How to get the best mortgage rate

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Since most people don’t have the kind of liquid cash available to buy a home, a mortgage — in which you borrow money from a lender and spend years paying it back, plus interest — is often a necessary part of the home-buying process.

The terms of your mortgage matter greatly, since the interest rate, type of mortgage and length of time you have to repay it can dramatically impact the total amount you spend. Lower your rate by a percentage point or two or pay the mortgage off a few years early, and you’ll save thousands in interest over the course of the loan.

It’s a good idea to set yourself up as best you can to ace the mortgage application and score the lowest rate.

“There are three pillars: your credit score, your income (which is converted to a debt-to-income ratio) and your assets,” explains Josh Moffitt, president of Silverton Mortgage in Atlanta.

In each of those areas, here are the steps to take to help get the best possible mortgage rate.

1. Improve your credit score

Your three-digit credit score can be the difference between getting a low rate or being hit with more costly borrowing terms.

“A credit score is always an important factor in determining risk,” says Valerie Saunders, executive director of the National Association of Mortgage Brokers (NAMB). “A lender is going to use the score as a benchmark in deciding a person’s ability to repay the debt. The higher the score, the higher the likelihood that the borrower will not default.”

In general, the more confident the lender is in your ability to repay on time, the lower the interest rate they’ll offer.

To improve your score, pay your bills on time and pay down or eliminate those credit card balances. If you must carry a balance, make sure it’s no more than 20 percent to 30 percent of your available credit limit. Also, check your credit score and report regularly and look for any mistakes on your report. If you find any errors, work to clean them up before applying for a mortgage.

2. Build a record of employment

You’re more attractive to lenders if you can show at least two years of steady employment and earnings, especially from the same employer. Be prepared to show pay stubs and W-2s. It can be more difficult to qualify if you’re self-employed or your pay is coming from multiple part-time jobs.

3. Save up for a down payment

Putting more money down can help you obtain a lower mortgage rate, particularly if you have enough liquid cash to fund a 20 percent down payment. Of course, lenders accept lower down payments, but less than 20 percent usually means you’ll have to pay private mortgage insurance, which can range from 0.05 percent to 1 percent of the original loan amount annually.

The sooner you can pay down your mortgage to less than 80 percent of the total value of your home, the sooner you can get rid of mortgage insurance, reducing your monthly bill.

4. Go for a 15-year fixed-rate mortgage

While 30-year fixed mortgages are common, if you think you’ve found your long-term home and have good cash flow, consider a 15-year fixed-rate mortgage and pay off your house sooner. The benchmark 15-year fixed mortgage rate is currently 2.500%, according to Bankrate’s national survey of lenders.

5. Shop among multiple lenders

When searching for the best rate, even for a refinance, do the necessary research to make sure you’re getting the best fit for your situation. Look beyond your bank or credit union, talk to multiple lenders and explore options online.

“Shop and compare based on the loan estimates received,” Saunders says. “You wouldn’t normally purchase a car without test driving it first. Test drive your loan before proceeding with your purchase.”

6. Lock in your rate

Sometimes the closing process takes several weeks, a period in which rates can fluctuate. After you sign the home purchase agreement and have secured your loan, ask your lender to lock in your rate. The service sometimes comes with a fee, but it might pay for itself if rates rise.

Wondering if rates will go up, down or remain unchanged? See what Bankrate’s panel of mortgage experts predicts.

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