Valuing Your Home: How Appraisals Work

An appraisal is a process that supports a realistic value of a property against which a borrower would like to borrow money.  With the changes in the real estate market, appraisals, which are required by lenders, are drawing more attention from lenders as part of the approval process.

To establish the value of a property, appraisers, who in most states need to be licensed, start with an interior and exterior inspection of the property. They then look at recent sales of similar homes, called comparables, or comps.  These comparables (a minimum of three) are ideally located within a one-mile radius of what is called the Subject Property and have sold within the previous few months.

Depending on the availability of such comparables, it may be necessary for an appraiser to go outside this radius, especially on custom homes. Examples of this might be homes on oversized lots, or those with finished basements.

Since every home is different from every other, the appraiser will give what are called adjustments to each comparable. These adjustments will account for differences such as the number of bedrooms and square footage in otherwise very similar properties.

Appraisals of investment properties are similar to those of owner-occupied homes, the difference being the preparation of additional documents, including those showing what the rental market for that type of property will bear in that area. The lender needs to know both the market value of the property, and the potential rental income to calculate a cash flow.

Why Falling House Prices Are Good News for First-Time Buyers

With all of the focus on the credit and mortgage markets of late, one of the bright spots in the housing market – and there are several – is that first-time home buyers are finding that homes previously out of reach are now becoming a reality, due to declining home prices.

With both Fannie Mae and FHA offering programs with low down-payment programs, some in the range of 3%, first-time home buyers owe it to themselves to at least take a look at what is available to them.

There are other incentives for first-time buyers, such as the $7,500 tax credit offered by the federal government. This is a no-interest loan, and the buyer has up to 15 years to pay it back. FHA allows the seller to offer up to 6% of the purchase price back to the buyer in the form of a seller credit. This credit can be used toward such items as closing costs.

It is advisable to get preapproved before going to a real estate agent.

There are a couple of reasons for this. Real estate agents, before spending time and expense to show potential buyers houses, want to know that their clients can in fact afford the houses they are being shown. The other reason is that borrowers who have been preapproved will have more credibility with sellers if more than one offer is made on a property at the same time.

Borrowers, once they qualify for financing, should always employ the services of a good real estate attorney and have him or her review everything before signing.

Good to Know: The Role of a Title Company

A title company coordinates the transfer of real estate from one party to another.  There are many steps involved in this process. From beginning to end it goes roughly as follows:

When a lender meets with a borrower, for either a purchase or a refinance, the  lender requests title, to find out what, if any, liens have been placed against the property.

In a purchase transaction, the lender will get a copy of title from the seller’s attorney.

In the case of a refinance, the lender (or broker) will order title directly from the title company.

The title company performs a title search, or abstract, pulling data from the recording body, usually the county, to determine what liens are on that property.

If there are unexpected liens, the borrower will be able to address them with the seller before closing.

A title company will often offer title insurance, which is insurance against liens being placed on the property after the search is performed, potentially causing the buyer expense at a later date.
Once the transaction is ready to go to closing, the title company will prepare closing documents and reconcile the figures from both sides of the transaction. Once both sides are in agreement, the title company receives then distributes the funds sent by the lender.

At the closing, the title company will review the documents with the borrower.

Keep in mind though that the titile company is unable to give advice or direct a borrower as to a course of action if questions arise. Borrowers should always have either an attorney or someone knowledgeable about the lending process involved.

After the closing, the title company will arrange to have the recordable documents sent to the recording body to be recorded.

Mortgage Shoppers: How the Law Protects You

In order to have continuity in the mortgage process and to protect the rights of borrowers, The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has developed regulations called RESPA (the Real Estate Settlement Procedures Act) and TIL (the Truth in Lending Act.)

These acts were designed to provide borrowers who are shopping for mortgages with certain information, in a standardized format, so that costs and other information can be compared from lender to lender.

A few of the documents that must be provided to the borrower, either within three days of application or at closing, are listed below:

Good Faith Estimate (GFE)

Regulations require that this document be given to the borrower within three days of application.  It discloses rates and fees, including escrow deposits the lender expects to charge and/or collect from the borrower.

Truth in Lending Disclosure (TIL)

This document shows the APR (Annual Percentage Rate).  APR is, in effect, the total cost of the loan, expressed as a rate, with the costs of the loan factored in.  This is useful for borrowers to understand because lenders who charge the same rate but with different fees will have different APRs. The lower the APR, the lower the total cost.

