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Getting Your Finances in Order

A crucial step in starting your search for a new home is having a clear idea of your financial situation. By getting a handle on your income, expenses, and debts, you'll have a much better idea of what you can afford and how much you'll need to borrow.

For lenders to verify this information, though, they're going to need to look at your financial records. It is also important to remember that you should include records for each person who will be an owner of the house. So before you even visit the bank, make sure you'll be able to provide copies of these important documents:

  • Paycheck Stubs
    Remember that lenders are most interested in your average income. Not only will they want to see this month's paycheck, but also how much you've been making for the past two years. Steady employment is also more attractive to lenders, so if you've been hopping from job to job, be prepared to discuss the reasons why.
  • Bank Statements
    In order to qualify you for a loan, most lenders will also ask you for copies of your bank statements. Ideally, they'd like to see a steady history of savings-or at the very least, that you're not bouncing checks every month.
  • Tax Records
    It's always a good idea to save copies of your tax returns, especially if you're self-employed. If you own your own business, it's important to note that lenders generally consider your income as the amount you paid taxes on-not the gross income of the business.
  • Dividends & Investments
    Lenders will usually consider long-term investment dividends, as well as your investment portfolio, when evaluating your income.
  • Alimony/Child Support
    If you receive steady payments as part of a divorce settlement or for child support, you can also include this as part of your gross income. Just remember that lenders will want to see a copy of your divorce/court settlement verifying the amount of the payments.
  • Credit Report
    Virtually every lender will want to see a copy of your credit report as part of the loan application process. The report lists all of your long-term debts, as well as your payment history. In general, they will require you to pay for the credit report (approximately $50), but if you have a recent copy, they may accept that instead.
  • With your agent or lender before making a decision.


Your Credit History

As part of the loan application process, virtually all lenders will want to see a copy of your credit report. The report will list all your long-term debts (credit cards, mortgage payments, automobile and student loans, etc), as well as your payment history. If you don't have a copy of your credit report, most lenders will generally require you to pay for a copy when they process your loan application.

However, most real estate experts agree that it is a good idea to obtain a copy of your credit report several months before you apply for a loan. This is so you have a chance to resolve any problems with your credit before your bank sees it. U. S. Federal law ensures that you have access to your credit report, which may be obtained from your local credit bureau or any of several national firms that specialize in credit reports.

Late payments
For most people, problems with their credit report are likely related to late payments on a debt. If you were late one month in paying off your credit card, but otherwise have a good payment history, chances are most lenders won't be too concerned. But if you have a history of late payments you'll need to document the reasons why. A slow payment history won't necessarily get you turned down for a loan, but you may have to pay a higher rate of interest or otherwise prove to the lender that you can repay your loan in a timely fashion.

Errors on your credit report
Many people are surprised to learn that credit reports can often contains errors or inaccurate information. If this is the case with your credit report, you'll need to contact the reporting agency or creditor to have the problem resolved. This can sometimes be a slow process, so make sure to give yourself time to clear up the mistake.

Bankruptcies and foreclosures
There's no getting around it, a bankruptcy on your credit report is not a good thing. But that doesn't mean you still can't obtain a loan. Even though a bankruptcy may stay on your credit report for seven to ten years, lenders will often consider the circumstances surrounding a bankruptcy (family illness, injury, etc.). Moreover, if you have reestablished good credit since the bankruptcy, a lender will be more inclined to approve your application.

15-Year, 30-Year, or a Biweekly Mortgage?

In the past, the 30-year, fixed-rate mortgage was the standard choice for most homebuyers. Today, however, lenders offer a wide array of loan types in varying lengths-including 15, 20, 30, and even 40-year mortgages.

Deciding what length is best for you should be based on several factors including: your purchasing power, your anticipated future income and how disciplined you want to be about paying off the mortgage.

What are the benefits of a shorter loan term?
Some homeowners choose fixed-rate loans that are less than 30 years in order to save money by paying less interest over the life of the loan. For example, a $100,000 loan at 8 percent interest comes with a monthly payment of around $734 (excluding taxes and homeowner's insurance). Over 30 years, this adds up to $264,240. In other words, over the life of the loan you would pay a whopping $164,240 just in interest.

With a 15-year loan, however, the monthly payments on the same loan would be approximately $956-for a total of $172,080. The monthly payments are more than $200 more than they would be for a 30-year mortgage, but over the life of the loan you would save more than $92,000.

