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What is a mortgage?

Understanding home loan basics

houses sitting on top of coins

A mortgage is a loan you take out to buy a home. You enter into an agreement with a lender for a certain dollar amount to pay for the house. Over time (typically 15 or 30 years), you pay back the loan plus interest in monthly installments. Until the loan is completely paid off, the lending institution can use your house as collateral in case you default.

What is a mortgage?

A mortgage promissory note is an agreement between a borrower and a lender — usually a bank or other financial institution. The mortgage terms outline the amount to be borrowed, the length of the agreement, the amount of each payment and the interest to be paid.

Mortgages detail how the lender can recover the property they financed should the borrower fail to make timely payments on the loan and interest. In essence, mortgages use the value of the financed property as collateral.

How does a mortgage work?

A mortgage is most easily understood as a loan you take out to pay for a home. Buying property is expensive. Since most people don't have hundreds of thousands of dollars lying around, they have to borrow it.

All mortgages are considered secured loans because they’re tied to property (usually a house). Requirements vary by loan type and lender, but they all follow the same basic process:

1. You submit an application for the loan.

The borrower begins the application process by submitting various financial documents, including but not limited to tax returns and W-2s from your employer for the past two years and pay stubs, bank account statements and investment account statements from the past two months. If applicable, you will need documentation of alimony or child support and a gift letter if someone else is paying for a portion of the down payment.

2. The lender reviews your finances and creditworthiness.

Because a mortgage loan is for such a large sum, a potential lender will vet your creditworthiness and financial standing thoroughly to ensure it’s not making a risky loan. The lender will perform a credit check, and your credit score will help them determine two things:

  • Whether or not you have a reliable record of making on-time payments and paying off loans in full
  • What kind of interest rate you qualify for — generally, the higher your credit score, the lower your interest rate

3. If qualified, you’re preapproved for a certain amount.

If you meet the lender’s qualifications, it will preapprove you for a loan up to a certain amount of money. You can then use this letter of preapproval to start shopping for homes. Without this prior authorization, you won’t be able to make any offers on homes.

If you apply for a conforming loan, the total amount you can borrow is set by the government, with other rules established by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac (the loan backers). With a nonconforming loan like a jumbo loan, you can get access to much higher amounts.

Underwriting generally takes 30 to 45 days.

4. You make an offer.

If the seller accepts your offer, your lender begins the underwriting process. Underwriting generally takes 30 to 45 days as your loan package is reviewed and double-checked for accuracy while the lender ensures your financial situation hasn’t changed since the initial review.

5. You sign a contract at closing.

At the end of the underwriting process, you will sign a contract with your lender, agreeing to pay back the loan amount plus interest over a set period of time (usually 15 or 30 years) at closing. With this, you also agree to maintain homeowners insurance and to pay the annual property taxes. All these costs are usually folded into your monthly payment.

6. You start making payments.

For the life of the loan, you are obligated to make monthly payments to your lender. Your lending institution has a claim on the property until the loan is fully paid off. If you default, the lender can take the home as collateral to help pay back the loan. After you pay off your mortgage, your lender will release its claim, and you will then be the official owner of your home.

Mortgage FAQ

Mortgages are generally sought by people who don’t have the financial resources to pay all cash for a house. The median age of a first-time homebuyer in 2018 was 32 — about the same as it was in 2002, according to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Mortgage holders must meet some minimum standards set by their lender — usually a stable and steady source of income, a qualifying credit score and a debt-to-income ratio (DTI) below 45%. A down payment will likely be required, and the property must be appraised for an amount sufficient to use as collateral for the loan. For more, learn how to get a mortgage next.
You need to meet certain qualifications with a lender to receive a mortgage. When a potential borrower wishes to buy a house (or refinance), they apply for a loan through a bank or other lending institution. The basic process for obtaining a mortgage is generally the same from lender to lender, though specific requirements vary.

It’s advisable to contact two to three lenders to compare rates and find someone you feel comfortable working with. A good lender will take the time to answer all your questions, explain the process thoroughly and maintain open lines of communication.

