Money and Main Street

How to nab a low-rate home loan

Getting a new loan can save you a bundle, but cautious lenders will make you jump through hoops. These strategies can help.

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Carla Fried, Money Magazine

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(Money Magazine) -- On paper it seems like the perfect time to refinance. The average rate on a 30-year fixed mortgage recently hit a 20-year low when it fell below 5% in mid-March. And the Fed has said that it will spend $300 billion to buy back government-backed Treasury bonds; that will probably keep loan rates low for months to come.

But wade into the mortgage market, and you may quickly feel as if you're trying to grab a dollar in a game-show booth where the money is blowing around: Those ultralow rates are right in front of you, yet maddeningly elusive.

Lenders, grappling with deadbeat homeowners and shifting regulations, have pared back on mortgage products and upped credit requirements. Still, you have a good incentive to try: If you took out a mortgage two years ago, when rates were in the mid-sixes, you stand to drop your rate nearly two percentage points, saving almost $300 a month on a $300,000 loan. Here's how to navigate the roadblocks.

Figure out if you qualify. Nowadays, credit score and equity are king. To land the best rates, you'll probably need a credit score of at least 740, and 20% equity. "Banks are looking for reasons not to lend you money," says Mark Miskiel of Lighthouse Mortgage in Sedona, Ariz.

If you don't have 20% equity, a refi isn't out of the question - President Obama's housing package allows homeowners who owe as much as 105% to receive government-backed loans. To qualify for that program, however, your original mortgage must be held by one of the government-sponsored entities, Freddie Mac or Fannie Mae; you must prove that you can keep up with payments; and you'll get stuck with fees that tack 0.25% to 3% onto your rate.

Get rid of the HELOC. Home-equity loans and lines have become the enemy of would-be refinancers. Before you can close on a new loan, your home-equity lender must agree to "subordinate" the secondary loan (meaning that your primary lender will get repaid first in the event you run into financial trouble). That can take at least a month, says Bob Moulton of the Americana Mortgage Group in Manhasset, N.Y.

One way to speed up the process is to do a consolidation refi through your home-equity lender. If that's not possible, aim to submit the subordination paperwork as you start shopping for a primary mortgage. And know that other lenders may add up to 0.25% to your rate to cash out the secondary loan.

Know where to look. No matter how stellar your credit, you won't get a great rate without doing some serious shopping. That's because every bank is using different standards for underwriting loans, so while you may look like a risky borrower to one, another may welcome you with open arms. In general, says Keith Gumbinger of mortgage data firm HSH Associates, you're likely to get the best rates from small local banks and credit unions.

Unfortunately, if you need a jumbo loan (typically $417,000, but it can go up to $729,750 in high-cost areas), you can kiss those super-low rates goodbye. While jumbos normally run about half a percentage point higher than smaller ones, today the spread is a point and a half.

Pay a point upfront. A point, which equals 1% of your mortgage amount, typically buys you an eighth to a quarter of a percentage point drop in your rate. Today some overloaded lenders are knocking half a percentage point off for those who pay a point, hoping this extra initial cost will deter serial refinancers.

If you're planning to stay put for about five years, it may be worth it. Conversely, consider adding an eighth of a percentage point to your rate to lock it in for 45 days. Banks and lenders are putting a lot more effort into vetting applications, so it can take up to two months to close a loan, vs. about 30 days in the past; you don't want to risk rates' moving against you while you wait. The payoff for patience: a loan you can live with, for a very long time.

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