Wednesday, November 2, 2011

How to Get the Best Mortgage

By Bert Whitehead M.B.A, J.D. © 2011

The most popular client questions these days are about what kind of mortgage they should get. If you are somewhat knowledgeable about mortgages and just want the bottom line, you can skip to the last paragraph of this blog. If you are interested in a more detailed explanation, please continue reading.

Not only are mortgages more available now for new homes, but current mortgage holders can also find great opportunities to refinance at a lower rate. The federal government has just announced a new refinancing program for homeowners who are “under water” on their homes (i.e. they owe more on the house than it is worth). The last two similar programs never got much traction, and it is doubtful that the new program will bring serious relief to many people.

To get a new mortgage or refinance at the lowest rates you have to be able to show that you “qualify” for the mortgage. Here is a quick summary of the standards banks seek:

1. Clean credit record (FICO = 700+).
2. 80% loan-to-value (LTV). The mortgage should be less than 80% of the value of the home.
3. Currently employed.
4. Monthly payments on current debts (including mortgage) less than 40% of income.

There are some exceptions to these standards, e.g. if you replace a mortgage on your primary residence and you have always made the payments, some banks let you refinance 90-100% of the home’s value. But, in general, you won’t get the best rates available unless you meet the above criteria.

Mortgage financing is a very competitive field so you should check with at least 3 banks or mortgage companies. Rates move daily, so it’s preferable to call all three institutions on the same morning. I suggest that clients request a quote on “a 30-year fixed rate mortgage with no points, no prepayment penalty, and with the closing costs rolled in.”

Be aware that even with no points and no prepayment penalty, there will still be certain costs that you are expected to pay at the closing. The appraisal fee, for example, is an out-of-pocket cost to the lender. Property taxes also have to be paid as well as interest payable from the date you close to the beginning of the next month. Many people prefer that property tax and insurance costs be “escrowed” so that an amount is added to the monthly payment to pay for these costs as they come due.

Having your closing costs “rolled into the mortgage” means adding any costs that are normally due at closing to your mortgage balance. The cost of those will be covered by your monthly payment. You should ask each lender to email you a “good faith estimate” of the mortgage they propose. Then you can verify that the terms offered are those you requested and compare the closing costs.

The most common stumbling blocks encountered by clients are:

1. The house doesn’t appraise high enough. You can get your own appraiser to see if the bank’s appraisal is wrong, but they won’t accept it to lend you money. If it is under-appraised significantly you might apply at another lender and they will have it appraised again. While there can be wide variations in appraisals, there are no guarantees.
2. Unanticipated black marks appear on your credit score. You have to contact the credit bureau to correct these.
3. Your income is insufficient. This often happens to retirees who live on investment income. We have clients set up a monthly transfer from their investment account to their checking account for the same amount each month on the 1st of the month. If you do this for a couple of years, lenders will accept these transfers as a reliable stream of retirement income.

Don’t let lenders talk you into a shorter-term or adjustable rate mortgage, which can be more profitable to the mortgage institutions. Other mortgage options may seem attractive have a lower interest rate. But a 30-year mortgage has three huge advantages:

1. You receive the lowest payments so you have more cash flow. If you regularly invest this extra cash, preferably in a retirement account, you will earn more in a balanced portfolio than you will save in interest when compared to other mortgage options.
2. Since mortgage interest is tax deductible, a longer mortgage provides more tax shelter than shorter-term mortgages at a lower rate.
3. Most importantly, a 30-year fixed rate mortgage is your best protection against inflation. If interest rates stay stable for the next 30 years, your worst case is that you break even plus a bit more. But if interest rates drop, you just refinance and your monthly living expenses drop. If we have a return of high inflation (as occurred in the 1970’s) – you win! You have borrowed thousands of dollars at a low fixed rate, your money market rate increases to 8%, 10%, or even 15%, AND you get to repay with cheaper dollars!

Summary: Call three different mortgage companies on the same morning to ask for quotes (we can suggest a couple and your Credit Union may be a good source). Get a 30-year fixed rate mortgage with no points, no prepayment penalty, and have closing costs rolled into the mortgage. Have each institution email you a good faith estimate. Each estimate should show no closing costs paid out of your pocket, except to fund escrow. By comparing the monthly payments, you can easily determine which is the best deal.

By the way, if any of the offers sound too good to be true, then that likely is the case. But be sure to pay attention to any offers made by your current lender. They want to keep their customers happy…so you might find some excellent offers made by a relationship that is already in place!

I appreciate the editorial review contributed by Chip Simon, CFP®, an ACA colleague in Poughkeepsie, NY.