If you've never bought a home before, when you first start shopping for a mortgage it might seem like the obvious way to choose a lender is to pick the one that offers the lowest interest rate. After all, the interest rate on your mortgage will affect both your short-term and long-term financial well-being because it will determine your monthly mortgage payment and the total amount you'll pay for your home.

Little Things Make a Big Difference
Consider this example: Take out a $200,000, 30-year mortgage at 6.5% interest and you'll pay $1,264.14 a month and $455,090.40 (plus your down payment) over the life of the mortgage. Take out that same 30-year mortgage at 5.5% and you're looking at a mortgage payment of $1,135.58 and a total cost of $408,808.80, or a savings of $128.56 a month and $46,281.60 over 30 years. Even small differences in interest rates, like 6.5% versus 6.2%, can make a big difference. In this case, the 6.2% mortgage rate would save you $39.20 a month and $14,112 over 30 years.

However, taking out a mortgage is a major financial decision, and one that, especially for first-timers, is fraught with potential pitfalls. Just as you consider more than just the sticker price when you shop for a car because factors like safety, fuel economy and reliability are also important, interest rate is only one thing you should consider when shopping for your mortgage. (Learn more about finding the right mortgage in First-Time Homebuyer Guide and Shopping For A Mortgage.)

Why Low Interest Rates Aren't Always a Bargain
Here are some of the other factors you should consider and why they matter.

  1. Teaser Rates
    These attractively low advertised interest rates are often just a way to get you in the door. The truth about mortgage rates is that they change multiple times a day. If you contact a lender based on a rate they've advertised, the odds of you actually getting that rate are slim.

  2. Fees
    There are many costs associated with taking out a mortgage besides the interest rate, like closing costs. Just as the grocery store tries to get you in the door by advertising a gallon of milk for $2 but then wants to charge you $5 for the cereal to pour it on, a bank might advertise a lower interest rate than its competitors but then expect you to pay double the closing costs you might pay elsewhere. Points are another area where lenders can make up for low interest rates by charging borrowers higher fees. However, information on fees isn't likely to be available up front - the only way to find out about these costs is to talk to a lender and have them prepare a good faith estimate for you. (Learn more about avoiding extra fees, read Watch Out For "Junk" Mortgage Fees.)

  3. Type of Loan
    What type of loan you qualify for will affect your interest rate. That great mortgage rate that you see advertised might be for a 15-year fixed conventional mortgage, but your income and savings might only qualify you for a 30-year fixed FHA mortgage, which will have a higher interest rate and a higher long-term cost. (Read Understanding FHA Home Loans to learn more.)

  4. Location
    Where you live also impacts mortgage rates. One of the first questions any lender will ask you is the zip code where you plan to purchase property. The national average might be 5.41% on a 30-year fixed, but the average rate in New York City might be 5.49% while the average rate in San Francisco might be 5.33%.

  5. Credit Score
    The best advertised rates only go to borrowers with the best credit scores. The further below 720 your credit score is, the less likely you are to get a rate similar to the advertised rate.

  6. Lending Institution Reputation
    Just because you've never heard of a particular lending company doesn't mean that it's up to no good, and just because it's a nationally recognized name doesn't always mean it's a safer choice. Regardless of the lender you're considering, do some research to determine how likely you are to get a fair deal when working with that company. The lender who advertises the best rates is not always a lender who will give you a fair deal.

  7. Loan Representative
    At least as important as your choice of lending institution is the specific person you work with in that company. Unscrupulous people can work for stellar companies, and people who always put their customers' best interests first can work for shady institutions. This is why the specific person who handles your mortgage for you needs to be someone you trust. Whether this person is competent and ethical in qualifying you for a mortgage, selling you a particular mortgage product, and preparing your mortgage paperwork will have a major impact on your life.

    Just ask the people who ended up with mortgages they didn't understand and ultimately couldn't afford and today have foreclosures blemishing their credit reports and are back to renting or even living with relatives to get by. They all probably wish they had looked at more than just the interest rate when they took out their mortgages. (What looks like a good deal often amounts to hidden costs. To learn how to find and avoid them, read Score A Cheap Mortgage.)

Mortgage rates change multiple times a day, and they vary depending on your geographic location, the type of loan you want and your credit score. Perhaps most importantly, they don't tell the whole story about the cost of a loan. A mortgage lender might advertise a great rate, but charge a ton of money in closing costs, or promise a borrower great terms, but then present different numbers in the paperwork at closing when emotions are running high and time is of the essence. Looking at the whole loan package, not just the interest rate, will help you get the best deal.

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