The Shopping for a Mortgage Rate Game

I have been advising borrowers who need residential mortgage financing for over seventeen years. My experience shows that no matter how sharp, intelligent, smart, educated, or ignorant a borrower is — the mortgage rate trap that they all fall into is the same. Unfortunately, by the time a borrower realizes that they have been misinformed, mislead, or just been given only part of the mortgage rate story; their inept, inexperienced, unknowledgeable, and eventually disinterested loan officer/customer service rep has earned an undeserved commission.

How many times do I sit and answer my phone only to hear “Hi, I was referred to you by so and so, and uh, I’d just like to know, uh, what is your rate is today?” My mind races with “Are you in contract? How much are you looking to borrow? What is the size of your current mortgage? What is the purchase price? How is your credit? Can you verify income? Are you locking the rate? How long are you looking to lock the rate for? When are you looking to close? Do you own any other properties? Are you buying the property to live in or for an investment? What type of property are you buying?” You see, the answer to all theses pertinent questions (and more) EFFECTS THE RATE! This warrants repeating one more time — the answer to all theses pertinent questions (and more) EFFECTS THE RATE! So, I say to the respective caller while qualifying my answer, “If you have good credit, can verify your income, intend to live in the property, and can show enough liquid assets to buy the property than the prevailing mortgage rate is X.”

Please understand, I do not blame borrowers for asking the question, BUT, I, as a mortgage professional, get frustrated seeing consumers, make the biggest financial decision of their life based on misleading advertisements and other information or lack thereof. The kicker is, that many mortgage companies’ advertisements and customer representatives confuse and/or mislead the consumer into applying for a mortgage with their company while legally and ironically complying with the federal laws set up by our government to protect the consumer. When do you or the borrower find out that the rate and closing costs are not what they appeared to be — AT THE CLOSING! The old bait and switch is still around, but even more costly is the withholding of relative information. Many mortgage officers feel they have a greater chance of closing your mortgage when they give you a direct answer to your direct question without volunteering the other pertinent information you would want to know, if you knew enough about mortgages to ask. This other information used in conjunction with the “what is your rate?” question can save you big bucks at the closing table and over the life of your loan.

There are many variables that go into each and every mortgage deal, and every deal is unique unto the borrower. I will try to provide you with some a general guideline of the “other information” you need to be aware of, so that you will be able to shop for mortgage rates intelligently, and, if you so desire, select a mortgage professional who knows what they are doing which may, consequently save you thousands of dollars.

1.Rates fluctuate daily. Some lenders lag behind the market, and some lenders adjust immediately to the market.

2. A conforming mortgage conforms to Fannie Mae and Freddie Macs; (the biggest purchasers of mortgages) underwriting guidelines. Their 2007 loan ceilings are: 1 family homes $417,000 2 family homes $533,850 3 family homes $645,300 and 4 family homes $801,950. The rates are generally competitive among lenders give or take an eighth to a quarter of a rate. “Jumbo” mortgages exceed the conforming ceilings. Jumbo rates are usually higher than conforming rates.

3. Occupancy affects rates. A primary residence is occupied by the borrower. A rate may have an add- on (increase), if the property is a second home, vacation home, or if the property is used for investment (you rent it out).

4. Loan to value (LTV) is the mortgage amount divided by the value of the property. The higher the LTV, the greater the risk to the lender, and the possibility of a higher rate.

5. A cash out refinance (cash over and above your existing mortgage) may incur an increase in rate depending on the lender.

6. Generally, the shorter the loan term (30 year vs. 15 year), the lower the rate.

7. The better the credit the better the rate. Today lenders are really focused on a credit score. A number determined by comparing your credit pattern and history to the credit bureaus database of proprietary mathematical formulas and models of historical consumer credit patterns. If your score is low, you might be a candidate for re-scoring your credit (legally) to bring up your score and consequently give you an opportunity for a better rate. Make sure that your time frame for getting the money you need coincides with the time it takes to correct or repair your credit. Otherwise, the time it takes to correct or repair your report may prevent you from taking advantage of current low rates or special deals which defeats the whole purpose (“A bird in the hand…”.)

8. Compensating factors affect the rate. The lender may offer you a lower rate because of a low LTV. A great credit score with borderline income may allow you to squeeze into a better mortgage rate.

