The Mortgage Professor

Jack Guttentag: Get a Good Lock on Your Mortgage Rate

By Jack Guttentag
Saturday, August 15, 2009

Locking in the price of a mortgage is full of potential problems for the unwary borrower. It is especially problematic in today's market because prices can jump around from day to day, and lenders take much longer than in pre-crisis years to approve an application, and often can't.

Locking in means that the lender commits to a specific price at closing, even if the market price is higher than it was on the lock-in date. The price commitment holds for a specified period, usually 30 to 90 days, with longer periods priced higher. Whether the borrower is equally committed to pay the locked-in rate if the price at closing is lower depends on the lender's policy.

The key is in knowing the lender's locking rules and procedures beforehand. This is not easy because few volunteer the information; the borrower must ask.

What must happen before the price can be locked? In most cases, the lender will require that a purchaser have a contract of sale, and that the loan application has been approved.

What happens if the market price rises before the application can be approved? Generally, the lender will be willing to lock only at the new higher price. (If there are any lenders who will lock at the price prevailing at the time of the lock request, I don't know who they are.) This is a common occurrence and a major source of frustration for borrowers, some of whom think they have been victimized by a bait and switch. Actually, they have been victimized by price volatility and delays in getting loans approved, but because lenders seldom warn borrowers that this can happen, the borrower's misinterpretation is natural.

What happens if the market price falls before the application is approved? A lender who locks at the current price when that price is higher than the one prevailing on the lock request date should do the same when the current price is lower. My guess, however, is that in many cases, lenders lock at the higher price on the lock request date, just because they can. Borrowers are unlikely to object if they are locked at the price they requested. It is ironic that borrowers perceive themselves as victimized most often when prices rise after the lock request, but probably they are victimized most often when prices decline.

What is covered by a lock? Many lenders lock in only the interest rate and points. Locks should cover the rate, points and all other lender fees, avoiding the possibility of fee escalation after the lock. A few lenders will not only lock all lender fees but also some third-party fees.

What fees must a borrower pay to lock? Lenders usually charge from $300 to $600 to lock, which they may call an application fee, appraisal fee or something else.

Under what circumstances are fees refunded? Refund policies vary widely. If the lender is unable to lock the requested price, either because the borrower can't be approved or because the market has changed, any fees not paid to third parties in connection with the application should be refunded.

What happens if the market price drops after the loan is locked? In most cases, nothing happens because the lender presumes that both parties are committed by the lock. Some lenders, recognizing that some borrowers may cancel the deal to begin again with another lender, offer what is known as a "float-down." This allows for a drop in the rate, but not all the way to the new market rate. Lenders offering float-downs should spell out exactly how they work.

What happens if the borrower wants to change the type of mortgage (or the rate/point combination) after the price is locked? Most lenders will allow such changes, but only at the higher of the lock prices or the current prices. That makes it important for borrowers to know exactly what they want before they request a lock.

What happens if the loan cannot be closed within the lock period? If the delay is the lender's fault, the lock period should be extended at no cost to the borrower. If the delay is the borrower's fault, the lender will charge the borrower for a lock extension. These charges should be spelled out in the lender's lock policy.

In the event of delay, what would constitute borrower fault? This would include not providing requested documentation promptly, delaying appraisal inspections, and not obtaining a subordination agreement from the second mortgage lender if there is one. Lenders can minimize this obvious source of conflict by spelling out the borrower's obligation in detail in the lock agreement.

Jack Guttentag is professor of finance emeritus at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. He can be contacted through his Web site, www.mtgprofessor.com.


© 2009 The Washington Post Company