The Home Buyer's Guide to Getting Mortgage Ready

Home Buyer's Guide

Don't wait until you're ready to move; start preparing financially to buy a home. If you're like the vast majority of home buyers, you will choose to finance your purchase with a mortgage loan. By preparing in advance, you can avoid the common delays and roadblocks many buyers face when applying for a mortgage. The requirements to secure a mortgage may seem overwhelming, especially if you're a first-time buyer. But we've outlined three simple steps to get you started on your path to homeownership. Even if you're a current homeowner, preparing in advance is a good idea to avoid surprises. Lending requirements have become more rigorous in recent years, and changes to your credit history, debt levels, job type, and other factors could impact your chances of approval. It's never too early to start preparing to buy a home. Follow these three steps to begin laying the foundation for your future home purchase today!


Your credit score is one of the first things a lender will check to see if you qualify for a loan. Reviewing your credit report and scoring yourself before you're ready to apply for a mortgage is a good idea. If you have a low score, you will need time to raise it. Sometimes, fraudulent activity or erroneous information will appear on your report, which can take months to correct. The credit score most lenders use is your FICO score, a weighted score developed by the Fair Isaac Corporation that takes into account your payment history (35%), amounts owed (30%), length of credit history (15%), new credit (10%), and credit mix (10%)1. Base FICO scores range from 300 to 850. A higher FICO score will help you qualify for a lower mortgage interest rate, saving you money.2 By federal law, you are entitled to one free copy of your credit report every 12 months from each of the three major credit bureaus (Equifax, Experian, and Transunion). Request your free credit report at Annual Credit

Minimum Score Requirements

To qualify for the lowest interest rates available, you will usually need a FICO score of 760 or higher. Most lenders require a score of at least 620 to qualify for a conventional mortgage.3 If your FICO score is less than 620, you may be able to qualify for a non-conventional mortgage. However, you should expect to pay higher interest rates and fees. For example, you may be able to secure an FHA loan (one issued by a private lender but insured by the Federal Housing Administration) with a credit score as low as 580 if you can make a 3.5 percent down payment. And FHA loans are available to applicants with credit scores as low as 500 with a 10 percent down payment.4

Increase Your Credit Score

There's no quick fix for a low credit score, but the following steps will help you increase it over time.5

  1. Make Payments on Time

    At 35 percent, your payment history accounts for the most significant portion of your credit score. Therefore, it's crucial to get caught up on any late payments and make all of your future payments on time if you have trouble remembering to pay your bills on time, set up payment reminders through your online banking platforms, a free money management tool like Mint, or an app like BillMinder.
  2. Avoid Applying for New Credit You Don't Need

    New accounts will lower your average account age, which could negatively impact your length of credit history. Also, each time you apply for credit, it can result in a slight decrease in your credit score. The exception to this rule? If you don't have any credit cards or any credit accounts, you should open an account to establish a credit history. Remember to use it responsibly and pay it off in full each month. If you need to shop for a new credit account, for example, a car loan, complete your loan applications within a short period. FICO attempts to distinguish between a search for a single loan and applications to open several new credit lines by the window during which inquiries occur.
  3. Pay Down Credit Cards

    When you pay off your credit cards and other revolving credit, you lower your amounts owed or credit utilization ratio (ratio of account balances to credit limits). Some experts recommend starting with your highest-interest debt and paying it off first. Others suggest paying off your lowest balance first and then rolling that payment into your next-lowest balance to create momentum. Whichever method you choose, the first step is to list your credit card balances and then start tackling them individually. Make the minimum payments on all of your cards except one. Pay as much as possible on that card until it's paid in full, then cross it off your list and move on to the next card.
Debt Interest Rate Total Payoff Minimum Payment
Credit Card 1 12.5% $460 $18.40
Credit Card 2 18.9%% $1,012 $40.48
Credit Card 3 3.11% $6,300 $252

  1. Avoid Closing Old Accounts

    Closing an old account will not remove it from your credit report. It can hurt your score, raise your credit utilization ratio—since you'll have less available credit—and decrease your average length of credit history. Similarly, paying off a collection account will not remove it from your report. It remains on your credit report for seven years; however, the negative impact on your score will decrease over time.
  2. Correct Errors on Your Report

    Mistakes or fraudulent activity can negatively impact your credit score. That's why checking your credit report at least once yearly is a good idea. The Federal Trade Commission has instructions on its website for disputing errors in your account. While raising your credit score may seem like a lot of effort, your hard work will pay off in the long run. Not only will it help you qualify for a mortgage, but a high credit score can also help you secure a lower interest rate on car loans and credit cards. You may even qualify for lower rates on insurance premiums.6


The next step in preparing for your home purchase is to save up for a down payment and closing costs.

