Shopping for a home may be exciting and fun, but serious homebuyers need to start the process in a lender's office, not at an open house.

Potential buyers benefit in several ways by consulting with a lender and obtaining a pre-approval letter. First, they have an opportunity to discuss loan options and budgeting with the lender. Second, the lender will check the buyer's credit and unearth any problems. The home buyer will also learn the maximum amount they can borrow, which will help set the price range.

Potential buyers should be careful to estimate their comfort level with a given house payment rather than immediately aim for the top of their spending limit. Lastly, most sellers expect buyers to have a pre-approval letter and will be more willing to negotiate with those who prove that they can obtain financing.

Key Takeaways

  • Serious homebuyers need to start the process in a lender's office, not at an open house.
  • The down payment, expressed as a percentage of the selling price, varies by loan type.
  • Lenders want to make sure they lend only to borrowers with stable employment.

Pre-qualification vs. Pre-approval

A mortgage pre-qualification can be useful as an estimate of how much someone can afford to spend on a home, but a pre-approval is much more valuable. It means the lender has checked the potential buyer's credit and verified the documentation to approve a specific loan amount (the approval usually lasts for a particular period, such as 60 to 90 days). Final loan approval occurs when the buyer has an appraisal done and the loan is applied to a property.

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5 Things You Need To Get A Mortgage Pre-Approved

Requirements for Pre-approval

Assemble the information below to be ready for the pre-approval process.

What You Need to Get Pre-Approved for a Mortgage
Emily Roberts {Copyright} Investopedia, 2019.

1. Proof of Income

Buyers generally must produce W-2 wage statements from the past two years, recent pay stubs that show income as well as year-to-date income, proof of any additional income such as alimony or bonuses, and the two most recent years' tax returns.

Most homesellers will be more willing to negotiate with those who have proof that they can obtain financing.

2. Proof of Assets

The borrower needs bank statements and investment account statements to prove that they have funds for the down payment and closing costs, as well as cash reserves.

The down payment, expressed as a percentage of the selling price, varies by loan type. Most loans come with a requirement that the buyer purchase private mortgage insurance (PMI) or pay a mortgage insurance premium or a funding fee unless they are putting down at least 20% of the purchase price. In addition to the down payment, pre-approval is also based on the buyer's FICO credit score, debt-to-income ratio (DTI), and other factors, depending on the type of loan.

All but jumbo loans are conforming, meaning they conform to government-sponsored enterprise (Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac) guidelines. Some loans, such as HomeReady (Fannie Mae) and Home Possible (Freddie Mac), are designed for low- to moderate-income homebuyers or first-time buyers.

Veterans Affairs (VA) loans, which require no money down, are for U.S. veterans, service members, and not-remarried spouses. A buyer who receives money from a friend or relative to assist with the down payment may need a gift letter to prove that the funds are not a loan.

3. Good Credit

Most lenders require a FICO score of 620 or higher to approve a conventional loan, and some even require that score for a Federal Housing Administration loan. Lenders typically reserve the lowest interest rates for customers with a credit score of 760 or higher. FHA guidelines allow approved borrowers with a score of 580 or higher to pay as little as 3.5% down. Those with lower scores must make a larger down payment. Lenders will often work with borrowers with a low or moderately low credit score and suggest ways to improve their score.

The chart below shows your monthly principal and interest (PI) payment on a 30-year fixed interest rate mortgage based on a range of FICO scores for three common loan amounts. (Since interest rates change often, use this FICO Loan Savings Calculator to double check scores and rates.) Note that on a $250,000 loan an individual with a FICO score in the lowest (620–639) range would pay $1,362 per month, while a homeowner in the highest (760–850) range would pay just $1,128, a difference of $2,808 per year.

 

FICO Score Range

 

620-639

 

640-659

 

660-679

 

680-699

 

700-759

 

760-850

 

Interest Rate

 

5.129%

 

4.583%

 

4.153%

 

3.939%

 

3.762%

 

3.54%

 

$350,000 loan

 

$1,907

 

$1,791

 

$1,702

 

$1,659

 

$1,623

 

$1,579

 

$250,000 loan

 

$1,362

 

$1,279

 

$1,216

 

$1,185

 

$1,159

 

$1,128

 

$150,000 loan

 

$817

 

$767

 

$729

 

$711

 

$696

 

$677

At today's rates and over the 30 years of the $250,000 loan, an individual with a FICO score in the 620-639 range would pay $240,260 in interest and a homeowner in the 760–850 range would pay $156,152, a difference of more than $84,000.

4. Employment Verification

Lenders want to make sure they lend only to borrowers with stable employment. A lender will not only want to see a buyer's pay stubs but also will likely call the employer to verify employment and salary. A lender may want to contact the previous employer if a buyer recently changed jobs.

Self-employed buyers will need to provide significant additional paperwork concerning their business and income. According to Fannie Mae, factors that go into approving a mortgage for a self-employed borrower include the stability of the borrower’s income, the location and nature of the borrower’s business, the demand for the product or service offered by the business, the financial strength of the business, and the ability of the business to continue generating and distributing sufficient income to enable the borrower to make the payments on the mortgage.

Typically, self-employed borrowers need to produce at least the two most recent years' tax returns with all appropriate schedules.

5. Other Documentation

The lender will need to copy the borrower's driver's license and will need the borrower's Social Security number (SSN) and signature, allowing the lender to pull a credit report. Be prepared at the pre-approval session and later to provide (as quickly as possible) any additional paperworkrequested by the lender.

The more cooperative you are, the smoother the mortgage process.

The Bottom Line

Consulting with a lender before the home-buying process can save a lot of heartache later. Gather paperwork before the pre-approval appointment, and definitely before you go house hunting.