Real life answers to your questions

Mortgage qualification is a crucial process for anyone who needs financing to buy a home.

While mortgage guidelines vary depending on the lender and type of mortgage, the mortgage qualification process is basically the same for all borrowers.

Pre-qualification: The First Step

Pre-qualifying for a mortgage begins when you provide basic information about your financial situation to a lender. This information gives the lender an overview of your debts, income and assets. Wages, salary, alimony, Social Security benefits and interest are examples of income. Savings, checking and investment accounts are assets. The lender may pull your credit report and score, but this is not always done at the pre-qualification stage and is never done without your permission.

The main purpose of pre-qualification is to give you and your real estate agent an estimate of what you'll likely be able to afford when you shop for property. Once you've gone through the process, your lender can issue you a pre-qualification letter, which lets real estate agents and home sellers know that you're a serious buyer and not someone just touring houses for decorating ideas.

Pre-approval: The Gold Standard

The difference between loan pre-qualification and loan pre-approval is very important. Pre-qualification is based on preliminary information obtained from you, and the lender runs a few calculations to determine if you superficially appear to be qualified. You can even do this yourself with a pre-qualification tool like LendingTree's Home Affordability Calculator. This first step is helpful for lenders and borrowers.

The problem with pre-qualification is that the lender is taking you at your word, and your information has not been independently verified. In fact, Realtor.com says, "Many REALTORS® and sellers won't consider you as a strong home-buying candidate without a pre-approval letter."

The pre-approval process requires you to submit a mortgage loan application and supporting documentation – pay stubs, tax returns, bank statements, and more. A mortgage underwriter looks at your credit report and analyzes your debts. At that point, if your application package meets the lender's guidelines, you can be granted a pre-approval, also known as a credit approval. The idea is that you as a buyer are approved, and if the property you choose also meets the lender's guidelines, you should be able to close on your purchase.

Qualifying for a Home Loan: By the Numbers

To qualify for a home loan, you must first contact a lender.

That might seem obvious, but many first-time buyers make the mistake of shopping for a home online or at open-house events without ever contacting a lender to find out whether they are qualified for a home loan. This backward approach can result in a lot of disappointment when buyers discover they can't qualify to borrow as much as they'd expected they could.

Debt-to-income Ratio

One of the most important factors in home loan approval is your debt-to-income ratio, or DTI. This ratio compares your gross (before tax) monthly income to your monthly debt repayment obligations to determine whether you can afford the loan you want. Most lenders and programs don't want to see a DTI higher than 43 percent, and many set lower limits than that. If your gross income is $6,000 per month, and your lender allows a maximum DTI of 40 percent, all obligations can't exceed $2,400 a month. If your debt payments come to $1,000 a month, that leaves you $1,400 a month for your house payment, including property taxes and homeowner's insurance.

Assets

You'll need to prove that you have enough money for your down payment and closing costs, and you'll need to show where it comes from. Lenders like to see that after you close on your home purchase, you'll still have money to cover your mortgage if you have a financial emergency. These funds are called "reserves," and the more you have, the better your chances of getting approved for your mortgage.

Credit

While many loan programs allow credit scores as low as 620, and while FHA allows scores as low as 500 if you put at least ten percent down, most successful borrowers have considerably higher scores. Mortgage tracking firm Ellie Mae reports that the average FICO score for approved loans was 723, while the average score for denied applications was 678!

Don't Blow It!

Neither pre-qualification nor pre-approval is the final step in the mortgage qualification process. The lender will probably require you to update your documents before you can close on your purchase. The underwriter will order a fresh credit check and an appraisal of the property's value prior to closing.

During the home buying process, maintain the status quo with your financial situation. That means you shouldn't open new credit accounts, buy furniture or major appliances on a charge card, buy or lease a car or change employment. Any significant change in the borrower's income, assets, debts or credit can invalidate your mortgage approval.

Being pre-qualified or pre-approved for a maximum loan amount doesn't mean you should spend that much. There are many items that affect a budget that don't necessarily become part of a mortgage application – perhaps you have an expensive hobby or like to save more than the average person. It's up to you to determine your comfort zone and stay in it. The bottom line is that mortgage qualification is a process that starts with a lender and borrower, and ends with a closed and funded new loan.