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Mortgages: What You Need to Know in 2009

Mortgages:  What You Need to Know in 2009


With all the doom and gloom over housing, you might be surprised to know that this is a fantastic time to get a mortgage. Not if you have poor credit, to be sure. But you can get a great deal on a 30-year, fixed-rate, conforming loan these days if you have a solid FICO score, a manageable debt burden, and proof positive of a reliable income.

You have to go back to around 1961 to find a time when 30-year mortgages had rates this low, according to Keith Gumbinger, a vice-president at financial publisher HSH Associates in Pompton Plains, N.J. For that, thank the U.S. government, which is trying to jump-start the stalled housing market by buying up mortgage-backed securities. On Dec. 31, Freddie Mac reported that average rates on 30-year fixed mortgages dropped to 5.1% for the week, down about 1.3 percentage points since late October and the lowest since its survey began in 1971.

Rates are probably headed even lower in 2009, raising the question of whether you should borrow now or wait for a better deal. The experts are sharply divided over this one. Put it this way: If you’re a gambler, wait. If you can’t sleep at night worrying that rates will go up from here, borrow now.

Here are some key things you need to know about today’s mortgage market:

Now More Than Ever, Shop Around

In ordinary times, one loan is about as good as another because most lenders’ offers on 30-year loans are clustered within around a quarter of a percentage point. Not now. With the economy so shaky, lenders are all over the map in how much risk they’re willing to take in making loans. So it really pays to shop around. And keep checking, because rates are constantly changing. One day in late December 2008, Wells Fargo (WFC) was offering 30-year conforming loans at 5.0% plus one point, while Bank of America (BAC) was offering the same kind of loan at 6.625% plus one point, according to Cameron Findlay, chief economist of No offense to Bank of America, but only a sucker would have borrowed from it instead of Wells Fargo that day.

For New Loans, Get a Fixed Rate

Forget what you were told in quieter times about the pros and cons of fixed- vs. adjustable-rate mortgage loans. These days, all the best deals are on fixed-rate loans because that’s the segment of the market that the government has been targeting with support. The securitization of adjustable-rate loans has mostly dried up, so banks don’t want to originate ARMs, therefore they don’t offer attractive rates on them, says HSH’s Gumbinger.

If You Have an ARM, Keep It for Now

On the other hand, if you got an ARM in the past and it’s coming up on an interest rate reset, don’t rush to unload it. Short-term interest rates have gotten so low that you’re very likely to see your monthly payment fall. Thank your lucky stars if your ARM happens to be indexed to the one-year Treasury bill, whose yield has fallen below half a percent. Even with the typical spread added on, you’re still paying only around 3.25% a year, says Gumbinger. ARMs indexed to LIBOR (the London Interbank Offered Rate) are resetting these days to the low 4s, which is still excellent.

Check Your Finances

The hurdles to get one of those low fixed-rate loans are high because Fannie Mae (FNM) and Freddie Mac (FRE) have tightened standards for the loans they’ll buy or guarantee, even though the two mortgage finance giants are now under government conservatorship. You’ll need a FICO score of at least 720 for the best interest rate, although for a big enough fee Fannie and Freddie will guarantee loans with FICO scores down to the mid-600s. You may also need a down payment of 20%. In the boom times you could get a “piggyback” loan to shrink your down payment, but those are history. Even private mortgage insurance, which used to cover some of the financing gap up to 20%, is much harder to get now because the issuers have suffered big losses.

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