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How to Get a Mortgage During the COVID-19 Pandemic

Editorial Note: The content of this article is based on the author’s opinions and recommendations alone. It may not have been reviewed, commissioned or otherwise endorsed by any of our network partners.

In the year since the COVID-19 pandemic hit, many aspects of getting a mortgage have changed. Whether you’re buying or refinancing a home, it’s critical to understand the new normal so you can navigate the mortgage process.

How to compare mortgage rates during financial turmoil

Rates on 30-year fixed-rate mortgages plummeted to historic lows in early March 2020, following the trajectory of the U.S. Treasury rates as economic fears over the COVID-19 pandemic hit financial markets. Homeowners jumped on the refinance bandwagon, leading to the biggest jump in refinance applications since 2008. The low rates also fueled housing demand, driving up sales to a 14-year high, according to Tendayi Kapfidze, LendingTree’s chief economist.

As the economy shows signs of improvement, mortgage rates are headed higher, but they are still low enough to make homebuying attractive. However, refinancing will slow despite the Fed’s continued purchase to keep them from spiking too high, Kapfidze added.

The 30-year conventional fixed-rate increased to 3.28% in March 2021, its highest level since June 2020. That pushed the refinance index level down 26% in March of 2021, according to Joel Kan, associate vice president of economic and industry forecasting at the Mortgage Bankers Association.

The table below shows how much the refinance volume has dropped in the past month compared to last year based on data from the MBA’s weekly mortgage applications survey.

Refinance Index for Week Ending Week-Over-Week Change in Applications Year-Over-Year Change in Applications Average 30-Year Fixed Rate*
March 12, 2021 -4% -39% 3.05%
March 5, 2021 -5% -43% 3.02%
Feb. 26, 2021 +0.01% +7% 2.97%
Feb. 19, 2021 -11% +50% 2.81%
Feb. 12, 2021 -5% +46% 2.73%
Feb. 5, 2021 -4% +51% 2.73%

*Rates based on weekly Freddie Mac Primary Mortgage Market Survey (PMMS) data from Feb. 4 to March 11, 2021.

With mortgage rates on the rise, consider these five strategies if you’re thinking of refinancing or getting a purchase loan:

  1. Shop around more. Not all lenders will offer the lowest rates. The bottom line: Compare rates with more lenders to find your best available mortgage rates. While some lenders may be unwilling to provide the type of loan you need because they deem it too risky, other lenders may be willing to work with you. Shopping around gives you a better chance of finding the best type of loan, rates and terms for your needs.
  2. Consider locking in early. Given how quickly rates can change, it makes sense to act fast if you find a favorable rate. Consider a mortgage rate lock if you find a lender with an affordable interest rate and closing costs.
  3. Evaluate your income situation. A drop in pay or the loss of a partner’s income may not end your chances of getting a mortgage. With a purchase, it makes sense to delay the process if your preapproval or your housing budget was based on two incomes. Lenders may be willing to approve a refinance with less income if you’re saving money with a rate reduction or debt consolidation refinance. Disclosing assets can also help your application so be sure to not leave any out.
  4. Get your home appraised soon if you need to refinance or sell. The median existing-home sales price continues to rise, hitting $303,900 in January 2021, a 14.1% increase from a year ago, according to the latest existing-home sales data from the National Association of Realtors. Getting your home appraised now could result in a higher appraised value, because the appraiser considers the most recent sales to value your home.
  5. Consider a cash-out refinance while home values are high. Higher sales prices may mean more tappable equity from a cash-out refinance to consolidate credit cards or other debt into one monthly payment with a lower rate. On the other hand, avoid using your home as an ATM, and keep your payment low and leave some equity in place in case you need to sell your home soon.

How the coronavirus crisis is impacting mortgage underwriting

Mortgage lenders have adjusted many aspects of the mortgage process to comply with social-distancing guidelines to stop the spread of the coronavirus. With the unemployment rate falling from 14.8% in April 2020 to 6.2% in February 2021, lenders may be less concerned about a new wave of mortgage defaults, allowing them to ease up on stringent underwriting guidelines put in place at the outset of the pandemic.

Some mortgage underwriting changes may include:

