a couple sit in the kitchen of a show home and discuss some figures with the estate agent or mortgage advisor

To reduce the impact on your credit score, you should shop around for a lender before moving forward with the preapproval process. (Getty Images)

Before you can buy a house, you have to know how you’ll pay for it. For 88 percent of homebuyers, that means financing the purchase with a loan, according to the National Association of Realtors' 2018 Home Buyer and Seller Generational Trends Report.

A major part of finding the right lender and knowing what you can afford is providing information to the bank, credit union or other lender to prove you can continue to pay back the loan, with interest, over time.

[Find out more about The Best Mortgage Lenders of 2018.]

There are two options to find out what a bank is willing to lend you, as long as everything checks out once you’ve picked a house: prequalification and preapproval.

Prequalification. Having a prequalification letter from a lender means you’re conditionally approved to purchase a home up to a certain price, based on basic information about your income, debt and how much you have saved for a down payment.

While prequalification doesn’t require the documentation and proof of funds needed for a preapproval, it’s particularly helpful for homebuyers who have no idea about their budget for a home. “Prequalification gets them in a position to shop,” says John Pataky, executive vice president at TIAA Bank.

Preapproval. With preapproval, you’re providing the details about your employment and financial information and letting the lender pull your credit history to learn more about you as a borrower. A preapproval means the lender is stating confidence in lending you a certain amount of money to purchase a home, pending any issues with the house itself or unforeseen circumstances with your finances.

While the differences between preapproval and prequalification are merely a matter of reporting financial information versus providing documentation for it, a preapproval letter can be far more powerful when it comes time to place an offer on a home. That's because with preapproval, the seller has proof of your lender's confidence in you as a borrower. While prequalification makes it easier to shop for a home you can more realistically afford, preapproval gives you the strength to negotiate a purchase price, Pataky says.

Brian Simmons, founder and CEO of Ask a Lender, an online platform to help consumers shop lenders and loans and get financial advice, echoes the preference for preapproval: “One of the first things a buyer should do when they begin looking at homes is getting preapproved for a mortgage.”

If your local housing market is seeing frequent bidding wars and multiple offers on houses, a preapproval could help keep you from being overlooked by sellers who have many options to choose from when it comes to sale terms and price. Still, there are times when prequalification may be your best option to begin house hunting.

Here are five things to keep in mind as you decide whether prequalification or preapproval is the best move for you.

To shop lenders, prequalify. You may not have decided on the lender you’d like to work with yet, and shopping around by inquiring with three lenders or so is always recommended. Rather than just talking to a loan officer about available programs, you can use the prequalification process to gauge how much a lender would be able to lend to you. Of course, don’t base your choice of lender solely on the maximum price you prequalify for. Also consider what terms, rates and other details will best suit you in the long run.

[Read: The Guide for First-Time Homebuyers.]

Don’t get preapproved by too many lenders. Preapproval includes a full review of your financial background, including your credit history. As a result, that inquiry is noted in your credit report and can negatively impact your credit score if you have too many recent checks into your credit history.

“It doesn’t necessarily reflect well on you,” Pataky says. If you’re unsure which lender you want to work with, ask more questions and consider trying out prequalification first, then apply for preapproval once you’ve made your decision.

Neither guarantees a rate lock. The interest rate on your mortgage may be a deciding factor in whether you can afford a certain house. But your ability to secure a desirable interest rate through a rate lock, which guarantees your rate will not increase over a set time period – typically between 30 and 90 days – often only happens when you’ve found the house you want to buy.

Rate locks vary based on lender practices, but prequalification rarely offers a rate lock, and preapproval often doesn’t include a rate lock until you’ve identified the house you wish to purchase – or even until the seller has accepted your offer.

Ask your lender what’s required to ensure a rate lock and how long that rate lock lasts. In many cases, the lock is limited to 30 days, which is just enough time to get through the contract period on a house.



Preapproval still isn’t a done deal. Even if your lender is impressed by your salary and pristine history of paying off debt, no preapproval is a guarantee that a mortgage will be approved once you’ve found the house you want. There are still other factors at play, the first of which focuses on whether your financial situation has changed.

“The factors by which you were preapproved have to be maintained,” Pataky says. That means not quitting your job, not buying a Maserati to keep up with the Joneses in your new neighborhood and not opening up five credit cards in the last two weeks, he explains.

Another factor standing between you and mortgage approval is the house’s condition and appraised value. Even if you’re preapproved to buy a house for $400,000 and agree to that same price with the seller, if the house appraised for only $375,000, your lender will likely only approve you for a mortgage on the house at $375,000. You’re then tasked with trying to renegotiate on price with the seller, coming up with the extra cash on your own or starting your search for a home all over again.

Keep asking your lender questions. Even if you’ve bought a home with a mortgage before, it’s likely been at least a few years, and the process will feel different. At every step of the way, you shouldn’t be afraid to ask your lender about expectations, timing and documents you should have ready to help streamline the process as much as possible.

