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In this time of record-low mortgage rates, how do you get one?

MoneyWise logoMoneyWise 5/4/2020 Doug Whiteman
a close up of a yellow building: 4 tips to land a record-low mortgage rate © @pascalkrumm / Twenty20 4 tips to land a record-low mortgage rate

You've seen the headlines: With the economy in a COVID-19 tailspin, mortgage rates have been falling and falling, to depths that we've never seen before.

But if you're a homeowner wanting to refinance or a homebuyer who's ready to make a purchase amid the coronavirus pandemic, you can't assume that a mortgage lender will always give you a spectacularly low rate.

In some cities, different lenders can offer rates that vary by close to one full percentage point, a recent LendingTree study found.

In other words, Lender X might want to give you a 30-year fixed-rate mortgage at 4.25%. But you might discover that Lender Y will offer you the same type of loan at just 3.30%.

The current national average for a 30-year fixed mortgage is an all-time low 3.23%, according to mortgage company Freddie Mac, which has been tracking rates since 1971.

How do you land a mortgage rate that's close to the record, or even lower? Industry experts offer these four tips.

1. It really pays to shop around

Don't stop your mortgage search at Lender X — because there might very well be a Lender Y out there with a much more attractive rate.

If you look, you can find 30-year mortgages today as low as the neighborhood of 3%, says Alan Rosenbaum, founder and CEO of the New York-based mortgage lender GuardHill Financial Corp.

Homebuyers who say yes to the very first mortgage offer they get end up paying an average of around $37,500 more in total interest over the course of a 30-year loan than buyers who gather rates from multiple lenders, the LendingTree study found.

In cities including San Francisco and Boston, the lifetime interest savings when you shop around can exceed $50,000.

"It pays to do your research," says Tendayi Kapfidze, LendingTree's chief economist.

2. You'll need a healthy credit score

a person posing for the camera: TierneyMJ / Shutterstock © Provided by MoneyWise TierneyMJ / Shutterstock

"To get a low rate, the borrower will need to have excellent credit," says Richard Pisnoy, a principal with Silver Fin Capital, a mortgage broker in Great Neck, New York.

This is even truer now than it used to be. Banks have been tightening their lending standards, because they don't want to be left with defaults resulting from today's health and economic crisis.

For example, JPMorgan Chase is requiring new mortgage applicants to have a minimum credit score of 700 — in the middle of the "good" range — and make at least a 20% down payment.

"These measures will likely be unpopular, but they speak to the uncertainty of the times and the difficulty for these organizations to gauge borrowers’ ability to repay at a time when millions of people are suddenly out of work," says Matthew Speakman, an economist with Zillow.

The best mortgage rates have traditionally gone to borrowers with credit scores that are "exceptional" (800 to 850) or "very good." If you're not sure what your credit score is, you can take a peek at it for free.

3. It helps if you're refinancing

People in the industry say it's more challenging right now to get a low rate on a so-called purchase loan — to buy a home — than if you're a homeowner who's refinancing.

"In general, we see that is typically easier to refinance than it is to purchase, given that the borrower has already been underwritten," says Grant Moon, CEO of Home Captain Realty in Brooklyn, New York.

"The lender has payments and historical propensity-to-pay information that makes it an easier proposition," Moon says.

An exception is if you're doing a cash-out refinance. Freddie Mac and sibling Fannie Mae, the government-sponsored entities that buy or back most U.S. mortgages, have grown wary of cash-out refis as many of those borrowers have sought to delay their payments during the pandemic, says Pisnoy.

"This is causing higher risk on these types of loans, and lenders are adjusting the rates up because of it," he says.

4. Be ready to move quickly

a person holding a frisbee: Jacob Lund / Shutterstock © Provided by MoneyWise Jacob Lund / Shutterstock

Mortgage rates are unpredictable, and the amazingly low ones can be here for just a hot minute.

"Even though rates are low, they still move every day," warns Pisnoy. So if you come across a rate that would give you an impressively low monthly payment, try to lock it before it's gone.

But if you lose out on a dreamy rate, experts say it's a mistake to sit around and wait for mortgage rates to go down again. They can go higher just as easily as they can go lower.

So, the advice is similar to what dithering investors are told when they're tempted to wait based on what stocks might or might not do: Don't time the market.

If you're a homebuyer and find the perfect house — maybe through one of the virtual tours that have become popular in the coronavirus era — comparison-shop for your mortgage and try to settle on one quickly. Don't miss out on a great home or a great loan.

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