Applying for a mortgage these days can be accomplished entirely online—no need to schlep to a bank and suffer hand cramps filling out paperwork.
Instead, you can punch some basic info into an online mortgage site, and up pops a bunch of loan choices. An industry renowned for being slow and cumbersome is now wooing customers with the promise of ease, speed, and transparency. Rocket Mortgage, Quicken Loan’s online platform, for example, promises qualified customers approval in as little as eight minutes.
But taking out a six-figure loan is one of the most complicated and substantial financial transactions most people will ever make. Does it really make sense to handle it by pushing a few buttons on your smartphone?
Maybe for those with a typical 9-to-5 job and good credit.
“If you are a salaried employee with no overtime, no bonus—no funky income, if you will—just a plain-vanilla borrower, then sometimes the online mortgage does work,” says Brian Minkow, a divisional vice president and loan originator at Homebridge Financial Services, a non-bank lender. “You know: You have a five-year work history, you’re putting 20% down, and have an 800 FICO score.”
But then there’s everybody else.
Here are some of the many reasons why those borrowers might consider taking more time with the process, including consulting with an experienced loan officer or mortgage broker.
1. You want to shop around for the best loan
First and foremost, it’s always in a borrower’s best interest to comparison shop on rates and fees, says Keith Gumbinger, a vice president at HSH.com, a mortgage information website. Speed and convenience alone do not always translate into a better price for borrowers.
“You should invest some time in it, do your research,” Gumbinger says. “Also, do your diligence on your credit. And think about how long you’re going to be in your home.” The reason? The length of time you estimate you are likely to be staying in the home can be a factor in whether you apply for a fixed or adjustable rate loan.
Gaining an understanding of different loan programs is a smarter approach than just “going online and filling out things,” says Minkow. “A lot of people really don’t know if they’re getting the right loan program, the right interest rate, the right down payment.”
The research process may ultimately lead you straight to the speedy online mortgage site as the best option anyway. But, Gumbinger says, “You won’t know that unless you go out and take a look around.”
2. You’re a first-time home buyer
Researching all your options is especially important if you’ve never purchased a home before, advises David Weliver, founder of MoneyUnder30.com, a personal finance advice site. First-time buyers should always talk through important details like rates, points, and closing costs with an expert. “After you’ve been through the process once, you have a better idea of what to expect and what information you’ll need to provide to make the process go smoothly,” he says.
Even those who have borrowed before may want to consult with someone if there is anything about their circumstances that might make qualifying more difficult. For example, Weliver says, “a real person could be a helpful advocate” for borrowers who are buying a second home or rental property, have spotty credit, or have inconsistent income.
3. You’re self-employed
About 15 million Americans are classified as self-employed, according to the Pew Research Center. While salaried workers generally only have to show the lender their W-2 tax forms to prove their income, self-employed workers “should expect that they will have to provide the lender with more income documentation, such as tax returns from the last few years,” Weliver says.
The fact is, some online lenders are more strict about documentation requirements than federal guidelines require, because they want to reduce their risk, says Minkow. That can make qualifying even tougher for a borrower who is already perceived as a higher risk—for example, applicants who have only been in their current job for a few months, or those who want to include overtime pay as evidence of their buying power. The lender will want to see proof that the overtime pay is consistent. “Certain guidelines say you have to show you have it for 12 months or 24 months—it depends on the loan,” Minkow says.
4. You want some extra handholding
Working with someone one on one may also help prevent last-minute problems when it comes time to buy that house. “I can’t tell you how many clients who have come to me after they’d gone online and gotten a pre-approval from a lender,” Minkow says. “Then they go to purchase a house, and halfway through the transaction, the online lender says all of a sudden, ‘You can’t get approved.’ The client freaks out. And that’s when they get ahold of someone like myself.”
Finally, there is the matter of personal preference. Not everyone likes the impersonal approach. Before applying for a loan, borrowers might consider whether they are the kind of person who appreciates a lot of help and attention in other shopping experiences. “If you like a hands-on environment, like a Macy’s, you’re a different kind of shopper than someone who enjoys going to a warehouse club,” says Gumbinger. “Your expectations going in will influence how satisfied you are with the process.”