Finding the Best Mortgage Can Save You Thousands
Buying a home is one of the largest purchases you’ll ever make. Because it’s such a large purchase and there is a lot of money at stake it only makes sense to get the best possible financing. After all, most home loans last for decades, so a poor choice up front can end up costing you for years to come. The problem is that not all lenders are created equal, and even trying to compare similar loans can make your head spin. So, let’s take some of the confusion out of shopping around and finding the best mortgage deals.
Most people assume that finding the best interest rate is the most important aspect of finding a loan, but that is only part of the overall picture. Interest rates are very important, but what looks like a good rate on the surface might be overshadowed by excessive costs or unfavorable terms elsewhere in the loan that aren’t immediately apparent. If you know what to look for you can be sure you’re comparing apples to apples. Having just gone through the process of trying to find a loan to buy a house there are a lot of things I noticed over the past few weeks that can help you save money when shopping for a mortgage. Here’s what you need to do to find the best possible mortgage rates.
Check Your Credit
Before you even start shopping around for loans you should first check your credit.(What’s a good credit score) If you haven’t already, it’s a good time to use your free annual credit report from annualcreditreport.com. You are entitled to a free credit report from each of the three main credit bureaus each year. The idea here is to make sure your credit report is accurate and if there are any errors, you have enough time to fix them before applying for loans. If you do encounter an error, use this time to call the creditor and see what you can do to get it rectified. In many cases it could be just an honest mistake, but it could also be an indication of something more serious. If you see a lot of problems you might want to check into how to improve your credit score. And while it’s good to make sure there are no errors on your credit report, that alone won’t tell you your credit score, which is ultimately what lenders use to determine your rate.
You are going to want to check your credit about 30 to 60 days before you begin applying for loans if at all possible. This is because many creditors only update their records once a month, meaning even if you are able to fix an error right away it may still take another month or so before it gets updated on your credit report. It’s easier to wait for an error to be dropped from your report than to go to a lender with a blemished report and then try to explain the situation to them.
It’s also a good idea to get your credit score prior to applying for a loan. Yes, once you apply for a loan you’re going to have your credit pulled by the lender anyway and you will likely get a copy of your score, but a lot of pre-qualifications (not pre-approvals) are done with rough estimates of your income, debt, and estimated credit score without actually pulling your credit. This helps when you’re shopping rates and simply making quick phone calls to various lenders as you can give them an idea right up front as to what your credit score is so they can have a better idea of what you might qualify for. Of course, the score they actually pull once they go through the application will be what is used, but you can make things a little easier by giving them as much information as possible up front.
You won’t get your credit score with your free credit report, so this is something you’re going to have to do separately if you want to know. Two of the best options for obtaining a credit score are Credit Karma and Credit Sesame. Credit Sesame is free and provides some neat features to help you monitor your score and make improvements. I used Credit Sesame while we were applying for our mortgage and one thing I did notice was that there was a huge discrepancy between my wife’s score that the banks were obtaining and what Credit Sesame was showing. The difference was nearly 100 points. At the same time, Credit Sesame was showing my credit score as dead on. So, just keep that in mind. It might cost a few dollars to get an official credit score, but it’s worth it if you want to know what you’re up against when dealing with something as important as a mortgage. In fact, you can use your score when calling lenders to ask about rates to get a better idea of what you’re looking at long before you go through the application process. This can help you weed out the bad deals early on.
Know What You Need and What to Expect
Before shopping for your home loan you should have a good idea of what you need. This means understanding what types of loans are out there and what your specific situation warrants. Do you want a 30-year or 15-year fixed mortgage? Do you qualify for FHA or will you need to seek another type of loan? Do you have 20% to put down to eliminate PMI or will you piggyback your mortgage with a second loan to eliminate PMI? These are all questions you should ask yourself before heading to a lender because if you can tell them exactly what you’re looking for, they can better find what they have available for you. Do your homework ahead of time so that you can narrow your search. If you go to the bank and simply say you want to buy a house for X amount of dollars they might come back and give you a handful of different loan options that may or may not be appropriate for you and it just makes things more confusing for you.
Not only do you need to know what you want, but you should know what to expect in the current market. First, you should check on current interest rates. One of my favorite sites for a quick update is simply bankrate.com. There you can find the average interest rates for a number of loan types. After all, if you don’t know what the going rates are, how will you ever know if the quote you get from the bank is a good one or not? This is also where knowing your credit score can come in handy. For example, if you have a score under 700 it’s safe to assume that you probably won’t be able to get the lowest rate out there. Knowing this, if you see a bank come back with a quote for a very low interest rate it might be a red flag that points to a loan that’s padded with points or other fees that ultimately make it a bad deal for you. So, if you can go into the mortgage shopping process by having some expectations of what you might qualify for and for what rate, you can better determine whether or not your quote is a good deal or not.
Start Shopping Around
Once you’ve determined what you want and know what to expect in the current market, it’s time to start checking with various lenders to see what they can offer. At this stage you should expect to inquire with at least 5-10 different lenders. A lot of people are concerned that this could be detrimental to their credit score because of all the credit inquiries, but don’t worry. Hard inquiries made during the most recent 30 days are not factored into your current credit score. In addition, any inquiries within the 14-day period before that only count as one inquiry. So, as long as you plan ahead and do your loan shopping within a month or so you’ll have no negative impact on your credit score.
To start, you might as well check with the institutions where you currently have your finances. Whether it’s a bank or credit union, existing customers can often get slight discounts. Plus, since you already have a relationship with them it’s easy enough for them to pull a lot of your information and see what you might qualify for. This doesn’t mean you’ll get the best rates, but it’s a good starting point.