“During the preapproval process, the buyer will need to provide some of the documentation their loan officer will use when it’s time to underwrite the loan,” Simmons says. “This is a good opportunity to ask the lender questions about the process and get a checklist of documents the lender will need, such as pay stubs, bank statements and tax documents.”

[Read: The Guide to Making and Accepting an Offer on a Home.]

The fact that you’re already looking to better understand the process and make the right move puts you at an advantage in the homebuying process. “Typically we find out that the consumer who seeks the education, the knowledge and the discipline to go through a relatively qualitative process … they’re fairly responsible,” Pataky says.

Tags: real estate, housing, housing market, home prices, mortgages, new home sales, existing home sales, pending home sales


Devon Thorsby is the Real Estate editor at U.S. News & World Report, where she writes consumer-focused articles about the homebuying and selling process, home improvement, tenant rights and the state of the housing market.

She has appeared in media interviews across the U.S. including National Public Radio, WTOP (Washington, D.C.) and KOH (Reno, Nevada) and various print publications, as well as having served on panels discussing real estate development, city planning policy and homebuilding.

Previously, she served as a researcher of commercial real estate transactions and information, and is currently a member of the National Association of Real Estate Editors. Thorsby studied Political Science at the University of Michigan, where she also served as a news reporter and editor for the student newspaper The Michigan Daily. Follow her on Twitter or write to her at dthorsby@usnews.com.

Recommended Articles

Should You Delay Homebuying Right Now?

Wendy Arriz | April 6, 2020

While homebuyer activity has dropped in recent weeks, those with secure financial options and the confidence to find a home site unseen can still find the right home for them.

Housing Market Expectations in 2020

Devon Thorsby | April 2, 2020

The coronavirus pandemic has reduced homebuying and selling activity. Here’s how it could impact the housing market for the rest of 2020.

What Take Off Your Must-Have Home List

Steven Gottlieb | April 1, 2020

Don't let your vision of your dream house cloud your judgment on which details you really need in a home.

All About Tenant Rights in New Jersey

Devon Thorsby | March 31, 2020

Here are the basics you should know if you find yourself disagreeing with your landlord.

What to Do If You Can't Pay Rent

Devon Thorsby | March 27, 2020

Orders to close businesses have left many people without income. Here's what to know about making rent amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

DIY Projects That Add Value to Your Home

Mady Dahlstrom, Devon Thorsby | March 26, 2020

While you're spending extra time at home, add value to your house with these easy do-it-yourself projects.

How to Set Up a Home Gym

Devon Thorsby | March 25, 2020

Create a home gym setup that will encourage you to stay active as you shelter in place.

What's the Cost of Living in New York?

Lisa Larson | March 24, 2020

What does it take to afford one of the most expensive cities in the world? Here is a breakdown of the cost of living in the Big Apple.

'For Sale by Owner' the Right Way

Maryalene LaPonsie | March 23, 2020

Selling your house without an agent can save you thousands, but you could lose money if you don't do it correctly.

10 Secrets to Selling Your Home Faster

Teresa Mears, Devon Thorsby | March 20, 2020

Consider these low-cost ways to sell a home fast by attracting buyers with great photos, fresh curb appeal and social media buzz.

How to Disinfect Your Home

Devon Thorsby, Melissa Shin | March 20, 2020

Pay attention to high-touch areas of your home – especially those you don't normally disinfect.

Can Virtual Staging Help Sell Your Home?

Dima Williams | March 20, 2020

Any staging is better than none, a stager says, but virtual versus physical staging is a decision with sale and profit implications.

How Do I Find My Property Lines?

Devon Thorsby | March 19, 2020

Determining property lines can provide you with information for needed legal changes to your home and backyard.

Virtual Tools for Homebuyers

Devon Thorsby | March 18, 2020

Social distancing doesn't have to prohibit your ability to buy a home. These virtual tools can aid in the deal.

What to Know If Buying New Construction

Wendy Arriz | March 17, 2020

You have the chance to avoid the headache and hassle of construction and move into your brand-new dream home.

Coronavirus Leads to Low Mortgage Rates

Devon Thorsby | March 16, 2020

Economic uncertainty in the wake of COVID-19 sends mortgage rates historically low, and it might be the right time to buy or refinance.

States With the Lowest Property Taxes

Devon Thorsby | March 11, 2020

Median property taxes in these states are the lowest in the U.S.

What to Know About Moving to Hawaii

Devon Thorsby | March 6, 2020

Get ready for sun, sand and a high cost of living if you're considering a move to Hawaii.

5 Reasons You’re Still Renting

Steven Gottlieb | March 6, 2020

Financial, personal and professional factors may lead you to put off homeownership. Should you remain a renter indefinitely?

The Best Places in Florida for Families

Devon Thorsby | March 4, 2020

We rank 11 Florida metro areas for how they’ll appeal to families based on the details that matter most.