  • Improvements in access to mortgage credit. The MBA’s latest Mortgage Credit Availability Index (MCAI), a report that measures accessibility to consumer mortgage credit, was unchanged in March of 2021. That’s good news, considering it fell by 16.1% in March of 2020. Conventional loans saw a month-over-month 0.3% drop in its index in March, compared to an increase of 0.3% for government-backed loans. A drop in the index indicates that credit standards are tightening while an increase signals that credit standards are easing. In order to lower their risk in the current environment, lenders may add new restrictions, such as:
    • Requiring a higher FICO Score.
    • Requiring higher down payments for purchases or more equity for certain types of refinances.
    • Requesting more documentation for loan approvals.
    • Scrutinizing the purpose of a cash-out refinance.
  • Employment and income-verification flexibility. Lenders will temporarily allow the following items in lieu of a pay stub or verbal verification of employment:
    • An email from your employer’s work email confirming your employment status. The name and title of the person verifying employment must be provided.
    • A current bank statement showing a payroll deposit for the most recent pay period before closing.
    • Proof of two months of monthly payment reserves in lieu of a verbal verification of employment for USDA and VA loans.
  • New requirements for self-employed borrowers. Small businesses and self-employed borrowers will need to jump through extra hoops to verify income. Below are four pieces of information lenders may request:
    • Copies of current contracts or invoices showing business is still operating.
    • Evidence of current business receipts.
    • Confirmation that the business is open and operating (will vary by lender).
    • Business website confirming business is operating normally.
  • Special appraisal exceptions. If you’re buying a home or doing a rate-reduction refinance, lenders may waive the requirement for an interior inspection during a property appraisal. This “exterior-only” home appraisal is available on all property types.
  • Less appraisal flexibility for cash-out refinances. If you’re tapping equity with a cash-out refinance to consolidate bills or make home improvements, the appraiser will likely need to inspect the interior of your home.
  • Additional asset documentation. Because of the volatility in the financial markets, lenders now require a paper trail of any funds taken from retirement accounts, stocks or mutual funds. That may include the most recent monthly or quarterly statement and an additional transaction history showing activity up to the date the funds were transferred into your bank account.
  • New rules for refinancing after your forbearance. If your financial or employment situation has improved and you can qualify, you may be able to refinance your conventional loan after making three on-time payments in a row. Keep in mind: If you opted to add missed payments to your loan balance, they will have to be paid off with the refinance. That could result in a higher monthly payment, cutting into potential savings from a lower rate.

All of these underwriting changes apply to conventional loans and government-insured mortgages, including those backed by the Federal Housing Administration (FHA), U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) and U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).

If you’re looking to refinance your mortgage, use the Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac loan lookup tools to find out who owns your conventional loan.

No-income verification refinance options

If you have an FHA or VA loan, you may be eligible for reduced documentation programs. The FHA streamline refinance and VA interest rate reduction refinance loan (IRRRL) don’t require income verification or an appraisal. Borrowers with a USDA loan may also be eligible for a streamlined assist refinance loan with no income or appraisal needed.

Challenges for jumbo and alternative mortgage borrowers

Borrowers looking for loans over the maximum conforming loan limit in their area (also known as jumbo loans), may find more choices as jumbo mortgage credit availability improves. The February 2021 MCAI increased by 0.2%, which is welcome news for homebuyers searching for expensive-home financing.

The 36.9% drop in the jumbo MCAI is also bad news for borrowers seeking alternative lending options, such as stated-income or no-income verification loans (also called non-qualified mortgage, or non-QM, loans). However, a recent report by S&P Global Ratings predicts non-QM originations gradually pick up as consumers turn to non-QM loans to meet the higher demand for purchase loans expected in 2021.

One note: The underwriting flexibility for appraisals and income documentation doesn’t currently apply to jumbo and non-QM loans since they aren’t owned by Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac.

Piggyback financing alternative to jumbo loans

Borrowers searching for jumbo loan alternatives may want to consider piggyback financing to bridge the gap. For example, someone borrowing 70% of the value of a $1 million dollar home might not be able to get a $700,000 loan in the current jumbo lending environment.

With piggyback financing, they could take out a $548,250 (maximum conforming loan amount for most areas) first mortgage and “piggyback” a home equity line of credit (HELOC) or home equity loan (HEL) for the $189,600 difference. Once the jumbo lending world normalizes, both mortgages could be refinanced into one jumbo loan again.

How the coronavirus pandemic is changing mortgage closings

A key part of the mortgage process — closings — has become trickier as in-person closings have come to a halt in many states with stay-at-home orders. Here’s how some lenders are responding to ensure transactions are closed.

  • Online notary signings. In states where you can’t sign in person, an online notarization may be possible. There may be extra steps you have to take to verify your identity depending on the state you live in. For example, the state of Illinois implemented a new policy permitting remote notarizations using audio-visual communications.
  • Power of attorney signings. As of April 7, borrowers that need help managing financial responsibilities due to circumstances such as illness or extended work hours may choose someone to sign on their behalf with a power of attorney. An internet video or phone conference may be used to ensure the borrower understands the terms of the loan.
  • Electronic signings. Some lenders may be approved for in-person electronic notarization (IPEN) signings, allowing all documents, including the note and deed of trust, to be signed with an electronic signature. There may be extra hoops to jump through to prove your identity during the signing process that varies from lender to lender.

What to do if you can’t make your mortgage payments

The recent passage of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act provides homeowners with a variety of ways to get help amid the current pandemic. If you need assistance, learn about mortgage relief programs available from the federal government, your state and major lenders. Contact your loan servicer as soon as possible to discuss options.


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