How to buy a lower mortgage rate (and other first-time buyer tips)

"Mortgage rates fell to the lowest level in nine months, and in response, mortgage applications jumped more than 20 percent," said Freddie Mac chief economist Sam Khater. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)(AP/David Zalubowski)

WASHINGTON — First-time homebuyers find themselves going through a steep and fast learning curve once they get serious about buying.

Every lender charges differently for closing costs, but generally they include an appraisal, credit report, title policy, pest inspection, recording fees and taxes.

Other expenses include escrow and earnest money. Also often a surprise for the new home buyer is the fact that the lender will collect money up front costs of property taxes and homeowner’s insurance.

“It is key to note that those amounts are not going to the lender. They are going to your county or government and to the homeowner’s insurance company,” Jeff Long, chief lending officer at Fairfax-based Apple Federal Credit Union told WTOP.

“But those are moneys that the homeowners are going to have to come up with at closing, and they may not be prepared for that if they are a first-time homebuyer,” he said.

That adds up to a lot more than just the down payment first-time buyers might be budgeting for in their minds. Closing costs can be as much as 2 to 5 percent of the home’s purchase price, and it is important for buyers to ask the lender for an estimate of closing costs up front.

There is also mortgage or discount points to consider, which is basically a way to buy a lower mortgage interest rate.

“Most lenders offer multiple options where you can pay additional money at closing. It’s called points, or discount points in order to secure a lower rate,” Long said.

“It can be very beneficial if you plan on being in the home for a longer time frame. If you don’t have cash available or you know you’re only going to be in the house for a couple of years, like a lot of people in the Washington area, then it might not make sense for you to pay the extra points,” he said.

Another consideration for buyers is whether to lock in a loan rate. Some lenders charge from zero to one point to lock in a rate as protection against an increase in rates before closing.

But the risk is if rates decrease before closing, the buyer is locked in at the higher rate, and in most cases, the lender can’t lower it.

Apple Federal has a first-time buyer’s checklist outlining some of the most common questions with answers.

Jeff Clabaugh

Jeff Clabaugh has spent 20 years covering the Washington region's economy and financial markets for WTOP as part of a partnership with the Washington Business Journal, and officially joined the WTOP newsroom staff in January 2016.

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