How to Get Preapproved for a Mortgage

Purchasing a home can be a daunting task, especially for first-time homebuyers. There is often a great deal of pressure to find a home that meets your preferences and is in good condition, as well as obtaining approval for a mortgage. Even those with experience in real estate may feel overwhelmed by the process.

couple getting a mortgage

Plus, even if you find the home of your dreams, you still have to put in an offer and hope that it’s accepted with no competition from other buyers.

Luckily, there’s a way to not only stand out from other home buyers, but also to expedite your mortgage approval process. By getting preapproved for a mortgage before you even put in an offer on a home, you can significantly increase your chances of having your offer selected.

The Basics of Mortgage Preapproval

Mortgage preapproval is a pivotal step in the home-buying journey, offering a clear picture of what you can afford and showcasing your seriousness as a buyer to sellers. This process involves a detailed examination by lenders of your financial background to determine your eligibility for a mortgage.

Here, we’ll get into the details of mortgage preapproval, shedding light on the critical factors lenders assess, alongside common misconceptions that often trip up prospective homebuyers.

The Core Elements Lenders Evaluate

When you apply for mortgage preapproval, lenders take a deep dive into your financial life. They’re looking at several key components:

  • Credit score and history: Your credit score is the gateway to your borrowing capabilities. It influences whether you’ll get preapproved and affects the interest rate you’ll be offered. Mortgage lenders will scrutinize your credit report for payment history, outstanding debts, and credit utilization to gauge your reliability as a borrower.
  • Income and employment verification: Lenders want proof of steady income to ensure you can keep up with mortgage payments. Expect to provide recent pay stubs, tax returns from the past two years, and W-2 or 1099 forms. For self-employed individuals, this step might require additional documentation to verify the stability and longevity of your income.
  • Debt-to-income ratio (DTI): This metric is critical for lenders to assess your financial health. It compares your total monthly debt payments to your gross monthly income. A lower DTI ratio signals to lenders that you have a healthy balance between debt and income, making you a less risky borrower.
  • Assets and down payment: Lenders will review your bank statements and other assets to confirm you have the funds for the down payment and closing costs, as well as reserves that can cover mortgage payments for a few months.

Common Misconceptions and Pitfalls

Several myths and misunderstandings about mortgage preapproval need clarification:

  • Preapproval equals guaranteed loan: A common misconception is that preapproval guarantees final loan approval. However, preapproval is conditional; the final loan approval depends on an appraisal of the property you choose to buy, a more thorough verification of your financial condition, and no significant changes to your credit or income.
  • One-time credit hit: Some buyers hesitate to apply for preapproval, fearing a negative impact on their credit score due to the hard inquiry. While it’s true that your credit score might see a slight dip, the impact is minimal. Plus, credit scoring models typically count multiple inquiries for the same type of credit within a short period as a single inquiry, minimizing the effect on your score.
  • The highest loan amount is the target: Getting preapproved for a high loan amount doesn’t mean you should stretch your budget to the max. It’s vital to consider other monthly expenses and long-term financial goals. A sizable mortgage might strain your finances and limit your ability to save for other objectives.
  • Down payment myths: There’s a widespread belief that a 20% down payment is a must for buying a home. While it’s beneficial to have a significant down payment to avoid private mortgage insurance (PMI) and secure better rates, many lenders offer loans with lower down payment requirements, especially for first-time buyers.

Mortgage preapproval gives you a competitive edge in the housing market, making your offers more appealing to sellers. By understanding the factors lenders consider and steering clear of common pitfalls, you can approach the mortgage preapproval process with confidence. This will allow you to plan your home purchase strategically, ensuring you find a home that fits not just your preferences, but also your budget.

Why Mortgage Preapproval Matters for Homebuyers

There are a couple of benefits to getting preapproved in advance of viewing houses. One of the most significant factors is that it strengthens your offer when bidding on a home that you love.

Many deals fall through because of financing issues, even after the seller accepts an offer. If you have a preapproval letter to submit as well, the seller knows that the deal is more likely to close by accepting your offer than someone else’s.

Furthermore, real estate agents typically want to see that you’ve been preapproved before they show you houses. They don’t want to waste their time showing clients houses if they cannot buy a home.