What are the advantages to a 30-year loan?
Despite the interest saving of a 15-year loan, they're not for everyone. For one thing, the higher monthly payment might not allow some homeowners to qualify for a house they could otherwise afford with the lower payments of a 30-year mortgage. The lower monthly payment can also provide a greater sense of security in the event your future earning power might decrease.

Furthermore, with a little bit of financial discipline, there are a variety of methods that can help you pay off a 30-year loan faster with only a moderately higher monthly payment. One such choice is the biweekly mortgage payment plan, which is now offered by many lenders for both new and existing loans.

Biweekly mortgages
As the name implies, biweekly mortgage payments are made every two weeks instead of once a month-which over a year works out to the equivalent of making one extra monthly payment (compared to a traditional payment plan). One extra payment a year may not sound like much, but it can really add up over time. In fact, switching from a traditional payment to a biweekly mortgage can actually shorten the term of a 30-year loan by several years and save you thousands in interest.

If you're interested in a biweekly payment plan, make sure to check with your lender. In many cases, lenders also offer direct payment services that automatically withdraw funds from your bank account, saving you the trouble of having to write and mail a check every two weeks.

Making extra payments yourself-do it early!
Another way to pay off your loan more quickly is to simply include extra funds with your monthly payment. Most lenders will allow you to make extra payments towards the principal balance of your loan without penalty. This is especially attractive to homebuyers who are concerned about their future earning power, but still want to be aggressive about paying off their loan.

For example, if you had a 30-year loan, you might decide to send the equivalent of one or two extra payments a year (which could shorten the overall length of the loan by many years). But if your financial situation suddenly took a turn for the worse, you could always fall back on the regular monthly payment.

One important note, though, is that if you do decide to send extra funds, make sure to do it EARLY in the life of a loan. This is because most home loans are calculated in such a way that the first few year of payments are almost entirely interest, while the last few years are mostly applied towards the principal balance. Thus, you can get the most bang for your buck my making the extra payments early in the life of the loan.

How Mortgage Loans Work

Excluding property taxes and insurance, a traditional fixed-rate mortgage payment consist of two parts: (1) interest on the loan and (2) payment towards the principal, or unpaid balance of the loan.

Many people are surprised to learn however, that the amount you pay towards interest and principal varies dramatically over time. This is because mortgage loans work in such a way that the early payments are primarily in interest, and the later payments are primarily towards the principal.

In the beginning… you pay interest
To help calculate monthly payments for loans based on different interest rates, lender long ago developed what are known as "amortization tables." These tables also make it fairly easy to calculate how much money of each payment is interest, and how much goes towards the principal balance.

For example, let's calculate the principle and interest for the very first monthly payment of a 30-year, $100,000 mortgage loan at 7.5 percent interest. According to the amortization tables, the monthly payment on this loan is fixed at $699.21.

The first step is to calculate the annual interest by multiplying $100,000 x .075 (7.5 %). This equals $7,500, which we then divide by 12 (for the number of months in a year), which equals $625.

If you subtract $625 from the monthly payment of $699.21, we see that:

  • $625 of the first payment is interest
  • $74.21 of the first payment goes towards the principal

    Next, if we subtract $74.21 (the first principal payment) from the $100,000 of the loan, we come up with a new unpaid principal balance of $99,925.79. To determine the next month's principal and interest payments, we just repeat the steps already described.

    Thus, we now multiply the new principal balance (99,925.79) times the interest rate (7.5%) to get an annual interest payment of $7,494.43. Divided by 12, this equals $624.54. So during the second month's payment:
     
  • $624.54 is interest
  • $74.64 goes towards the principal.

    Note: In Canada, payments are compounded semi-annually instead of monthly.

    Equity
    As you can see from the above example, even though you pay a lot interest up front, you're also slowly paying down the overall debt. This is known as building equity. Thus, even if you sell a house before the loan is paid in full, you only have to pay off the unpaid principal balance-the difference between the sales price and the unpaid principle is your equity.

    In order to build to equity faster-as well as save money on interest payments-some homeowners choose loans with faster repayment schedules (such as a 15-year loan.)

    Time versus saving
    To help illustrate how this works, consider our previous example of a $100,000 loan at 7.5 percent interest. The monthly payment is around $700, which over 30 years adds up to $252,000. In other words, over the life of a loan you would pay $152,000 just in interest.

