Buying a home is one of the biggest decisions you can make, and it’s likely the largest purchase you will ever make. So it’s no surprise that there are multiple ways you can trip up.
Getting a mortgage is about more than having your offer accepted and signing on the dotted line. (Or hundreds of dotted lines, which is what it feels like at the closing table.)
Here, our experts reveal the top seven landmines in the mortgage process and how to avoid them.
1. Neglecting to check your credit before starting the process.
Approaching mortgage lenders without having some idea where your credit lies is like going to an important job interview without checking for spinach in your teeth. “I’m amazed at people who apply for a mortgage and they’re shocked at things on their credit report,” says LearnVest Planning Services certified financial planner™ Ellen Derrick. “They say, ‘I had no idea that I forgot to pay my Best Buy card!’”
Mortgage lenders are going to go through your credit report with a fine-toothed comb, and they’re going to make decisions based on how creditworthy you appear to be, including whether to offer you a loan at all … or at what rates. If you don’t check your credit score first, you stand to lose money, or your potential dream home.
What to do instead: Ideally, you’ll check your credit well before you begin hunting for a home, and work to increase your score if you need to, or dispute errors on your report, since those can take time to rectify. You’re entitled to a free credit report from each of the three bureaus (Experian, Equifax and TransUnion) once a year, and you can pull those from AnnualCreditReport.com. If there are errors, fix them. (Some examples: Any accounts listed that aren’t yours, accounts incorrectly listed as being in collections, incorrect large balances reported, or incorrect late payments reported.) The bureaus have 30 to 45 days to investigate the issue and fix it accordingly. Use free resources, like Credit Karma or Credit Sesame, to get an estimate of your credit score for TransUnion and Experian. If you want to see your actual FICO scores for each credit bureau, buy them outright (about $15 to $20 each) instead of committing to unnecessary and expensive monitoring when you sign up for a free trial.
2. Applying for new credit simultaneously.
When you’re applying for a mortgage, your credit is under serious scrutiny. Apply for a new credit card and your credit score will dip temporarily due to the application credit check, which counts as a hard inquiry on your account for about 12 months. The same goes for closing an old account—it will affect the amount of credit you have available, which will negatively affect your score. (Note: For car or home loans, all credit inquiries made within about two weeks of each other count as one inquiry, so when you’re shopping around for mortgage brokers, be sure to submit all of your loan applications around the same time.)
What to do instead: While applying for a mortgage, hold off on opening up a Macy’s store card or applying for a car loan. “You really have to watch where you step in terms of your credit,” says Greg McBride, senior financial analyst at Bankrate.com. “You don’t want to open up any lines of credit and you don’t want to close any out. Just keep doing what you’ve been doing.” And of course, continue making on-time payments and chipping away at any debt.
3. Choosing a mortgage lender without shopping around.
You’ll want to find a mortgage lender early in the process so you have a relationship with him or her when you find the home of your dreams. By doing so, you’ll be able to kickstart the mortgage process by getting pre-approved, which means you can put in a serious offer quickly (should the need arise), and once you sign a contract, applying for the mortgage itself will take less time. Even if interest rates and loan terms are similar across different lenders, final costs and fees at each lender might not be. “Ask them about the fees for title insurance,” Derrick says. “What are the attorney’s fees? Document prep fees?” Because lenders are eager for your business, some will even offer a cash incentive for going with them, such as $1,500 back to you at closing. In fact, if one lender is offering cashback but another one isn’t, ask the lender who’s holding out—he may change his tune if it means earning your business.
What to do instead: Ask home-owning friends and co-workers whether they had a good experience with their mortgage lender. “I can tell you which ones I would not recommend,” Derrick says, “because they never close on time, they’re always late with paperwork, and that kind of stuff can cause deals to fall through.” Then check in with at least two or three lenders so you have an idea of what’s out there. (While you’re at it, look at our checklist on getting a mortgage.) In addition to the interest rate and loan terms, have each furnish you with a breakdown of your total costs so you can compare.
