5 questions to ask when shopping for a mortgage

(BPT) – Buying a home is a major financial commitment. It’s exciting, but can also be confusing and overwhelming. Choosing the best mortgage that fits your needs is an important first step and first-time homebuyers in particular should research the many options and know the right questions to ask. Here are some questions to ask a lender that will help you make an informed mortgage decision:

* How much can I afford? A home affordability calculator can help you get an idea of what you may be able to afford and keep your monthly payments within your budget. In addition to recurring expenses like car payments, student loans, credit cards and disposable income, be sure to consider other monthly expenses related to the new home, like association fees, homeowners’ insurance, utilities and property taxes. Further, some types of mortgages have firm eligibility cutoffs related to the ratio between a buyer’s total debt amounts and their monthly income.

* How much do I need for a down payment? It’s a common misconception that a 20 percent down payment is required to buy a home. Let’s face it, a 20 percent down payment is a lot of money, and often the largest obstacle for homeownership, especially for first-time buyers. You can qualify for a conventional mortgage with as little as 3 percent down. Conventional mortgages originated with a low down payment, which is defined as less than 20 percent, require private mortgage insurance (MI) until approximately 20 percent equity is established through either monthly payments or home price appreciation. When mortgage insurance cancels, your monthly mortgage bill is reduced. It is important to know that not all forms of MI are created equal — private mortgage insurance is temporary and cancelable but the overwhelming majority of mortgages backed by the government’s Federal Housing Administration (FHA) contain insurance that cannot be canceled.

* What is the interest rate and is it fixed? Most first-time homebuyers go with a 30-year fixed-rate mortgage, which locks you into an interest rate with steady, predictable payments. Different lenders may offer different rates, so make sure to contact several lenders to ensure you’re getting the best option available in the market. A rate lock protects you from rising interest rates while the loan is being processed and lasts for a specific amount of time. In addition, make sure you know whether the rate is fixed or “adjustable.” Adjustable rate mortgages, commonly referred to as “ARMs,” result in periodic adjustments in the interest rate based on the lender’s cost of credit, and can be detrimental to homeowners in rising interest rate environments. Finally, ask if you are paying for “points” to reduce the interest rate. It’s an added upfront cost paid at closing, but it results in a lower rate for the life of the loan.

* Does my credit score matter? Yes, generally stronger credit scores (FICO 720 and above) come with better interest rates, but fortunately there are mortgage options for those with imperfect credit scores too. When you apply for a mortgage, your credit record is used to help determine your approval and mortgage terms, but it is not the only thing lenders consider. A lender will also look at your debt-to-income (DTI) ratio, cash reserves and other factors to help gauge your overall creditworthiness.

* Should I get pre-approved for a mortgage? Yes. Pre-approval means you receive a conditional commitment from a lender up to a specific loan amount. In a seller’s market with tight housing supply, being pre-approved demonstrates that you are a serious buyer with access to mortgage financing. To become pre-approved, you’ll provide your lender with information on your income, assets, debts and credit history to analyze your financial profile and determine your creditworthiness and amount you can borrow to purchase a home.

Make sure to know your options and choose the one that works for you. Check out lowdownpaymentfacts.org to learn more.