If you’re like most people who buy a home, you’ll take out a mortgage to finance the purchase.

The process that mortgage lenders use to assess your creditworthiness and determine whether to approve you for that loan is called underwriting. Here is what you need to know about the mortgage underwriting process.

What is mortgage underwriting?

Underwriting is a mortgage lender’s process of assessing the risk of lending money to you. The bank, credit union or mortgage company has to determine whether you are likely to be able to pay back the home loan before deciding whether to approve your mortgage application, and it makes its decision through underwriting.

Before underwriting, a loan officer or mortgage broker collects the many documents necessary for your application. An underwriter then verifies your identification, checks your credit history and assesses your financial situation — including your income, cash reserves, investments, financial assets and other risk factors.

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 market.

What does a mortgage underwriter do?

The primary duty of a mortgage underwriter is to decide how much risk the lender is assuming if they approve your loan. To that end, they go through a series of steps that allow them to evaluate your finances and the likelihood that you can repay the loan on time.

An underwriter will:

  • Look at your credit history. This includes an investigation of your credit report, credit score and payment history.
  • Apply institutional standards. Lenders use as a basis certain federal guidelines for financing. For instance, Fannie Mae’s guidelines require that all borrowers have a maximum loan-to-value (LTV) ratio of 97 percent, credit score of 640 or higher, and a maximum debt-to-income (DTI) ratio of 36 percent. The lender may supplement these with its own criteria.
  • Consider other factors. If you fall short in one of the above areas, an underwriter may still recommend approval for your loan based on other considerations. For instance, they may take into account your financial reserves (investments, assets, savings), or whether you will occupy the property if it’s an income-producing property. If you have a lower credit score but good savings, for instance, you may still get approved.
  • Appraise the property. Your loan approval depends in large part on the amount of money you’re asking to borrow vis-à-vis the value of the home you’re buying (and using as collateral). To that end, an underwriter will order an appraisal of the property to see if the asking price is reasonable given similar homes recently sold in your area.

 The mortgage underwriting process in 5 steps

Underwriting can be a long process. Each lender uses slightly different methods, but the five major steps of underwriting typically are:

  1. Preapproval
  2. Income and asset verification
  3. Appraisal
  4. Title search and insurance
  5. Making a lending decision

1. Getting preapproved

Your very first step — even before you start looking for a home — is to get preapproved for a mortgage. To determine whether to preapprove you, a lender will review your financial profile, such as your income and your debts, and run a credit check.

Keep in mind that getting prequalified and getting preapproved mean two different things. A prequalification is simply an indication you could be approved for a loan; obtaining a preapproval usually requires you to furnish more information to the lender compared to a prequalification.

In general, a preapproval serves as an indication from a lender that you’ll be approved for a certain amount of financing — provided your financial situation doesn’t change.

2. Income and asset verification

Be prepared to have your income verified and provide other financial documentation, such as tax returns and bank account statements. Assets that will be considered include money in your bank accounts, retirement savings, your investment accounts, the cash value of your life insurance policies and ownerships in business where you have assets in the form of stock or retirement accounts.

If you’re deemed qualified, your lender will issue a preapproval letter stating that it is willing to lend you up to a certain amount based on the information you provided. A preapproval letter shows the seller that you’re a serious buyer and can back a purchase offer with financing.

Use Bankrate’s mortgage calculator to figure out how much you need.

3. Appraisal

Once you’ve found a house you like that fits your budget and have made an accepted offer on it, a lender will conduct an appraisal of the property. This is to assess whether the amount you offered to pay is appropriate based on the house’s condition and comparable homes in the neighborhood. The cost of an appraisal for a single-family home varies from a few hundred dollars to over a thousand, depending on the complexity and size of the home.

4. Title search and title insurance

A lender doesn’t want to lend money for a house that has legal claims on it. That’s why a title company performs a title search to make sure the property can be transferred.

