Nine Things to Be Known About Mortgage Loan

Mortgages are huge, long-term financial obligations made up of many details. See 9 important things you should know about your loan before you commit.
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By Richard Barrington

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Mortgages are essential financial products – without them, the vast majority of people would not be able to buy a home. And yet, if they are so valuable, how come they can get so many people in trouble? From the Great Depression of the 1930s to the Great Recession of the 2000s, one of the signature traits of financial crises is the trail of foreclosed homes when people cannot keep up with their mortgage obligations.

Mortgages as a concept are neither good nor bad – the nature of any given loan depends on the details. Before you sign up for a home loan, there are a number of specifics you should understand.

9 must-know things about mortgage loans

Work your way through the following list, and make sure you are comfortable with each of these aspects of the loan before you commit:

1. Fixed vs. adjustable mortgage rates

Mortgages are available either with interest rates that are fixed throughout the entire term of the loan, or with rates that vary periodically. This makes a fundamental difference in the nature of your mortgage. With a fixed-rate mortgage, you know what your monthly payments will be over the life of the loan. With an adjustable rate, those payments are subject to variation. Adjustable rate mortgages allow you to benefit if interest rates fall, but they also put you at risk of no longer being able to afford your payments if interest rates rise.

2. Differences in lender interest rates

Besides knowing whether your mortgage rate is fixed or adjustable, you should also compare the interest rates offered by various lenders on similar loans because these do vary. Seemingly small differences can cost you greatly over the life of the mortgage, so shop around.

3. Cost of mortgage insurance

This is different from homeowners insurance. This is insurance that is required on certain loans, such as mortgages offered by the U.S. Federal Housing Administration (FHA), to protect the lender against the risk that the borrower will default. Your credit rating and the amount of your down payment can affect how much mortgage insurance will cost, so pay attention to what your options are. Understand whether you have to pay mortgage insurance over the life of the loan, or whether you are eligible to discontinue it once you have paid back a certain portion of the loan.

4. Estimated closing costs

In addition to your down payment and possibly a mortgage insurance premium, your lender might require you to pay points, which are an upfront percentage of the loan, at closing. On top of that, there are a variety of other fees that come in different forms from one lender to another. Your lender should be able to provide you with a written list of all the costs you will face at closing before you commit to the loan.

5. Loan-to-value ratio

This measures how much your loan represents as a percentage of the value of your home. The bigger the down payment you make, the lower your loan-to-value ratio will be, and that has a number of financial advantages. A lower loan-to-value ratio can:

  • Reduce your interest rate
  • Lower or even eliminate mortgage insurance premiums
  • Increase your flexibility to refinance in the future

6. Length of mortgage loan term

This is how long it will take to repay the loan. Shorter terms typically mean higher monthly payments, but they can cost you much less over the life of the mortgage. 

After knowing your interest rate and mortgage loan term, use a mortgage payment calculator to determine your expenses each month. 

7. Mortgage payment schedule

Often, the best way to understand a loan is to look at the schedule of payments you will be required to make. Mortgage payment schedules show you:

  • What the monthly burden on your budget will be
  • Whether or not that number is subject to change
  • How long it will take you to repay the loan
  • How much interest you will pay over the life of the loan

8. Total vs. monthly mortgage costs

One thing you may notice when comparing payment schedules for different loans is that lower monthly payments don’t always mean lower total costs in the long run. This is why you should consider both short-term and long-term costs when choosing a mortgage.

9. Possibility of prepayment penalty

Some loans make you pay a fee if you repay them early. This can limit your flexibility to refinance, so know whether your loan has such a fee, how much it is and whether it expires after a certain amount of time.

That’s a lot of detail to review, but think about what is at stake. Your home is not only likely to be the biggest financial investment you ever make, but it is the roof over your head. If you are not ready to sweat the details, you may not want to make the commitment to home ownership.

Frequently Asked Questions

Q: I’m looking for a mortgage, and I’m surprised to find the numbers are all over the map. I see from your website there is also quite a difference between rates on different savings accounts. My question is this: Since the fed funds rate and the prime loan rate are set by the Fed, why is there any difference in the rates banks charge to consumers?

A: Interesting point — after all, the prime rate has been at 3.25% for several years now. Current mortgage rates (30-year fixed) are 4.33%, and during the time the prime rate has held steady, those mortgage rates have ranged between a low of 3.35% and a high of 5.42%. So what’s going on?

Perhaps the best way to think of this is as a difference between wholesale and retail prices. The prime rate and federal funds rate represent institutional sources of funds, so they are akin to wholesale prices. However, there are a number of factors besides wholesale cost that goes into determining retail prices. Here are a number of factors that can impact mortgage rates and rates on savings accounts:

  1. Your credit rating. The weaker your rating, the more you can expect to pay.
  2. The term of your loan. Different mortgages have different lengths, and that affects the interest. Generally speaking, longer loans have higher rates because there is more risk involved.
  3. The size of your savings account. Since bigger accounts are normally more cost-effective for banks, they will often pay a premium for larger accounts, in the form of higher interest on deposits. However, since banks are somewhat awash in deposits these days, there is currently no premium on large savings accounts, according to national averages from the FDIC. However, there are higher rates on average for jumbo money market accounts and CDs (those in excess of $100,000).
  4. The bank’s asset/liability ratio. The ratio between deposits and loans outstanding is a delicate balancing act for banks. Tipping too far on the side of deposits dilutes the bank’s profit margin; too far the other way can be overly risky. What a bank pays on deposits and charges on loans may therefore depend on which it is trying to attract more.
  5. The health of the bank’s loan portfolio. The more banks fear getting burned by defaults, the more they are likely to charge on loans.
  6. The bank’s cost structure. Online savings accounts generally pay higher rates because they have a lower cost structure.

The differences in mortgage rates and savings account rates that result from these factors may make the banking market more confusing, but they also create opportunities for consumers who are willing to do their homework.

More from MoneyRates.com:

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About Author
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Richard Barrington
Richard Barrington has been a Senior Financial Analyst for MoneyRates. He has appeared on Fox Business News and NPR, and has been quoted by the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, USA Today, CNBC and many other publications. Richard has over 30 years of experience in financial services. He has earned the Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA) designation from the Association of Investment Management and Research (now the “CFA Institute”).