Buying a home is one of the biggest financial decisions you’ll make in your life. And if you finance your home with a mortgage — as 88 percent of all homebuyers do, according to the National Association of Realtors — choosing the best mortgage lender can save you tens of thousands of dollars over the life of your loan and make a potentially painful process a lot less intimidating.
A decade after the financial crisis, there are more mortgage lender options available now than there have been in years. But keep in mind: Looking for the best interest rates and fees should only be one piece of the puzzle. The best mortgage lenders will have it all: good rates, quality customer service, plus resources that can help you snag your dream home.
One thing to know upfront: No matter which mortgage lender you receive a quote from, the rate and terms will vary depending on your credit score and financial circumstances. That’s why you won’t see recommendations on this page for “cheap” mortgage lenders or mortgage lenders with the “lowest rates.” The same mortgage lender will offer different rates to different borrowers — there’s just no way to guarantee a certain lender will offer universally low rates.
The best mortgage lenders have three things in common:
1. They’re widely available.
A mortgage company doesn’t have to be nationwide to be good. But it doesn’t help you to get excited about a lender, just to find out it only serves one state. We considered lenders that are available in most states.
That said, if you’ve heard glowing reviews about a local mortgage lender or credit union, you should definitely check it out — especially if you’re looking for more frequent face-to-face interaction. The local guys processing fewer loans every month will have more time for personalized service and will be familiar with your regional housing market.
2. They’re not the middlemen.
In the world of mortgages, there are three types of companies:
- Direct lenders process your application and issue your loan, directly.
- Mortgage brokers find loan products that fit your needs and work with lenders to get your mortgage approved.
- Loan-matching companies pass your information on to a number of lenders, who reach out to you to establish a relationship.
There are a number of great mortgage brokers out there, who are especially helpful if you want more of a tailored experience, or if you’re working with a specific circumstance (if you’re self-employed, for example). But mortgage brokers will be found more on the local level rather than national.
With loan-matching companies, you don’t control which lender receives your information or which one will follow up with you. If you’re comfortable going that route and don’t really have the time to do your own research, this is a good option as you’ll receive a number of quotes. But be prepared for a barrage of phone calls and emails.
3. They do business the right way.
Lenders are subject to government regulations – which means it isn’t abnormal to see complaints made against a lender by the state it operates in. Most times, this is no cause for alarm.
Maybe someone forgot to file some paperwork. Maybe the license got renewed a week or so after the expiration date. These are minor hiccups that can be forgiven once or twice. But multiple infractions is a red flag.
What if an unlicensed loan officer signs you up for the wrong policy, or the company is paying illegal quota incentives to nab as many mortgages as possible? Ask plenty of questions so that you’re able to identify any repeat offenders.
The Simple Dollar’s Picks for the Best Mortgage Lenders of 2018
After thoroughly researching over 180 mortgage companies, we identified four that best exemplify options that should make your process not just painless, but worthwhile.
- Best Overall: Alliant Credit Union
- Best for Seasoned Homebuyers: Citibank
- Honorable Mentions: New American Funding, First Internet Bank
Let’s take a look at how we went about our evaluation process, based on factors we felt were most important, to arrive at these picks.
First priority: an easy-to-navigate, functional website.
Sure, you can always get pre-approved in person or over the phone, but most of us are going to start out with the easiest option: online. Look for a website that makes the whole process feel professional, streamlined, and unintimidating.
- Loan rates that are easy to locate on the website
- A robust knowledge center, with convenient tools like mortgage calculators
- An efficient online pre-approval application
- Someone who can help answer questions via live chat
- The option to apply over the phone (because sometimes you feel like talking to a real person)
Citibank Mortgage is a standout. Its website guides you through the entire mortgage application, starting with a home-affordability calculator that, unlike other calculators, actually shows what you can afford to pay instead of just what your rates might be. However, Citi has a huge amount of information on its site. And while the company does its due diligence to make everything digestible, it can be easy to get a little lost.
Alliant Credit Union is a strong option because of its simplicity and well-roundedness. The website is clean and modern. The information is clearly laid out for you to get started, and the pre-approval form is easy to follow. There’s also a complete bank of customer reviews at the bottom of the page for you to get a gist of others’ experiences. The only knock against it is that there’s no live chat.
Take a couple of pre-approval test runs.
You can’t really recommend something without trying it out yourself, right? We took about 12 runs at getting pre-approved through different lenders, just to get a good feel for how their process works. We don’t recommend going that far, but it helps to take a couple of test drives before moving forward with a lender you’re comfortable with.
You might find that the process isn’t as easy as it sounds up front. For instance, be on the lookout for some unexpected questions that may catch catch you off guard, such as: What’s you’re hazard insurance premium? And, if you’ve received money from a friend or relative to assist with the down payment, can you provide a gift letter to prove that it’s not a loan?
Once you apply for pre-approval, you’ll start to see the amount of time it takes for answers to start rolling in (kind of like college decision letters, for those of us who have anxiety stories). Some lenders will take hours or even days to give you an answer. But others will reply immediately and make you feel like a valued customer. If a quick response is high on your list of priorities, this will help to weed out your picks.
It’s the principle of the thing.
After you receive some replies, start digging into their customer service. Call during peak hours as well as off-peak hours. Try telling a lender that you’re a first-time buyer looking for a home and ask how long your pre-approval is good for. When we tried it, some lenders, like Alliant Credit Union, patiently walked us through everything. Others never even picked up the phone.
