BEND, Ore. (CNN/Money) - With mortgage rates still as low as they are, financing a house is dirt cheap these days, right?
Not if you pay a fortune in closing costs.
As anyone who has shopped around for a mortgage knows, it's extremely difficult to compare one lender's offering to with that of another lender because the up-front fees vary so much and are not guaranteed. Lenders and their venders can, and sometimes do, add or inflate fees in the eleventh hour of a transaction.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has been working on regulations that promise to simplify the mortgage process and save consumers as much as $1,000 off a typical mortgage transaction. When such rules will be rolled out, if ever, is still anyone's guess.
With no regulation in sight, borrowers should consider these strategies for keeping their closing costs in check.
Get friendly with your current lender
If you're looking into refinancing, the first call you should make is to your existing lender, who already has critical information about you and your house on file, said Keith Gumbinger, vice president for HSH Associates.
Since you have an existing relationship, a "streamlined" process might be possible. That can save you a lot of extra paperwork and money on everything from application fees to appraisal fees.
|†*Based on a $100,000 loan. Not every lender surveyed charges all of these fees.|
|†Source:††HSH Associates December 2003 survey of lenders|
Although fees for title search and title insurance are not determined by the lender, you may also get a break there. If you recently refinanced or took out a loan, you can save as much as 50 percent on title insurance by asking for a reissue rate, which your lender can request on your behalf.
If you're a homeowner shopping for a new house, you should also try giving your existing lender first dibs on the new business. Assuming you've been a good client and your lender originates the kind of mortgage you're interested in, it's possible to get a better-than-market deal, according to Gumbinger.
Get nitpicky about fees...
There are more than a dozen kinds of fees that could show up on your final closing statement, including credit report fees, appraisal fees, document preparation fees, title fees, recording fees and underwriting fees.
All told, fees on a $200,000 mortgage could add up to anywhere from $1,000 to $3,000 Ė that's not including any "discount" points you pay up front to get the best interest rate. (A "point" is a fee that equals 1 percent of the loan amount.)
Lenders are required to give you a good-faith estimate of your closing costs within three days after you apply for a loan. Some will give you such an estimate even before you apply if you ask for one. Even if it is no guarantee, this written estimate will give you an idea of what kind of fees you can expect to pay, as well as an opportunity to negotiate for a better deal.
"If you're a good credit borrower you can challenge fees if they seem excessive," said Gumbinger, noting that lenders don't control many fees that show up on your statement.
Keep in mind that the good faith estimate doesn't include such out-of-pocket costs as state mortgage taxes, homeowners insurance and property taxes, which you may be expected to pay at the time of closing. In fact, your total tab at closing could be several times more than originally estimated, said Gumbinger.
... but keep the big picture in view
Closing costs are certainly a consideration for both new loans and refinancing. But it's important to not lose sight of what should be your first priority Ė getting the lowest rate possible.
Indeed, the difference between paying, say, 6 percent and 5.5 percent on a new loan adds up to nearly $23,000 in total interest on a $200,000 30-year loan. If you have to pay a few hundred dollars in closing costs to get that rate, you can rest assured that it is a worthy investment.
It may even be worth it to pay a point or so up front in order to lock in the lowest rates. Let's say that you'll knock your rate down to 5 percent on that $200,000 loan by paying an extra point ($2,000) up front. Considering that you'll cut $62 off your monthly payment and about $22,000 from total interest by going from 6 percent to 5.5 percent, it makes sense as long as you plan to stay in the house long enough to recoup those up front costs.
In fact, if you're short on cash you might even consider rolling the closing costs into your loan, if that is an option. You'll want to consider how much more you'll pay each month as well as in interest over the life of a loan.
If you roll $2,000 in finance costs into a loan with a 5.5 percent rate, for example, you'll pay an extra $11 a month and about $2,000 extra in total interest. In this case you're still better off than if you had not refinanced at all.