10 Steps to Getting a Mortgage and Buying Your Own Home

by Ron Haynes

With the changing of the seasons, many people begin to look for a new home – and a new mortgage. If you’ve read my four part series entitled Are You Ready for a Mortgage? you may remember that I only covered four aspects of this life changing event:

first homeAs important as those four steps are, there is actually a lot more that goes into the mortgage application process so I decided to outline the entire process for getting a conventional mortgage. Since I wasn’t in the military, if you’re looking for information on a VA mortgage, I recommend checking with my good friend Ryan over at The Military Wallet.

The mortgage application process

The process of applying for and getting a conventional mortgage loan usually takes just a few weeks. Government loans, and conventional loans issued to borrowers with serious credit problems, can take up to a few months to process. Once you’ve decided that home-ownership is for you, the process of buying a home with a conventional mortgage will include the following steps:

  1. Choose your mortgage company
  2. Choose your desired loan type
  3. Get prequalified or preapproved for a loan
  4. Find a home that you’d like to buy
  5. Compare loans with your lender or broker
  6. Complete an application for the loan you want
  7. Get a good-faith estimate from your lender
  8. Get approved (or rejected) for your loan
  9. Provide proof of homeowner’s and mortgage insurance
  10. Attend the closing to finalize the transaction

1. Choose your mortgage lender

A mortgage lender is typically a bank or other financial institution that issues mortgages, though it could also be an individual who “totes the note.” Traditionally, home buyers looked for a mortgage lender after they had found a house to buy, but today’s savvy home buyers begin working with a lender before looking at properties. It’s a good way to avoid my 10 First Time Home Buyer Mistakes!


Why find a mortgage lender BEFORE you find a home?

1. To establish a reasonable price range

Lenders will tell you exactly how much home you can afford under their guidelines and how much they’re willing to lend you based on your credit score (Get your free triple credit score at GoFreeCredit.com). Once you know how much home you can afford, you can shop for a house that won’t blow your budget.

2. To get preapproved

Nothing makes a seller more nervous than a contingency clause enclosed inside an offer to buy. Sellers almost always feel more comfortable when a buyer has been preapproved for a mortgage loan. Another advantage to the buyer …  buyers who have been preapproved may have more leverage in negotiations with the seller. You’ll also stand out if several other buyers are bidding on the home you want because you can set an earlier closing date without having to wait on an approval process to run its course.

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How to Find a Mortgage Lender

You can find a mortgage lender either using the Internet, on your own, or through a mortgage broker, a professional who specializes in finding lenders for prospective home buyers.

  • On the Internet: The World Wide Web has been a boon for the mortgage industry. With potential home buyers able to communicate with lenders regardless of distance, rates are much more competitive. Some of the best lenders operate online and many of them almost exclusively. Long gone are the days when your choices were limited to the bank and the credit union. Options include companies like Lending Tree who take your information and have banks “bid” on your business, and Quicken Loans, who is America’s #1 online mortgage lender. If you prefer a smaller bank with more of a hometown feel, consider using either a local community bank or a credit union..
  • On your own: Working directly with a lender is a perfectly fine option for more experienced home buyers. If you’ve been around the mortgage block a few times, going it alone will probably work out just fine. If you do pursue lenders on your own, just be sure to visit and compare at least a few prospective lenders. The mortgage business is relatively unregulated compared to other aspects of the financial industry, so if you encounter a lender that doesn’t feel right to you, move on. If you’re uneasy about choosing a lender on your own, either work with an online lender or use a mortgage broker.
  • Through a mortgage broker: Working with a broker is often helpful for buyers with special circumstances, such as serious credit problems or the self employed. Not all brokers charge fees to borrowers — those who do typically charge a commission of 0.5–2% of the principal. Brokers who don’t charge fees receive a commission from the lender, which usually requires the lender to raise the loan’s rate slightly. If you work with a broker who charges a commission-based fee, refuse to pay more than 1%. To find a broker in your area, ask your real estate agent, or search online.

