What Is a Mortgage?
A mortgage is a type of loan used to purchase or maintain a home, land, or other types of real estate. The borrower agrees to pay the lender over time, typically in a series of regular payments that are divided into principal and interest. The property then serves as collateral to secure the loan.
A borrower must apply for a mortgage through their preferred lender and ensure that they meet several requirements, including minimum credit scores and down payments. Mortgage applications go through a rigorous underwriting process before they reach the closing phase. Mortgage types vary based on the needs of the borrower, such as conventional and fixed-rate loans.
How Mortgages Work
Individuals and businesses use mortgages to buy real estate without paying the entire purchase price up front. The borrower repays the loan plus interest over a specified number of years until they own the property free and clear. Most traditional mortgages are fully-amortizing. This means that the regular payment amount will stay the same, but different proportions of principal vs. interest will be paid over the life of the loan with each payment. Typical mortgage terms are for 30 or 15 years.
Mortgages are also known as liens against property or claims on property. If the borrower stops paying the mortgage, the lender can foreclose on the property.
For example, a residential homebuyer pledges their house to their lender, which then has a claim on the property. This ensures the lender’s interest in the property should the buyer default on their financial obligation. In the case of a foreclosure, the lender may evict the residents, sell the property, and use the money from the sale to pay off the mortgage debt.
The Mortgage Process
Would-be borrowers begin the process by applying to one or more mortgage lenders. The lender will ask for evidence that the borrower is capable of repaying the loan. This may include bank and investment statements, recent tax returns, and proof of current employment. The lender will generally run a credit check as well.
If the application is approved, the lender will offer the borrower a loan of up to a certain amount and at a particular interest rate. Homebuyers can apply for a mortgage after they have chosen a property to buy or while they are still shopping for one, a process known as pre-approval. Being pre-approved for a mortgage can give buyers an edge in a tight housing market because sellers will know that they have the money to back up their offer.
Once a buyer and seller agree on the terms of their deal, they or their representatives will meet at what’s called a closing. This is when the borrower makes their down payment to the lender. The seller will transfer ownership of the property to the buyer and receive the agreed-upon sum of money, and the buyer will sign any remaining mortgage documents. The lender may charge fees for originating the loan (sometimes in the form of points) at the closing.
Types of Mortgages
Mortgages come in a variety of forms. The most common types are 30-year and 15-year fixed-rate mortgages. Some mortgage terms are as short as five years, while others can run 40 years or longer. Stretching payments over more years may reduce the monthly payment, but it also increases the total amount of interest that the borrower pays over the life of the loan.
Within the different term lengths are numerous types of home loans, including Federal Housing Administration (FHA) loans, U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) loans, and U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) loans available for specific populations that may not have the income, credit scores, or down payments required to qualify for conventional mortgages.
The following are just a few examples of some of the most popular types of mortgage loans available to borrowers.
The standard type of mortgage is fixed-rate. With a fixed-rate mortgage, the interest rate stays the same for the entire term of the loan, as do the borrower’s monthly payments toward the mortgage. A fixed-rate mortgage is also called a traditional mortgage.
Adjustable-Rate Mortgage (ARM)
With an adjustable-rate mortgage (ARM), the interest rate is fixed for an initial term, after which it can change periodically based on prevailing interest rates. The initial interest rate is often a below-market rate, which can make the mortgage more affordable in the short term but possibly less affordable long-term if the rate rises substantially.
ARMs typically have limits, or caps, on how much the interest rate can rise each time it adjusts and in total over the life of the loan.
Other, less common types of mortgages, such as interest-only mortgages and payment-option ARMs, can involve complex repayment schedules and are best used by sophisticated borrowers. These types of loans may feature a large balloon payment at its end.
Many homeowners got into financial trouble with these types of mortgages during the housing bubble of the early 2000s.3
As their name suggests, reverse mortgages are a very different financial product. They are designed for homeowners age 62 or older who want to convert part of the equity in their homes into cash.
These homeowners can borrow against the value of their home and receive the money as a lump sum, fixed monthly payment, or line of credit. The entire loan balance becomes due when the borrower dies, moves away permanently, or sells the home.
Average Mortgage Rates (So Far for 2022)
How much you’ll have to pay for a mortgage depends on the type of mortgage (such as fixed or adjustable), its term (such as 20 or 30 years), any discount points paid, and interest rates at the time. Interest rates can vary from week to week and from lender to lender, so it pays to shop around.
Mortgage rates were at near-record lows in 2020, with rates bottoming out at a 2.66% average on a 30-year fixed-rate mortgage for the week of Dec. 24, 2020.5 Rates continued to stay stably low throughout 2021 and have started to climb steadily since Dec. 3, 2021 (see the chart below). According to the Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corp., average interest rates looked like this as of July 2022:
- 30-year fixed-rate mortgage: 5.30%
- 15-year fixed-rate mortgage: 4.45%
- 5/1 adjustable-rate mortgage: 4.19%6
How to Compare Mortgages
Banks, savings and loan associations, and credit unions were virtually the only sources of mortgages at one time. Today, a burgeoning share of the mortgage market includes nonbank lenders, such as Better, loanDepot, Rocket Mortgage, and SoFi.
If you’re shopping for a mortgage, an online mortgage calculator can help you compare estimated monthly payments, based on the type of mortgage, the interest rate, and how large a down payment you plan to make. It also can help you determine how expensive a property you can reasonably afford.
In addition to the principal and interest that you’ll be paying on the mortgage, the lender or mortgage servicer may set up an escrow account to pay local property taxes, homeowners insurance premiums, and certain other expenses. Those costs will add to your monthly mortgage payment.
Also, note that if you make less than a 20% down payment when you take out your mortgage, your lender may require that you purchase private mortgage insurance (PMI), which becomes another added monthly cost.7