Escrow Account Disclosure

If the lender is requiring the borrower to have an escrow account from which taxes and/or insurance will be paid the lender is required to notify the borrower within three days of application.


Also known as a Settlement Statement, this HUD paper breaks down for the borrower, at closing, the fees that are being charged in the transaction, as well as payoffs, escrows, etc.  The figures here should closely match, and can be compared to, the Good Faith Estimate.

What Your Mortgage Broker Offers

With so many choices available today for consumers who want to obtain home financing, it may be helpful to compare and contrast mortgage brokers and banks from a mortgage perspective.

There are three main differences:

1) How many lenders each works with
2) How the loans are funded
3) How each are compensated

Mortgage brokers connect lenders and borrowers. They can and usually do work with many lenders. This gives borrowers a range of choices because brokers can select the best product and terms for their clients.

Another difference is how the loan is funded, or how the money gets to the borrower. At closing, a broker will request funds from the lender, who will send them electronically, but the broker never holds the funds. A bank will deliver the loan directly out of its own funds, from what is called a warehouse line.

The broker gets paid by the lender in the form of what is called a Yield Spread Premium (YSP), or fee for finding and processing the borrower. Brokers by law must disclose the YSP to the borrower; banks, if they charge one, are exempt from having to disclose the YSP.

The higher the interest rate, the higher the Yield Spread paid to the broker. Brokers stay competitive by keeping the YSP and the rate low.

Brokers, if needed, are able to charge a slightly higher rate and then refund a portion of the YSP back to borrowers in the form of a broker credit toward closing costs. This assists borrowers who would otherwise be lacking in the funds to pay closing costs.

Latest Rules for Investment Property Financing

If there has been a good time to buy an investment property in the last 10 or so years, it is probably now. There are many properties that would be suitable as investments, as a result of foreclosures and declining market values in general.

There are, however, things to know about in the current market that may have been less of a factor, even several years ago.


Getting financing is probably one of the most significant factors. Interest rates over time generally have been slightly higher for an investment property than for a house that the borrower had planned to live in.  In light of the current credit crisis though, both Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac (FHA generally stays away from investment properties) have added premiums to their loans, which for the borrower are reflected in the rate.

These premiums are largely based on the amount that the borrower has as a down payment on the property.  A borrower putting down 25% will pay a slightly lower rate than someone putting down 20%.

Lenders, knowing that renters, as anyone, can be unpredictable in their income stream, reward borrowers that have more of a vested interest in a property.  First-time investors will generally need to put more down, as property management experience is a factor in determining the overall risk of borrowers.

Long-Term Investment

Even with the challenges of financing it, owning an investment property and thinking of it as a long-term investment might make sense.  The right property at the right price can generate a positive monthly income stream and appreciate over time, making it a great vehicle for retirement.

Keep in mind also that many expenses related to an investment property are tax deductible, affording investors benefits in that area.

Fannie and Freddie Explained

With all the talk these days in the world of mortgages about Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, it is worth considering who they actually are and what do the do?

Fannie Mae is the Federal National Mortgage Association, and Freddie Mac is the Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corporation. They are what’s called government-sponsored entities, GSEs.  Although they have recently been taken over by the federal government, they are still publicly traded companies (both are listed on the NYSE).  What GSEs do is provide mortgage lenders with funds.  The lenders in turn lend the funds to end consumers.

The process, from beginning to end, goes basically as follows:  Fannie and Freddie, through the use of investors raise money to provide to lenders, who in turn lend that same money to people who are either purchasing, or refinancing a home.  Lenders find borrowers whose income, assets, and credit fall within a previously determined set of guidelines.

Once the loan transactions are completed by the lenders, the GSEs buy back, then package the loans into what are called mortgage-backed securities.  The mortgages are packaged together based on the type of loan (30-year fixed, 5/1 ARM, etc.) and on the profile of the borrower.

There could be hundreds or thousands of loans in each security.  These securities are then sold, to investors, who trade them as they would other types of securities, in markets around the globe. Most of the mortgages in this country are obtained within the guidelines of Fannie and Freddie.

Decoded: What all the Mortgage Jargon Means

Here are some terms commonly used in the mortgage industry.

