country or $970,800 in more expensive areas), you’ll need to get a jumbo loan.

A first-time homebuyer, for instance, might consider an FHA loan, which requires a minimum credit score of 500 with a 10 percent down payment or a minimum score of 580 with as little as 3.5 percent down. A conventional loan could be a better fit for a homebuyer with a higher credit score and more down payment savings.

Mortgages can have a fixed or adjustable rate, meaning the interest rate stays the same for the duration of the loan term or changes over time, respectively. Most home loans have 15- or 30-year terms, although there are 10-year, 20-year, 25-year and even 40-year mortgages available.

Adjustable-rate loans might come with a lower monthly payment initially, but can become more expensive over time if rates rise. Given today’s rising rates, there’s a good chance that your payment will rise once your rate-lock period ends. If you can’t afford that risk, the fixed-rate is the way to go.

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Step 5: Find a mortgage lender

Once you’ve decided on the type of mortgage, it’s time to find a mortgage lender. It’s important to shop around for multiple offers to make sure you’re getting the best possible deal, not just the lowest interest rate. Be mindful of the lender fees when evaluating your options.

To find the right lender, “speak with friends, family members and your agent and ask for referrals,” advises Guy Silas, branch manager for the Rockville, Maryland office of Embrace Home Loans. “Also, look on rating sites, perform internet research and invest the time to truly read consumer reviews on lenders.

“[Your] decision should be based on more than simply price and interest rate,” says Silas. “You will rely heavily on your lender for accurate preapproval information, assistance with your agent in contract negotiations and trusted advice.”

Remember that interest rates, fees and terms can vary substantially from lender to lender.

“That’s why it’s important to shop around carefully and ask questions,” Woroch says.

For many borrowers, applying for a mortgage is overwhelming. If you’re not sure exactly what to look for, you might want help. A mortgage broker can help you navigate all the different loan options available to you and possibly help you get more favorable terms than you’d be able to secure by applying on your own.

Step 6: Get preapproved for a loan

It’s a good idea to get preapproved for a mortgage once you’ve found a suitable lender. With a preapproval, the lender will review your finances to determine if you’re eligible for funding and an amount they’re willing to lend you.

“Getting preapproved before shopping for a home is best because it means you can place an offer as soon as you find the right home,” Griffin says. “Many sellers won’t entertain offers from someone who hasn’t already secured a preapproval. Getting preapproved is also important because you’ll know exactly how much money you’re approved to borrow.”

Be mindful that mortgage preapproval is different from prequalification. A mortgage preapproval involves much more documentation; prequalification is less formal and is essentially a way for a lender to tell you that you’d be a good applicant. Still, it doesn’t guarantee any particular loan terms.

Step 7: Begin house hunting

With preapproval in hand, you can begin seriously searching for a property that meets your needs. Take the time to search for and choose a home that you can envision yourself living in.

When you find a home that has the perfect blend of affordability and livability, be ready to pounce quickly. In a competitive market where available homes go fast and bidding wars are common, you’ll need to be aggressive.

“It’s essential to know what you’re looking for and what is feasible in your price range,” Bardos notes. “Spend time examining the housing inventory, and be prepared to move quickly once the house that meets your criteria goes on the market.

“Utilize social media and ask your agent for leads on homes going on the market before they are listed on the MLS,” Bardos also recommends.

Step 8: Submit your loan application

If you’ve found a home you’re interested in purchasing, you’re ready to complete a mortgage application. These days, most applications can be done online, but it can sometimes be more efficient to apply with a loan officer in person or over the phone.  You might be better able to establish a relationship with the loan officer in person, too, which can work to your advantage if you have questions in the process or issues come up.

The lender will also pull your credit report to verify your creditworthiness.

Step 9: Wait out the underwriting process

Even though you’ve been preapproved for a loan, that doesn’t mean you’ll ultimately get financing from the lender. The final decision will come from the lender’s underwriting department, which evaluates the risk of each prospective borrower, and determines the loan amount, how much the loan will cost and more.

“After all your financial information is gathered, this information is submitted to an underwriter — a person or committee that makes credit determinations,” explains Bruce Ailion, an Atlanta-based real estate attorney and Realtor. “That determination will either be yes, no or a request for more information from you.”

There are a few steps involved in the underwriting process:

  1. First, a loan processor will confirm the information you provided during the application process.
  2. After you make an offer on a home, the lender will order an appraisal of the property to determine whether the amount in your offer is appropriate. The appraised value depends on many factors, including the home’s condition and comparable properties, or “comps,” in the neighborhood.
  3. A title company will conduct a title search to ensure the property can be transferred, and a title insurer will issue an insurance policy that guarantees the accuracy of this research.
  4. Finally, you’ll get a decision from the underwriter: approved, approved with conditions, suspended (meaning more documentation is needed) or denied.

Step 10: Close on your new home

Once you’ve been officially approved for a mortgage, you’re nearing the finish line. All that’s needed at that point is to complete the closing.

“The closing process differs a bit from state to state,” Ailion says. “Mainly it involves confirming the seller has ownership and is authorized to transfer title, determining if there are other claims against the property that must be paid off, collecting the money from the buyer, and distributing it to the seller after deducting and paying other charges and fees.”

Common closing costs include:

  • Appraisal fee
  • Credit check fee
  • Origination and/or underwriting fee
  • Title insurance and services fees
  • Prepaids
  • Attorney fees
  • Recording fees

You will review and sign lots of documentation at the closing, including details on how funds are disbursed. The closing or settlement agent will also enter the transaction into the public record.

Bottom line

They say you shouldn’t put the cart before the horse. The same is true in the homebuying process. You’ll need to complete several steps to finance a home, so the more you learn about what’s required, the better informed your decision-making will be.

If you’re denied a mortgage, there’s no barrier against trying again in the future.

“If you are unable to qualify for a loan with favorable terms, it may make more sense to simply wait until you can make the necessary changes to improve your credit history before trying again,” Griffin suggests. “A bit of patience and planning can save a lot of money and help you get the home you want.”

Written by
Erik J. Martin
Contributing writer
Erik J. Martin is a Chicago area-based freelance writer/editor whose articles have been featured in AARP The Magazine, Reader's Digest, The Costco Connection, The Motley Fool and other publications. He often writes on topics related to real estate, business, technology, health care, insurance and entertainment.
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