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- When you apply for a mortgage, lenders use a process called underwriting to determine whether to approve or deny your loan.
- Underwriters consider factors like your credit history, your financial profile and a home appraisal when deciding on your loan.
- There are many steps involved in the underwriting process, which can take a few days or weeks to complete.
What is mortgage underwriting?
Mortgage underwriting is the process the lender uses to determine whether to approve your mortgage application.
Before underwriting, a loan officer or mortgage broker collects credit and financial information for your application. The lender’s underwriting department then verifies your identity, checks your credit history and assesses your financial situation, including your income, cash reserves, investments and debts.
Many lenders closely follow underwriting guidelines issued by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the two government-sponsored entities that back and buy mortgages on the secondary mortgage market.
What does a mortgage underwriter do?
A mortgage underwriter primarily decides how much risk the lender is assuming if it approves your loan. To that end, the underwriter evaluates your finances and the likelihood that you can repay the loan on time.
A mortgage underwriter will:
- Look at your credit history. This includes an investigation of your credit report, credit score and payment record.
- Examine your finances. Lenders use certain guidelines as a basis for financing. For instance, Fannie Mae’s conventional loan guidelines require that all borrowers have a maximum 97 percent loan-to-value (LTV) ratio, a minimum 620 credit score and a maximum 36 percent debt-to-income (DTI) ratio. The lender may supplement these with its own criteria. It’ll also look at the particulars of your financial situation. For instance, it may consider your financial reserves (investments, assets or savings) or — if it’s an income-producing property — whether you will occupy the property along with tenants.
- Order a property appraisal. Your loan approval depends largely on the amount of money you’re asking to borrow versus the value of the home you’re buying. An underwriter will order a property appraisal to see if the asking price is in line with its appraised value.
- Make the decision. The mortgage underwriter will either approve or deny your application once all the reports and paperwork are in.
How long does mortgage underwriting take?
The mortgage underwriting process can take anywhere from a few days to a few weeks. The timeline varies depending on whether the underwriter needs more information from you, how busy the lender is and how streamlined the lender’s practices are.
Another factor is whether the underwriter uses a manual or automated underwriting process. Automated underwriting is usually completed faster than manual underwriting, but since a computer is doing the evaluation, it has some limitations that might not make it ideal for borrowers with unique circumstances, such as inconsistent income.
In these cases, it can be easier to qualify a borrower through manual underwriting as opposed to an automated system. Sometimes, lenders use a mix of automated and manual underwriting to gauge risk.
Underwriting is one of the most time-consuming parts of the home financing process, and one reason closings can take so long. The quicker you compile your documents and respond to the lender’s requests for information, the smoother and speedier the experience can be.
Keep in mind, however, that underwriting is just one part of the overall lending process. You can expect to completely close on a loan in 40-50 days.
Steps in the mortgage underwriting process
1. Getting preapproved
A mortgage preapproval is a thorough vetting process that indicates how much a lender is likely willing to loan you, as well as at what interest rate. A preapproval is not a guaranteed loan offer, but rather an indication of your potential borrowing capacity. You’ll need a preapproval to make offers on homes.
2. Income, asset and employment verification
The next step in the underwriting process is income, asset and employment verification. This is when the lender’s underwriter checks your credit and financial situation to confirm you’re capable of repaying the loan and also verifies your employment. You’ll need to submit documents such as W-2s, pay stubs and bank statements for verification. If you’re self-employed, you may need to provide more documents like profit and loss statements.
An appraisal is an evaluation of the property’s worth conducted by a certified appraiser. This is done to ensure that the amount you’re borrowing is in line with the value of the home you’re buying. If the home’s value falls short of the mortgage amount, you can try negotiating the price with the seller — but, more likely, you’ll need to pay the extra amount yourself. In some cases, you might need to walk away from the deal and restart the mortgage application and underwriting process with a new loan.
4. Title search and title insurance
The title company will research the property’s history, looking for mortgages, claims, liens, easement rights, zoning ordinances, pending legal action, unpaid taxes and restrictive covenants. If an issue arises on the title search, you have a few options. You can either see if the seller will fix the issue before closing day, request that the seller compensate you to fix the issue or you can walk away from buying the home.