Mortgage Preapproval Letter

Getting a mortgage preapproval letter also gives you a chance to see how large of a home loan you’ll be approved for, helping to narrow down your home search to the suitable price range.

You’ll also find out what types of home loans you qualify for, whether it be a conventional, FHA, VA, or other type of mortgage. Some of these loans have certain restrictions on the type of property you can purchase and what condition it must be in. Some also require a certain down payment percentage.

The content of a preapproval letter may vary depending on the mortgage lender. Generally, the letter includes details such as the purchase price, loan program, interest rate, origination fees, loan amount, down payment amount, expiration date, and property address. This letter is typically included with an offer to purchase a new home.

Private Mortgage Insurance

If your down payment is less than 20%, you’ll likely have to pay private mortgage insurance (PMI), which is also based on the loan amount. Getting preapproved helps you financially prepare for the full cost of your new home and your monthly mortgage payment.

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Once you determine your target loan amount, you’ll know what your monthly principal, interest, and mortgage payments will look like. When you know that, you can then look at individual properties to determine how much property tax and even homeowner’s insurance you’ll need to tack on to each month’s payment.

You need to consider all of your fees before finalizing your maximum home price. Otherwise, you could be unpleasantly surprised when you get your first mortgage bill.

Getting Ready for Mortgage Preapproval

Before you talk to a lender about getting preapproved for a mortgage, the best thing to do is to check both your credit report and credit score.

Get Your Free Credit Report

You can access your credit reports from each of the three credit bureaus for free once every twelve months. So get started a few months before you’ll be house hunting to give yourself time to address any issues.

Dispute Negative Inaccuracies

You might have outdated information lingering on your credit report or even incorrect items. The dispute process can take some time. You want to make sure your credit score is as strong as possible. That way, you can get approved and get the best mortgage rates possible when the time comes.

Check Your Credit Score

There are a couple of free websites like Credit Karma that provide you with access to your credit score. It might not be the same credit score your lender will use, but it still lets you know what ballpark you’re in. If your credit score is lower than you’d like to see, you have time to make some quick fixes.

For example, you can get a higher credit card limit to decrease your credit utilization ratio or pay down extra debt to lower your debt-to-income ratio. A little planning can help strengthen your chances for preapproval before you even contact a lender.

Impact of Mortgage Preapproval on Credit Score

A common concern among potential homebuyers is how the mortgage preapproval process might affect their credit score. Given the importance of a good credit score in securing favorable loan terms, it’s understandable why this aspect of the home buying journey attracts attention. Let’s explore the relationship between mortgage preapproval and your credit score to simplify the process and alleviate concerns.

Hard Inquiries and Your Credit Score

When you apply for mortgage preapproval, the lender conducts a thorough review of your financial history, including a credit check. This check is known as a “hard inquiry,” which can slightly lower your credit score. Hard inquiries are necessary for lenders to assess your creditworthiness accurately.

The Minimal Impact

Although hard inquiries can lower your score, the impact is typically minor—usually five points or fewer. Credit scoring models recognize that shopping for the best mortgage rate is a prudent financial behavior.

Therefore, multiple credit inquiries for mortgage preapproval within a short period (typically 14 to 45 days, depending on the credit scoring model) are treated as a single inquiry. This consolidation minimizes the impact on your credit score, allowing you to shop around for the best rates without significant repercussions.

Long-Term Benefits vs. Short-Term Impact

It’s important to weigh the temporary impact of a hard inquiry against the long-term benefits of securing a mortgage with favorable terms. A slightly lower credit score for a short period can lead to savings of thousands of dollars over the life of your mortgage if you secure a lower interest rate. Therefore, the minor and temporary dip in your credit score is often a worthwhile trade-off for the potential long-term financial benefits.

Strategic Timing

If you’re concerned about the impact on your credit score, consider the timing of your mortgage preapproval application. Plan your application when you’re seriously considering buying a home, and avoid unnecessary credit applications in the months leading up to your mortgage application to keep your score as high as possible.

How to Get Preapproved for a Mortgage

When you’re ready to start the mortgage preapproval process, the loan officer will ask you for several pieces of information. You will need to provide income tax returns from the past two years, pay stubs to verify your employment and gross monthly income, and bank statements.

You’ll also have to provide your Social Security number and sign a form giving the lender permission to perform a hard inquiry on your credit report.