9. Mortgage Brokers and Lenders have different programs for different types of borrowers. Generally, the more financial information you supply the better the rate. The programs are: Full income Full asset verification, No income with asset verification, No income No asset verification, and Stated income with asset verification. The key is to make sure that you match yourself to the right program so you not only get the appropriate rate, but to also make sure you don’t get turned down. For example, you apply for a full income full asset loan program, but you do not show the income needed to qualify on your tax return, but you may have qualified on a No income verification type of program.

10.There is, or supposed to be, a correlation between rates and points. A point is an up front fee of 1% of the loan amount you are borrowing. “Buying down the rate” means paying points to lower your rate. “Buying up the rate” means, paying fewer points to increase the rate. You would most likely want to pay points if: (a) you need to lower the rate to qualify (b) you will own the property long enough to amortize (recapture) the point money you paid up front (c) You have the extra cash. You will most likely not want to pay points if: (a) You don’t have the extra money (b) You will own the property for a very short time (c) You think rates are going to decline shortly. There are other reasons for paying and not paying points, which should be discussed on a case-by-case basis.

I have saved the best for last!

11. LOCKING THE RATE. When you call and ask “what is your rate?” you will generally get quoted the prevailing rate, a/k/a as the floating rate, which means, if you are ready and able to close within 15-21 days (which means you have applied for a mortgage, supplied your financial information, have a commitment from the lender, an appraisal, a title report, etc.), and you locked in the rate right now, this is the rate you would get. Now, how many first time homebuyers do you think fit that situation, Hmmm? Most residential purchase real estate transactions do not realistically fit a prevailing rate time frame. Most borrowers are not informed, at the time they are quoted the rate, about the if you are ready to close in 15-21 days closing time frame. Therefore, if rates are dropping, fine. BUT, if rates are increasing — Surprise!

Prevailing rate quotes will always be lower than locked in rate quotes. So, if you are rate shopping and want to compare apples to apples, when you are quoted a rate, the key thing is to make sure you ask: “How long the rate is locked in (protected) for? Are there any points, origination fees, broker fees? What lock-in time frames are available?” More importantly, make sure you can close within that time frame otherwise you may be subject to extension fees. Generally, the longer the lock the more it costs. Lock in periods are usually 15 days, 30 days, 45 days, 90 days, 120 days, 180 days. Paying points, increasing the rate, or both, incorporates the cost of the lock. You may want to ask if a float down option is available (if the rate drops after you lock can you get the lower rate.) More importantly than getting a rate lock agreement in writing, make sure the person you’re dealing with is honest, reputable, and whose word means something.

12. The APR (Annual percentage rate). I call it Another Proven Rip-off. A borrower is supposed to be given the APR along with the closing costs and rate information. If you look in the newspaper adds you will often see a rate advertised about one half to one percent lower than the real market rate. If you look on the side of that rate you will see what is known as the APR. This advertisement is perfectly legal, as long as the rate stated is accompanied by the APR rate, but in reality this is very tricky. According to the federal regulation Z, the APR is supposed to be the measure of the true cost of credit, expressed as a yearly rate. The government is trying to assist you, the consumer, in your loan decisions by making loan providers give you the APR “true cost of credit.” They mean well, but, unfortunately, most people do not have the sophistication, knowledge, time or financial calculator needed to figure out the APR. Long story short, by taking the loan amount, the rate you are quoted, and factoring closing costs into the calculation you arrive at the APR. So the rate you see in the newspaper that appears to be lower than everyone else means nothing unless you know exactly what the closing costs are. In these cases, the APR conceals the closing costs. You will find out that most of these advertised below market rates have several points built in to the closing costs. When mortgage shopping, instead of comparing APR’s, for your sake keeps it simple. Find out the rate, how long it’s locked in for, and all closing costs included and then compare. I hope this article helps you save thousands of dollars and good luck to all mortgage shoppers.

Mortgage Rates

So my 12 year old daughter asks, “Why is it that any time there is good news about the economy they also say that there is pressure on mortgage rates to rise? Why does the good news also mean bad news?”

A fair question in my opinion. Scan the headlines – “Jobless Numbers Down – Pressure on Mortgage Rates”, “Promised Tax Cuts may see increase in Mortgage Rates”, “Third Successive Quarterly Economic Growth figures see Mortgage Rates set to Rise”. Then, of course, there are other factors totally out of our control which can also affect mortgage rates such as the recent global liquidity and credit crisis emanating from the US economy.

