Home ownership is the foundation of the American dream, and often, a mortgage is necessary to make that dream come true. Finding the right mortgage loan is arguably just as important as finding the right property. You’ll be paying off your mortgage for years, and the best terms can save you thousands of dollars over time.
This guide explains how mortgages work, the basics of mortgage fees and the mortgage process, and the different types of loans available. You’ll get an overview of the top mortgage lenders in the United States so you can find the best deal for your loan.
U.S. News conducted an in-depth review of leading direct mortgage lenders. Research was based on program availability, customer satisfaction ratings and qualification requirements. Because each consumer has different needs, the top finishers in several key areas were chosen.
Quicken Loans is a nationwide mortgage lender with several mortgage options. Known for customer service, the lender has an A+ Better Business Bureau rating and received a rating of five (among the best) in the 2018 U.S. Primary Mortgage Origination Satisfaction Study.
Mortgage types offered: Conventional, jumbo, ARM, VA FHA, refinance
Minimum FICO credit score: 580 (FHA), other loans vary
A major financial institution serving homeowners nationwide, Bank of America has good customer satisfaction ratings. The bank has an A+ Better Business Bureau rating and a J.D. Power rating of four, which is better than most.
Mortgage types offered: Conventional, VA FHA, refinance, home equity
Minimum FICO score: 620
Maximum loan-to-value ratio: 100%
Maximum debt-to-income ratio: 55%
Loan amounts: Up to$5,000,000
Total closing costs: Varies
J.D. Power overall satisfaction rating: Four out of five
Guild Mortgage serves homebuyers nationwide with multiple mortgage options. Mortgage shoppers can choose from conventional or agency loans with this lender, which has an A+ BBB rating and a four out of five J.D. Power satisfaction rating.
Mortgage types offered: Conventional, jumbo, ARM, VA, FHA, USDA, refinance
LoanDepot was established in 2010 and since then has financed more than $70 billion in mortgages. It offers FHA, conventional and other mortgage options. Borrowers may qualify for a loan with a FICO credit score as low as 580.
Mortgage types offered: Conventional, jumbo, ARM, VA, FHA, home equity
Fairway Independent Mortgage was established more than 20 years ago and has funded more than $50 billion in loans. The lender has excellent customer satisfaction ratings and offers most mortgage products, including USDA loans.
Mortgage types offered: Conventional, jumbo, ARM, VA FHA, USDA refinance
Minimum FICO credit score: 580 (FHA), other loans vary
Maximum debt-to-income ratio: 43%
J.D. Power satisfaction rating: Five out of five
How Mortgages Work
When you take out a mortgage, you borrow money from a lender to buy your home. A mortgage is a secured loan with your home as collateral, so the lender will hold the title to the property until the loan is paid in full. You will make payments on the loan each month, including interest, until it is paid off. At that point, you'll hold the title and own your home outright.
When you choose a mortgage, you have four major decisions to make: the lender, loan type, loan term and interest rate type.
Types of Mortgage Loans
There are two major types of mortgage loans: government-backed and conventional. Government-backed mortgage programs offer guarantees to lenders that reduce their risk and can make it easier for borrowers to qualify for a mortgage. Conventional loans do not offer the same guarantees but may have lower interest rates.
FHA loans. The Federal Housing Administration, part of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, offers loan programs that make it easier for homebuyers to qualify for mortgages. The FHA doesn’t lend money; instead, it insures mortgages and reimburses lenders if borrowers default on the loan.
With government backing, it’s easier to qualify for FHA loans than conventional ones. You could qualify with a lower credit score and a smaller down payment, as little as 3.5%. However, you need to pay the FHA an upfront fee of 1.75% of the loan amount, plus annual mortgage insurance for at least 11 years. With these fees, FHA loans can be more expensive than conventional ones.
But programs like the FHA 203(k) Rehabilitation Mortgage Insurance program could help you finance a fixer-upper, offering funds in your mortgage to pay for renovations and improvements.
