Understanding Mortgage Basics

By Janet Siroto · November 22, 2023 · 8 minute read

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Understanding Mortgage Basics

If you’re dreaming of owning your own home, whether that means a cute Colonial or a loft-style condo, you are likely contemplating financing, and that can mean a mortgage. A home loan can give you the funds required to purchase a property, but there can be a learning curve involved, especially if you are a first-time homebuyer. For instance, what term should you select? How do mortgage interest rates work, and is a fixed rate typically best?

In this guide, you’ll get the scoop on how home loans work, what kind of options you have, and how to assess which loan could be right for you.

What is a Mortgage?

A mortgage loan, also known simply as a mortgage, is issued to a borrower who is either buying or refinancing real estate.

The borrower signs a legal agreement that gives the lender the ability to take ownership of the property if the loan holder doesn’t make payments according to the agreed-upon terms.

Once issued a mortgage, the homebuyer will pay monthly principal (that’s the lump sum of the loan) and interest payments for a specific term. The most common term for a fixed-rate mortgage is 30 years, but terms of 20, 15, and even 10 years are available.

A shorter-term translates to a higher monthly payment but lower total interest costs. Put another way, you pay more every month, but the amount of interest over the life of the loan is lower.

💡 Quick Tip: You deserve a more zen mortgage loan. When you buy a home, SoFi offers a guarantee that your loan will close on time. Backed by a $5,000 credit.‡

A Buffet of Mortgage Choices

When homebuyers apply for a loan, they’ll need to choose whether they want a fixed interest rate or an adjustable rate and the length of the loan.

Fixed-Rate Mortgage

The interest rate on the home loan doesn’t change, so the monthly principal and interest payment remains the same for the life of the loan. Whether mortgage rates increase or decrease, the loan holder is locked in for their monthly payment.

Adjustable-Rate Mortgage (ARM)

With an ARM, the interest rate is generally fixed for an initial period of time, such as five, seven, or 10 years, and then switches to a variable rate of interest. The rate fluctuates with the rate index that it’s tied to.

As the rate changes, monthly payments may increase or decrease. These loans generally have yearly and lifetime interest rate caps (or maximums) that limit how high the variable rate can adjust to.

Next, borrowers will need to decide what type of mortgage loan works best for them.

Conventional Loans

Conventional loans are loans that are not backed by a government agency and must adhere to the requirements of Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, or other investors. Typically, conventional loans are issued with at least 3% down. However, it’s worth noting that private mortgage insurance (commonly known as PMI) is generally required on loans with a down payment of less than 20%.

The coverage protects the lender against the risk of default. Your mortgage servicer must cancel your PMI when the mortgage balance reaches 78% of the home’s value or when the mortgage hits the halfway point of the loan term, if you’re in good standing.

PMI typically costs 0.2% to 2% of the loan amount per year.

Down payment: Generally between 3% and 20% of the purchase price or appraised value of the home, depending on the lender’s requirements.

FHA Loans

Loans insured by the Federal Housing Authority, or FHA loans, can be attractive to first-time homebuyers or those who struggle to meet the minimum requirements for a conventional loan.

These loans usually require a one-time upfront mortgage insurance premium (or MIP vs. PMI), which typically can be added to the mortgage, and an annual insurance premium, which is collected in monthly installments for the life of the loan in most cases.

Down payment: Starts at 3.5%

Recommended: First-Time Homebuyer Guide

VA Loans

Loans guaranteed by the U.S Department of Veterans Affairs are available to veterans, active-duty service members, and eligible surviving spouses.

VA-backed loans require a one-time “VA funding fee,” which can be rolled into the loan. The fee is based on a percentage of the loan amount and may be waived for certain disabled vets. The current range is from 1.5% to 3.3% of the loan amount.

Down payment: None for approximately 80% of VA-backed home loans.

💡 Quick Tip: A VA loan can make home buying simple for qualified borrowers. Because the VA guarantees a portion of the loan, you could skip a down payment. Plus, you could qualify for lower interest rates, enjoy lower closing costs, and even bypass mortgage insurance.†

How Does a Mortgage Work?

There are several components to a monthly mortgage payment.

Principal: The principal is the value of the loan. The portion of the payment made toward the principal reduces how much a borrower owes on the loan.

Interest: Each month, interest will be factored into payments according to an amortization schedule. Even though a borrower’s fixed payment may stay the same over the course of the loan, the amount allocated toward interest generally decreases over time while the portion allocated to principal increases.

Taxes: To ensure that a borrower makes annual property tax payments, a lender may collect monthly property taxes with the monthly mortgage payment. This money can be kept in an escrow account until the property tax bill is due, and the lender can make the property tax payment at that time.

Homeowners insurance: Mortgage lenders usually require evidence of homeowners insurance, which can cover damage from catastrophes such as fire and storms. As with property taxes, many lenders collect the insurance premiums as part of the monthly payment and pay for the annual insurance premium out of an escrow account. Depending on your property location, you may have to add flood, wind, or other additional insurance.

Mortgage insurance: When a borrower presents a down payment of less than 20% of the value of the home, mortgage lenders typically require private mortgage insurance. When developing a budget for owning a home, it’s important to know the difference between mortgage insurance and homeowners insurance and whether both are required.

Reverse Mortgage Loans: What Are They?

A reverse mortgage is available to homeowners 62 and older to supplement their income or pay for healthcare expenses by tapping into their home equity.

The loan can come in the form of a lump-sum payment, monthly payments, a line of credit, or a combination, usually tax-free. Interest accrues on the loan balance, but no payments are required. When a borrower dies, sells the property, or moves out permanently, the loan must be repaid entirely.

