What It Takes to Get a Loan

Lenders loosen their grip, but your credit history will decide whether you get a mortgage, car loan or credit card.

When the financial crisis hit, many banks became tightfisted, and plenty of potential borrowers walked away empty-handed. But financial institutions have emerged from the recession stronger and ready to lend. "Credit is available. No question about it," says James Chessen, chief economist for the American Bankers Association. "Banks are being careful because the economy is still weak, but I don't know a bank out there that's not anxious to make a loan."

Keep in mind that from mortgages to car loans, your credit history and score matter more than they did prior to the crunch. Rates are at rock-bottom levels for borrowers with top-tier credit -- generally credit scores above 720. Before you shop rates, get your credit reports at www.annualcreditreport.com and check for errors. And buy your credit score from Equifax for $7.95 (or get a free score that's similar to the ones that lenders use from CreditKarma.com). That way you can see where you stand before you apply for a loan.

Mortgages: Stricter rules

Mortgage lenders want to make loans now, and they may even bid against one another for your business. But lending standards remain tight, and you must be prepared to produce a mound of paperwork to document your income and assets.

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Rates are as low as they were in the 1950s, so going through the motions could pay off. In mid September, the average interest rate for a 30-year, fixed-rate conforming loan -- a mortgage of $417,000 or less -- was 4.5%, according to HSH Associates, a mortgage-tracking firm. The initial rate for a 5/1 adjustable-rate mortgage (a fixed rate for five years, followed by annual adjustments) was 3.6%.

Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac and the Federal Housing Administration continue to dominate the mortgage market, setting the standards for the loans that lenders make and sell to investors. So lenders strive to dot every i and cross every t when they qualify you.

If you're buying or refinancing the mortgage on your primary home, you'll need a minimum down payment of 5% to 10% for a conforming loan or 10% to 15% for a conforming jumbo loan (125% of a metro area's median home price, up to $729,750). With 20% or more down, you avoid private mortgage insurance, which typically costs 0.5% to 1.5% of your loan amount per year.

Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac allow a minimum credit score of 620 if you have at least 25% equity in the property or a score of 660 with equity of less than 25%; you'll get the best rate if your score exceeds 720. The FHA will soon require a minimum credit score of 580 to qualify with a down payment of 3.5%, but FHA lenders often impose a higher minimum score of 670.

In addition to your credit, lenders will also scrutinize your ability to pay, starting with your ratio of debt to income. Monthly housing expenses (principal, interest, taxes, hazard insurance, private mortgage insurance and association fees) shouldn't account for more than 28% of gross monthly income. Total debt shouldn't exceed 36% of gross income, but in some cases lenders stretch the maximum to 45%.

Chris Bennett, a loan officer with HomeServices Lending, in Charlotte, N.C., says that he surprises borrowers "all the time" with preapproval of their loan when they aren't expecting it. Even people with lower credit scores may qualify if they have stable employment, a history of paying rent and credit lines on time, and money in the bank or in a retirement account.

However, Bennett also counsels some borrowers to delay their home purchase long enough to improve their credit score, eliminate debt, get a raise and save more money. They might earn a better interest rate, improving their buying power. Plus, he says, "it's not good to lay out every bit of cash you have if you won't have money for a rainy day."

Prove it. At a minimum, you must supply your pay stubs for the past 30 days and W-2 forms for the past two years. Lenders will want to see bank, retirement-account and investment statements for the past 60 days. Bennett says three types of borrowers will face additional requirements:

If you're self-employed or if 25% or more of your income is from commissions or bonuses, you must provide two years of tax returns. Lenders will average your income over the past two years to figure your debt-to-income ratio. If you have pursued opportunities to reduce your taxable income, you may not have sufficient income to qualify even though you may have a lot of money in the bank. Community banks, credit unions and other lenders that typically keep their loans on their own books are the best bet for borrowers with low incomes and high assets, says Bennett.

If you want to rent out your home and buy a new one, you must provide a signed lease for a minimum of 12 months. You can use only 75% of rental income to help qualify for the mortgage, and you must have at least 30% equity in your former home.

If you and your spouse are relocating for work and your spouse doesn't have a job yet, you must qualify for the loan based on one income unless your spouse has a signed agreement with an employer to begin work within 45 days of closing the loan.

Even if you qualify, you can throw a monkey wrench into the final loan approval if you take on new debt that could affect your credit score or your debt-to-income ratio. Some lenders pull another credit report just before closing. Another possible sticking point is the appraisal. Overly generous appraisals helped to fuel the housing bubble. Now, miserly ones may thwart your closing, says Guy Cecala, publisher of the newsletter Inside Mortgage Finance. Lenders will estimate the value of your home conservatively, and appraisers are generally following suit, especially if the local market is in flux. (For techniques to fight low appraisals, see How to Get a Fair Appraisal.)

