Before buying a home, tapping equity or refinancing a mortgage, shop around to find some of the best mortgage lenders for your circumstances.

When you buy a home or tap into home equity, it’s a big financial decision, so it makes sense to find the best mortgage lender you can. To do that, shop for offers from at least three lenders.

Compare mortgage rates and other loan elements such as fees, terms, time to close, the availability of online application and loan tracking, and customer service offerings. Taking the time to make an informed decision can save you thousands of dollars over the life of your loan.

How does a mortgage work?

A mortgage is a loan to purchase a home. The loan is repaid with interest in monthly payments over a certain number of years, such as 15, 20 or 30. If the mortgage isn’t repaid, the borrower may lose the home in a multistage process known as foreclosure.

Banks, credit unions and other lenders offer mortgages. To apply, fill out an application and provide documentation about your finances. Lenders consider your income, debts and credit score to decide whether you qualify and the terms to offer.

Types of mortgages

There are a variety of mortgages and home loan programs. Here are some of your choices.

Fixed vs. adjustable rates

There are fixed-rate and adjustable-rate mortgages. The interest rate stays the same for the entire loan term of a fixed-rate mortgage. With an adjustable-rate mortgage, or ARM, the interest rate stays the same for a certain period, up to 10 years, and then adjusts at a specified interval, usually every six months.

15-, 20- and 30-year mortgages

The most popular mortgage term is 30 years, but 15- and 20-year mortgages are also available. Mortgage payments are spread out monthly through the term. At the end, the loan is paid off and the borrower owns the property free and clear.

Government-backed mortgages

These loans are backed by the federal government:

FHA mortgages are backed by the Federal Housing Administration. They allow down payments as low as 3.5% and have more lenient credit score requirements than other loan programs. Borrowers must pay for mortgage insurance.

USDA mortgages, backed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and meant for rural home buyers, do not require a down payment, but borrowers must pay an upfront and annual guarantee fee, similar to mortgage insurance for FHA loans.

VA loans, backed by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, are for veterans and active military members. VA mortgages require no down payment, but borrowers pay a one-time VA funding fee, which can be rolled into the loan.

Conventional loans

Conventional loans are mortgages that are not backed by the federal government. Some conventional loans have down payment requirements as low as 3% — but typically, borrowers must pay for private mortgage insurance if they put down less than 20%.

Conventional mortgages can be conforming or nonconforming. Conforming conventional mortgages fall within certain dollar amount limitations set every year by the Federal Housing Finance Agency. They also meet underwriting guidelines set by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the government-sponsored entities that buy conforming loans.

Nonconforming loans don’t abide by those limits and guidelines. For example, jumbo loans are conventional mortgages that exceed the conforming loan limits. They also typically have stricter criteria for approval than other mortgages.

What’s the credit score needed for a home loan?

The credit score needed to buy a home depends on the type of loan and the lender. Most borrowers have scores in the high 600s to 700s. FHA loans generally have the most lenient credit score requirements.

How to compare mortgage rates

You can check current mortgage rates to see the average of what lenders are offering. Then get initial quotes online from some lenders based on your location, loan term, purchase price, down payment amount and other factors.

To get a firm quote, you’ll need to apply for preapproval. During the preapproval process, the lender will check your credit and verify your financial information, such as income, assets and debts.

How to shop for a mortgage lender

The time to shop for a mortgage lender is before you start house hunting. Getting preapproved for a mortgage will show real estate agents and sellers that you’re a serious buyer. It’s smart to get preapproved and then get Loan Estimates from more than one lender. The Loan Estimate provides details about the loan terms, monthly payment and estimated closing costs. With those pieces of information, you can compare offers and choose the best deal.

Home equity loans and lines of credit

Homeowners who want to access their home equity without refinancing or selling can take out second mortgages. A home equity loan offers access to cash based on the value of the home for any expenses, although it is recommended homeowners use the funds for upgrades and repairs that add value to the home. This loan is paid out in a lump sum that is then repaid over a specific amount of time.

A home equity line of credit, or HELOC, also offers cash but works more like a credit card, allowing a homeowner to withdraw funds multiple times, up to the limit of their credit line, during a specific period and then pay it back.

Because both of these options use the home as collateral, a homeowner must understand that failure to make payments could result in loss of the home. As with purchase loans, it’s wise to compare offers from more than one home equity lender.

To help you choose a mortgage lender, NerdWallet’s editorial team has picked some of the best out there in a variety of categories to help you find the home loan that’s right for you.

Here are more of our picks for best mortgage lenders.

For homeowners who want to tap into home equity:

For borrowers who have credit challenges:

For borrowers who want to refinance:

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