At that time, the lender will also perform a credit check and review your credit score to use in the evaluation process. Because underwriting systems are now automated, you can get preapproved in a matter of minutes.

Possible Outcomes

After your application undergoes the underwriting process, you will encounter one of four possible outcomes:

  • Approved: Your application meets all the lender’s criteria without needing any additional information.
  • Approved with conditions: Further documentation or specific criteria need to be met before achieving final approval.
  • Suspended: More information or clarification is needed from you before a decision can be made.
  • Declined: The application does not fulfill the lender’s requirements for preapproval.

It’s worth noting that it is quite common not to get an unconditional approval on the first try. If your application faces hurdles, consider it an opportunity to strengthen your financial standing.

In cases where your application is suspended or declined, it’s beneficial to discuss with your lender the reasons behind these decisions. This dialogue can provide critical insights into how to address any issues and enhance your application for future attempts.

Next Steps After Receiving Your Mortgage Preapproval

Once you have your mortgage preapproval letter in hand, one of your immediate next steps should be to share this document with your real estate agent. This action is essential for several reasons:

  • Enhances your buying position: Informing your real estate agent about your preapproval status strengthens your position as a buyer. It signals to sellers that you are serious and financially ready to make a purchase, potentially making your offers more competitive, especially in hot markets.
  • Refines your home search: With a clear understanding of your budget, your real estate agent can more accurately target properties that meet your financial constraints and preferences, making your home search more efficient.
  • Facilitates swift action: In a fast-moving real estate market, being able to move quickly is essential. Your agent, knowing your preapproval status and budget, can act swiftly when you find the right property, helping to expedite the offer process.
  • Builds confidence with sellers: When you find a home you’re interested in, your agent can communicate your preapproved status to the seller, often making your offer more appealing compared to those from buyers who might not have secured preapproval.

Mortgage Prequalification vs. Preapproval: Clarifying the Differences

Entering the home buying process, you’ll encounter two pivotal steps: mortgage prequalification and preapproval. Though they sound similar, each serves a unique purpose and impacts your buying journey differently, from your position in negotiations to the overall timeline toward homeownership.

What is Mortgage Prequalification?

Mortgage prequalification is typically the initial step for prospective homebuyers. It’s a quick assessment that provides an estimate of how much you might be eligible to borrow based on a high-level review of your finances. During this stage, you’ll share information about your income, assets, debts, and possibly, your credit score, but you won’t need to provide any documentation.

  • Impact on negotiating power: Prequalification offers a preliminary understanding of your borrowing capacity, but doesn’t significantly strengthen your position in negotiations with sellers. It indicates interest but doesn’t confirm your financial readiness, making it less convincing in the eyes of sellers, especially in competitive housing markets.
  • Influence on the buying timeline: While prequalification can help in setting a budget for your home search, it does little to speed up the actual purchase process. It’s a helpful first step, but since it doesn’t require a deep dive into your financial situation, it won’t expedite the closing process.

What is Mortgage Preapproval?

Mortgage preapproval goes several steps further than prequalification. This process involves a comprehensive examination of your financial background, including a credit check and the submission of financial documents like tax returns, pay stubs, and bank statements. The result is a preapproval letter from the lender, specifying how much they’re willing to lend you, based on the detailed assessment of your finances.

  • Impact on negotiating power: Armed with a preapproval letter, your offer on a home carries more weight. Sellers will see you as a serious buyer with confirmed financial backing, making your bid more appealing, particularly in markets where multiple offers are common. This can give you a significant edge in negotiations.
  • Influence on the buying timeline: The preapproval process can significantly shorten the time to close on a home. Because your financial vetting is largely completed upfront, you’re able to move faster once you find a property you want to buy, giving you an advantage in fast-moving real estate markets.

Clarifying the Key Differences

The journey from homebuyer interest to actual homeowner is marked by several steps, with mortgage prequalification and preapproval being two of the most critical. Prequalification is your initial, quick glance into your financial possibilities, setting the stage for a more detailed and impactful preapproval process.

Preapproval, by contrast, solidifies your financial stance, providing a stronger foundation for your home search and purchase. Understanding these distinctions not only prepares you for discussions with lenders but also positions you strategically in the competitive landscape of home buying.