Down Payment

When you purchase a home, you typically pay for a portion in cash (down payment) and take out a loan to cover the remaining balance (mortgage). Many first-time buyers wonder how much they must save for a down payment. The answer is … it depends. Generally speaking, the higher your down payment, the more you will save on interest and fees. For example, you will qualify for a lower interest rate and avoid paying for mortgage insurance if your down payment is at least 20% of the property's purchase price. But what if you can't afford to put down 20 percent? You must purchase private mortgage insurance (PMI) on a conventional loan if your down payment is less than 20 percent. PMI is insurance compensating your lender if you default on your loan.7 PMI will cost you between 0.3 and 1.5 percent of the mortgage amount each year.8 So, on a $100,000 loan, you can expect to pay between $300 and $1500 per year for PMI until your mortgage balance falls below 80 percent of the appraised value.9 For a conventional mortgage with PMI, most lenders will accept a minimum down payment of five percent of the purchase price.7. If a five percent down payment is still too high, an FHA-insured loan may be an option for you. Because the Federal Housing Administration guarantees them, FHA loans only require a 3.5 percent down payment if your credit score is 580 or higher.7 The downside of getting an FHA loan? You'll be required to pay an upfront mortgage insurance premium (MIP) of 1.75 percent of the total loan amount and an annual MIP of between 0.80 and 1.05 percent of your loan balance on a 30-year note. Certain limitations exist on the types of loans and properties that qualify.10 Various other government-sponsored programs are also created to assist home buyers. For example, veterans and current Armed Forces members may be eligible for a VA-backed loan requiring a $0 down payment.7 Consult a mortgage lender about what options are available to you.

Type Minimum Down Additional Fees
Conventional Loan 20% Qualify for the best rates, and no mortgage insurance is required.
Conventional Loan 5% Must purchase private mortgage insurance costing 0.3 – 1.5% of mortgage annually.
FHA Loan 3.5% Upfront mortgage insurance premium of 1.75% of loan amount and an annual fee of 0.8 – 1.05%.

Current Homeowners

You may have equity for your down payment on a new home if you're a current homeowner. We can help you estimate your expected return after selling your home and paying your mortgage. Contact us for a free evaluation!

Closing Costs

Closing costs should also be factored into your savings plan. These may include loan origination fees, discount points, appraisal fees, title searches, title insurance, surveys, and other expenses associated with purchasing your home. Closing costs vary but typically range between two to five percent of the purchase price.11. If you don't have the funds to pay these outright at closing, you can often add them to your mortgage balance and pay them over time. However, this means you'll have a higher monthly payment and pay more over the long term because you'll pay interest on the fees.


Once you have the required credit score, savings for a down payment, and a list of all your outstanding debt obligations via your credit report, you can assess whether you are ready and able to purchase a home. It's essential to know how much you can reasonably afford—and how much you'll be able to borrow—to see if homeownership is within reach. Your debt-to-income (DTI) ratio is one of the main factors mortgage companies use to determine how much they are willing to lend you. Given your current financial situation, it can help you gauge whether your home-purchasing goals are realistic. Your DTI ratio is essentially a comparison of your housing expenses and other debt versus your income. There are two different DTI ratios that lenders consider:

Front-End Ratio

This is also called the housing ratio, which is the percentage of your income that would go toward monthly housing expenses, including your mortgage payment, private mortgage insurance, property taxes, homeowner's insurance, and association dues.12. To calculate your front-end DTI ratio, a lender will add up your expected housing expenses and divide it by your gross monthly income (income before taxes). The maximum front-end DTI ratio for most mortgages is 28 percent. For an FHA-backed loan, this ratio must not exceed 31 percent.13

Back-End Ratio

The back-end ratio considers all of your monthly debt obligations: your expected housing expenses PLUS credit card bills, car payments, child support or alimony, student loans, and any other debt on your credit report.12. To calculate your back-end ratio; a lender will tabulate your expected housing expenses and other monthly debt payments and divide it by your gross monthly income (income before taxes). The maximum back-end DTI ratio for most mortgages is 36 percent. For an FHA-backed loan, this ratio must not exceed 41 percent.13

Home Affordability Calculator

To understand how much home you can afford, visit the National Association of Realtors free Home Affordability Calculator. This handy tool will help you determine your home purchasing power depending on your location, annual income, monthly debt, and down payment. It also offers a monthly mortgage breakdown that projects what you would pay each month in principal and interest, property taxes, and home insurance. The Home Affordability Calculator defaults to a back-end DTI ratio of 36 percent. Suppose the monthly cost estimate at that ratio is significantly higher than what you currently pay for housing. In that case, you must consider whether you can make up the difference each month in your budget. If not, you may want to lower your target purchase price to a more conservative DTI ratio. The tool enables you to scroll through higher and lower price points to see the impact on your monthly payments to identify your ideal price point. (Note: This tool only provides an estimate of your purchasing power. You must secure pre-approval from a mortgage lender to know your actual mortgage approval amount and monthly payment projections.)

Can I afford to buy my dream home?

Once you have a sense of your purchasing power, it's time to determine which neighborhoods and types of homes you can afford. Contacting a licensed real estate agent is the best way to resolve this. We help homeowners like you every day and can send you a comprehensive list of homes within your budget that meet your specific needs if there are homes within your price range and target neighborhoods that meet your criteria—congratulations! It's time to begin your home search. If not, you may need to continue saving up for a larger down payment … or adjusting your search parameters to find homes that fit within your budget. We can help you determine the right course for you.

The above references an opinion and is for informational purposes only. It is not intended to be financial advice. Consult a financial professional for advice regarding your individual needs.

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