Low Mortgage Rates: 7 Things You Need to Know to Refinance

Mortgage rates have declined sharply in recent months. Here's how to take advantage.

House and money on scale
By + More

With mortgage rates dropping to record lows, it's no surprise that more and more homeowners are looking to refinance. Earlier this month, the Mortgage Bankers Association's refinance index--which tracks application volume--hit its highest level in more than five years. This wave of refinancing applications was sparked by record-low interest rates on 30-year fixed mortgages, which fell to an average of 4.89 percent for the week ending January 9. And although mortgage rates have increased modestly since then--hitting 5.24 percent last week-- interest in refinancing remains elevated. But while some borrowers will be able to turn these compelling rates into real savings, not everyone can get in on the action. To better understand the refinancing process, here are seven things you need to know to refinance in today's market. 

[For more on interest rate trends, check out Mortgage Rates in 2009: 7 Things You Need to Know.]

1. Percentage point break: Despite the attractive rates, homeowners will have to thoroughly analyze their financial position before determining whether or not now is the time to refinance. A good rule of thumb, however, is if your mortgage rate is a full percentage point or more higher than current rates, you should consider refinancing, says Orawin Velz of the Mortgage Bankers Association. "If your rate is about 6 percent currently, then it is a good time to think about it," Velz says. (Keep in mind that anyone trying to refinance a so-called "jumbo loan"--one that's too large for Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to purchase--will face sharply higher rates, says Keith Gumbinger of HSH Associates.)  The transaction fees lenders charge are another major consideration. Higher fees, of course, eat into the potential savings of a reduced mortgage rate. So the lower the fees, the better. "The fees that you should be paying need to be low enough so that you can recoup your money through the break in the interest rate in a reasonable period of time--usually under four years," Gumbinger says. (More on fees below.) 

2. Half rejected: Although more Americans are looking to refinance, a significant chunk of applications won't be approved. In the first half of 2008, roughly 60 percent of refinancing applications were turned into loans, Velz says. "But because of the intensified turmoil in the second half of the year and continued decline in home prices, we believe that the rate has probably declined to [about 50 percent.]" In order to qualify for refinancing, homeowners will need to meet certain specific criteria. 

3. FICO 740:  While 720 is still considered by some to be a solid FICO score, it's not good enough to obtain the best rates in today's refinancing market, says Chris Freemott, president of All American Mortgage in Naperville, Ill. Instead, borrowers will need a FICO score of at least 740. "FICOs are everything," Freemott says. "[A FICO score of] 740 is the benchmark for the lowest possible rates." Borrowers that don't have this score can still refinance, but they're likely to face higher rates.

4. Equity and documentation: Home equity can be another significant barrier to refinancing today. The real estate crash has sucked a great deal of equity out of homes. Zillow says roughly one in seven American homeowners actually have negative equity—meaning they owe more on their mortgage than their property is worth. In order to qualify for refinancing,  homeowners will have to have a minimum of 3 percent equity in their homes, Velz says. In addition to solid credit and home equity, borrowers will also need to be able to document their income in order to qualify for refinancing. 

5. Fee paying options: Fees associated with mortgage refinancing vary widely from market to market and borrower to borrower. But on average, a $200,000 refinancing loan may come with up to $6,000 in fees, Gumbinger says. Borrowers have three main options for paying such fees. Those with enough cash may want to just pay the fees up front. Borrowers with less cash on hand may be able to opt for a higher interest rate instead of paying the fees. A third possibility is to have the fees tacked on to the principal of the mortgage, Gumbinger says. The key is to chat with your mortgage lender about structuring the fee payment so that it makes the most economic sense for you. "I've been doing this for 11 years now and…I've never written the same loan twice," Freemott says. "Everyone has a little difference to their situation."