Mortgage Terms You Should Know

Mortgage Terms You Should Know

Just to make life a little bit easier, we’ve rounded up some of the most common terms you might run into when you apply for a loan. Use this handy guide to navigate the mortgage process.

Adjustable-Rate Mortgage (ARM)

An adjustable-rate mortgage (ARM) is a type of loan with an interest rate that varies depending on how market rates move. When you sign onto an ARM, you first get a short period of fixed interest. This is the introductory period of the loan and can last for up to 10 years. During your introductory period, your interest rate is usually lower than what you’d get with a fixed-rate loan. After the introductory period expires, your interest rate will follow market interest rates. ARMs have caps in place that limit the total amount that your interest can rise or fall over the course of your loan.


Amortization is the process of how payments spread out over time. When you make a payment on your mortgage, a percentage of your payment goes toward interest and a percentage goes toward your loan principal. At the beginning of your loan, your principal is high and most of your payment goes toward interest. However, you chip away at your principal over time and pay less in interest.

Annual Percentage Rate (APR)

The annual percentage rate (APR) is the interest rate you’ll pay for your loan on an annual basis plus any additional lender fees. You’ll usually see APR expressed as a percentage. You may see two interest rates listed next to one another when you shop for a loan. The larger number is always your APR because it includes fees.


An appraisal is a rough estimate of how much your home is worth. Mortgage lenders require that you get an appraisal before you sign on a home loan. The appraisal assures the lender that they aren’t loaning you more money than what your home is worth.


In the context of a mortgage, an asset is anything that you own that has a cash value. Some examples of assets include:

  • Checking and savings accounts
  • 401(k) and IRA accounts
  • Certificates of Deposit (CDs)
  • Stocks
  • Bonds
  • Mutual funds

When you apply for a mortgage, your lender will want to verify your assets. This is to ensure that you have enough money in savings and investments to cover your mortgage if you run into a financial emergency.

Closing Costs

Closing costs are settlement costs and fees you pay to your lender in exchange for finalizing your loan. Some common closing costs include appraisal fees, loan origination fees, and pest inspection fees. The specific costs you’ll need to cover depend on your location and property type. Closing costs usually equal between 3% – 6% of the total value of your loan.

Closing Disclosure

A Closing Disclosure is a document that tells you the final terms of your loan. Your Closing Disclosure includes your interest rate, loan principal, and the closing costs you must pay. Your lender is legally required to give you at least 3 days to review your Closing Disclosure before you sign on your loan.

Debt-To-Income (DTI) Ratio

Your DTI is equal to your total fixed, recurring monthly debts divided by your total monthly gross household income. Mortgage lenders look at your DTI when they consider you for a loan to make sure that you have enough money coming in to make your payments. You may have trouble finding a loan if your DTI is too high. Most lenders cater to applicants who have a DTI of 50% or lower.


A deed is a physical document you receive that proves you own your home. You’ll receive your deed when you close on your loan.

Discount Points

Discount points are an optional closing cost you can pay to “buy” a lower interest rate. One discount point is equal to 1% of your loan value. The more discount points you buy, the lower your interest rate will be. However, if you buy more points, you’ll need to cover them in cash at closing. You’re essentially paying more upfront to enjoy more savings over the life of the loan.

Down Payment

Your down payment is the first payment you make on your mortgage loan. You’ll usually see your down payment listed as a percentage of your loan value. For example, if you have a 20% down payment on a $100,000 loan, you’ll bring $20,000 to closing. Most loan types require some kind of down payment.

Though most people believe that you need a 20% down payment to buy a home, this actually isn’t true. You can buy a home with as little as 3% down. Some types of government-backed loans may even allow you to buy a home with no down payment.

Earnest Money

This is the money you give to show you’re serious about this purchase. Earnest money is generally 3% to 5% of the home’s cost.

The money goes into an escrow account until financing is arranged; at that point, it gets credited to the purchase price. If the sale doesn’t go through, the seller generally gets to keep the money.


Most people who have a mortgage have an escrow account where their lender holds money for property taxes or homeowners insurance. This allows you to split taxes and insurance over 12 months instead of paying it all at once. Your lender may add escrow payments to your monthly mortgage dues along with principal and interest payments. 


This is the difference between what you owe on your home and the market value of that home. Equity builds as you pay down the mortgage. It might also grow if home values in your region change noticeably.

You can tap this value over time, in the form of a home equity loan, a home equity line of credit, or a reverse mortgage.

Fixed-Rate Mortgage

A fixed-rate mortgage has the same interest rate throughout the term of the loan. For example, if you buy a home at 4% on a 15-year fixed-rate loan, it means that you’ll pay 4% interest on your loan every month for your entire 15-year term.

Home Inspection

A home inspection is different than a home appraisal. An appraisal gives you a rough estimate of how much a home is worth, but an inspection tells you about specific problems in the home. An inspector will walk around the home you want to buy and test things like the heating and cooling system, light switches, and appliances. They will then give you a list of everything that needs repaired or replaced in the home. Most mortgage lenders don’t require an inspection as a condition of getting a loan, but it’s a good idea to get an inspection to make sure that your home doesn’t have any pressing issues before you buy it.

