Buying a house can be scary even when the economy is good. It is even scarier when economic turmoil has set in, and you're hearing a lot about people being foreclosed out of homes they could afford a year earlier. But there are strategies you can use to get an affordable mortgage even in bad economic times. Here are some general tips that can help as you move towards getting a home loan.
Types of mortgages
The first thing you need to decide is what kind of mortgage might be best for your future. There are two major types: fixed-rate, in which the interest rate and total payment do not vary over the life of the loan; and adjustable-rate, in which the interest rate starts out lower than is typical for a fixed-rate mortgage but can be changed periodically over the life of the loan.
Your initial rate will be higher on a fixed-rate loan, but if you were to hold the adjustable-rate loan for its entire lifetime your final rate would be higher than with a comparable fixed-rate loan. Jack M. Guttentag, who writes online as the Mortgage Professor, has this rule of thumb: If you plan to stay in the house less than seven years, go for the adjustable-rate loan; if you plan to stay more than seven years or want a predictable payment structure, choose a fixed-rate mortgage.
You'll also want to figure out how long you want the loan term to be. This is where an online mortgage calculator might come in handy: Bankrate has one, while HSH, a site which allows you to compare rates from different lenders, has a variety of calculating tools.
The next question is what kind of rate you can expect, based on your credit score. You can get your credit report for free from AnnualCreditReport.com, but that won't include your score, which is what lenders use to judge how good a risk you are. In a bad economy, that credit score can loom large.
You can get an estimate of your credit score for free from CreditKarma or Credit.com. You may choose to pay $10 to TrueCredit, which will "simulate" the lending process to show you how lenders might evaluate your credit history.
Now you should have enough information to go looking for rates on specific loans. (Shopping around won't hurt your credit score; all mortgage-related credit inquiries within one 30-day period get treated as one inquiry.) You might want to work with a mortgage broker; if so, About.com has a list of questions you should ask a potential mortgage broker.
If you decide to do the research online, at sites such as Lending Tree or E-Loan, make sure you're comparing apples to apples. Two different loans may have the same interest rate but different "points" (which translate to higher interest rates over the course of the loan) or fees.
Also check the "lock-in" time: the amount of time during which your quoted rate will be guaranteed. Remember that you'll need that time for inspecting the house, closing the sale, and getting all the paperwork processed.
You might end up spending a long time doing initial research before committing to getting a home loan. The more familiar you are with the lending process, the easier the time you'll have reading the contract for your eventual home loan. Remember: don't sign anything you don't fully understand!