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Mortgage underwriting: How long it takes and everything else you need to know

Are you a risky bet for a home loan? Your underwriter will help a lender decide whether or not to approve your application.

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When buying a home, mortgage underwriters evaluate your risk level to help a lender decide if your application should be approved. The mortgage underwriting process happens behind the scenes after you submit a mortgage application. The underwriting decision will ultimately determine if you qualify for a home loan, so it's helpful to understand the process, how to prepare and mistakes to avoid. 

What is mortgage underwriting?

Mortgage underwriting is the part of the homebuying process when a bank assesses your delinquency risk -- that is, how likely you are to be unable to repay a home loan. During the underwriting process, you'll provide financial documents, including pay stubs, bank statements, W-9s, tax returns and profit/loss statements (for self-employed applicants) -- which will help a lender determine your creditworthiness along with your mortgage application. The more favorable your credit profile, the more likely you are to be approved -- and qualify for a lower interest rate.

What is an underwriter? What do they do? 

Underwriters determine an applicant's creditworthiness and ability to pay back the mortgage over a loan's lifetime.

There are two types of underwriters: manual, handled by a real person, and automatic, which is managed by software. In both cases, your delinquency risk is assessed by reviewing your financial information and credit history. Automatic underwriting uses an artificial intelligence-driven computer program to determine your delinquency risk. 

Although automated underwriting is faster, it's less flexible than manual underwriting. A manual underwriter can better account for inconsistent income or an error on a credit report. Some lenders use a combination of manual and automated underwriting to streamline this process.

Who pays for underwriting varies among lenders, but in most cases, the borrower (home buyer) is responsible for paying the underwriting costs during the closing process.

Five steps in the mortgage underwriting process

Step 1: Get prequalified

Before you start looking for a house, you can get prequalified to find out how much of a mortgage you're likely to be approved for. To prequalify you for a home, the lender will run a preliminary review of your financial information to determine if you can get approved for a mortgage. Be prepared to provide the following paperwork for prequalification:

  • Government-issued ID
  • Bank statements
  • Pay stubs
  • Prior two years W2s
  • Prior two years tax returns
  • Social security card

Once you're prequalified, it doesn't necessarily guarantee that you'll be approved for a home loan when you apply. Instead, it allows you to shop for a home within a set budget.

Step 2: Complete your mortgage application

Next, it's time to fill out a mortgage application and get preapproved for your home loan. During this step, you'll need all of the financial documents you provided when getting prequalified. The underwriter will perform a hard credit check and validate the financial information you've provided as part of the mortgage verification process.

Once verification is complete, the lender will issue a preapproval decision. If you're found to be a qualified applicant, your lender will issue a preapproval letter. Mortgage preapproval goes a step further than prequalification. When you're preapproved for a mortgage, the lender approves you for a specific loan amount, as long as your financial picture doesn't change.

Step 3: Make an offer on a home

With your preapproval letter in hand, you're ready to shop until you find the right house for your budget and lifestyle. When you do find the right home, you'll make an offer for the sellers to review. Having a preapproval letter can increase your chances of getting an offer approved quickly. It makes you stand out as a serious buyer since you're more likely to lock in financing.

Step 4: Wait for the appraisal and title search

If your offer is accepted, the lender will order an appraisal of the property. The appraisal helps determine the fair market value of a home and ensures the mortgage amount does not exceed the home's value. It's designed primarily to protect the lender, but it can also protect you from overspending on a house.

If the appraisal comes in for less than the asking price, you may need to search for an alternative property. Typically, the lender will not approve a home loan that exceeds the appraisal value. If the home has an asking price of $300,000, for instance, and appraises for $270,000, you would be responsible for making up the $30,000 difference. Sometimes, if a home appraisal comes in low, the seller will lower the asking price. Just be aware that you may have to walk away from a home that doesn't appraise as expected.

If the appraisal is in line with your offer and the loan amount, the lender will authorize a title search. The title company researches the property's history and ensures no claims exist on the property, such as a current mortgage or lien, pending legal action, restrictions or unpaid taxes. After the search, the title company issues a title insurance policy guaranteeing the search accuracy. Two title policies may be issued: one to protect the lender and sometimes, a separate policy to protect the buyer.

Step 5: The underwriting decision

Once all of the above steps are complete and your application is thoroughly reviewed, the underwriter will issue a judgment. Here are the most common underwriting decisions:

  • Approved: You provided all documentation, there are no title issues, and you are approved to receive financing for the mortgage. The next step is to set a settlement or closing date to sign all paperwork and receive the keys to your new home.
  • Approved with conditions: The loan is approved, but more documentation is needed. The required documentation could be a gift letter from funds received as down payment, proof of employment verification, letter of explanation or a completed and signed sales contract.
  • Denied: The underwriter determined it is too risky to lend to you. This might mean your credit history has negative marks, your income is too low to qualify for the loan amount or your debt-to-income ratio is too high to qualify. Your lender should provide you with the reason for your denial, so you can work on improving any factors that impacted their decision.
  • Suspended: The application has been put on hold because more documentation is needed. Once you supply the requested documents, the underwriting process can resume for a final decision.

How long does the underwriting process take? 

The typical underwriting process ranges from a couple of days to several weeks-- though the entire closing process usually takes 45 days. To make sure the process goes smoothly and quickly, respond promptly to any lender requests for information and give a heads up to any references you list (such as an employer) so they will be prepared. Many lenders allow you to check the status of the underwriting process online, so you can be proactive if any documentation is missing.

Mistakes to avoid during the underwriting process:

  • Applying for new credit accounts. New credit applications and approvals can affect your DTI and change your credit score, which can impact your mortgage application. 
  • Leaving a job. It could make things more complicated if you lose your job (or get a new one) during the homebuying process. If possible, wait until the mortgage process is complete before making any career changes.
  • Hiding financial information. If the lender finds significant financial information you've hidden or failed to disclose, it can delay the underwriting process or cause a denial. 

Tips to streamline the mortgage underwriting process:

  • Review your credit report: Before you start the mortgage underwriting process, check your credit report to make sure it's accurate and correct any information that is not right. The minimum credit score you'll need varies by the loan type and lender, but generally, you'll need a score of 620 or above to secure financing. A score of 760 or better will help you lock in the best interest rates. Be sure you review the credit requirements for your loan type before applying.
  • Have your financial documents ready: Gather all the documents needed and submit them with the application. Check the underwriting status frequently so you can provide additional documents requested by the underwriter.
  • Respond to lender inquiries promptly: If the lender or underwriter reaches out, respond quickly and provide any requested information as soon as possible.

Make a larger down payment: The larger your down payment, the better your chances of getting approved for a mortgage loan. A large down payment increases the loan-to-value (LTV) ratio, making you a less risky applicant from an underwriting standpoint.