ARM, or Adjustable Rate Mortgage: This is a mortgage loan that has a fixed rate for a specific period of time, say 1, 3, or 5 years, after which the rate becomes dependent on some index, such as a treasury bill rate.

Buy Down: A fee given to a lender which will either temporarily or permanently lower the interest rate on a mortgage.  On purchase transactions, by downs may be offered by sellers or builders as an incentive to potential buyers, making their payments more affordable.

FICO Score: A credit score for borrowers, demonstrating their ability to obtain and manage credit over time.  Lenders typically pull scores from three bureaus, Experian, Equifax, and Trans Union, and use the middle score of the three in making a lending decision.

Interest Only Mortgage: A mortgage loan where only interest is paid for a specified period of time in the first part of the loan, typically 10 years.  The entire principal would then be paid over the remainder of the term of the loan.

Mortgage Broker: An entity through which mortgage lenders work to lend money to borrowers, versus a bank, which lends directly to borrowers.  Brokers are able to present products from multiple lenders to borrowers.

Mortgage Insurance: When lenders lend more than 80% of the value of a property, they require mortgage insurance.  This is where a third party insurer, for a premium, paid by the borrower, assumes the risk of the loan, in case of default.  FHA loans incorporate mortgage insurance directly into the loan.

Prepayment Penalty: A penalty charged by a lender for early repayment of a loan, usually within the first few years.  Lenders often offer lower rates to borrowers who accept these terms.

How Your Credit Score Determines Your Rate

With all of the changes in the mortgage industry these days, it is more important than ever to understand how a credit score works – and how to keep your credit score as high, and the mortgage rate you get, as low as possible.

Many conventional lenders, those which use Fannie Mae guidelines, are now charging a premium for credit scores that are between 620 (the minimum they will lend on) and 720, part of which is passed on by Fannie Mae itself.

The lower the score, the higher the premium and the rate, with borrowers in the 720+ range getting the best rates.

FHA is also an option, and has premium for credit scores in that 620-720 range, but their upfront premium for all borrowers is 1.5% of the loan amount plus a monthly mortgage insurance premium, so this can be a pricey option as well.  And they do have sub-620 score premiums.

Your credit score consists of several components, each which contributes to your score.

Credit is pulled from the three main credit bureaus (Trans Union, Experian, and Equifax) and lenders use the middle of the three scores.

The major factors are:

1) Payment history, which is about 35% of the total score.

This indicates how well a borrower is able to pay on time. Recent late payments of any kind, including utility bills, and mortgage late payments weigh the most heavily.

2) Level of indebtedness.

This is the balance of a credit line versus the total limit, and is about 10% of the score.  Ideally the balance will be under 40% of the limit.

3) Length of credit history.

Demonstration of being able to manage credit long-term. This makes up about 10% of a credit score.

Conventional and FHA Loans: Which is Best?

While the list of options seems to be shrinking for mortgage customers, understanding the differences between two of the major programs, Conventional and FHA, and when you might want to use each, should help to make you a more informed consumer.  Each has its benefits and drawbacks.

Borrowers that have good credit, some money in the bank, and some equity in their homes, are most likely suited to having a Conventional loan, meaning a loan that falls into either Fannie Mae of Freddie Mac guidelines.

Benefits to Conventional Loans

One benefit to having a Conventional loan is that there is neither an upfront mortgage insurance premium that FHA charges, which is typically 1.5% of the loan amount, nor the monthly mortgage insurance premium.

The total debt to income ratio for Conventional loans is near 65%, depending on other factors per Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac guidelines, versus around 43% for FHA.

This means that you could make less money and get the same loan amount with a Conventional loan than you would with FHA.

While there are still some no-income-verified Conventional programs available, FHA is always full documentation.

Benefits to FHA Loans

Looking at the credit side of this comparison, Conventional borrowers will need a credit score of at least 620 to qualify, and will be charged a premium, based on how close their score is to 620.  FHA borrowers can in many cases be lower than 620, but another benefit to having FHA versus Conventional is the amount of vested interest a borrower has in a property.

FHA lenders will allow borrowers to make as little as a 3% contribution to the transaction; and this contribution can go toward expenses such as closing costs.  Conventional lenders usually want borrowers a bit more vested.