Loan Estimate

In the past, lenders gave applicants something called a “good faith estimate,” which listed settlement charges and mortgage terms. As of October 2015, the CFPB instituted a new version called a “loan estimate.” As part of the CFPB’s “Know Before You Owe” program, the loan estimate is a simpler way for consumers to understand the total cost of a mortgage and to shop for their best loans.

Lenders have three business days to provide the loan estimate to applicants. Among other things, it explains the specified loan amount, interest rate (including the APR), estimated monthly payments, estimated assessments, insurance and taxes, and the estimated cash needed at closing.

The CFPB has a Loan Estimate Explainer page that explains these terms.

Mortgage Insurance

In the case of default, mortgage insurance protects the lender. Generally, it’s required for borrowers who put down less than 20%.

In government-backed mortgages, mortgage insurance takes several forms:

  • With the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) loans, borrowers pay an upfront fee and an annual premium.
  • For the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) mortgages, borrowers also pay money upfront plus an ongoing premium.
  • Veterans with VA loans usually pay a one-time fee at closing.

Pre-approval, Pre-qualification

A preapproval is a document that tells you how much you can afford to take out in a home loan. Many lenders consider the preapproval to be the first step in getting a mortgage. When you apply for a preapproval, your lender will ask you about things like your credit score, income, and assets. Your lender will then use this information to tell you how much you qualify for in a home. This can give you a rough budget to use when you compare properties.

Keep in mind that a preapproval isn’t the same thing as a prequalification. Prequalifications usually don’t involve asset and income verification, which means that they aren’t as reliable as preapprovals. Make sure you get a preapproval before you begin shopping for homes.


Your principal balance is the amount that you take out in a loan. For example, if you buy a home with a $150,000 loan from your lender, your principal balance is $150,000. Your principal balance shrinks as you make payments on your loan over time.

Private Mortgage Insurance (PMI)

Private mortgage insurance (PMI) is a type of insurance that protects your lender in the event that you default on your loan. Your lender will usually require you to pay PMI if you have less than a 20% down payment. You have the option to remove PMI from your loan when you reach 20% equity in your property.

Property Taxes

You’ll be required to pay property taxes to your local government. The amount you pay in property taxes depends on your home’s value and where you live. Property taxes fund things like police departments, roads, libraries, and community development.


Expressed as a percentage, this is the cost you pay to borrow money. It does not include any other charges associated with the mortgage loan.

The interest rate you receive is influenced by multiple factors, including, but not limited to, your credit score, the type and length of the loan, the down payment, and the price of the home. Rates might change from day to day, or even from hour to hour.

Rate Lock

Because of the changeable nature of interest rates, some homebuyers opt for a rate lock. Also known as a lock-in, this is a guarantee that the interest rate won’t change between the day you make your offer and the day you close on the home (provided there are no changes to your mortgage application).

Generally, the rate lock period runs from 30 to 60 days, although it can be longer. If interest rates are fluctuating noticeably, locking in a rate can save you money.

However, the CFPB notes two potential downsides:

  • If you lock in and interest rates fall, you’re stuck with the higher rate.
  • If the closing takes longer than expected, extending the rate lock can be costly.

Real Estate Agent

A real estate agent is a local property professional who can help you shop for a home more effectively. Real estate agents can show you homes in your price range, draw up offer letters, and work with sellers to get you a great deal on a home. There are two main types of real estate agents: seller’s agents and buyer’s agents.

Seller’s agents work on behalf of sellers while buyer’s agents work with those shopping for a home. In exchange for working with you, your real estate agent takes a commission from your home sale or purchase. 

Seller Concessions

Seller concessions are clauses you include with your offer to buy a home that asks the seller to pay certain closing costs. For example, you might ask the seller to cover things like appraisal fees or your title search. The seller can reject your concessions or send you a counteroffer with concessions removed. Limitations on the percentage of your closing costs sellers can cover vary by property type.


Your mortgage term is the number of years you’ll pay on your loan before you fully own your home. For example, you may take out a mortgage loan with a 15-year term and that means that you’ll make monthly payments on your loan for 15 years before the loan matures.


A title is proof that you own a home. Your title includes a physical description of your property, the names of anyone who owns the property, and any liens on the home. When someone says that they’re “on the title” of a home, it means that they have some kind of legal ownership of the property.

Title Insurance

Title insurance is a common closing cost. You buy title insurance to protect yourself against outside claims to your property. Unlike other types of insurance, you don’t need to pay for title insurance every month. Instead, you make a single payment at closing that protects you for as long as you own the home.


This is the review of your loan application, to see if it should be approved. Underwriting is part of the lender’s origination fee.

Among other things, it takes into account your credit history, income, assets and liabilities, and the appraisal of the home you want to buy. Based on the underwriter’s findings, the loan will be approved or denied.

If an underwriter denies the loan, you should ask why. A lender must give a written explanation if you request one within 60 days. If you were rejected based on credit score, the lender must give you:

  • The credit score it used, plus the main factors that affected the score.
  • Contact information for the credit reporting bureau.
  • Material about your right to get a free credit report within 60 days of the notice.
  • An explanation of how to fix credit report mistakes or how to make the report more complete.

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Mortgage Terms You Should Know

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