The title insurer then issues an insurance policy that guarantees the accuracy of its research. In some cases, two policies are issued: one to protect the lender (this is almost always required) and one to protect the property owner (optional, but can be worth getting).
5. Underwriting decision
Once the underwriter is satisfied with your application, the appraisal and title search, your loan will be deemed clear to close and can move forward with closing on the property.
If things don’t go smoothly, you might receive one of these decisions instead:
- Denied: If your mortgage application is denied, see what reason the lender gave for denying you before taking next steps. For example, if the lender thinks you have too much debt, you might be able to lower your DTI ratio by paying down credit card balances and then reapplying.
- Suspended: This might mean your file is missing some documentation. Your application could be suspended if, for example, the underwriter couldn’t verify your employment or income. The lender can tell you whether you can reactivate your application by providing more information.
- Conditional approval: This means your loan is approved, save for an outstanding condition, such as obtaining a homeowners insurance policy. Once you provide proof of what’s missing, you should be cleared to close.
Once you clear any conditions and get your mortgage approved, your home purchase is nearly complete. The final step is closing day, which is when the lender funds your loan and pays the selling party in exchange for the title to the property. This is when you’ll sign the final paperwork, settle any closing costs and receive the keys to your new home.
Tips for a smooth mortgage underwriting process
The mortgage underwriting process can be complicated and time-consuming, but there are things you can do to help it go more smoothly:
1. Have your documents organized
The best way to keep the mortgage underwriting process on track is to have all of your financial documents organized before you apply for a loan.
Try to have the following ready when you apply:
- Employment information from the past two years (if you’re self-employed, this includes business records and tax returns)
- W-2s from the past two years
- Pay stubs from at least 30 to 60 days prior to when you apply
- Account information, including checking, savings, money market, CDs, investment accounts and retirement accounts
- Additional income information, such as alimony or child support, annuities, bonuses or commissions, dividends, interest, overtime payment, pensions or Social Security payments
- A gift letter if you’ve been given funds from friends or relatives to make your down payment
2. Get your credit in shape
A lower credit score can make it more difficult to get approved for a mortgage, and make your loan more expensive with a higher interest rate.
Work to improve your creditworthiness by:
- Paying down existing debts
- Avoiding applying for new loans
- Improving your debt-to-income ratio (aim for 36 percent or less)
- Checking your credit report and disputing any errors
3. Make a larger down payment
The mortgage underwriter also considers the LTV ratio of your deal: how much money you’re borrowing, also called the loan principal, divided by the property’s value. A higher LTV ratio indicates the lender could lose a lot more money if you default on the mortgage.
You can reduce your LTV ratio by making a larger down payment upfront. The larger the down payment you make, the easier it can be to qualify.
Don’t be afraid to ask family or friends for help making a down payment. You can also look for down payment assistance programs you might qualify for. Other ways to save for a larger down payment include opening a high-yield savings account, automating a portion of your income to go to a savings account reserved for your down payment and reducing your spending.
4. Be honest about your financial history
Mortgage underwriters do a deep dive into your credit report and financial history, so don’t lie on your application. If you have a negative mark on your credit report, like a missed payment, tell the lender and explain what happened. The lender might be more lenient with a missed payment if you were dealing with extenuating circumstances and later made good on the payment.
Mortgage underwriting FAQ
A booming housing market might lead to longer underwriting times due to a higher number of loan applications. In contrast, a slower market might mean quicker reviews. To avoid delays, submit an accurate and complete application and respond swiftly to any requests for additional documentation.
Underwriting delays can stem from issues like unexplained gaps in your employment history, unverifiable funds or a low home appraisal. To prevent these issues, be prepared with all necessary documents, respond quickly to lender inquiries and ensure your financial documents are comprehensive. Keeping open lines of communication with your lender and being organized can help avoid many common delays.
The mortgage underwriting process is a comprehensive evaluation of your financial health and creditworthiness to determine whether you qualify for a mortgage. The process involves several steps, from getting preapproved for a loan to the final underwriting decision. To make this process smoother, keep your paperwork organized, ensure your credit is in good shape, consider making a larger down payment and be honest about your finances.