What to Look For in a Mortgage Lender

As you look for a lender, try to find one that offers the best combination of the following factors:

A stellar reputation

Work only with lenders with a great reputation and who demonstrate a sincere commitment to helping you through the process. If it feels like a lender just wants your money, move on. Another important point, how is the lender’s “follow-up?” Do they return your phone calls? Do they dodge your questions?

Low, low fees

Virtually all lenders charge an origination fee (generally 0.5–1% of the principal) to cover the expenses they incur to assess your credit score and process your loan. Lenders who charge no origination fees usually have higher interest rates.

Fantastic interest rates

Since YOUR interest rate will depend on your own personal situation (credit score, income, history, etc), don’t choose a lender based on its advertised rates. Why? The rate you receive will likely differ from those advertised rates. Those are called “teaser rates” because they tease and lure you in. A better choice is to choose a lender with realistic rates that are also competitive with other lenders.

Flexibility and specialization

Lenders you consider should specialize in the specific type of loan you want and be willing to look at your personal financial situation under a variety of different loan options.

Choosing your mortgage lender is the first step toward home ownership

Make your choice wisely!

2. Choose your loan type

Once you’ve determined how big a mortgage you can afford, your next steps (unless you’ve qualified for a government loan or another special situation) should be to choose your:

  1. Type of mortgage: Fixed-rate or adjustable-rate
  2. Term of mortgage: 15 or 30 years

Fixed-Rate vs. Adjustable-Rate Mortgages

The most important factor in your decision between an ARM or a fixed-rate mortgage is how long you plan to live in the property.

  • If you plan to live in the property for more than 5–7 years: A fixed-rate mortgage is usually the better choice. Since most ARMs start adjusting after 5–7 years, having a fixed-rate mortgage will protect you from the prospect of paying higher rates.
  • If you plan to sell within 5–7 years: You can benefit from the low initial rates of an ARM without facing the risk of adjusting interest rates if you sell the property before the initial fixed term of the mortgage ends. If you choose an ARM for this reason, though, make sure that you really will sell before the fixed term ends.

The Affordability Trap of ARMs

Home buyers often look to ARMs as a way to make a dream home “affordable.” They choose an ARM because they’re confident they can make the ARM’s lower monthly payments and ignore the prospect of being unable to afford the higher payments that might ensue when the ARM’s fixed-rate period ends. To avoid this trap, choose an ARM only if you’re certain you can afford the payments if they increase to the fullest possible amount after your rate adjusts.

15-Year vs. 30-Year Mortgages

The length of a mortgage’s term affects both the total cost of the mortgage and the size of the monthly payments.

  • Longer mortgage terms mean lower monthly payments: Because they stretch out the mortgage over more time, longer-term mortgages offer lower monthly payments than shorter-term mortgages.
  • Shorter mortgage terms result in lower total costs: Because they generate less total interest over time, shorter-term mortgages offer lower total cost than longer-term mortgages.

The table below shows monthly payments and total costs for two mortgages with the same principal ($100,000) and interest rate (6%), but with 15- and 30-year terms.

Term Monthly Payment Total Cost
15-year $843.86 $151,894
30-year $599.55 $215,838


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Which loan Should You Choose?

Whether you should choose a longer- or shorter-term mortgage depends on your particular financial situation. If you can definitely handle the higher monthly payments of a shorter-term mortgage, that’s probably the better way to go. If you can’t (and many people can’t), a longer-term mortgage is the better choice.

Should I even consider an ARM loan?

Honestly, that depends on your personal situation. Adjustable Rate Mortgages(ARMs) do have their place but they’re not the panacea many mortgage brokers make them out to be. An ARM loan is primarily for people with a specified need for a mortgage and who plan to sell their home before the rate term expires or adjusts.

An adjustable-rate mortgage (ARM) has an interest rate that can change at certain specified and agreed upon points during the term of the loan. Most ARMs offer a fixed rate for a certain period of time (3, 5, 7, or even 10 years), after which the rate adjusts to match current interest rates. Some ARMs have an interest rate adjustment cap (like one percent) over which the rate cannot adjust. For example, if your ARM has a rate of 3.75 percent with a 1 percent adjustment cap, it cannot adjust to more than 4.75 percent on its first adjustment go-around.