    With the aggressive repayment schedule of a 15-year loan, however, the monthly payment jumps to $927-for a total of $166,860 over the life of the loan. Obviously, the monthly payments are more than they would be for a 30-year mortgage, but over the life of the loan you would save more than $85,000 in interest.

    Bear in mind that shorter term loans are not the right answer for everyone, so make sure to ask your lender or real estate agent about what loan makes the best sense for your individual situation.

    Understanding Different Types of Loans

    Today's homebuyer has more financing options then have ever been available before. From traditional mortgages to adjustable-rate and hybrid loans, there are financing packages designed to meet the needs of virtually anyone.

    While the different choices may seem overwhelming at first, the overall goal is really quite simple: you want to find a loan that fits both your current financial situation and your future plans. Though this article discusses some of the more common loan types, you should spend time talking with different lenders before deciding on the right loan for your situation.

    General categories of loans
    Most loans fall into three major categories: fixed-rate, adjustable-rate, and hybrid loans that combine features of both.

    • Fixed-rate mortgages
      As the name implies, a fixed-rate mortgage carries the same interest rate for the life of the loan. Traditionally, fixed-rate mortgages have been the most popular choice among homeowners, because the fixed monthly payment is easy to plan and budget for, and can help protect against inflation. Fixed-rate mortgages are most common in 30-year and 15-year terms, but recently more lenders have begun offering 20-year and 40-year loans.


    • Adjustable-rate mortgages (ARM)
      Adjustable-rate mortgages differ from fixed-rate mortgages in that the interest rate and monthly payment can change over the life of the loan. This is because the interest rate for an ARM is tied to an index (such as Treasury Securities) that my rise or fall over time. In order to protect against dramatic increases in the rate, ARM loans usually have caps that limit the rate from rising above a certain amount between adjustments (i. e. no more than 6 percent). With these protections and low introductory rates, ARM loans have become the most widely accepted alternative to fixed-rate mortgages.


    • Hybrid loans
      Hybrid loans combine features of both fixed-rate and adjustable-rate mortgages. Typically, a hybrid loan may start with a fixed-rate for a certain length of time, and then later convert to an adjustable-rate mortgage. However, be sure to check with your lender and find out how much the rate may increase after the conversion, as some hybrid loans do not have interest rate caps for the first adjustment period.

      Other hybrid loans may start with a fixed interest rate for several years, and then later change to another (usually higher) fixed interest rate for the remainder of the loan term. Lenders frequently charge a lower introductory interest rate for hybrid loans vs. a traditional fixed-rate mortgage, which makes hybrid loans attractive to homeowners who desire the stability of a fixed-rate, but only plan to stay in their properties for a short time.

    Balloon payments
    A balloon payment refers to a loan that has a large, final payment due at the end of the loan. For example, there are currently fixed-rate loans, which allow homeowners to make payments based on a 30-year loan, even though the entire balance of the loan may be due (the balloon payment) after 7 years. As with some hybrid loans, balloon loans may be attractive to homeowners who do not plan to stay in their house more than a short period of time.

    Time as a factor in your loan choice
    As has been discussed, the length of time you plan to own a property may have a strong influence on the type of loan you choose. For example, if you plan to stay in a home for 10 years or longer, a traditional fixed-rate mortgage may be your best bet. But if you plan on owning a home for a very short period (5 years or less), then the low introductory rate of an adjustable-rate mortgage may make the most financial sense. In general, ARMs have the lowest introductory interest rates, followed by hybrid loans, and then traditional fixed-rate mortgages.

    FHA and VA loans
    U. S. government loan programs such as those of the Federal Housing Authority (FHA) and Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) are designed to promote home ownership for people who might not otherwise be able to qualify for a conventional loan. Both FHA and VA loans have lower qualifying rations than conventional loans, and often require smaller or no down payments.

    Bear in mind, however, that FHA and VA loans are not issued by the government; rather, the loans are made by private lenders. FHA loans are insured to the actual lender and VA loans are guaranteed in case the borrower defaults. Remember too, that while any U. S. citizen may apply for a FHA loan, VA loans are only available to veterans or their spouses and certain government employees.

    Conventional loans
    A conventional loan is simply a loan offered by a traditional private lender. They may be fixed-rate, adjustable, hybrid, or other types. While conventional loans may be harder to qualify for than government-backed loans, they often require less paperwork and typically do not have a maximum allowable amount.
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