What Is a Mortgage Loan?
A mortgage is a loan used to purchase real estate, often a primary residence. When you sign a mortgage loan, you agree to repay a certain amount each month plus interest for the term of the mortgage. Most mortgages last 15 or 30 years, but some lenders offer other mortgage terms.
With a mortgage, the home or property acts as collateral for the loan. If you do not make payments, the lender can eventually repossess the home. If you want to change the terms of your mortgage, you can apply to refinance for a lower interest rate or shorter loan term.
Conventional mortgages require a 3% down payment. They allow you to finance a home worth up to an annual maximum established by Fannie Mae, a federally-based mortgage company. Government-backed mortgages, such as FHA, VA, and USDA loans, have less strict approval requirements. Jumbo mortgages exceed the threshold for conventional mortgages.
What Is a Mortgage Rate?
Mortgage rates express the amount of interest you will pay on your mortgage as a percentage. For example, if you borrow $300,000 with a 5% fixed interest rate, you will pay $15,000 in interest by the time you pay off your home (unless you pay more toward the principal or refinance).
A variety of factors determine the current mortgage rates, including economic indicators such as inflation and unemployment as well as actions by the Federal Reserve. The rates change each day, which is why most lenders post today’s mortgage rates on their homepages.
Your financial history affects your ability to qualify for the best mortgage rates. In general, you should aim for a credit score of at least 740 if you want to save money on interest. Lenders also look at the loan-to-value ratio (LTV) when determining home loan rates. This number represents the amount you will borrow in comparison to the value of the property. The LTV should be less than 80% for the lowest mortgage rates.
The Impact of COVID-19 on Mortgage Interest Rates
Already-low mortgage rates continued to decrease as the COVID-19 pandemic arrived in the U.S. in the first half of 2020. While the average APR crept up slightly as summer 2020 approached, rates dipped again to a record low of 2.97% by early June.
With the effects of illness, unemployment, and economic recession, many consumers struggled to qualify for credit as the pandemic continued through the end of 2020 and into 2021. In September 2021, sources reported a steady average mortgage APR of 2.88%.
As record-low rates continue into the end of 2021, slowing competition in many home markets makes it a good time to buy. If you already own a home, consider refinancing your mortgage if you can take advantage of lower payments and save money over the life of your loan.
How to Apply for a Low Interest Rate
If you want to qualify for the lowest mortgage rates, follow these strategies to improve your chances.
Save a Sizable Down Payment
As mentioned, lenders look at the property’s LTV ratio when setting home loan rates. The more you put toward your down payment, the lower your LTV, which in turn lowers your interest rate. Aiming for 20% can also save you money on the cost of private mortgage insurance.
Do the Math Before You Pay Points
You can pay more money upfront at closing in exchange for a reduced interest rate on your home loan. This practice, called paying points, doesn’t necessarily save you money on home mortgage rates. It can take almost a decade before you break even, so make sure it makes financial sense before you move forward.
Consider an Adjustable Rate
Adjustable-rate mortgages often have more favorable interest rates than fixed-rate mortgages, especially during the introductory period. After the first three to 10 years, the mortgage rate changes based on market conditions and can go up or down depending on your loan documents.
Shop around for the best prices
Mortgage interest rates and other costs vary dramatically from lender to lender. You can compare current interest rates quickly by using a platform like Credible. The site provides quotes from 13 different home loan companies so you can check for the best mortgage rates.
How to Apply for a Mortgage Loan
First, you’ll need to submit personal and financial information to each lender. Most financial institutions now offer completely online applications, and you can even compare loan offers from multiple lenders on sites like LendingTree and Credible. However, you can usually access personal assistance by phone or even in-person if you choose a lender with traditional branches in your area.
Most mortgage applications ask you to input your Social Security number, income, assets, debts, address history, and other general information for a preapproval. This letter from the lender indicates your available loan terms, amount, and interest rate if you decide to move forward with the process. Some preapprovals require a credit check but others do not.
The lender must provide a loan estimate form within three business days of your application. This legal document indicates all costs related to the loan, including principal, interest, insurance, property taxes, closing costs and fees. Depending on this estimate, you can decide whether to move forward with the loan.
When you accept the terms of a loan estimate, you must provide documents to support your application. Examples include tax forms, proof of income such as pay stubs, bank statements for all accounts, investments, and credit cards, and information about your employment status. Many lenders assign a loan coordinator to guide you through the process of submitting your paperwork.
How Does the Mortgage Loan Process Work?
Once you submit all supporting paperwork, your loan will enter the underwriting process. The lender will check to make sure you have the credit and income to repay the loan and confirm other aspects of your application.
The lender will also verify your down payment and funds for closing. The underwriting agent will confirm the source of large deposits in your account and confirm that you have cash reserves. Many lenders require savings of at least two to three times your monthly mortgage amount in reserve to complete the underwriting process.