Whenever the interest rate adjusts, the amount of your monthly payment will increase (if interest rates rise) or decrease (if interest rates fall – there isn’t much downside risk for rates to fall right now). Like fixed-rate mortgages, ARMs usually come with 15- or 30-year terms. At the end of the term, you will have paid off the original principal plus interest. The total amount of interest that you pay on the loan will vary based on:

  • Interest-rate fluctuations throughout the life of the loan
  • The terms of the loan, such as how often it adjusts

What are the advantages and disadvantages of an ARM loan?

Advantages Disadvantages
Lower initial costs:During an ARM’s fixed term, interest rates and monthly payments are usually lower than those of fixed-rate mortgages. Financial risk: If rates have risen by the time your fixed term ends, your monthly payments on an ARM can increase substantially or even double.
Assumability: Unlike fixed-rate mortgages, many ARMs can be transferred to third parties, which can make your property attractive to buyers looking to assume a seller’s loan. Stress: Some borrowers forgo ARMs in exchange for the peace of mind that comes with fixed-rate mortgages’ permanent interest rates and set payment amounts.


How the Interest Rate of an ARM Adjusts

The rate index and margin determine how the interest rate of an ARM adjusts after the fixed-rate term expires.

  • Rate index: An ARM’s interest rate is tied to one of several rate indexes, such as the interest rates of U.S. Treasury bills or CDs. When the interest rate of the reference index upon which a particular ARM is based rises or falls, so does the interest rate of that ARM. If you’re comparing the index rates of two ARMs, be sure that the loans are based on the same index. The index rate is the interest rate of the ARM, not including the margin (explained below).
  • Margin: The markup that the lender adds to the index rate. The sum of the index rate and markup is called the fully indexed rate. Most lenders add a margin of 2–4 percent, which means that an ARM with an index rate of 5 percent would likely have a fully indexed rate of 7–9 percent.

If you’re shopping for an ARM, always be sure you’re evaluating the fully indexed rate of a loan, not just the index rate. Also, be wary of loans with teaser rates—introductory interest rates that are usually much lower than the loan’s fully indexed rate but often last as little as one month. Ignore teaser rates entirely and focus on the rate that takes effect once the fixed-rate period of your ARM ends.

Other Characteristics of ARMs

There are a few other key terms you should know as you begin to consider getting an ARM:

  • Adjustment frequency: Once the fixed-rate term expires, ARMs adjust interest rates at certain intervals: some loans adjust every month, while others adjust semiannually, annually, or every few years. If you’re comparing two ARMs, the one that adjusts less often is the better choice, assuming that all other factors are equal.
  • Caps: Caps are limits on the amount that an ARM’s interest rate can adjust from one interval to the next, as well as on the total amount that an ARM’s rate can adjust over the life of the loan. For instance, an ARM may have a 2/6 cap, meaning that the rate can increase or decrease no more than 2% in any adjustment period, and that it can increase or decrease no more than 6% in total over the term of the loan. If you’re comparing two similar ARMs, the one with stricter caps is usually the better choice. Never choose an ARM that doesn’t provide a cap on the loan’s maximum interest rate.
  • Convertibility: Convertibility is a feature that enables you to convert an ARM into a fixed-rate mortgage. Convertible ARMs usually have relatively high fully indexed rates in comparison to other ARMs.

So … should you get an ARM loan?

It’s impossible to answer one way or the other since I don’t know your personal financial situation, but if you plan to be in your home only 5-7 years and you’re confident you’ll be able to sell it when the time comes, an ARM loan may be your best choice.

But if you’re unwilling or unable to sell your home and the rate is about to adjust to a level that makes your payment difficult to make, an ARM loan may be your worst nightmare.

3. Get Prequalified or Preapproved

Once you’ve chosen a lender and a size and type of loan, the next step is to get prequalified or preapproved.