While they’ll be constrained by the Federal Reserve's interest rates, specific requirements like DTI, credit score and income levels may vary slightly. They may also have differing fee structures for their services. If you’re rejected by one lender or feel that the costs associated with one are too high, it’s always a good idea to contact another.

You may find it helpful to contact both a lender and a broker. A lender works for only one financial institution, usually a bank. On the other hand, a mortgage broker can look at rates and packages from several financial institutions and match you with the best one. Some mortgage brokers charge an extra fee for their services that you won’t find with traditional lenders. Sometimes you can obtain more lenient terms going through a traditional lender, especially if you have a long relationship with a bank.

There are many guidelines out there to answer this question, but a good one is that you can afford a house that’s roughly 4 to 4.5 times your gross yearly income. For example, if you gross $75,000 a year, you could afford a house that costs roughly $300,000. If you are borrowing with a partner, you would add your incomes together to determine this number.

You can also use different online calculators to determine how much of a mortgage you can afford. If you use one of these, make sure to find one that includes reasonable estimates of annual property taxes and insurance in addition to the principal loan amount and interest. The amount you’ll pay each month is also dependent on your mortgage rate, which fluctuates based on federal directives and your credit score.

The credit score needed to buy a house will vary depending on your lender and mortgage type. Most conventional mortgage lenders look for a minimum credit score of 620 to 640. That said, you will get more favorable terms the higher your score is. Typically a "good" credit score is over 720 or, in some cases, 740. If your score falls significantly below this, you might consider several federally backed programs, such as FHA, USDA or VA loans, which accept applicants with scores as low as 580. Lenders will also look at your income and spending. Specifically, lenders will calculate your DTI (debt-to-income ratio). A “good” DTI is generally one under 36% (though this number can go as high as 45% for some conventional loans). This means lenders are looking to see if 36% or less of your gross monthly income goes toward certain debts. This includes housing expenses, consumer debt like credit cards and any outstanding loan payments, like car, business or student loans. Monthly expenses like utilities, groceries and entertainment are not included in this calculation.

Mortgage terminology

When you apply for a mortgage loan, you’ll hear lots of terms tossed around that are specific to the industry. It’s a good idea to understand what they all mean ahead of time so you’re not confused when you encounter them in the homebuying process.

Amortization means splitting a large lump sum into smaller payments. When a home loan is amortized, the lender will take the total loan amount then divide it by the number of months you have to pay it off. For example, let’s say you have a 30-year loan for $250,000. There are 360 months in 30 years, so divide $250,000 by 360, which equals $694 per month to pay off the loan in full. Please note this is a simplified example since it doesn’t include interest, insurance or taxes, which are all factored into your monthly mortgage payments. When you get a reverse mortgage, negative amortization occurs.
APR stands for annual percentage rate, which indicates the total annual cost of your loan. Note that APR is different from interest rate — APR factors in all other costs you incur while obtaining the mortgage, so it’s usually higher than your interest rate. For example, your APR could also include broker fees, loan origination fees and any points you paid to buy down rates.
A balloon mortgage starts with a set interest rate (typically with a loan term over five or seven years), then you must pay it off in full. The last payment is referred to as the "balloon" payment because it’s higher than all previous installments.
A down payment is a lump sum of money you pay toward the purchase price of your home at the outset of the sale. This amount varies. For a conventional loan, expect to pay between 5% and 20% of the price of the home as an out-of-pocket expense.

If you can’t come up with a down payment, look for federally backed mortgage programs, such as FHA loans and USDA loans, with more flexible requirements. There are also several down payment assistance programs (DPAs) that can help borrowers who are having trouble coming up with this money. These are usually regionally funded. A local mortgage lender or broker can give you more information about the programs available in your area.

Earnest money is an upfront payment the buyer makes to demonstrate a serious intent to buy a property. Earnest money isn’t mandatory, but it is a show of good faith if you’re making an offer on a house and you’re in a competitive market. It also is a form of insurance for the seller.