Mortgage rates are influenced by the official interest rate or Target Cash Rate as set by the Reserve Bank. When the Reserve Bank changes the official rate and in turn, mortgage rates, it is attempting to influence expenditure in the economy. When expenditure exceeds production, inflation results. Therefore mortgage rates are used as a tool to control inflation as a part of monetary policy.

Higher mortgage rates affect borrowers’ cash flows and reduce the amount of money that consumers are able to spend on goods. Lower mortgage rates have the opposite effect. And because lower mortgage rates mean that people have more to spend it puts pressure on prices due to increased demand it puts further inflationary pressures on the economy.

In the dizzy days of the late 1980s inflation was rampant and mortgage rates peaked at 17% per annum. The high mortgage rates severely limited housing affordability. Since those days governments and the Reserve Bank have tended to micro manage the economy to avoid major peaks and troughs. Small increases in mortgage rates, although politically unpopular, are an effective means of stabilising the economy. A little research into the history of mortgage rates in this country will reveal that, at current levels, they are still relatively low.

It should be noted, however, that when we talk about mortgage rates we are generally referring to “nominal” mortgage rates (as nominated in loan contracts, advertising etc). Economists, on the other hand, talk in terms of “real” mortgage rates. So what is the difference between nominal and real mortgage rates? Real mortgage rates take into account the effect of inflation so that Real Mortgage Rates = Nominal Mortgage Rates minus Inflation Rate.

In 1989 when the nominal mortgage rate was 17%, inflation was running at approximately 8% per annum. Therefore the real mortgage rate would have been 9% per annum. Today nominal mortgage rates are approximately 8% per annum and inflation is running at around 2% per annum so that the real mortgage rates are 6% per annum.

In fact if we research real mortgage rates in Australia over the last 25 – 30 years we find that they have hovered within 2% per annum and 10% per annum, compared to nominal mortgage rates which have been between 6% per annum and 17% per annum over the same period. Obviously it is much sexier for politicians to spruik about massive reductions in nominal interest rates.

So in summary, to answer my daughter, an occasional little pain with mortgage rates may lead to a huge gain in the overall scheme of things.

Some Common Mortgage Loan and Finance Terms Explained

The common terms used to describe a mortgage involve the “creditor,” the “debtor,” and “mortgage broker.” It may be self-explanatory as to what those terms mean, but there are other terms involved with a mortgage as well that a homeowner may not be completely familiar with. Let’s cover some of them here:

Creditor

The creditor is the financial institution, typically a bank, who provides the money in the form of a loan for the mortgage amount. The creditor is sometimes referred to as the mortgagee or lender.

Debtor

The debtor is the person or party who owes the mortgage or the loan. They may be referred to as the mortgagor.

Many homes are owned by more than one person, such as a husband and wife, or sometimes two close friends will purchase a home together, or a child with their parent, and so on. If this is the case, both persons become debtors for that loan, and not just owners of the property.

In other words, be careful of having your name put on the deed or title to any house, as this makes you legally responsible for the mortgage or loan attached to that house as well.

Mortgage broker, financial advisor

Mortgages are not always easy to come by, however, because of the demand for homes in most countries, there are many financial institutions that offer them. Banks, credit unions, Savings & Loan, and other types of institutions may offer mortgages. A mortgage broker can be used by the prospective debtor to find the best mortgage at the lowest interest rate for them; the mortgage broker also acts as an agent of the lender to find persons willing to take on these mortgages, to handle the paperwork, etc.

There are typically other parties involved in closing or obtaining a mortgage, from lawyers to financial advisors. Because a mortgage for a private home is typically the largest debt that any one person will have over the course of his or her life, they often seek out whatever legal and financial advice is available to them in order to make the right decision. A financial advisor is someone who can become very familiar with your own particular needs, income, long-term goals, etc., and then give you the best advice on what your loan needs may be.

Foreclosure

When the debtor cannot or does not meet the financial obligations of the mortgage, the property can be foreclosed on, meaning that the creditor seizes the property to recoup the remaining cost of the loan.

Typically, a home that is foreclosed upon will be sold at auction and that sale price applied to the outstanding amount of the mortgage; the debtor may still be liable for the remaining amount if the property sold for less than the outstanding balance of the mortgage.

For example, suppose a person still owes $50,000 toward their mortgage, and their home is foreclosed. At auction, the home is sold for only $45,000. The debtor is still responsible for that remaining $5,000 difference.

