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What is a mortgage?

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Taking out a mortgage is the biggest financial decision most of us will ever make, so it’s essential to understand what you’re signing on for when you borrow money to buy a house.

What is a mortgage?

A mortgage is a loan from a bank or other financial institution that helps a borrower purchase a home. The collateral for the mortgage is the home itself. That means if the borrower doesn’t make monthly payments to the lender and defaults on the loan, the lender can sell the home and recoup its money.

A mortgage loan is typically a long-term debt taken out for 30, 20 or 15 years. Over this time (known as the loan’s “term”), you’ll repay both the amount you borrowed as well as the interest charged for the loan.

You’ll repay the mortgage at regular intervals, usually in the form of a monthly payment, which typically consists of both principal and interest charges.

“Each month, part of your monthly mortgage payment will go toward paying off that principal, or mortgage balance, and part will go toward interest on the loan,” explains Robert Kirkland, vice president, Divisional Community and affordable lending manager with JPMorgan Chase. Over time, more of your payment will go toward the principal.

If you default on your mortgage loan, the lender can reclaim your property through the process of foreclosure.

“You don’t technically own the property until your mortgage loan is fully paid,” says Bill Packer, executive vice president and COO of American Financial Resources in Parsippany, New Jersey. “Typically, you will also sign a promissory note at closing, which is your personal pledge to repay the loan.”

How does a mortgage work?

A mortgage is a loan that people use to buy a home. To get a mortgage, you’ll work with a bank or other lender. Typically, to start the process, you’ll go through pre-approval to get an idea of the maximum the lender is willing to lend and the interest rate you’ll pay. This helps you estimate the cost of your loan and start your search for a home.

The mortgage process

Applying for a mortgage is a thorough process, involving many steps on your end. To start, you’ll need proof of income (through paystubs and previous year’s tax returns), a list of assets, debts, reasons for credit inquiries, brokerage statements (if applicable), and letters explaining any financial gifts you received for the home purchase such as help with a down payment from family members.

Once you gather your documents, you’ll apply for the mortgage through the lender’s website. Having all the documents ready to go can expedite the process of earning a pre-approval, since they can show their underwriters you indeed have the qualifications to pay for the mortgage.

Types of mortgages

There are several types of mortgages available to borrowers, including conforming and non-conforming loans; conventional fixed-rate mortgages, which are among the most common; adjustable-rate mortgages (ARMs); balloon mortgages; FHA, VA and USDA loans; jumbo loans; and reverse mortgages.

Fixed-rate mortgage

With a fixed-rate mortgage, the interest rate is agreed upon before you close the loan, and stays the same for the entire term, which generally ranges up to 30 years.

Typically, longer terms mean higher overall costs, but lower monthly payments. Shorter loans are more expensive each month but cheaper overall.

No matter which term you prefer, the interest rate will not change for the life of the mortgage. For this reason, fixed-rate mortgages are good choices for those who prefer a stable monthly payment.

Adjustable-rate mortgage (ARM)

Under the terms of an adjustable-rate mortgage (ARM), the interest rate you’re paying can be raised or lowered periodically as rates change. An ARM might be a good idea when the introductory interest rate is particularly low compared with a fixed-rate loan, especially if the ARM has a long fixed-rate period before it starts to adjust. An ARM can also be an option if you don’t plan to stay in the home for longer than that introductory period.

“Some examples of an adjustable-rate mortgage would be a 5/1 ARM and or a 7/1 ARM,” explains Kirkland. “In a 5/1 ARM, the ‘5’ stands for an initial five-year period during which the interest rate remains fixed while the ‘1’ indicates that the interest rate is subject to adjustment once per year.”

During the adjustable-rate portion of an ARM, the interest rate charged is typically based on a standard financial index, such as the key index rate established by the Federal Reserve or the Secured Overnight Financing Rate (SOFR). Most ARMs come with a cap (for each adjustment and/or for the life of the loan), so your rate can only increase up to a certain amount.

“Adjustable-rate mortgages track a selected benchmark index and adjust the loan’s payments based on changing interest rates,” says John Pataky, executive vice president at TIAA Bank.

Balloon mortgage

With a balloon mortgage, payments start low and then grow or “balloon” to a much larger lump-sum amount before the loan matures.

This type of mortgage is generally aimed at buyers who will have a higher income toward the end of the loan or borrowing period than at the outset. It also might be a good approach for those who plan to sell the property before the end of the loan period. For those who don’t intend to sell, a balloon mortgage might require refinancing to stay in the property.