4. Skipping pre-approval.
Pre-approval means basically going through a mortgage application process with a lender—filling out paperwork, verifying income—in order to be pre-approved for a loan of a specific size even before you’ve found a house to bid on. It’s a great way to find out how much house a lender thinks you can take on, and it will give you some real specifics to work with—including an interest rate—while you’re house hunting. Plus, “getting pre-approved is the best way to tell a potential seller that you’re serious,” Derrick says. “Not getting pre-approved doesn’t mean you won’t be able to get a mortgage, but the pre-approval sure makes the process go a lot easier.”
What to do instead: Just tell your mortgage lender you’d like to get pre-approved. You’ll have to provide paperwork, which can include pay stubs, W-2s, bank statements, tax returns, and relevant loan documents. Once you’ve had an offer accepted on a house, you’ll merely have to give the lender the address and details of the offer to move forward with the mortgage process. (You could also decide you don’t love that lender and want to go with a different mortgage lender after the pre-approval. If so, you’ll have to go through all the paperwork again and it will require another hard credit check.)
5. Taking on a loan that’s too big.
It may seem like you’re comparing apples to apples when you trade rent for a mortgage payment. But there are more expenses to consider when you buy a home, and you have to make sure you can afford to pay for them all. “I’m still seeing people who aren’t even in the right ballpark when it comes to looking for a mortgage,” Derrick says. “Mortgage lenders are going out of their way to qualify people for more than they can truly afford.” If you bite off more loan than you can chew, you may find yourself eventually facing the sale of your home (or foreclosure) when you can’t make the payments.
What to do instead: Along with your mortgage payment, make sure you’ve accounted for costs such as property taxes and homeowner’s insurance. Maintenance costs alone average about 1% of the home’s value every year. Have home sellers furnish copies of 12 months of utility bills. And when you’re pre-approved for a mortgage, Derrick recommends taking the lender’s top number and lopping 20% off of it so you aren’t stretched to the limit. Another good metric? Find out what payments would be for a 30-year fixed mortgage on the house. “If you can’t afford a house based on a fixed-rate mortgage at today’s low rates,” McBride says, “you don’t need a different mortgage, you need a different house.”
6. Signing loan documents you don’t understand.
“People don’t ask enough questions,” Derrick says. “They just walk into it and think it’s as simple as taking out a loan to buy a sofa at the furniture store. But it’s very complicated.” A mortgage is about more than just the monthly payment. It’s about how much you’ll pay over the life of the loan and what your interest rate will be throughout. For instance, the monthly payment will be lower on a 3/1 adjustable rate mortgage, a common loan in which the first three years of payments are fixed and for the remainder of the loan the interest rate adjusts annually. That means your interest rate could go down or up in three years—and so could your monthly payment. “It’s not necessarily a bad thing,” Derrick says. “But you should know what it means.”
What to do instead: Make sure you understand what kind of loan you’re getting, what the payments will be from beginning to end, how much interest you’re paying, and whether you’ll have a fixed interest rate, or whether it will be fixed for a limited time before becoming variable. Also, do you know how much money you’ll have to bring to the closing table with you? Many lenders require you to pay property taxes and insurance up front, and it could be a big check. “The fees are something people don’t think about until they get to closing,” Derrick says, “and the numbers on the page may look very different from what they looked at two weeks before.”
7. Trying to time the market.
It can be tempting to try to time your home purchase so you lock in the lowest possible rate on a mortgage, either by dragging the process out if rates seem to be headed down, or jumping in before you’re ready. “People are waiting for rates to get absolutely perfect before they do something,” Derrick says. “But if you actually run an illustration over a 30-year mortgage, the difference between an interest rate of 3.75% and 3.70% is minute.”
What to do instead: If you’ve found a house, and you love it, and you can afford the mortgage, go for it—don’t worry about chasing after a mortgage rate that’s ever so slightly lower than what you can get now. On the other hand, if you don’t have enough money for a good down payment, don’t leap into a house before you’re ready, just because rates are low.