  • Getting prequalified: To get prequalified, you provide the lender with information about your income, assets, and debt. The lender then generates an estimate of what size mortgage you likely can get. Once you have an estimate, you’re prequalified for a loan, a much less formal version of preapproval.
  • Getting preapproved: To pre-approve you for a mortgage, the lender conducts a thorough analysis of your financial documents. You’ll likely need to provide pay stubs, tax returns, and copies of account statements. Some lenders charge a fee of about $50 in order to pre-approve you for a mortgage.

Prequalification and preapproval indicate that you’re likely to qualify for a mortgage of a particular type and size, but neither guarantees that you’ll be approved when you actually apply for a loan. Even so, it’s always helpful to get preapproved, not just prequalified, for a mortgage.

4. Find a Home that You’d Like to Buy

Once you’ve been preapproved, you’re ready to shop for a home. As you shop, remember that you’ve been preapproved for a loan of a certain size. That doesn’t mean you absolutely must stick within that price range, but choosing a significantly more expensive home will require you to start all over with your lender. After you find a home, you’ll:

  1. Make an initial offer to the seller: Your offer should be 10–15% below the total of the loan amount for which you’ve been preapproved plus the down payment that you expect to pay. That way you’ll still have wiggle room if the seller demands a higher price.
  2. Negotiate a final deal with the seller: Once the seller receives your initial offer, he or she will likely make a somewhat higher counteroffer. You’ll then negotiate other terms of the deal, such as whether the seller will pay for repairs or upgrades to the property.
  3. Sign a purchase agreement: A purchase agreement is a contract that formalizes the terms of the deal to which you and the seller have agreed. Usually the buyer’s real estate agent drafts the agreement.

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Once you have a purchase agreement signed, the real estate agents and lenders will confer to set a closing date. On the closing date, the sale of the property will close, or become final, and your lender will transfer funds to your seller.

5. Compare Mortgage Loans … beyond ARMs & Fixed-Rate Loans

After you’ve signed a purchase agreement, set up an appointment to meet with your lender to discuss specific loans to apply for. Ask your lender to present you with at least 3–5 loan options that have the type, term, and amount that you want. At the meeting, ask your lender to help you compare the various loans. In particular, pay close attention to the following three factors as you compare:


Disregard any interest rates your lender quotes except the annual percentage rate (APR) of each loan, which includes all of the loan’s costs in a single rate. If you’re comparing two 30-year fixed loans with APRs of 6.9% and 7.1%, the loan with the lower APR will have the lower total cost.


Not to be confused with a loan’s term, a loan’s terms are its various features and rules, such as prepayment penalties (see below) and, for ARMs, the adjustment frequency.

Some loans include a prepayment penalty that specifies a period of time during which the borrower cannot pay down the principal faster than through the normal amortization of the loan. The restrictive period usually lasts only for the first few years of the loan, but some loans have prepayment penalties for the entire term. Never get a loan with prepayment penalties of any sort. The only way to be 100% sure that your loan doesn’t include one is by reading all of your loan documents carefully before you sign—unscrupulous lenders may try to introduce a prepayment penalty clause at the last minute.

Closing Costs

Closing costs refer to all of the costs associated with approving and processing a loan, including origination fees, appraisal fees, and any points you pay on the loan (explained in step 5). Closing costs typically amount to 2–5% of the principal and are usually tax deductible. In addition to the fees that the lender charges for processing your loan application, expect to pay these closing costs as well:

  • Appraisal fee: This fee covers the appraisal that the lender commissions in order to assess the value of your property. The cost varies based primarily on the size of the home. Appraisals usually cost $150–500 depending on the size and market value of the home. For more info on the appraisal, see step 6.
  • Credit report fee: A fee of $40–60 that the lender charges to order and review your credit report.
  • Title search fee: The term title refers to the official ownership of a piece of property, such as home or car. Lenders conduct a title search before approving a loan to confirm that the seller of the property actually does own the property and to ensure that no outstanding liens or other judgments involving the property exist that could potentially impact the value or transaction of the property. Title search fees usually cost $250–500 based on the value of the property.
  • Title insurance fee: Lenders take out title insurance policies to protect them from any problems with the property’s title that the title search did not detect. This fee varies widely by state—from $100–1,000 or so.

