If you’re like many Americans, you’ll need to take out a home mortgage to buy a house. A home of your own will likely be one of the biggest purchases you’ll ever make, and the terms and interest rates you end up paying can have big financial consequences.
That’s why it’s important to do what you can to find the best mortgage rates, from having a healthy credit score to comparing lenders to hitting the negotiating table to find the best deal.
Putting Your Financial House in Order
Before you start shopping for a mortgage, take a look at your credit score. A low credit score may be a signal to lenders that lending to you is risky. Those with a lower credit score may find it difficult to get a mortgage — running into limited options — or may be offered loans with higher interest rates.
Generally speaking, the higher your credit score, the easier it will be to get a mortgage. You may be offered better rates, and you may have an easier time negotiating with different types of mortgage lenders. In general, you’ll need a credit score of 580 to qualify for a Federal Housing Administration (FHA) loan with a low down payment. A conventional loan will typically require a credit score of at least 620, but requirements may vary by lender.
Thankfully, an individual’s credit score isn’t set in stone. Those interested in maintaining a good credit score have a few options. First up is requesting your credit report from the three major credit reporting bureaus: TransUnion®, Experian®, and Equifax®. Review each report for errors and contact the appropriate credit bureau if you spot anything that’s incorrect. Credit reports can be ordered from each of the three credit bureaus annually, for free.
Other strategies for building a credit score include paying down credit cards to lower your credit utilization ratio, and making on-time payments for bills and other loans.
Considering a Bigger Down Payment
As a general rule of thumb, lenders may require borrowers to make a 20% down payment when they buy a home. However, many lenders require much smaller down payments, some as low as 3%. And if you qualify for a VA loan, you may not need a down payment at all.
If a borrower makes a down payment smaller than 20%, their lender may require them to purchase private mortgage insurance that will protect the lender in case the borrower fails to make mortgage payments. A larger down payment could potentially help borrowers avoid paying PMI.
As you’re shopping for mortgages, carefully consider how much money you can afford to put down, as a larger down payment can also have an impact on your interest rate.
Typically, a larger down payment translates into a lower interest rate, because taking on a larger stake in a property signals to lenders that you are less risky to loan money to.
Understanding Fixed-Rate vs. Adjustable Rate Mortgages
When shopping for a mortgage, you will typically be offered one of two main financing options: fixed-rate and adjustable-rate mortgages. The difference between the two lies in how you are charged interest, and depending on your situation, each has its own benefits.
A fixed-rate mortgage has an interest rate that stays the same throughout the life of the loan, even if there are big shifts in the overall economy. Borrowers might choose these loans for their stability, predictability, and to potentially lock in a low interest rate. Fixed-rate mortgages shield borrowers from rising interest rates that can make borrowing more expensive.
That said, fixed-rate mortgages may carry slightly higher interest rates than the introductory rates offered by adjustable-rate mortgages. Also, if interest rates drop during the lifetime of the loan, borrowers are not able to take advantage of lower rates that would potentially make borrowing cheaper for them.
Interest rates for adjustable-rate mortgages (ARM) can change over time. Typically ARMs have a low initial interest rate. (One popular ARM is the 5/1 adjustable-rate mortgage, which is fixed for the first five years.
However, as the Federal Reserve raises and lowers interest rates, interest rates may fluctuate. That said, there may be caps on how high the interest rate on a given loan can go.
ARMs don’t provide the same stability that their fixed-rate cousins do, but lower introductory interest rates may translate to savings for borrowers.
Once you have a sense of whether a fixed- versus adjustable-rate mortgage is for you, you can narrow your field and start looking at lenders.
When choosing a lender, start your search online, taking a look at a variety of lenders, including brick-and-mortar banks, credit unions, and online banks. The rates you see on lenders’ websites are typically estimates, but this step can help you get the lay of the land and familiarize yourself with what’s out there.
As you shop for mortgage lenders, consider contacting them directly to get a quote. At this point, the lender will generally have you fill out a loan application and will pull your credit information. Many lenders will do a soft credit pull, which won’t impact a potential borrower’s credit score, to provide an initial quote.
Borrowers can also work with a mortgage broker who can help identify lenders and walk them through any transactions. Be aware that mortgage brokers charge a fee for their services.
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Taking Additional Costs into Account
When choosing a home mortgage loan, interest rates aren’t the only cost to factor in. Be sure to ask about points and other fees.
Points are fees that you pay to a lender or a broker that are frequently linked to a loan’s interest rate. For the most part, the lower the interest rate, the more points you’ll pay.
The idea of points may feel a little bit abstract, so when talking to a lender, ask them to quote the points as a dollar amount so you’ll know exactly how much you’ll have to pay.
If you plan to live in a house for the long term, say 10 years or more, you may consider paying more points upfront to keep the cost of interest down over the life of the loan.
Home loans may come with a slew of other fees, including loan origination fees, broker fees, and closing costs. You’ll pay some fees at the beginning of the loan process, such as application and appraisal fees, while closing costs come at the end. Lenders and brokers may be able to give you a fee estimate.
When talking with a lender, ask what each fee includes, since there may be more than one item lumped into one fee. And be sure to ask your lender or broker to explain any fee that you don’t understand.
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Once you’ve gathered a number of loan options, you can choose the best deal among them. There may also be room to negotiate further. When you send in an application, lenders will send you a loan estimate with details about the cost of the mortgage.
At this point, the loan estimate is not an offer, and borrowers have time to negotiate for better terms. Negotiating points may include asking if interest rates can be reduced and if there are other fees that can be lowered or waived.
A strong credit score or the ability to make a bigger down payment could be leverage. It may also help to let the lender know if you do other business with them.
For example, a bank may waive certain fees if you are already a customer of theirs. Also let lenders know if you have other options that offer better rates. Lenders may try to match or beat competitors’ rates to attract you as a customer.
If you negotiate terms that you are happy with, request that they are set down in writing. Lenders may charge a fee for locking in rates, but it may be worth it to eliminate uncertainty as you settle on the right deal.
As you prepare to buy a home, it’s critical to shop around for lenders that offer the best deals, examine the fine print, and then put matters into your own hands, negotiating the details to settle on the deal that’s right for you.
Visit SoFi Home Loans to learn about home loans with competitive rates and as little as 3% down for qualified buyers. SoFi Mortgage Loan officers can guide you through the mortgage process and specialists are standing by to answer your questions.
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