Bob Blackhurst, Realtor with BHHS Fox & Roach Real Estate Agents & Associates in Greenville, Delaware, finds these loans come in handy for many of his clients. “Housing inventory is tight, and it’s not easy to find properties in perfect condition. The FHA 203(k) loan program is a great tool to have at your disposal.”
VA loans. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs offers a loan guarantee to help active-duty members of the military, veterans and their surviving spouses qualify for mortgages. There are zero-down-payment VA loans, and lenders may charge a lower interest rate compared to conventional loans. However, funding fees are higher the smaller your down payment.
State and local mortgage programs. State and local governments often have their own mortgage programs to help people buy homes. There are programs that help first-time buyers, encourage buyers in underdeveloped areas and support public sector employees such as firefighters and teachers. Check with your state or local housing department to see what programs are available in your area.
Conventional mortgages aren’t part of a government program. They’re a contract between homebuyers and private lenders. These loans can be more difficult to qualify for because they don’t have a guarantee if you default. However, they don’t have any rules limiting who can apply.
Conventional mortgage lenders typically require a down payment from 5% to 20%, though some offer loans with a down payment as low as 3%, according to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. If you have a down payment of less than 20%, your lender will likely require you to buy private mortgage insurance, which pays the lender if you default.
Loan term. Loan term is the length of your mortgage, or how long you are scheduled to make payments. Mortgage loan terms are usually 15 or 30 years.
Your loan term significantly influences how much you pay per month. With a longer mortgage term, your monthly payments are smaller because you have more time to pay the loan back. However, a longer term will cost more in total interest, and long-term mortgage interest rates are usually higher than short-term ones.
For example, compare a $200,000 mortgage with a 15- or 30-year term. Each loan charges a 3.5% interest rate. With the 15-year mortgage, the monthly payment is $1,430 with $57,358 in total interest. With the 30-year mortgage, the monthly payment is $898. However, the total interest is $123,312, more than twice as much as the 15-year loan’s interest.
Interest Rate Type
Fixed rate. A fixed-rate mortgage keeps the same interest rate throughout the entire term. Your monthly payment will always stay the same, and it is easy to budget. You will know exactly what your mortgage payments are going to be for the entire term and won’t have to worry about costs going up. But you can't benefit if market interest rates fall unless you refinance.
The monthly payments on a fixed-rate mortgage are typically higher than the initial monthly payments on an adjustable-rate mortgage. Lenders charge higher interest rates on fixed-rate mortgages because they can’t increase your interest rate later. Over time, the payments on an adjustable-rate mortgage could go higher, but they will generally start lower than on a fixed-rate mortgage.
Adjustable rate. The interest rate on an adjustable-rate mortgage can change over time, which means your monthly payments can change depending on market interest rates. Adjustable-rate mortgage interest rates are based on a benchmark rate, such as the prime rate. When these rates go up, the interest rate and monthly payment for your mortgage go up. When they do down, so will your interest rate and monthly payment.
Adjustable-rate mortgages have rules for how often the interest rate can change. For example, on a 5/1 ARM, you'll keep the same rate for the first five years and adjust only once per year after that. Similarly, 3/1 ARMs keep the same interest rate for the first three years and can adjust once per year after that. Each adjustment has a cap and the loan have a lifetime cap on how much your rate can increase overall.
Before signing up, calculate how much the payments would be if the ARM hits the maximum rate under the lifetime cap. Consider whether you can still afford the loan payments even in the most expensive scenario.
U.S. News Survey: Most homebuyers are well-informed before obtaining a mortgage, but many aren’t doing enough research.
U.S. News conducted a survey of U.S. mortgage holders to identify how well homebuyers are researching mortgage loans. Overall, homebuyers know what they’re getting into. They’re typically spending more than an hour researching home loans and comparing at least two mortgage lenders, including comparing APRs and closing costs. However, there are many homebuyers who don’t spend enough time researching home loans or comparing lenders.
More than half of respondents spent at least one hour researching home loans.