By Polyana da Costa of

Getting a mortgage loan has become challenging in recent years. Don’t expect that to change anytime soon.

Lending standards will remain tight in 2012, but that doesn’t mean you won’t be able to snag a mortgage with an attractive rate. Savvy borrowers who understand the rules and
prepare will improve their chances of success.

These tips will help you stay on top of your game as you try to secure a mortgage in 2012.

Study your credit

Good credit is the key to snagging a mortgage in this tight lending environment. Get copies of your credit scores and credit history from the three main credit-reporting bureaus. Study the reports carefully to make sure there are no errors or issues to resolve before applying.

Most lenders require a minimum credit score of 680 to comply with Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac’s guidelines. Federal Housing Administration loans — which are guaranteed by the FHA — allow for lower scores, but most lenders want to stay away from scores lower than 620.

Prepare before you start

Every lender requests certain basic documents when you apply for a mortgage. Don’t wait for them to ask.

Have these documents ready when you walk into the lender’s office: your last two pay stubs, W-2s, income-tax returns and bank statements.

Save these documents and any additional ones the lender requests in an electronic format, so you can easily resend them if anything gets lost.

Know how much you can afford

Don’t rely on your lender to tell you how much mortgage you qualify for and then borrow the maximum amount. Plan your budget, and leave room for unexpected expenses. That’s especially the case when you are buying a house.

Bankrate’s calculators can help you determine how much house you can afford and estimate your monthly mortgage payments.

Shop around

Shopping around for a mortgage should go beyond comparing interest rates. Rates are important, but would-be borrowers must consider points, closing costs and different types of loans. Get estimates from three banks and three mortgage brokers before you
decide which combination works for you.

Time is of the essence

Once you submit your mortgage application to the lender, the clock starts ticking. Make sure you quickly send in any documents requested during the approval process.

For buyers, a delay in closing the loan could kill the purchase and cost them their deposits. When refinancing, a delay could mean losing the interest rate the borrower
originally locked in. Ask for an expected closing date, and follow up with the lender periodically until the loan closes. Keep in mind, some lenders close more quickly than others.

Mortgage approved?
Your credit must stay put until closing

After the lender pulls your credit and says you’ve been approved, don’t assume you’ve won the battle. Most lenders will pull your credit again before the loan closes.

It’s wise to avoid any moves that may affect your credit. Don’t apply for new credit cards or credit lines. Pay your bills on time. Don’t close any accounts. Don’t finance a new car. Stay put until closing.

Consider refinancing with no closing costs

You don’t always have to spend money to save money when refinancing. Many lenders offer mortgages with no closing costs. No, it’s not a free ride. Lenders usually make up for those costs by charging the borrower a slightly higher interest rate. Sometimes the slight increase translates into a few extra dollars in the monthly payment, and the borrower can save thousands in closing costs.

Consider a shorter-term loan

Because interest rates have been at or near rock bottom, short-term loans have  become more affordable for many borrowers.

Those who have a 30-year mortgage with an interest rate of 6% or higher may be able to refinance into a 20-year or 15-year loan while keeping their monthly mortgage payments close to what they pay now. Consider this option even when the short-term loan means slightly higher monthly payments. This is your chance to pay off your
mortgage more quickly.

Receive a gift? Be ready to explain it

Did your parents or in-laws give you a few thousand dollars as a gift to help out with the down payment? If so, congratulations — but make sure you can document and explain
where you got the money.

FHA loans allow borrowers to receive their down payment as a gift from a relative. For
conventional loans, borrowers may receive gifts, but at least a 5% percent down payment must come from their own funds.

Borrowers receiving a gift are required to present a gift letter signed by the donor, and they will need a paper trail of the money transfer. Be ready to present statements to
show where the money came from when it was deposited into your account.

Unless the money is being used for the down payment, avoid receiving large cash deposits in your bank account until your mortgage closes. Any large deposits other than your paycheck will have to be explained to comply with federal regulations.

Be persistent

If one lender rejects your mortgage application, that doesn’t mean all lenders will. Most lenders follow Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac guidelines. In addition, they have their own
internal underwriting guidelines, and some are stricter than others.

Ask why your mortgage was denied. Depending on the reason, you may be able to take some quick steps to improve your credit, or you might just need to try a different lender.

Appraisal isn’t enough? Try again

If the home appraisal your lender received isn’t enough to back the mortgage loan and you think the appraiser is mistaken, try another lender.

You can’t order a second appraisal or pick which appraiser the lender hires, but you can dispute the first appraisal or apply with a different lender.

In a perfect world, the appraised value of a home shouldn’t vary drastically from one appraiser to another. But you may find that it does. If you believe the first appraiser is
wrong, try a different lender and hope that lender’s appraiser does a better job.

Seek help

If you are behind on your mortgage or are struggling to keep up with your mortgage payments, seek counseling.

The Department of Housing and Urban Development has counseling agencies throughout the country. Homeowners can receive free foreclosure-prevention counseling from HUD-approved counselors. To find a housing counseling agency near you call 800-569-4287 or visit the HUD website.


12 mortgage tips for 2012 homebuyers