There used to be an almost dizzying variety of mortgage options out there. But that was then. This is now. And anyone who wants to buy a home these days needs to be prepared for a shrinking number of choices. Lenders are pulling back-to the basics. But it’s not all bad news. A homebuyer who has proof of income, cash reserves, or good credit should sill be able to find a home mortgage loan. But you have to be ready and willing to do some shopping around first-comparing and negotiating-just like you would if you were looking for a new car. Speak to several lenders. And it’s also a good idea to contact several mortgage brokers, too. They act as liaisons between lenders and consumers.

It’s never been more important to be an informed homebuyer. Learn the basics of what it takes to get a mortgage. Start by finding out if the lender requires a down payment, how much it is, and if you can afford it. Because of the current economics of housing, most house hunters must have the money for a down payment. That’s because the no-down-payment loans that were available during the boom years are now almost non-existent. Many lenders now insist on a minimum of five percent down-more is even better.

You’ll also want to check to see if you’ll be required to buy Private Mortgage Insurance (PMI)-which will be added on to your monthly mortgage payment. Many lenders insist on this, because if protects them against loss by borrowers who fail to pay. As a rule of thumb, expect PMI if a loan exceeds eighty percent of a home’s value. To avoid the added expense of PMI, some borrowers get a “piggy-back” mortgage-which is essentially taking out two loans. The first loan covers eighty percent of the cost of the home. The second is a home-equity line of credit that covers most-if not all-of the balance. However, be aware that these piggy-back loans are few and far between these days; many lenders see them as a risk they’d rather not take. That’s because if a homeowner loses the house, the proceeds from the sale would go to paying off the first mortgage-and there’s usually very little left from that to cover the second mortgage.

Now, what about those low-or-no-documentation loans that were so popular awhile back? Well, they’re basically extinct. Why? Because the single-most important thing to lenders these days is a borrower’s credit score. The lenders are relying more heavily than ever on that score to assess a borrower’s ability to repay a mortgage on time. Borrowers that look risky will not get those lower-interest loans with good terms. In fact, they’re not likely to get a mortgage at all. Loans available to people with credit scores of, say, 660 just a few months ago are no longer out there.

But even if you have a good credit score, you need to be aware that you need to use it wisely. For instance, weigh your choices carefully if you’re thinking about taking out a loan for more than $417,000. This is known as a “jumbo loan”-and mortgages that exceed this make lenders very wary; they are perceived to be much riskier than “conforming” loans.

So what’s a potential homebuyer supposed to do? If you credit score is on the low side, get serious about improving it before you start looking for a mortgage. It will definitely increase the number and types of mortgage options available, as well as the rates and terms of those mortgages. If your credit score is high, then keep it that way-don’t push for the maximum mortgage you can get. Be conservative.

With careful tending, the mortgage landscape in your little corner of the world will start looking considerably more lush, healthy, and beautiful.

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