“Buyers who choose a balloon mortgage may do so with the intention of refinancing the mortgage when the balloon mortgage’s term runs out,” says Pataky. “Overall, balloon mortgages are one of the riskier types of mortgages.”

FHA loan

An FHA loan is a government-backed mortgage insured by the Federal Housing Administration.

“This loan program is popular with many first-time homebuyers,” Kirkland says. “FHA home loans require lower minimum credit scores, and in some cases lower down payments, with the average down payment being 3.5 percent.”

Although the government insures the loans, these loans are offered by FHA-approved mortgage lenders.

VA loan

A VA loan is a loan guaranteed by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs that requires little or no money down. It is available to veterans, service members and eligible military spouses.

The loan itself isn’t actually made by the government, but it is backed by a government agency (the VA), which is designed to give lenders some protection when funding the loan. As a result of the government backing, lenders often offer these loans without requiring a down payment and with looser credit parameters.

USDA loan

A USDA loan is a mortgage backed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. These mortgages are offered in select rural communities to low- and moderate-income borrowers.

The benefits of a USDA loan include no down payment requirement, no set maximum purchase price and low interest rates with fixed-rate terms, says Lamar Brabham, CEO and founder of Noel Taylor Agency, a financial services firm in North Myrtle Beach, South Carolina.

On the downside, only qualified homes in approved rural/suburban locations are eligible for a USDA loan. These loans also usually take longer to close than some other types of loans.

Jumbo loan

Jumbo loans are loans for more expensive properties priced above the conforming loan limits set by the Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA) each year. These loans can have higher interest rates than conforming loans, as well as a requirement for a bigger down payment.

Reverse mortgage

A reverse mortgage provides homeowners aged 62 or older monthly income based on their home’s value.

“It allows them to tap into the equity of their home and defer monthly payments until they leave the home, which works well for those needing relief from house payments and who require access to cash,” Brabham explains.

Unlike a forward mortgage, where over time the borrower is repaying the loan and the balance goes down, “with a reverse mortgage, the lender gives you money over time and the balance you owe grows the longer you live,” adds Packer.

Average mortgage rates in 2022

One of the most important factors in determining the cost of a mortgage is the interest rate. Given the size of the typical mortgage, even a small difference in rate has a big impact.

For example, on a $250,000, 30-year loan, you’d pay $1,375 a month with a 5.57 percent interest rate and $1,194 with a 4 percent rate. That’s a difference of $181 a month or more than $65,000 over the life of the loan.

In August 2022, the average interest rate on a 30-year fixed mortgage was 5.57 percent. 15-year loans were less expensive at 4.82 percent. ARMs were even cheaper, with rates as low as 4.284 percent available.

Our rate tables are updated daily and will show you the latest rates for your area.

What is included in a mortgage payment?

There are four core components of a mortgage payment: the principal, interest, taxes, and insurance, collectively referred to as “PITI.” There can be other costs included in the payment, as well.

Principal

The principal is the specific amount of money you borrowed from a mortgage lender to purchase a home. If you were to buy a $100,000 home, for instance, and borrow $90,000 from a lender to help pay for it, that’d be the principal you owe.

Interest

The interest, expressed as a percentage rate, is what the lender charges you to borrow that money. In other words, the interest is the annual cost you pay for borrowing the principal.

Interest accrues each month and your monthly payment will cover all the interest that accrued that month.

There are other fees involved in getting a mortgage besides interest, including points and other closing costs.

Property taxes

Your lender typically collects the property taxes associated with the home as part of your monthly mortgage payment. The money is usually held in an escrow account, which the lender will use to pay your property tax bill when the taxes are due.

Homeowners insurance

Homeowners insurance provides you and your lender a level of protection in the event of a disaster, fire or other accident that impacts your property. Your lender collects the insurance premiums as part of your monthly mortgage bill, places the money in escrow and makes the payments to the insurance provider for you when the premiums are due.

Mortgage insurance

Your monthly mortgage payment might also include a fee for private mortgage insurance (PMI). For a conventional loan, this type of insurance is required when a buyer puts down less than 20 percent of the home’s purchase price as a down payment.

How to find the best mortgage

To identify the mortgage that’s best for your situation, assess your financial health, including your income, credit history and score, employment and financial goals. Spend some time shopping around with different mortgage lenders, as well.

“Some have more stringent guidelines than others,” Kirkland says. “Some lenders might require a 20 percent down payment, while others require as little as 3 percent of the home’s purchase price.”

