By Miron Lulic
Asking the right questions when shopping for a mortgage is crucial, and failing to do so could cost you thousands.
The first question you need to ask yourself is, "How many mortgage loan applications am I going to fill?" You can save a significant amount of money long-term by investing in mortgage comparison shopping. For instance, the spread in 2018 for the highest and lowest mortgage rates was approximately 1 percent (3.95 percent vs. 4.94 percent). That's a pretty narrow range, historically speaking. In 1981, the mortgage rate spread was nearly 3 percent (14.8 percent vs. 18.63 percent). Even a 0.5 percent difference on a $300,000, 30-year mortgage can save you enough money to buy a 2019 Subaru Legacy in cash and still have enough left over to keep the gas tank full for a year ($31,600).
Incidentally, interest rates can vary by more than half a percent, even for people with good credit, depending on which lender you choose. Here are some questions you should ask your lender:
Is there anything I can do to apply for a better rate?
You may be surprised by the options available. Some lenders may offer a lower rate if you increase your down payment or reduce your debt-to-income ratio. Adding a well-qualified cosigner can also improve your rates considerably, although that can come with its own issues.
Do I need to buy points to get the advertised rate?
Most lenders will offer a better rate if you buy points. Points are a form of prepaid interest that allows you to buy a lower interest rate for the duration of the mortgage. To illustrate, let's say your credit score and income qualify you for a 5.27 percent APR on your mortgage. Your lender may offer you a 0.27 percent reduction of your APR if you pay $2,000 for two points.
Is buying points a good investment? It all depends on how long you plan to stay in your home, your cash flow and what returns you could obtain from your money if you invested it somewhere else. How long would you have to make mortgage payments before the points pay for themselves? On a $100,000 mortgage with a 30-year term, you would have to stay in your home approximately seven years before you could recover the cost of your investment in points.
The details will change depending on your mortgage terms, so be sure to ask your lender what your breakeven time is before you choose to buy points. Lenders are required to make disclaimers clear and conspicuous, but it's easy to miss a footnote when comparing multiple loan offers. Check that all the rates you're comparing don't have strings attached.
Can I pick my own homeowners insurance?
Lenders are only allowed to pick your home insurance for you when you choose not to buy a policy and your mortgage terms require it; however, some unscrupulous lenders do push borrowers to buy overpriced policies from their insurance subsidiaries.
What is the rate lock and what happens if we haven't closed by the time it runs out?
A rate lock is an agreement between you and the lender to guarantee a rate for a specified time period. This is useful because your interest could change during the application process for all types of reasons: Your credit score could drop, the appraisal of your home may not go as you expected, your lender’s method of calculating your income may be different, and, of course, the market interest rates could change at any time.
Some rate locks come with a float down option, which allows you to take advantage of a better APR if the rate drops. In both cases, lenders may charge a lock fee for the service. Make sure you understand the cost and the consequences when the lock expires. Ask how much it will cost to extend the lock if the closing process lasts longer than expected. Note that initial loan estimates will specify the terms and cost of the rate lock, but will not tell you how much extending it will cost. You need to ask this specifically to avoid surprises.
How long should I expect to wait for the mortgage to close and when can I expect my letter of commitment?
This information is particularly important when you're buying in a seller's market and properties sell fast. Look for lenders with a fast underwriting process that provide preapproval letters.
Can you give an estimate of the total closing costs?
Closing costs are the part of the mortgage process borrowers are least familiar with. Only 49 percent of buyers reported being very familiar with closing costs and 14 percent described themselves as completely unfamiliar, according to a recent survey by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
Again, the spread in costs from one lender to another is significant. The names of closing fees are often suspiciously vague. For example, origination fees can vary from 0 percent to 1.5 percent of the loan principal. Remember to be aware that lenders may also charge a document preparation fee (anything from $50 to $250) or charge "processing fees" that vary from $500 to $1,200.
Miron Lulic is founder and CEO at financial services comparison platform SuperMoney, where millions of people shop for financial products and transparently compare their options in real-time.
This article is intended for informational purposes only and should not be construed as professional advice. The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of RISMedia.