As economic clouds loom, mortgage lenders are making it harder for some borrowers to get some types of home loans. Along with that not-so-great news, however, comes a silver lining: There’s still plenty of opportunity for borrowers to qualify for mortgages.

Why mortgage lenders are extending less credit

Mortgage credit availability declined in April to its lowest level since January 2013, according to the Mortgage Bankers Association (MBA).

“The contraction was driven by reduced demand for loan programs such as certain adjustable-rate [mortgage] loans, cash-out and streamline refinances and those with lower credit score requirements,” says Joel Kan, MBA deputy chief economist.

Back in 2013, the U.S. housing market was emerging from the Great Recession, and lenders were still wary of handing out too many loans. They gradually loosened standards in the years that followed, then tightened up at the beginning of the pandemic. Notably, MBA’s index shows credit availability is even tighter now than it was during the uncertain time at the beginning of the pandemic.

There are a few reasons lenders have become less eager to extend credit:

  • The banking sector has hit a rough patch. Three of the largest bank failures in U.S. history took place this spring — Silicon Valley Bank and Signature Bank in March and First Republic Bank in May. None of the three were major players in the mortgage industry, but the headline-grabbing turmoil roiled lending markets all the same.
  • The economic outlook is uncertain. Hoping to cool inflation, the Federal Reserve has raised interest rates at 10 consecutive meetings. While the labor market’s still cruising along — employment growth surpassed expectations in April — the Fed’s tightening will eventually result in a slowdown. That typically means an increase in unemployment rates, and more defaults by borrowers, giving lenders reason to exercise caution.
  • The boom went bust. As mortgage rates plunged to all-time lows during the pandemic, Americans rushed to refinance and buy homes. When rates started rising in 2022, that activity slowed — and lenders that were hiring during the boom turned to layoffs during the bust. As a result, lenders now have less capacity to handle loan applications than before.

Niche loans are most affected

While this all sounds like a problem for mortgage borrowers, it’s possible many might not even notice the pullback.

An April survey by the Federal Reserve found the stricter standards don’t affect conventional conforming loans bought by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac — the majority of mortgages originated in the U.S. —  or loans issued through the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) and Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) programs.

Instead, lenders are holding back on niche products such as subprime mortgages, home equity lines of credit (HELOCs) and non-qualified, or “non-QM” jumbo mortgages.

What tighter mortgage credit means for you

Rest assured, you still can qualify for a mortgage if you meet the lender’s credit and other approval criteria, including having sufficient employment history and income.

If you’re looking for a loan type affected by tighter availability, however, there are a few ways to boost your chances of getting what you need:

  • Boost that credit score as high as you can. “People with lower credit scores are having a harder time today,” says Melissa Cohn, regional vice president of William Raveis Mortgage in Delray Beach, Florida. Your credit score remains the single most important factor in determining your mortgage rate. While 740 used to be the goal to strive for, new rules from Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac have made 780 the threshold at which borrowers get the best rates. You can still get a mortgage with a credit score in the 600s, but it’ll cost you more — or might be harder to find altogether.
  • Make as much of a down payment as possible. More cash down translates to a lower loan-to-value (LTV) ratio — and a lower LTV means more lenders willing to extend you credit. You can still qualify with 3 percent down for a conventional loan or 3.5 percent down for an FHA loan, but you’ll pay higher fees, and mortgage insurance, to compensate for your lower upfront investment.
  • Don’t stretch your budget too far. If the loan you want means your mortgage payment would eat up a significant chunk of your monthly budget, a lender might reject your application, even if all your other financials check out. That’s not to say you absolutely won’t qualify — but you’ll help your case by keeping the mortgage payment in the range of 30 percent of your income. Keep in mind, too: If you want an adjustable-rate loan, many lenders only qualify borrowers based on a higher payment, rather than the initial low payment.
  • Build up your cash reserves well in advance. Lenders are getting stricter about the sources of your down payment and cash reserves. If you expect to use a gift from family to buy a home, put the money in the bank now, says Cohn. That “seasoning” time will make your loans look better to lenders.