Choosing the Right Mortgage Lender

Getting a prequalification before a preapproval may seem like an unnecessary step, but it’s a great way to interview the lender as much as they’re interviewing you.

At the end of the day, mortgage lenders compete for your business, so don’t just choose the first one who gives you a prequalification or preapproval. There are several factors to consider before you make this critical decision. You should speak to multiple lenders and compare interest rates and loan options to find the best one for your financial situation.

Comparing Interest Rates

Start with an interest rate comparison. You should be able to get quotes based on your basic financial information without the lender performing a hard pull on your credit report.

Furthermore, consider how much money the lender says you can afford. They don’t know how much your other bills are or how much you’re comfortable spending.

If they try to pressure you into a loan amount that seems like it would be too expensive based on the monthly payments, they may not have your best interests at heart. A good lender wants to make sure you can afford your payments every month and is transparent about costs beyond your principal and interest.

Mortgage Rate Lock Float Down

You can also ask lenders what kind of perks they offer. For example, some give their clients one free float down before closing. This means, if interest rates have dropped since you locked in your rate, you can get that lower rate without having to pay any additional fees or points.

Others offer discounts on closing costs to clients in public service professions, such as teachers, police officers, and firefighters. Even if a particular lender doesn’t offer any of these services, you can reference another one that does to negotiate your own special deal.

Mortgage Preapproval Checklist

  • Check your credit report and credit score.
  • Find a trustworthy lender.
  • Get prequalified to find out what types of loans you’re eligible for.
  • Gather financial documentation, such as pay stubs, bank statements, W-2s, and income tax returns from the last two years.
  • Apply for a preapproval letter to seriously begin your home search.

Frequently Asked Questions

Why should I get a mortgage preapproval?

Getting a mortgage preapproval is imperative because it provides financial clarity on how much you can afford, making your home search more focused and efficient. It also increases your credibility with sellers, showing that you are serious and financially capable of purchasing their home.

It can also accelerate the closing process since your financial information has already been reviewed by a lender. In competitive markets, a preapproval gives you a competitive advantage over other buyers who may not have taken this step, enhancing your chances of securing your desired home.

What factors are considered for mortgage preapproval?

Mortgage lenders will take a look at your credit score and verify your employment and income. They will also consider your debt-to-income ratio (DTI), which is the percentage of your monthly income that goes towards paying off debts.

To get a mortgage, it is generally advisable to have a DTI of 50% or lower. The required DTI for a loan may vary depending on the type of loan you are seeking.

Why should I get preapproved by more than one lender?

By applying to multiple lenders, you can compare interest rates and fees to find the deal with the most favorable terms. This can save you a lot of money over the life of the loan.

To find a mortgage that works for your financial situation, you should do your research and weigh all of your options.

Can I get preapproved for a mortgage online?

Yes, it is possible to get preapproved for a mortgage online. Many lenders allow you to provide your financial information and documentation through the lender’s website or over the phone.

You will typically need to provide the online mortgage lender with information such as your monthly income, monthly debts, and credit history. After reviewing this information, the lender will determine how much they are willing to lend you and provide you with a preapproval letter.

Does mortgage preapproval guarantee a loan?

No, getting preapproved for a mortgage does not guarantee that you will receive a loan. The lender will still need to evaluate the property you are interested in buying and your financial information at the time of the loan application.

How much house can I afford?

Determining how much house you can afford starts with assessing your income, existing debts, and the down payment you can make. Lenders often suggest that your monthly mortgage payment, including taxes and insurance, should not exceed 28% of your gross monthly income.

Additionally, your total debt payments, when combined with your mortgage, should ideally not surpass 36% of your gross income. Some lenders, however, may be flexible with these ratios.

It’s also important to factor in other financial goals and living expenses. This ensures you can comfortably manage homeownership costs while maintaining a balanced budget. Engaging with a lender for a mortgage preapproval can offer a tailored estimate that reflects your unique financial circumstances.

Can I get preapproved for a mortgage with bad credit?

It may be more difficult to get mortgage preapproval with bad credit, but it is not impossible. Some lenders may require a higher down payment or charge a higher interest rate for borrowers with lower credit scores.

Lauren Ward
Meet the author

Lauren is a personal finance writer who strives to equip readers with the knowledge to achieve their financial objectives. She has over a decade of experience and a Bachelor's degree in Japanese from Georgetown University.