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What You Need To Know About Mortgages and Mortgage Rates

Anita Clark's picture

Making Sure You Rate in the Mortgage Market

It took months of searching online, dozens of phone calls, and umpteen house tours, but you’ve finally found a place you’d love to call home. It has a fabulous kitchen and circular floor plan for entertaining, enough bedrooms for the kids you have, and even one for the kid you might want to have later. All in all, that was pretty fun, wasn’t it?

But most real estate experts recommend starting the not-so-fun part— learning about and shopping for your mortgage—before you start house hunting. This is especially true for consumers who are first-time buyers who need a mortgage.

Getting the best mortgage rate, and in turn, the lowest homeownership cost overall, takes some knowledge and effort. From loan type to lender category to negotiating the final terms of your loan, the path to securing a mortgage is complicated, particularly for first-time home buyers. Let’s see if we can unpack the process a little bit.

How are Mortgage Rates Determined?

Lenders set mortgage rates using the bond market—specifically mortgage bonds or mortgage-backed securities—as a benchmark. As the mortgage bond market fluctuates, so do mortgage rates. Mortgage rates are also loosely tied to the interbank interest rate set by the Federal Reserve. That’s the rate banks and other financial institutions pay when they borrow money from each other in the short term, usually to meet federally-mandated reserve limits.

When the interbank rate goes up, these costs are passed on to home buyers in the form of higher mortgage interest rates. Mortgage rates also tend to reflect general economic indicators. Downturns in the economy, including lower consumer spending and higher unemployment rates, often trigger declining mortgage rates. Mortgage rates tend to go up when the economy is booming.
What You Need To Know About Mortgages and Mortgage Rates

What Other Factors Influence Mortgage Rates?

Improve Your Credit Score

While you can’t direct the larger economic forces involved in determining mortgage rates, some factors are within your control. The single most effective way to secure a low mortgage rate is to improve your credit score. To do so, you have to know what you are working with, so start by ordering your own credit report.

You are entitled to check your own credit for free with each of the three credit bureaus that issue credit scores once a year; you’ll also find resources online that can streamline the process for you and report changes to your credit score as they occur. It does not affect your score when you check your own credit.

You may find mistakes on your report including closed accounts that are listed as open, accounts you don’t recognize (which can be a signal of identity theft), outdated credit limits, and more. Resolving these issues before mortgage lenders start investigating your credit is paramount when shopping for a great rate. Paying down high-interest credit cards will also improve your credit score; in the context of the mortgage process, it’s a short-term investment with long-term benefits.

Getting Pre-Approved for a Mortgage

This is another effective way to secure both a better mortgage rate and a lower price for your home. Realtors recommend getting pre-approved by several mortgage lenders before making an offer to buy a home. Remember that selling mortgages is how mortgage lenders make money; they want your business. Getting several pre-approvals will put you in a stronger negotiating position when locking in a mortgage rate.

Some sellers will only entertain offers from buyers who have been pre-approved because they don’t want to waste time working with buyers who may not be able to secure a mortgage. In any case, pre-approved buyers are in a better negotiating position because they are seen as a safer bet.

While getting pre-approved for a mortgage is time-consuming—you will need to provide such financial documents as tax returns, bank statements, and pay stubs—you only need to gather that information once. And you’ll have to do it eventually to secure a mortgage, so why not get it out of the way? Pre-approval also effectively gives you parameters to live within when shopping for a home, so you are less likely to fall in love with a home you can’t afford.

Higher Down Payment

Increasing your loan-to-value ratio by making a higher down payment will also typically result in your being offered a lower mortgage rate, simply because your loan will be viewed as less risky.

Buying Points

You might also consider buying points at the outset of your loan. When you buy points, you are effectively paying some of your interest upfront. This will increase your costs at closing, but the expense may be offset over time by the lower interest rate your lender offers you. Be sure to compare the rewards of buying points versus making a higher down payment to be sure which is the right strategy for you.

Automatic Payment Plan

Like you, mortgage lenders have to manage cash flow. To incentivize customers to make their mortgage payments on time, some lenders offer a lower rate to home buyers who are willing to set up an automatic payment plan. Find out if yours is one of them.

Decreasing Your Mortgage Term

Finally, decreasing your mortgage term can also earn you a better mortgage rate. If you can swing the higher monthly payment, consider taking a 15- or 20-year mortgage instead of the standard 30-year variety to lower your mortgage rate and in turn, your total cost of homeownership over time.

What are the Different Types of Mortgage Loans?

