This is how you get one of those mortgage rates under 3%

You’ve seen the headlines: With the economy in a COVID-19 tailspin, mortgage rates that have been falling and falling have now reached depths below 3% for a 30-year loan.

The national average rate dropped earlier this month to an all-time low 2.98%, according to mortgage giant Freddie Mac, which has been tracking rates since 1971. On Thursday, Mortgage News Daily reported that the average sank to an even more jaw-dropping 2.87%.

But if you’re a homeowner wanting to refinance or a homebuyer ready to make a purchase, you can’t assume that a mortgage lender will always give you one of those spectacularly low rates.

In some cities, different lenders can offer rates that vary by close to one full percentage point, a recent study from LendingTree found.

In other words, Lender X might want to give you a 30-year fixed-rate mortgage at 3.9%. But you might discover that Lender Y will offer you the same loan at just 2.95%.

How do you land a mortgage rate south of 3%? Industry experts offer these four tips.

1. It really pays to shop around

Don’t stop your mortgage search at Lender X — because there might very well be a Lender Y out there with a much more attractive rate.

Homebuyers who say yes to the very first mortgage offer end up paying an average of around $37,500 more in total interest over the course of a 30-year loan than buyers who gather rates from multiple lenders, the LendingTree study found.

In cities including San Francisco and Boston, the lifetime interest savings when you shop around can exceed $50,000.

“It pays to do your research,” says Tendayi Kapfidze, LendingTree’s chief economist.

Compare not only interest rates but also APRs, or annual percentage rates, which factor in origination fees and other expenses to give you a more comprehensive look at the yearly cost of the loan.

2. You’ll need a healthy credit score

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“To get a low rate, the borrower will need to have excellent credit,” says Richard Pisnoy, a principal with Silver Fin Capital, a mortgage broker in Great Neck, New York.

This is even truer now than it used to be. Banks have been tightening their lending standards, because they don’t want to be left with defaults resulting from the current economic crisis.

For example, JPMorgan Chase is requiring new mortgage applicants to have a minimum credit score of 700 — in the middle of the “good” range — and make at least a 20% down payment.

Consumers may not like the new rules, “but they speak to the uncertainty of the times and the difficulty for these organizations to gauge borrowers’ ability to repay at a time when millions of people are suddenly out of work,” says Matthew Speakman, an economist with Zillow.

The best mortgage rates have traditionally gone to borrowers with credit scores that are “exceptional” (800 to 850) or “very good (740 to 799). If you’re not sure what your credit score is, you can take a peek at it for free.

3. It helps if you’re refinancing

People in the industry say it can be more challenging right now to get a low rate on a so-called purchase loan — to buy a home — than if you’re a homeowner who’s refinancing.

“In general, we see that it’s typically easier to refinance than it is to purchase, given that the borrower has already been underwritten,” says Grant Moon, CEO of the real estate firm Home Captain.

“The lender has payments and historical propensity-to-pay information that makes it an easier proposition,” Moon says.

An exception is if you’re doing a cash-out refinance. Freddie Mac and sibling Fannie Mae, the government-sponsored entities that buy or back most U.S. mortgages, have grown wary of cash-out refis as many of those borrowers have sought to delay their payments during the pandemic, says Pisnoy.

“This is causing higher risk on these types of loans, and lenders are adjusting the rates up because of it,” he says.

4. Be ready to move quickly

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Mortgage rates are unpredictable, and the amazingly low ones can be here for just a hot minute.

“Even though rates are low, they still move every day,” warns Pisnoy. So if you come across a rate that would give you an impressively low monthly payment, work with the lender to try to lock it before it’s gone.

But if you lose out on a dreamy rate, experts say it’s a mistake to sit around and wait for mortgage rates to go down again. They can go higher just as easily as they can go lower.

So, the advice is similar to what dithering investors are told when they’re tempted to wait based on what stocks might or might not do: Don’t “time the market.”

If you’re a homebuyer and find the perfect house, comparison shop for your mortgage and try to settle on one quickly. Don’t miss out on a great loan or a great home.

Take the same approach when you buy your homeowners insurance. Go online and compare home insurance quotes, to fine the right coverage for the best price.

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