Home equity: Lower limits

Several years ago, home values were rising so rapidly that you could build a pile of equity practically before the ink was dry on your settlement papers -- and then borrow against it to pay for everything from home repairs to college tuition. But as prices have tumbled, lenders have tightened their criteria for approving fixed-rate home-equity loans and variable-rate lines of credit.

Now in most cities you'll be able to borrow no more than 80% of the appraised value, less the mortgage. In some cities you may get away with 90%, says Keith Gumbinger, of HSH Associates. But in areas where prices have plummeted, such as parts of Florida, Nevada and California, the loan-to-value ratio goes as low as 60%.

You'll need a credit score of at least 720, as opposed to the 650 to 680 you could get away with a few years ago. And as with first mortgages, you'll have to document income and assets. Interest rates depend on the amount you borrow and your location. Recent rates averaged about 5.3% on home-equity lines of credit and 7.4% on loans, according to HSH.

Car loans: Better rates

When you need to borrow money to buy a new set of wheels, credit isn't the major stumbling block anymore. Loan approvals are up from last year in every credit category, according to CNW Research. "Most people have good enough credit to qualify," says Greg McBride, of Bankrate.com. "The down payment is what's problematic for people without a lot of savings." Lenders are looking for 10% down on a new car and 20% for used cars.

The average rate from the manufacturers' finance companies was 4.5% in August, versus 6.9% in January 2009. Automakers and their finance companies, desperate to prop up sales, are aggressively promoting low-rate loans on new cars for top-tier borrowers. Expect to see 0% offers on 2010 models as dealers clear their lots for the 2011s. And even though the new model year is still fresh, rates as low as 1.9% and 2.9% for 60 months recently made up a sizable number of offers.

Low rates aren't limited to new-car buyers. After welcoming their first child, Andrea Hewitt and her husband, Josh, decided "it was time to grow up." They traded in the 2004 Honda Accord coupe Andrea had bought when she was single for a more family-friendly 2008 Nissan Altima sedan. The dealer offered a loan at 5% for five years, which the Hewitts bargained down to 4.29%. If they had purchased the extended warranty, the dealer would have knocked the rate down to 0.9%. The trade-in took care of a chunk of the loan balance, and the Hewitts put down another $1,500 to keep their payments low. While the best financing deal is often at the dealer, make sure you have a backup plan in case you don't qualify for the lowest rates. At big banks, good credit will get you rates below 4% for five years on new cars and about 4% to 5% for used cars. Some credit unions are beating even those rates. If you don't belong to a credit union, you can probably find one for which you're eligible at www.creditunion.coop.

Credit cards: High scores

Despite fewer credit-card delinquencies, most large issuers have not relaxed their standards; they continue to require higher credit scores and offer lower credit limits than before the recession. If you have fair or poor credit, you'll have a tough time qualifying. Even if you have a credit score of 740 or 750, you would be approved for a credit card but might not qualify for the lowest rate, says Bill Hardekopf, of LowCards.com.

If you have excellent credit, whether or not you qualify for the lowest rate, your mailbox has probably been peppered with credit-card solicitations. Mintel, a market-research firm, expects issuers to send out three to four billion offers this year, compared with two billion a year ago, most of which will be for rewards cards. A lot of rewards cards have attractive perks, but now you're more likely to be charged an annual fee (often waived for the first year). Teaser rates as low as 0% are also making a comeback, although balance-transfer fees at many banks have risen to 5%.

To qualify for the best offers, pay on time, even if it's just the minimum. You could receive a reminder -- and a spike in your interest rate -- if your payment arrives even one day after the due date. If your card issuer lowers your credit limit, you may receive a separate notice or see it announced in your monthly statement. Many issuers no longer charge over-limit fees, but with others, exceeding your limit can cost up to $29 in fees and will probably mean an increase in your interest rate.

Hold your balances below 30% of your total credit limit. If your charges creep above that ratio, it's a red flag that lowers your credit score and could prompt the issuer to raise your rate (you must receive 45 days' notice). It's better not to close accounts because you increase the ratio of your outstanding balance to your available credit, which can hurt your credit score. Issuers can no longer charge inactivity fees, but if you are being charged an annual fee for a card you no longer use, it's worth it to close the account and take a small hit on your credit score.

Jessica L. Anderson
Associate Editor, Kiplinger's Personal Finance
Anderson has been with Kiplinger since January 2004, when she joined the staff as a reporter. Since then, she's covered the gamut of personal finance issues—from mortgages and credit to spending wisely—and she heads up Kiplinger's annual automotive rankings. She holds a BA in journalism and mass communication from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She was the 2012 president of the Washington Automotive Press Association and serves on its board of directors. In 2014, she was selected for the North American Car and Truck Of the Year jury. The awards, presented at the Detroit Auto Show, have come to be regarded as the most prestigious of their kind in the U.S. because they involve no commercial tie-ins. The jury is composed of nationally recognized journalists from across the U.S. and Canada, who are selected on the basis of audience reach, experience, expertise, product knowledge, and reputation in the automotive community.