At this point in the approval process, most lenders will offer you only a very rough estimate of closing costs. You’ll get a more accurate estimate in step 5.

6. Apply for the Loan

Once you’ve selected a specific loan to apply for, you’ll need to complete a loan application and submit documentation that the lender requires.

DON’T neglect to find out your credit score BEFORE you apply for credit.

  • Loan application: The Uniform Residential Loan Application, also called Form 1003, is a five-page form that the U.S. government requires all loan applicants to complete. Completing the form involves providing specific information about the type of loan for which you’re applying, the property you’re interested in buying, plus details about your income, assets, and existing debts.
  • Documentation: The specific types of documents you need to provide at this stage vary from lender to lender. It’s a good idea to have all of the documents listed in step 4 of “Initial Preparations for a Mortgage” earlier in this guide. You should also be prepared to sign a document that gives the lender permission to contact your employers and previous landlords (if any) and to obtain your credit reports, in order to confirm the information in your documents.

7. Receive a Good-Faith Estimate

Your lender is required by law to provide you with a good-faith estimate (GFE) within three days after you apply for a loan. The GFE provides an estimate of your loan’s closing costs and specifies the interest rate that the lender is willing to offer you. Since the GFE is only an estimate, expect your final closing costs to vary somewhat from the numbers quoted in the GFE. The interest rate will also likely change, unless you pay to lock it.

Should You Lock Your Interest Rate?

An interest rate lock protects you from changes in interest rates that occur between when you receive your GFE and when you actually get your loan. Most lenders will lock the rate quoted in your GFE for free for 30 days, including adjusting the rate downward if rates fall. For a fee of 1/8–1/4 of a point (1 point = 1% of your principal), the lender will guarantee your rate for up to 60 days and adjust the rate downward if rates fall. It usually makes sense to pay to lock your rate if:

  • You don’t expect to close on your loan within 30 days
  • You’re getting a loan at a time of volatile interest rates, especially if rates are rising steadily

Locking programs vary, so inquire with your lender if you’re interested in locking your rate.

Should You Pay Points?

Lenders often will agree to lower the interest rate quoted in your GFE in exchange for an up-front cash payment. Each point you pay is equal to 1% of your principal and reduces your rate by a certain fixed amount, usually a fraction of 1%. For example, paying two points on a $100,000, 30-year fixed mortgage with a 6% APR would cost $2,000 and might lower your rate to 5.5%. A simple calculation can help you decide whether to pay points:

  1. Calculate the difference in monthly payments that will result from paying points. Using the numbers in the example above, paying two points will reduce the monthly payment from $599.55 to $567.79, a difference of $31.76 per month.
  2. Divide the amount paid in points ($2,000) by the monthly payment savings ($31.76). The result will indicate how many months you will need to “break even” on the cost of your points. In the above example, it would take 2,000 ÷ 31.76, or about 63 months.
  3. Consider how long you plan to live in the property and/or how long you expect to keep your loan. If you plan to sell the house or refinance your loan (to get a lower rate) within less than the time it takes to break even on your points (63 months in this example), you should not pay points.

8. Get Approved for Your Loan

Even at this point, you are still not definitively approved for your loan. The final preapproval step involves turning over your loan to a loan processor (usually an employee of your lender) who reviews all of your documentation to confirm the information in your loan application. Expect the loan processor to call you during the process if they run into any difficulties verifying your information—if they do call, it’s essential to respond immediately in order to keep the process on track.

The Lender’s Appraisal

While the loan processor is working on finalizing your loan, the lender will arrange for an independent appraisal of the property you intend to buy. The goal of the appraisal is to confirm that the property is worth at least as much as the loan principal amount—if the appraiser’s report concludes that the property is not, the lender will most likely not approve the loan. Most lenders include the appraisal fee in the loan’s closing costs, though some lenders cover this cost themselves. If you pay for the appraisal, you’re entitled to receive a copy of the appraiser’s report.