“Even if you have a preferred lender in mind, go to two or three lenders — or even more — and make sure you’re fully surveying your options,” Pataky says. “A tenth of a percent on interest rates may not seem like a lot, but it can translate to thousands of dollars over the life of the loan.”

Sign up for a Bankrate account to determine the right time to strike on your mortgage with our daily rate trends.

How to qualify for a mortgage

Here are a few tips to improve your chances of qualifying and being approved for a mortgage:

Educate yourself. “Make sure you know what you’re getting into before applying for a loan,” Carey says. “Research how much property taxes are, what type of mortgage product best fits your needs and what kinds of first-time homebuyer assistant grants may be available.”

Establish a credit history and work to maintain or improve your score. “Lenders put a lot of weight on past credit performance as a good indicator of future performance,” Carey says. Strive to make all of your credit card, loan or other debt payments on time, and check your credit reports for any errors before applying for a mortgage. If you spot incorrect information (like incorrect contact info), dispute it with the credit reporting bureau as soon as possible to get it corrected. Likewise, avoid making larger purchases (like a car) and applying for new credit cards.

Build up savings for a sufficient down payment. “Limiting the percentage of the purchase price financed helps improve your ability to qualify for a mortgage,” Carey says. “Responsible saving practices demonstrate your ability to manage finances and reduce the overall risk involved in lending you money.”

Avoid changes to your employment status. “Quitting your job, losing your employment or switching companies might affect your qualification,” Hall says.

Important mortgage terminology to know

As you weigh your mortgage options, here are some basic terms you may encounter (and here are other key terms to know).

  • Amortization: describes the process of paying off a loan, such as a mortgage, in installment payments over a period of time. Part of each payment goes toward the principal, or the amount borrowed, while the other portion goes toward interest.
  • APR: or annual percentage rate, reflects the cost of borrowing the money for a mortgage. A broader measure than the interest rate alone, the APR includes the interest rate, discount points and other fees that come with the loan.
  • “Conforming”: refers to a conforming loan, a mortgage eligible to be purchased by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the government-sponsored enterprises (GSEs) integral to the mortgage market in the U.S. These standards include a minimum credit score and maximum debt-to-income (DTI) ratio, loan limit and other requirements. Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac buy loans from mortgage lenders to create mortgage-backed securities (MBS) for the secondary mortgage market
  • Down payment: The down payment is the amount of a home’s purchase price a homebuyer pays upfront. Buyers typically put down a percentage of the home’s value as the down payment, then borrow the rest in the form of a mortgage. A larger down payment can help improve a borrower’s chances of getting a lower interest rate. Different kinds of mortgages have varying minimum down payments.
  • Escrow: An escrow account holds the portion of a borrower’s monthly mortgage payment that covers homeowners insurance premiums and property taxes. Escrow accounts also hold the earnest money the buyer deposits between the time their offer has been accepted and the closing.
  • Mortgage servicer: A mortgage servicer is the company that handles your mortgage statements and all day-to-day tasks related to managing your loan after it closes. For example, the servicer collects your payments and, if you have an escrow account, ensures that your taxes and insurance are paid on time.
  • Non-conforming: Unlike a conforming loan, a “non-conforming” mortgage doesn’t meet the requirements that allow it to be purchased by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. One example of a non-conforming loan is a jumbo loan.
  • Private mortgage insurance: Private mortgage insurance (PMI) is a form of insurance taken out by the lender but typically paid for by you, the borrower, when your loan-to-value (LTV) ratio is greater than 80 percent (meaning you put down less than 20 percent as a down payment). If you default and the lender has to foreclose, PMI covers some of the shortfall between what they can sell your property for and what you still owe on the mortgage.
  • Promissory note: The promissory note is a legal document that obligates a borrower to repay a specified sum of money over a specified period under particular terms. These details are outlined in the note.
  • Underwriting: Mortgage underwriting is the process by which a bank or mortgage lender assesses the risk they would be taking by lending to a given borrower. The underwriting process requires an application and takes into account factors like the borrower’s credit report and score, income, debt and the value of the property they intend to buy. Many lenders follow standard underwriting guidelines from Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac when determining whether to approve a loan.

Frequently asked questions about mortgages

Written by
Mia Taylor
Contributing Writer
Mia Taylor is a contributor to Bankrate and an award-winning journalist who has two decades of experience and worked as a staff reporter or contributor for some of the nation's leading newspapers and websites including The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the San Diego Union-Tribune, TheStreet, MSN and Credit.com.
Edited by
Reviewed by
Senior wealth manager, LourdMurray
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