Mortgage lenders aren’t evaluated on a single, linear metric. Rarely is there a universal way of stating objectively that Lender A is “better” than Lender B. If you’re a borrower with excellent credit and a flawless history of making payments on previous mortgages, the best lender for you might not be the best lender for a first-time homeowner who just emerged from bankruptcy. That’s in much the same way that the best credit card for Charles Koch (probably the American Express Co. (AXP) Centurion card, with its personal shoppers, worldwide travel insurance, and $2,500 annual fee) isn’t the best credit card for Jeff, the air-conditioning technician at your local Jiffy Lube. In his case, that’s probably a secured Visa Inc. (V) card with a 20% interest rate and a $75 deposit requirement.

If you’re looking specifically for an online mortgage lender, we’re assuming that you’re going out of your way not to deal with a brick-and-mortar lender. Unfortunately, most unimaginative and non-enterprising borrowers start the process by trying to get a mortgage with the same bank they use for checking and deposits. That’s crazy for several reasons, one of them being that it’s the second decade of the 21st century and we should be taking advantage of the technology at hand, doing as much as possible online rather than wasting precious time securing a mortgage the archaic face-to-face way. (For more, see: 5 Secrets You Didn't Know About Mortgages.)

Finding a Good Online Lender

It seems obvious and simple, but first and foremost, ask around. If you have any friends who recently secured a mortgage loan, chances are good that those friends are in the same demographic as you. They’re probably about the same age, they probably make comparable amounts of money. And they probably shopped among multiple companies before selecting one and telling the rest to take a hike.

But let’s say you’re in a strange real estate market, and all your friends are renters. Are there quantitative ways of separating the mortgage lenders who deserve a second look from the ones that don’t? (For more, see: How to Get the Best Mortgage Rates.)

Your Tax Dollars at Work

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) is the federal agency that acts like a crying towel for borrowers too busy to read the fine print on their loan documents. While the CFPB’s contribution to the economy is hard to measure, one thing the agency does is keep records of who complains about which mortgage lender(s).

Of course, the largest mortgage lenders might be the ones that inspire the most complaints. Not to worry, the CFRB accounts for relative size. Each month the CFB issues a report that outlines the companies with the largest complaint volumes. Often the big lenders such as Wells Fargo and Bank of America make the list. To read more, visit their website

Most of the complaints the CFRB receives regard clerical issues. “I don’t like the way the lender handled collections,” “I can’t believe they foreclosed on me just for missing one little payment,” etc. The problem is, the rules are straightforward. Comprehensive, yes, but often more clear than opaque. What most complainants fail to appreciate or acknowledge is that it’s less likely that they got screwed than that they failed to read (or hire someone competent to read) the paperwork.

Negotiate and Walk Away if Needed

The parallels between financing a dwelling and buying a car are clear. One directive often recommended for the latter, less so for the former, is get a price first. Automotive dealers don’t have a monopoly, and neither do mortgage lenders. You already know that a difference of a few basis points of interest can mean tens of thousands of dollars in savings over the course of your mortgage. It’s just common sense to start by finding a lender willing to offer you the most competitive price. Once you’ve got a written promise of that number in hand – whether it’s 4% for a 30-year fixed, or whatever – it’s up to you if you want to shop around. If Lender C swears that 4.25% is the best they can do for a borrower in your situation, helpfully explain that you’re leaning toward Lender D who already offered you the lower rate. (For more, see: How Interest Rates Work on a Mortgage.)

Therefore, lenders who handle large volumes of mortgages and who can afford to lower their margins a little are necessarily at an advantage. There are times to support your local mom-and-pop merchants, and shopping for a mortgage online is not one of them. An easy way to find the best mortgage rates available is to use a mortgage calculator.

The Less Work, The Better

Mortgage lending is such a huge market, with thousands of sellers and millions of buyers, that prices have almost reached the theoretical equilibrium. The successful online mortgage lenders thus have advanced from competing on price to competing on other criteria. Take privately held Quicken Loans. The company uses the grandiose slogan “Engineered to Amaze”, which sounds a little preposterous when employed to sell what will always be a mundane and unexciting service. (They’re selling mortgages, not building ultrasonic aircraft.) But Quicken Loans has a point. The company’s strategy minimizes downtime and eliminates the need to deal with a broker face-to-face. If you’re going to pay a similar rate no matter which online mortgage lender you use, you might as well go with the one that streamlines the process as much as possible. Which, in Quicken Loans’ case, means that the borrower gets to do everything online up until the final document signing, which is the only stage that requires physical interaction with a company representative.

The Bottom Line

Much like hotels and boats (or any other consumer item, come to think of it), the more money you have, the greater the array of options at your disposal. This might not sound encouraging, but if you want a better online mortgage lender, be a better borrower. Make more money and pay your obligations on time, thus enabling you to choose from a greater number of lenders. Once you do, you might wonder why anyone would ever bother to apply for a mortgage via the old-fashioned method. (For more, see: What Is a Good Credit Score?)