The title company will research the history of the property, looking for mortgages, claims, liens, easement rights, zoning ordinances, pending legal action, unpaid taxes and restrictive covenants. 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 thoroughly reviews your application, the best outcome is that you are approved for a mortgage. That gives you the all-clear to proceed to closing on the property.

However, you might receive one of these decisions instead:

  • Denied: If your mortgage application is denied, you’ll need to understand the specific reason for the denial to determine your next steps. If the lender thinks you have too much debt, you might be able to lower your DTI ratio by paying down credit card balances. If your credit score didn’t make the cut, recheck your credit report for mistakes and take steps to improve your score. You could possibly apply again in a few months, apply for a smaller loan amount or try to assemble a larger down payment to compensate.
  • Suspended: This might mean some documentation is missing from your file, so the underwriter can’t make an evaluation. Your application could be suspended if, for example, the underwriter couldn’t verify your employment or income. The lender should tell you whether you can reactivate your application by providing additional information.
  • Conditional approval: Mortgage approvals can come with conditions — usually, the need to furnish additional pay stubs, tax forms, proof of mortgage insurance, proof of insurance or a copy of a marriage certificate, divorce decree or business licenses. Typically, this is just a hiccup: You’re almost home, but the lender just wants to confirm a few more things.

Once you clear any conditions and get your mortgage approved, your home purchase is almost 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 that are due and receive the keys to your new home.

How long does mortgage underwriting take?

The mortgage underwriting process can take anywhere from a few days to a few weeks, depending on whether the underwriter needs additional information from you, how busy the lender is, and how streamlined the lender’s practices are.

The quicker you compile your documents and respond to the lender’s requests for information, the smoother and speedier the process 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.

Tips for a smooth mortgage underwriting process

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. If you have to request paperwork from a specific institution, for instance, do so as soon as possible. It can be smart to put together a file that includes the following:

  • 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 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

In addition, if you plan to use gifted funds for a down payment, it’s important to have those funds in your possession (in other words, in an account in your name) well before you apply. You’ll also need to have a gift letter to verify that the money is indeed a gift. Doing both can help you avoid unnecessary setbacks in underwriting.

One thing to note is that you should only provide the documents the lender asks for. If you provide additional documentation it can slow down the process.

2. Get your credit in shape

A lower credit score can make it more difficult for you to get approved for a mortgage, and can also make your loan more expensive with a higher interest rate.

If your credit score needs improvement, commit to paying down debt. Doing so will raise your credit score and reduce your debt-to-income (DTI ratio) — many lenders look for 36 percent or less. That gives your application’s chances a double boost.

In addition, check your credit report to ensure there are no errors that could negatively impact your score. You can get a copy from the three major credit bureaus at AnnualCreditReport.com. If you do find a mistake, contact the agency to dispute it as soon as possible.

3. Make a larger down payment

A higher LTV ratio indicates the lender could lose a lot more money if you default on the mortgage. You can reduce your LTV by making a larger down payment upfront.

If you put 10 percent down on a $200,000 home, for example, you’d have to take out a $180,000 loan, putting your LTV ratio at 90 percent. If you were to put 20 percent down for the same home, you’d only need a $160,000 mortgage, and your LTV ratio would be 80 percent. This lowers the risk for the lender overall, making you a more attractive candidate for a loan.

You can work to save more for a down payment, or ask family or friends for help, if possible. There are also many down payment assistance programs, including deferred payment loans and grants, that can help, and your lender might offer their own assistance in addition to that. Chase Bank, for instance, offers up to $2,500 to $5,000 towards your down payment if you meet certain criteria.

Frequently asked questions about mortgage underwriting

Getting started with the mortgage underwriting process

If you’re looking to get a mortgage and have all of your documents in order, you’re ready to start comparing loan offers. Ideally, you’ll want to find the loan with the lowest interest rate and fees and the most favorable terms.

As you shop around, consider what type of loan will suit your situation — some mortgages are better for lower-income borrowers, for instance, or those with poorer credit — in addition to how long you plan to stay in the home and what you can reasonably afford.