How to Shop For a Mortgage Loan in a Down Economy

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The chaos in the subprime-mortgage market means tighter standards for everyone. While prospective home buyers with perfect credit records will not feel the pinch as much, first-time home buyers or borrowers with less-than-perfect credit are going to need help shopping for that first mortgage.

Basically, thanks to lenders reining in their underwriting rules, a borrower without a significant down payment or a less-than-standard verified income may have to shop around a little harder. Although this takes more diligence, you may still be able to find a loan that suits your budget and overall financial capability.

So, how exactly will these tighter standards affect you and how you shop for a mortgage loan? In this article, we'll answer some frequently asked questions about how to shop and prepare for a mortgage loan in a recessed economy.

1. Can I still get 100% financing?

The wide availability of 100% financing and 80/20 loans (where 80% was financed by one loan and 20% by another) is fundamentally over. While this kind of financing is still available, it depends heavily on your credit score. If your score dips below that 700 mark, then those options begin to disappear and you will need to meet more stringent borrowing requirements.

2. So, it's better to make a down payment?

It's always better to make a down payment. Ideally, you want to have at least 5% of the home value as a bare minimum along with at least 2-3 months of PITI (principal, interest, taxes and insurance) payments in your reserve savings. Any financial assets like investments qualify toward that PITI requirement. Additionally, a greater down payment will save you a lot of money over the life of the mortgage. So if you are able to place a higher down payment on the table without making yourself "house poor," you will put yourself in a more comfortable financial position.

3. Before I buy a home, should I pay down my debt?

Your overall debt is not as important to lenders as your credit score and down payment. It's still important, but when it comes to assessing risk, lenders want to see how you handle that debt. The standard debt-to-income ratio is 28/36, meaning a monthly mortgage payment needs to be within 28% of your total monthly income, and overall debt payments may not exceed 36%.

Having said this, there is little good about debt. The more quickly you pay back any outstanding loans, the more financially free you become. Then instead of wasting money on monthly interest payment for non-appreciating items, you have those funds available instead for more useful family expenses.

4. Should I wait until I can improve my credit score?

Probably. The average interest rate on a 30-year fixed-rate mortgage is usually 1.5 percent lower points for someone with a credit score of 760 to 850 than for someone with a score of 620 to 639. On a $ 220,000 loan, a borrower with a high credit score could save almost $ 3000 per year over a borrower near the bottom the credit score range.

5. Should I buy now before mortgage rates go higher?

Interest rates can rise at any time, and that could shut a low-level buyer out of the fixed rate market. However, adjustable-rate mortgages can save a lot of money for borrowers who are either going to sell before rates go up or who can get themselves in a better financial position to refinance later.

An adjustable rate mortgage (ARM), though, has its own inherent risks. Lenders offer them at rates lower than fixed-rate mortgages to entice you in. But from the second year of the loan onward, the ARM can increase well beyond the initial agreement.

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