It’s not enough to just have a fast approval. Knowing that you can expect consistency and attention to detail goes a long way in choosing a lender. From the initial interview, to the follow-up after receipt of the credit report, the lender needs to be fully present. They need to handle your process with the care and respect it deserves.
Now that we have warm feelings, how about those interest rates?
If customer service is king, interest rates are queen. Let’s face it, if you’re a first-time homebuyer, you probably live and die by rates. Especially when you consider that even just a half percentage point difference in your interest rate can have a massive impact on your monthly payment and the amount you’ll owe over the life of your loan.
Say you take out a $250,000 mortgage over 30 years. At an interest rate of 4.5 percent, your monthly payment would be $1,267 and you’d end up paying about $456,000 total, including $206,017 in interest. At a rate of 5 percent, meanwhile, the same mortgage would cost you $1,342 per month and more than $483,000 in total — that’s an additional $75 every month and more than $27,000 in total interest.
What kind of rates should you expect? As of late August 2018, the national average was 4.53 percent for a 30-year, fixed-rate mortgage, according to Freddie Mac — that’s with an average of half a point. (Points are upfront fees you can pay the lender to lower your long-term interest rate; one point generally equals 1 percent of the mortgage value.)
Use the same standardized quote to find the average costs and fees among all lenders. Then, you’ll be able to see which ones have below-average interest rates, fees, and closing costs — plus an affordable monthly payment.
Finally, put everything in the oven.
After all was said and done, we found that Alliant Credit Union had it all. Its slick website and customer service really stood out. They give you all the info you need to begin the pre-approval process on your own. Or, if you need assistance, they have readily available agents to walk you through everything over the phone. Their positive and patient approach helps to ease any anxiety you might have coming in.
Citibank has the manpower and resources to keep everything clipping along. Its pre-approval process was done in a fast 15 minutes, and though they do assign a loan officer within an hour, you may find that you don’t need one. Efficiency and clarity is the name of their game.
It’s worth noting that while First Internet Bank and New American Funding had higher rates than our other two picks, each are really strong options. First Internet Bank deserves kudos for its up-front, transparent rates for those looking to refinance.
The First Internet Bank website is streamlined and well-laid out, with clear options to either buy a home or refinance right up front. We chose the “buy a home” option, and were taken to a secondary page that asks a series of clarifying questions before getting you on track. It’s a very inviting and practical setup — a great upgrade from the website’s previous content-heavy design.
On the business side of things, New American also offers a unique option in its Upfront Credit Approval. The Upfront Credit Approval is an additional step before the pre-approval process that shows where you are, without having to hand over your Social Security number or getting a hard pull on your credit. This is extra handy for anyone with a less than ideal credit history for a mortgage.
A few things to remember…
You have control.
You’ll have a lot of choices when you start shopping for a mortgage. Do you want a government-backed loan or a private loan? An adjustable rate or a fixed rate? It can be overwhelming.
The best thing you can do is remember that mortgages are always negotiable. By doing some basic research on the differences between loans and knowing exactly what you want, you can go in with some control over your process.
Keep an eye on the details.
Some lenders are extremely forthcoming with the interest rates, closing costs, and fees you’ll pay for getting a mortgage. But realize that what you see advertised may not be exactly what you get.
That’s because a lot goes into determining your interest rate: If you’ve had past credit problems, for example, you may have to pay a higher rate. On the other hand, if you’re willing to put down a large down payment, your quoted rate may be lower. The numbers will also change depending on what loan product you pick: interest rates on FHA loans can be a bit higher than conventional loan rates when you apply; opting for a 15-year term instead of a 30-year term, meanwhile, will usually nab you a considerably lower rate.
The good news is you can shop around — and you should. Different lenders will offer different terms, and if you apply to several within 30 days, all of those hard pulls on your credit report will only count as one inquiry.
Past credit problems won’t keep you from buying.
In the immediate wake of the housing market crash, lenders became more selective. They tightened requirements and it was difficult to get a loan if you had blemished credit. Now, more lenders are willing to give more people a chance.
Things like the Dodd Frank Act — an act that standardized the mortgage-application process, giving lenders clear steps to follow for most loans — have helped ease the way too. And people who have a few dings on their credit reports shouldn’t be afraid of at least applying for pre-approval.
You may not be instantly approved, but the right lender will take the time to work with you, offer suggestions for improving your chance for approval, or even hook you up with their credit repair specialists if you need it.
|Get your down payment together||You’ll need funds for the down payment, closing costs, moving expenses. Start saving at least six months in advance so you’ll have the largest down payment possible before you apply.|
|Pull your credit reports||You get free reports once a year through AnnualCreditReport.com. Dispute any errors you find; pay any outstanding bills; and then don’t take on any more credit. Just work on paying on time and getting those scores as good as they can be.|
|Practice making payments||Practice making payments ahead of time to avoid new homeowner shock later.|
|Get pre-approved||Once your financial ducks are in a row, apply for pre-approval. A pre-approval letter shows that sellers should take you seriously.|
|Get a real estate agent||You don’t have to go at this alone. A qualified real estate agent is your best advocate in the home-buying process.|
The Bottom Line
The best mortgage companies offer affordable rates, have helpful online tools, are quick to communicate, and won’t leave you hanging if you need help.
Our top lenders — Alliant Credit Union, CitiBank Mortgage, First Internet Bank, and New American Funding — all stood out for different reasons, but hit every one of those marks. Your individual rates and terms will vary, but if you’re looking for a good mortgage and a satisfying application process, these are great places to start.