The Lender’s Approval

Assuming all goes well with the appraisal and the loan officer’s investigative research, the lender will send you a:

  • Commitment letter: A letter from your lender stating that your loan has been officially approved
  • Truth-in-Lending disclosure statement (TIL): A form that lists the estimated total costs, monthly payment amounts, and main terms of your loan

Review these documents carefully. If you uncover any problematic discrepancies with earlier cost estimates or loan terms that you’ve received, discuss them with your lender as soon as possible.

If the Lender Rejects Your Loan Application

If your loan application is rejected, you’re entitled to know the specific reasons why. The most common reasons you might be rejected are if you fail to provide sufficient information, the appraised value of the property is insufficient, or problems arise with your application that had so far gone undetected, such as undisclosed credit- or income-related issues. Once you know exactly why your loan was rejected, ask your lender to recommend alternative options. Depending on the specific reasons why you were rejected, you might still qualify for a different type of loan or a loan with a lower principal.

Seller Financing

If you’re rejected by lenders more than once and don’t know what to do, consider looking for properties that offer seller financing. Seller financing is an alternative home loan arrangement in which the seller offers the buyer a loan directly to finance the purchase of the property. The buyer then pays the seller interest on the loan, circumventing the ordinary loan approval and payment process entirely. Seller financing has certain advantages over regular financing—the approval process is less stringent, and sellers are sometimes willing to overlook credit problems and other issues that lenders could not ignore.

9. Provide Proof of Insurance

After you’ve been approved, the last step before you receive your loan and close on your property is to provide your lender with proof that you’ve obtained homeowner’s insurance. Homeowner’s insurance covers property- related losses that result from catastrophic events, such as fires and hurricanes. Mortgage lenders typically require you to obtain an amount of homeowner’s insurance equal to the total replacement value of the property—the amount it would cost to replace the home if it were completely destroyed. Homeowner’s insurance costs vary based on the value and location of the property—most policies cost at least a few hundred dollars per year.

Once you’ve obtained a policy, ask your insurer to fax your lender a proof of insurance form to certify that you have a homeowner’s insurance policy in place.

Private Mortgage Insurance (PMI)

If you’re required to buy PMI, you’ll need to provide proof that you’ve obtained a PMI policy before your lender will agree to issue your loan. Ask your lender or your homeowner’s insurance provider to put you in contact with PMI providers. PMI costs vary depending on a variety of factors, but they usually amount to 0.5–1% of the principal (spread out over the term of the loan, since you pay PMI on top of your monthly mortgage and homeowner’s insurance payments).

Lenders are required by law to allow you to cancel your private mortgage insurance once the amount of principal you’ve paid off exceeds 20% of the property’s original purchase price (or the property’s original appraised value at the time you obtained the loan, whichever is less).

10. Attend the Closing

The closing is a meeting that finalizes your real estate transaction. Money changes hands from you (and your lender) to the seller, and the seller delivers the keys to the property to you, the new owner. A representative from your lender attends the meeting to provide the loan check to the seller to cover the balance of your down payment and the property’s purchase price. The loan “check” is often delivered electronically at the time of the closing.

At the closing, you also sign off on a variety of documents to make the transfer of property (and the loan) final. These documents include the mortgage contract, which secures the loan with the new property, and several other documents, such as the HUD-1 form, which specifies the loan’s final closing costs. Take the time to read through all of these documents carefully to make sure none of the loan’s main terms or fees have changed substantially.


Welcome to home-ownership! Now it’s time to move your belongings into your new home!

About the author

Ron Haynes has written 988 articles on The Wisdom Journal.

The founder and editor of The Wisdom Journal in 2007, Ron has worked in banking, distribution, retail, and upper management for companies ranging in size from small startups to multi-billion dollar corporations. He graduated Suma Cum Laude from a top MBA program and currently is a Human Resources and Management consultant, helping companies know how employees will behave in varying situations and what motivates them to action, assisting firms in identifying top talent, and coaching managers and employees on how to better communicate and make the workplace MUCH more enjoyable. If you'd like help in these areas, contact Ron using the contact form at the top of this page or at 870-761-7881.