1 Do your homework. The first step is to check your credit report with the three credit reporting agencies.
You can do it for free at AnnualCreditReport.com. If there are any errors, correct them. Then do what you can to improve your credit rating by paying down your debt.
Avoid borrowing to buy a car or other big-ticket item in the months before you apply for a mortgage — and, for that matter, up to the date you finally close on your new home.
You can check your credit score at MyFico.com for $19.95. Anyone with scores below 620 will find it very difficult to qualify for a mortgage; borrowers with scores over 740 qualify for the best rates. It's a good idea to try to improve your score in the months before you apply for a mortgage, because even a 20-point improvement can make a difference in the rate you can get, according to David Stein, chief operating officer of Residential Home Funding in Parsippany, N.J.
2 Get preapproved. Even before you start looking for a house, you should get preapproved for a mortgage. This will make you a stronger buyer, because sellers will know you have the financing in place to move forward.
In addition, getting preapproved for a mortgage amount "sets boundaries around what you can afford. Those boundaries dictate what your price range is," said McBride.
3 Choose between rates. The standard loan offers a fixed interest rate for 30 years. Adjustable-rate mortgages (ARMs) offer a fixed rate for, typically, the first five or seven years; after that, the rates can rise every year. In exchange for accepting the risk that interest rates will rise, borrowers get a lower initial rate on ARMs. According to the Mortgage Bankers Association, ARMs make up about 7 percent of the current market.
But ARMs make sense only for people who know for sure that they're going to be in the house for a limited time.
"Forget about adjustable rates altogether unless you have sufficient financial stability that you could absorb a higher monthly payment if your timetable doesn't pan out," McBride said.
4 Decide on the length of the loan. Fifteen-year loans are more popular with refinancing homeowners than they are with first-time home buyers because many buyers can't afford the higher monthly payments. The reward for those higher payments is that over time, you'll pay much less in interest by shortening the life of the loan. And 15-year mortgages come with lower rates.
Sammy Thomas, a consultant living in Ridgewood, N.J., wasn't looking for a 15-year mortgage when he decided to refinance as rates dipped last year. But with rates on 15-year mortgages then hovering around 3 percent, he decided that was the best deal. The shorter loan also meant that he and his wife, Demi, a teacher, could live mortgage-free sooner. That was especially appealing as they plan for their retirement, said Thomas, 58. In fact, they hope to put extra money on the loan each month and have it paid off in 11 or 12 years.
A homeowner with a $300,000 mortgage will pay $1,520 a month on a 30-year, 4.5 percent mortgage. A 15-year mortgage, at 3.75 percent, would run $2,182 a month. But over the life of the loans, the 15-year borrower would pay $92,700 in interest, while the 30-year borrower would pay $247,220 in interest.
Even if you're not sure you can afford the higher monthly payments that come with a 15-year loan, you can shorten the life of a 30-year loan yourself by paying extra toward the principal each month, Gumbinger said.
5 Lock in your rate. Once you've found a good rate, consider locking it in, which you can usually do for no cost, or for a fee that is refunded at closing. It's not worth betting that rates will fall before you close on the house.