During the mortgage application process, the bank will order an appraisal of the home. They want to make sure its value exceeds the amount of the mortgage loan. You may also want to have a home inspector evaluate the property before you move forward with the purchase. Some mortgages, such as FHA loans, require the borrower to get a home inspection.
Three days before the scheduled closing date of your mortgage, the lender must provide the closing disclosure. This legal document provides the final terms of the loan as well as the total closing costs. If the disclosure meets your expectations, you make your down payment and closing costs at settlement, where you receive your keys and take ownership of your new home.
Types of Mortgages
Within each of these main loan types, most lenders offer either fixed-rate or adjustable-rate loans. You may prefer the stability of the constant monthly payment with a fixed-rate mortgage or prioritize the low introductory payments with an adjustable mortgage, especially if you expect to increase your income over time.
Conventional loans allow you to borrow up to a certain amount with a credit score of 620 or higher. You must have a down payment of at least 3%. Most conventional loans have 15-year or 30-year terms. Jumbo mortgages exceed the maximum amount for conventional loans. They require a higher credit score and a down payment of at least 10%.
Average current interest rates for conventional loans are 4.53% for a 30-year fixed mortgage, 3.85% for a 15-year fixed mortgage, and 4% for a 10-year fixed mortgage. Today’s mortgage rates for jumbo loans are 4.92% for a 30-year fixed mortgage and 4.15% with a 15-year term.
FHA loans allow a credit score of 500 with a 10% down payment or 580 with a 3.5% down payment. These loans have a guarantee from the Federal Housing Authority and can be used to fund both home purchases and renovations. Mortgage rates for FHA loans currently average 4.99% for a 30-year term.
VA Loans, backed by the Veterans Administration, provide zero-down mortgages for eligible veterans, service members, and spouses. Home mortgage rates through the VA program average 5.463% for a 30-year fixed loan.
USDA Loans: The USDA also has a no-down-payment loan program. To qualify for this type of mortgage, you must buy a home in a rural area. The USDA mortgage also has maximum income limits depending on your family size and zip code. The current average mortgage rate for a 30-year USDA fixed loan is 5.173%.
How to Choose the Right Mortgage Lender for You
To find the best mortgage lender for your needs, start by checking your credit score. If you have fair credit or below, taking steps to improve your score can help you qualify for affordable mortgage terms. You can build credit by paying bills on time, disputing inaccurate information on your report, and reducing your overall amount of debt (paying down credit cards, for example).
Once you’re ready to narrow your search for a mortgage, start with lenders who offer the type of home loan you want, or compare multiple lenders side-by-side on a site like LendingTree. Make a short list of “musts” you want in your mortgage lender, such as online servicing, limited closing costs, or a branch in your area for in-person assistance.
Check online reviews and customer ratings for the lenders on your list to look for potential pitfalls. When you have three to four options, complete the preapproval process to access your rates and terms. Read the fine print with your preapproval to make sure it will not affect your credit score or compromise your personal information.
Next, review the lender term sheets next to one another to determine which loan will cost you less over time. In addition to the APR, pay attention to closing costs, origination fees, prepaid interests, and other expenses that can affect your monthly payment and the total cost of your mortgage.
What’s the difference between an adjustable and a fixed-rate mortgage?
A fixed-rate mortgage has the same interest rate for the life of the loan. Adjustable-rate mortgages (ARMs) have a low fixed rate for an initial period, often one year. The terms of your loan indicate how and when the rate will adjust. For example, a 5/1 ARM has a low fixed rate for five years and then changes every year. It can go up or down.
Will applying for a mortgage affect my credit score?
During the underwriting process, your lender will do a “hard pull” of your credit. This can lower your score, especially if you have several hard inquiries within just a few months. Over time, however, a mortgage tends to build credit by diversifying your history and establishing a good payment record over many years.
How long does the mortgage application process take?
The process varies by lender and financial situation, but most qualified borrowers can close on a mortgage loan within about 30 days. Better Mortgage reports an average loan closing time of just 21 days, while both LendingTree and Quicken Loans report that their loans typically close within 30 days.
What do mortgage lenders consider when reviewing applications?
Each lender has its own requirements for loan approval. However, most mortgage lenders require a debt-to-income ratio of no more than 43% and a credit score of at least 580 depending on the type of mortgage. You must also account for your down payment funds and show a work history of at least two years. The property must meet the lender’s appraisal requirements.
Which mortgage term is best?
If you choose a 30-year mortgage, you will have lower monthly payments. However, the loan will cost more in interest by the time you pay it off. A 15-year mortgage has higher monthly payments but less expensive interest over the life of the loan. The answer depends on your individual situation and financial goals.