Earnest money is usually less than 5% of the purchase price and will ultimately go toward your final purchase, though you are in danger of losing it if you decide to withdraw your offer. It’s worth noting there are a number of legitimate reasons you might withdraw your offer; as long as these are established in your offer, you get your earnest money back.

An escrow account is a reserve of funds held by your lender to pay for services that fall outside the base loan amount in a mortgage. This escrow fund is usually reserved for property taxes, homeowners insurance and private mortgage insurance (PMI). Your lender will hold back a certain amount of your monthly payments to go into this account and then use it to pay for these expenses. Since these values can fluctuate, your escrow account is reconciled at the end of each year.

Escrow can also refer to the account where your earnest money is held during the period of time after your offer is accepted and you work toward closing.

Your interest rate is the percentage you pay to borrow money from the mortgage lender. The Federal Reserve, the central bank of the United States, plays a large part in influencing interest rates for home mortgages. Whatever interest rate you lock in at the time of signing on is your interest rate for the life of your loan, unless you refinance.

The main types of mortgage rates are fixed and adjustable. With a fixed-rate mortgage, you pay the same rate for the entire term. Adjustable-rate mortgages have rates that can change over time.

A mortgage point is an amount you pay to the lender to lower your interest rate. One point is equal to 1% of your loan amount, so one point on a $200,000 loan would be $2,000. The reduction you get in your interest rate by paying points varies among lenders, but most decrease your rate by 0.25% for every point you pay. Mortgage points are paid at closing.
PITI stands for principal, interest, taxes and insurance. It gives an accurate picture of your monthly mortgage payment once all costs are factored in. Sometimes, lenders or brokers advertise low mortgage payments but list only the principal and interest, omitting the taxes and insurance. Be aware — this can be misleading, especially for first-time homebuyers.
PMI is different from standard homeowners insurance and is required on some loans. PMI is usually required on conventional loans when you put less than 20% down. This insures the mortgage lender in case of default. After your principal balance has fallen to 80% of the original value of your home, you can request to remove PMI. The yearly cost of PMI ranges from 0.55% to 2.25% of the original loan amount.
Refinancing means taking out a new mortgage on your home to replace the existing one. Most commonly, people refinance to achieve a lower interest rate, though it can also be done to turn a home’s equity into cash. When you refinance, you must start the loan application process from the beginning and meet all the standard eligibility requirements. You also have to pay closing costs again. For more information, read about how to find the best refinancing lender for you.
A second mortgage is a loan you take out using the equity of your home as collateral. In general, you need to have at least 15% equity in your home to qualify for a second mortgage.

There are two main types of second mortgages: a home equity line of credit (HELOC) and a home equity loan. A HELOC allows you to keep a revolving line of credit, much like a credit card. A home equity loan is a single lump-sum loan, paid back in monthly installments like your first mortgage. For more, read about home equity loans and lines of credit next.

Underwriting is the process that occurs between your loan application (or the acceptance of an offer) and closing. During underwriting, the lender reviews your loan package to verify your financial details haven’t changed and assesses the level of risk to ensure the lender is making a safe lending decision.
ConsumerAffairs writers primarily rely on government data, industry experts and original research from other reputable publications to inform their work. To learn more about the content on our site, visit our FAQ page.
  1. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, “What is a mortgage?" Accessed March 8, 2021.
  2. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, “What is the difference between a mortgage interest rate and an APR?" Accessed March 8, 2021.
  3. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, “Market Snapshot: First-time Homebuyers.” Accessed August 10, 2021.
  4. USA.gov, “Mortgages." Accessed March 8, 2021.
  5. Federal Trade Commission, “Shopping for a Mortgage FAQs." Accessed March 8, 2021.
  6. U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, “Resources for Individuals." Accessed March 8, 2021.
  7. Federal Reserve, “Credit, Loans, and Mortgages." Accessed March 8, 2021.
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