Conventional Mortgage

A conventional mortgage is defined simply as any mortgage not backed by the federal government. They are considered higher-risk loans than government-backed loans like VA home loans and USDA loans. You may need to meet more stringent credit guidelines and make a larger down payment on your home than you would with a government-backed loan to qualify for a conventional mortgage.

Unless you are putting down 20% or more of the purchase price of your home, you will be required to carry private mortgage insurance (PMI) until your home equity reaches 78% of the loan amount.

Conventional loans may be secured as fixed-rate or adjustable-rate mortgages. Fixed-rate loans offer the benefit of consistency: over the life of the loan, your principal and interest payments will remain steady. Adjustable-rate loans may be written for a low rate initially, but you run the risk of having your payment increase should mortgage rates rise.

FHA Loans

FHA loans were created in the wake of the Great Depression as a means of stimulating the construction industry, lowering unemployment and providing a pathway to homeownership. Today they are a staple product of many kinds of lending institutions. FHA home mortgages have more lenient requirements than conventional loans.

You can purchase a home with as little 3.5% down—and without a stellar credit history. That leniency does come at a cost, however: with an FHA loan, you are typically required to pay mortgage insurance premiums (MIP) for the life of your loan.

VA Loans

Reserved for veterans and eligible active duty servicemen and women, VA loans are a great deal if you qualify for one. In some cases, VA loans do not require a down payment.

With a VA loan, you are not required to carry Private Mortgage Insurance, even if your down payment is less than 20% of the purchase price of your home.

VA loan interest rates are also typically lower than conventional mortgage rates because they are backed by the federal government and are therefore considered less risky by mortgage lenders. Bear in mind, of course, the less money you put down at closing, the higher your monthly payment will be.

USDA Loans

USDA loans are similar to VA loans in that they also offer a no-down-payment option and lower interest rates. They are offered to people who meet certain income criteria and are purchasing homes in qualifying rural and suburban areas.

While VA loans cap the amount of money you can borrow, there is no such cap with a USDA loan. With a USDA home loan, you can also funnel any closing costs (lender’s fees and points, for example) into the amount you borrow and pay them off along with your principal and interest.

Balloon and Other Interest-Only Loans

Balloon and other interest-only loans allow you to delay paying against your loan principal for a pre-determined amount of time, thereby lowering your monthly payment at the start of the loan. You are then required to pay a lump sum payment equal to the balance of your loan when the interest-only term expires. These loans are typically available only to buyers with stellar credit histories and high net worth.

They only make sense under limited circumstances. If you have a lucrative career and expect to receive a year-end bonus, if you intend to “flip” your home for a profit, or you’re trying to conserve cash to make a very sure investment, a balloon loan might be the solution you’re looking for.

What are the Different Types of Mortgage Lenders?

Your Local Bank

Your local, garden variety bank—the place where you keep your checking account—is very likely to offer mortgages. It’s not a bad idea to make your bank your first stop along the journey to finding a mortgage, if only because you already have a relationship in place there.

Your bank has access to some of the paperwork required to apply for a mortgage and can make the application process a little bit simpler.

Credit Unions

If you belong to a credit union, by all means, check out what they can do for you on a mortgage. Credit unions are non-profit institutions focused on giving their members the best possible service, not on meeting shareholder expectations.

Mortgage Banks

Mortgage banks are institutions that do one thing only: originate loans secured by real estate. The word “originate” is key here because once a mortgage bank issues you a mortgage, they will typically sell it to another institution for ongoing service.

Your mortgage may be sold many times before you pay it off, creating administrative hassles for you. On the other hand, mortgage banks are often able to process your loan more quickly than your bank can.

Mortgage Brokers

Mortgage brokers are not actually lenders themselves. They act as intermediaries between home buyers and lending institutions. Because they have relationships with a wide range of lenders and access to a broad range of loan programs, mortgage brokers can often find you a mortgage even if you have imperfect credit.

Mortgage brokers can also help you secure a loan when the property you’re considering is itself considered risky. These may include condominiums that haven’t yet been built, homes in historic neighborhoods, and even homes in rural towns where the housing market is deemed too small for easy resale of the property.

How Can You Be Sure You Are Getting the Best Mortgage for Your Needs?

When it comes to securing a home mortgage, you can never have too much information. Start with your local real estate agent, who is likely to have a great understanding of lending in general, and local lenders in particular.

Look for websites that offer apples-to-apples comparisons of the larger lending institutions and read each lender’s customer reviews carefully.

Finally, use your intuition as you look through the various mortgage options. If it appears too good to be true, you can bet it probably is. Happy house hunting!

Which Mortgage Type is Best for You?

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