The majority of first-time buyers need to finance their home purchase, and a consultation with a mortgage lender is a crucial step in the homebuying process because you need to understand your purchasing power before you begin to look at homes.
Lenders offer borrowers a prequalification letter or a preapproval letter, but most real estate agents recommend that you get a preapproval before shopping for a home. A prequalification letter will state the amount a lender thinks you can borrow based on your income and your credit profile without any actual documentation. Mortgage-lending standards have tightened since the housing crisis, and all loans now require full documentation and verification of income and assets, so most sellers will only accept an offer from a buyer with a full preapproval letter that’s based on verified information.
Sellers aren't the only ones who benefit from you obtaining a loan preapproval, though. You're better off with a preapproval for two reasons:
How to find a lender
Your real estate agent should be able to recommend a lender or two for you to interview, but you should also ask friends and colleagues for someone they trust. You can check for a loan officer's license and read reviews online to be sure you're working with someone reliable. As a first-time buyer, you should call a few lenders to find someone experienced with first-time buyer needs who can possibly help you identify special loan programs in your area that could help you get into a home.
What to expect from your lender
The best lenders take a collaborative approach with borrowers and explain all your loan options. When your lender checks your credit report, you should get feedback about ways to improve your credit profile and recommendations for how to handle your money between the time you apply for a loan and settlement day. Your lender should provide advice about when to lock in your loan rate and discuss the pros and cons of various loan programs.
What your lender expects from you
Your lender needs you to be honest about your finances and responsive to all requests for additional information, no matter how unimportant it may seem to you. The more cooperative you are with a lender, the easier the loan process will be. You should be prepared with tax returns, W-2s, bank statements, employer names and addresses and your current landlord's information.
Your lender will generate a loan approval based on your debt-to-income ratio and credit score, but you should also consider your budget and your own comfort level with a payment. There’s no need to borrow the maximum amount you qualify for, particularly if you know you plan to spend money on items that don’t show up on your credit report such as greens fees or ski trips. Your careful planning and preservation of your emergency fund are important for responsible, long-term homeownership.