The fees for an FHA-insured home equity conversion mortgage, typically the most common type of reverse mortgage, can add up:

•  An initial mortgage insurance premium of 2% and an annual MIP that equals 0.5% of the outstanding mortgage balance

•  Third-party charges for closing costs

•  Loan origination fee

•  Loan servicing fees

You can pay for most of the costs of the loan from the proceeds, which will reduce the net loan amount available to you.

You remain responsible for property taxes, homeowners insurance, utilities, maintenance, and other expenses.

A HUD site details all the criteria for borrowers, financial requirements, eligible property types, and how to find an HECM counselor, a mandatory step.

If you’re considering a reverse mortgage, learn as much as you can about this often complicated kind of mortgage before talking to a counselor or lender, the Federal Trade Commission advises.

How to Get A Mortgage

For many people, it can be a good idea to shop around to get an idea of what is out there.

Not only will you need to choose the lender, but you’ll need to decide on the length of the loan, whether to go with a fixed or variable interest rate, and weigh the applicable loan fees.

The first step is to have an idea of what you want and then seek out quotes from a few lenders. That way, you can do a side-by-side comparison of the loans.

Once you’ve selected a few lenders to get started with, the next step is to get prequalified or preapproved for a loan. Based on a limited amount of information, a lender will estimate how much it is willing to lend you.

When you’re serious about taking out a mortgage loan and putting an offer on a house, the next step is to get preapproved with a lender.

During the preapproval process, the lender will take a closer look at your finances, including your credit, employment, income, and assets to determine exactly what you qualify for. Once you’re preapproved, you’re likely to be considered a more serious buyer by home sellers.

When shopping around for a mortgage, it can be a good idea to consider the overall cost of the mortgage and any fees.

For example, some lenders may charge an origination fee for creating the loan, or a prepayment penalty if you want to pay back the loan ahead of schedule. There may also be fees to third parties that provide information or services required to process, approve, and close your loan.

To compare the true cost of two or more mortgage loans, it’s best to look at the annual percentage rate, or APR, not just the interest rate. The interest rate is the rate used to calculate your monthly payment, but the APR is an approximation of all of the costs associated with a loan, including the interest rate and other fees, expressed as a percentage. The APR makes it easier to compare the total cost of a loan across different offerings so you can assess what is a good mortgage rate for your budget.

The Takeaway

If the world of mortgages feels like a mystery to you, you are not alone. Before taking on this colossal commitment, it can be best to soak up as much as you can about how mortgage loans work, what kinds of mortgages are available, potential challenges, and steps to qualify. You’ll be better prepared to take on what can be a major step in your personal financial journey.

Looking for an affordable option for a home mortgage loan? SoFi can help: We offer low down payments (as little as 3% - 5%*) with our competitive and flexible home mortgage loans. Plus, applying is extra convenient: It's online, with access to one-on-one help.

SoFi Mortgages: simple, smart, and so affordable.

Veterans, Service members, and members of the National Guard or Reserve may be eligible for a loan guaranteed by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. VA loans are subject to unique terms and conditions established by VA and SoFi. Ask your SoFi loan officer for details about eligibility, documentation, and other requirements. VA loans typically require a one-time funding fee except as may be exempted by VA guidelines. The fee may be financed or paid at closing. The amount of the fee depends on the type of loan, the total amount of the loan, and, depending on loan type, prior use of VA eligibility and down payment amount. The VA funding fee is typically non-refundable. SoFi is not affiliated with any government agency.
SoFi On-Time Close Guarantee: If all conditions of the Guarantee are met, and your loan does not close on or before the closing date on your purchase contract accepted by SoFi, and the delay is due to SoFi, SoFi will give you a credit toward closing costs or additional expenses caused by the delay in closing of up to $10,000.^ The following terms and conditions apply. This Guarantee is available only for loan applications submitted after 04/01/2024. Please discuss terms of this Guarantee with your loan officer. The mortgage must be a purchase transaction that is approved and funded by SoFi. This Guarantee does not apply to loans to purchase bank-owned properties or short-sale transactions. To qualify for the Guarantee, you must: (1) Sign up for access to SoFi’s online portal and upload all requested documents, (2) Submit documents requested by SoFi within 5 business days of the initial request and all additional doc requests within 2 business days (3) Submit an executed purchase contract on an eligible property with the closing date at least 25 calendar days from the receipt of executed Intent to Proceed and receipt of credit card deposit for an appraisal (30 days for VA loans; 40 days for Jumbo loans), (4) Lock your loan rate and satisfy all loan requirements and conditions at least 5 business days prior to your closing date as confirmed with your loan officer, and (5) Pay for and schedule an appraisal within 48 hours of the appraiser first contacting you by phone or email. This Guarantee will not be paid if any delays to closing are attributable to: a) the borrower(s), a third party, the seller or any other factors outside of SoFi control; b) if the information provided by the borrower(s) on the loan application could not be verified or was inaccurate or insufficient; c) attempting to fulfill federal/state regulatory requirements and/or agency guidelines; d) or the closing date is missed due to acts of God outside the control of SoFi. SoFi may change or terminate this offer at any time without notice to you. *To redeem the Guarantee if conditions met, see documentation provided by loan officer.
*SoFi requires Private Mortgage Insurance (PMI) for conforming home loans with a loan-to-value (LTV) ratio greater than 80%. As little as 3% down payments are for qualifying first-time homebuyers only. 5% minimum applies to other borrowers. Other loan types may require different fees or insurance (e.g., VA funding fee, FHA Mortgage Insurance Premiums, etc.). Loan requirements may vary depending on your down payment amount, and minimum down payment varies by loan type.

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