Most banks and financial institutions will try to avoid foreclosing on any of their debtor’s property if at all possible. Not only do they run the risk of not being able to sell the home at auction for any price, but there are also additional costs and risks incurred when the home is vacated by the previous owners. This includes vandalism, squatters (persons who trespass onto vacant land or into vacant homes and stay there until forcibly removed), fines from cities for unkempt yards, and so on.

Annual Percentage Rate (APR)

The APR is not to be confused with a mortgage’s interest rate.

The APR is a loan’s interest rate plus the added costs of obtaining the loan, such as points, origination fees, and mortgage insurance premiums (if applicable).

If there were no costs involved in obtaining a loan other than the interest rate, the APR would then equal the interest rate.

Breakeven Point

The breakeven point is the length of time it will take to recover the costs incurred to refinance a mortgage. It is calculated by dividing the amount of closing costs for refinancing by the difference between the old and new monthly payment.

For example, if it costs you $5,000 in fees, penalties, etc., to refinance your mortgage, but you save $300 per month on your payments with your new mortgage, the break-even point is after 17 months (17 months x $300 per month = $5,100).

ARM

This refers to an Adjustable Rate Mortgage; a mortgage that permits the lender to adjust its interest rate periodically.

Fixed-Rate Mortgage

A mortgage in which the interest rate does not change during the term of the loan.

Cap

ARMs have fluctuating interest rates, but those fluctuations are usually limited by law to a certain amount.

Those limitations may apply to how much the loan may adjust over a six month period, an annual period, and over the life of the loan, and are referred to as “caps.”

Index

A number used to compute the interest rate for an ARM. The index is generally a published number or percentage, such as the average interest rate or yield on U.S. Treasury Bills. A margin is added to the index to determine the interest rate that will be charged on the ARM.

Since the index may vary with ARMs, many people considering refinancing do well to keep aware of the standard interest rate as set by the federal government, as this is typically used by lending institutions to calculate that index.

Prime Rate

The interest rate that banks charge to their preferred customers. Changes in the prime rate influence changes in other rates, including mortgage interest rates.

Equity

A homeowner’s financial interest in or value of a property. Equity is the difference between the fair market value of the property and the amount still owed on its mortgage and other liens, if that value is higher.

In other words, if the fair market value of the home is $200,000, and your mortgage (and other liens, if applicable) is only $150,000, then the home has $50,000 in equity.

Home Equity Loan

Loans secured by a specific property that were made against the “equity” of the property after it was purchased.

Using the illustration above of a home that has $50,000 in equity, a homeowner may take out a loan up to that amount, using the home as collateral for that loan. A lending institution knows that if the homeowner defaults on the loan, they can seize the property and sell it for at least that much, getting back their loan amount.

Amortization

The gradual repayment of a mortgage loan, usually by monthly installments of principal and interest.

An amortization table shows the payment amount broken out by interest, principal, and unpaid balance for the entire term of the loan. These tables are useful because when a payment is made toward a mortgage, the same amount does not get applied to the principal and interest month after month, even when the payment amount is the same. This is often a difficult concept for those not in the real estate or banking business to understand, so an amortization table that spells out how each payment is applied to the debt over the life of the loan can be very helpful.

Cash-Out Refinance

When a borrower refinances his mortgage at a higher amount than the current loan balance with the intention of pulling out money for personal use, it is referred to as a “cash out refinance.” In other words, the mortgage is not simply for the home itself but an additional amount of money is being financed as well.

Appraised Value

An opinion of a property’s fair market value, based on an appraiser’s knowledge, experience, and analysis of the property. The appraised value of the home is a key factor in how much the home can or will be mortgaged for.

Appreciation

The increase in the value of a property due to changes in market conditions, inflation, or other causes.

Depreciation

A decline in the value of property; the opposite of appreciation.

Appreciation and depreciation are important concepts to remember; as we’ve just mentioned, the appraised value of the home is a determining factor in the home’s mortgage. When refinancing, it’s important to understand that your home may have appreciated or depreciated in value since the original or first mortgage was obtained.

Lock-in

An agreement in which the lender guarantees a specified interest rate for a certain amount of time at a certain cost.

Lock-in Period

The time period during which the lender has guaranteed an interest rate to a borrower.

This is a different concept than a fixed rate mortgage, as the lock-in period for a mortgage may be temporary rather than over the life of the loan.

As we said previously, many of these terms you may already be familiar with, but it doesn’t hurt to review them and see how they are all tied in together with your mortgage and the refinancing process.

So now that you have these basic terms in mind when it comes to a mortgage and the lending process, let’s discuss the process of refinancing in greater detail.