After you’ve talked to your current bank you might want to make a few phone calls to other local banks that you might not currently do business with. Banks and credit unions are always looking for new business and will be more than happy to take your call. So, see what kind of rates they can offer and see if it’s worth pursuing.
Finally, thanks to the internet you have a vast number of lenders available at your fingertips. You can look to banks that might not even be in your area or find lenders that otherwise would have gone undiscovered if you stuck to your local yellow pages. Again, this doesn’t always mean you’ll get the best deal with a company you see online, but it can at least be worth a shot. You might also want to look at lendingtree.com for some good comparison shopping.
Assemble Your Documents
After you go through a quick phone call or initial meeting with a lender the next step will be to submit various financial documents that the bank will use to get you pre-qualified. Generally speaking, the bank wants to see verified sources of income, debt obligations, employment history, and so on. To make both your job and the lender’s job easier, you should start getting these documents prepared ahead of time and make multiple copies. If you’re going to be applying with a half dozen lenders you don’t want to rely on one set of originals and have to wait for each bank to get those back to you before applying with another.
Documents typically requested:
- W-2 forms from the past two years.
- Tax returns from the past 1-3 years.
- The last two months of bank statements (both checking and savings accounts).
- The most recent statements for all investment accounts (IRA, brokerage, 401(k), etc.).
- Employment history and current employer contact information.
If you have all of these documents ready to go you’re going to save yourself a lot of time. And the sooner you can present these to the lender, the sooner they can get you pre-approved. The lender will appreciate the fact that you’re prepared and this can help ensure your application gets through the process as fast as possible.
Pre-Qualification vs. Pre-Approval
It is very important to note that during your initial shopping stages you will most likely be doing a pre-qualification and not pre-approval. There is a big difference and both consumers and lenders often mix and match the words. Pre-qualification is simply when a lender asks you for some basic information such as income, debt levels, assets, and estimated credit score to determine if you’ll likely qualify for a loan or not. At this stage nothing is verified, no credit reports are pulled, and the loan officer is simply trying to see if you might be someone they can do business with. Getting pre-qualified does not mean the bank will lend you the money, but it gives you a rough idea of what you might qualify for with that specific lender.
When you get to the process of actually having the lender pull your credit report, submit W-2s, tax returns, verify employment, and fill out all of the disclosures, then you’re looking to get pre-approved. Once you’re pre-approved that means based on the information you’ve provided and subsequently verified by the bank, the lender is willing to lend you the money baring any major changes to your credit or income and the appraisal and title search on the house you wish to buy come up ok. It is at the pre-approval stage where you will receive a good-faith estimate and can tell sellers and real estate agents that you’re a qualified buyer.
Comparing Loans With the Good Faith Estimate
Once you go through the application process if you come back approved, you’ll typically get what’s called a good faith estimate. There is where you’ll begin to see the nuts and bolts of the loan and can hopefully spot what makes one particular lender’s offer better than another. Generally speaking, they must provide this to you within three days of applying for the loan.
The GFE will contain a lot of information regarding the closing or settlement costs. As I mentioned above, getting a good interest rate is important, but even more important can be the closing costs and how the fees are structured. The closing costs are also where a lot of lenders make their money by sticking it to borrowers with inflated or unnecessary fees and then just rolling them into the loan. Your GFE should itemize all of the closing costs, how much you’re being charged, and who is responsible for paying them. Some of the fees you might encounter are:
- Property appraisal
- Credit report
- Lender’s inspection
- Mortgage insurance application
- Mortgage broker fee
- Tax-related service fee
- Rate lock
- Wire transfer
- Abstract or title search
- Title examination
- Document preparation
- Title insurance
- City/county tax stamps
- Transfer tax
- Pest inspection
- Condominium application
- Prepaid items such as interest, hazard insurance, property taxes, mortgage insurance and flood insurance
If you’ve never purchased a home before this list might scare you. Yes, there are a ton of fees that are involved with buying a home, and as you can see, a lot of opportunities for the bank to make money on your behalf. So, it’s when you get your good faith estimate that you need to scrutinize each quote to see what kind of a deal you’re really getting. Is that 0.25% lower loan such a good idea when it’s padded with excessive fees at closing that ultimately get rolled into the loan? That’s what you need to determine.
As an example, while we were looking over our loan offers I was simply shocked to see how different banks are when it comes to some of the fees. For instance, one lender only charged $12 for the credit check while another listed it at $60. One lender had a wire transfer fee of $20 while another had it listed at $125. And even the appraisal itself often came in more than $100 different between lenders. If some of these fees seem out of line, they may be negotiable so it doesn’t hurt to ask.
Finally, keep in mind that the good faith estimate is just that, an estimate. While it should be reasonably close to what you finally expect to pay, things can change.
An Informed Shopper Makes Better Decisions
I hope this has helped you understand some of what is involved with finding the best deal on a mortgage. It can be a time-consuming and tedious process, but the more you know and the more prepared you are, the better off you’ll be. This is a major financial decision in your life so it pays to put in a little work to make sure you’re getting the best deal available to you. If you know what kind of loan you want, what terms to expect, and know how to spot the features of a low-cost loan you’ll be well on your way to finding the best mortgage.
Author: Jeremy Vohwinkle
My name is Jeremy Vohwinkle, and I’ve spent a number of years working in the finance industry providing financial advice to regular investors and those participating in employer-sponsored retirement plans.