Buying a home can feel like a cut-throat process. You may find the craftsman style house of your dreams only to be bumped out of the running by a buyer paying in all cash, or moving super swiftly. But fear not, understanding the home buying process and getting a mortgage pre-approval can put you back in the race and help you secure the house you want.
What is Mortgage Pre-approval?
Mortgage pre-approval is essentially a letter from a lender that states that you qualify for a loan of a certain amount and at a certain interest rate based on an evaluation of your credit and financial history. You’ll need to shop for homes within the price range guaranteed by your pre-approved mortgage. You can find out how much house you can afford with our home affordability calculator.
Armed with a letter of pre-approval you can show sellers that you are a serious homebuyer with the means to purchase a home. In many ways it’s competitive to buying a home in cash. In the eyes of the seller, pre-approval can often push you ahead of other potential buyers who have not yet been approved for a mortgage.
Once you find a house that you want to buy, you can make an offer. And if the seller accepts your offer, it’s time to finalize your mortgage application.
A loan underwriter will review your application and conduct other due diligence measures, such as having the house appraised to make sure it is valued at the price it’s selling for. If all goes well, the lender will issue a commitment letter, which officially seals the deal on your loan, and you can schedule a closing date.
Pre-Approval vs. Pre-Qualification
As you begin to look into getting a mortgage, you may encounter another term: pre-qualification. Getting pre-qualified for a mortgage is not the same as pre-approval. It’s actually a relatively simple process in which a lender looks at a few financial details, such as income, assets, and debt, and gives you an estimate of how much of a mortgage they think you can afford.
Taking out a mortgage is a huge step and pre-qualification can help you hunt down reputable lenders and find a loan that potentially works for you. Going through this process can be useful, because it gives you an idea of your buying power, or how much house you can afford.
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It also gives you an idea of what your monthly payment might be and is a chance to shop around to various lenders to see what types of terms and interest rates they offer. Pre-qualification is not a guarantee that you will actually qualify for a mortgage.
Getting pre-approval is a more complicated process. You’ll have to fill out an application with your lender and agree to a credit check in addition to providing information about your income and assets. There are a number of steps you can take to increase your chances of pre-approval or to increase the amount your lender will approve. Consider the following:
Building Your Credit
Think of this as step zero when you apply for any type of loan. Lenders want to see that you have a history of properly managing your debt before offering you credit themselves. You can build credit history by opening and using a credit card and paying your bills on time. Or consider having regular payments , such as your rent, tracked and added to your credit score.
Checking Your Credit
If you’ve already established a credit history, the first thing you’ll want to do before applying for a mortgage is check your credit report and your FICO score. Your credit report is a history of your credit compiled from sources such as banks, credit card companies, collection agencies, and the government.
This information is collected by the three main credit reporting bureaus, Transunion, Equifax and Experian. Your FICO score is one number that represents your credit risk should a lender offer you a loan.
You’ll want to make sure that the information on your credit report is correct.
If you find any mistakes, contact the credit reporting agencies immediately to let them know. You don’t want any incorrect information weighing down your credit score, putting your chances for pre-approval at risk.
Stay on Top of Your Debt
Your ability to pay your bills on time has a big impact on your credit score. If you can, make sure you make regular payments. And if your budget allows, you can make payments in full. If you have any debts that are dragging on your credit score—for example, debts that are in collection—work on paying them off first, as this can give your score a more immediate boost.
Watch Your Debt-to-income Ratio
Your debt-to-income ratio is your monthly debts divided by your monthly income. If you have $1,000 a month in debt payments and make $5,000 a month, your debt-income ratio is $1,000 divided by $5,000, or 20%.
Lenders may assume that borrowers with a high debt-to-income ratio will have a harder time making their mortgage payments. Keep your debt-to-income ratio in check by avoiding making large purchases before seeking pre-approval for a mortgage. For example, you may want to hold off on buying a new car until you’ve been pre-approved.
Prove Consistent Income
Your lender will want to know that you’ve got enough money coming in each month to cover a potential mortgage payment. So, they’ll likely ask you to prove that you have consistent income for at least two years by taking a look at your income documents (W-2, 1099 etc.).
For some potential borrowers, such as freelancers, this may be a tricky process since you may have income from various sources. Keep all pay stubs, tax returns, and other proof of income and be prepared to show them to your lender.
What Happens if You’re Rejected?
Rejection hurts. But if you aren’t pre-approved, or you aren’t approved for a large enough mortgage to buy the house you want, you also aren’t powerless. First, ask the bank why they made the decision they did. This will give you an idea about what you might need to work on in order to secure the mortgage you want.
Then work on the factors that your lender saw as a sticking point to pre-approval. Continue to work to boost your credit score or lower your debt-to-income ratio. You may also want to consider saving for a higher down payment.
If you’re able to pay more up front, you will lower your monthly mortgage payments. Once you’ve worked to make yourself a better candidate for a mortgage, you can apply for pre-approval again.
Applying for mortgage pre-approval can be challenging, but with careful preparation, you can arm yourself with a powerful tool to achieve your goal of owning a home.
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Disclaimer: Many factors affect your credit scores and the interest rates you may receive. SoFi is not a Credit Repair Organization as defined under federal or state law, including the Credit Repair Organizations Act. SoFi does not provide “credit repair” services or advice or assistance regarding “rebuilding” or “improving” your credit record, credit history, or credit rating. For details, see the FTC’s website .