The mortgage market is in a state of tumult these days. Rates are bizarrely low, but many homes are worth much less than the mortgage balances they secure. People are still losing their homes left and right, but millions of mortgage applications of creditworthy borrowers are being rejected every year.
Against this backdrop, it's really no wonder that would-be buyers and homeowners alike are in a state of confusion about which end is up in the mortgage marketplace.
To shed some light into this darkness, here are three very common mortgage mistakes that you might be making as we speak -- and some strategies for avoiding or correcting them.
1. Failing to try to refinance because you're upside-down. At last count, nearly 11 million Americans were upside-down on their homes -- meaning they owe more in mortgage(s) than the home is worth -- and that's about 23 percent of all American homes. With interest rates having dropped to historic low after historic low, more than 10 million Americans have refinanced their mortgages since 2009.
But most homeowners with negative equity feel like they are trapped in their 6, 7 or even 8 percent interest mortgages, unable to save the hundreds of dollars every month of a mortgage at today's sub-4 percent rates, because no lender will refinance them.
The fact is, multiple options abound for lowering your interest rate and monthly payment if you're upside down on your home loan. Banks are increasingly amenable to simply modify existing mortgages to render them less prone to default and foreclosure -- especially when the homeowner is trying to recover from a financial hardship like interrupted income due to job loss or illness, and especially with upside-down loans (which are particularly liable to strategic default, without modification).
Also, many banks offer refis on mortgages as much as 25 percent underwater (so long as no payments have been missed) through the Obama administration's Home Affordable Refinance Program and the less widely adopted Federal Housing Administration Short Refinance Program.
Contact your own mortgage bank's loss mitigation division about a loan modification or a refi under HARP, or reach out to any mortgage broker that offers FHA loans to apply for the Short Refi Program.
2. Walking into the bank branch to get a mortgage. Not to jump on the anti-bank bandwagon, but unless your bank happens to be a neighborhood credit union or one of the few large banks that ranks highly in customer satisfaction (e.g., USAA), you'll likely not be satisfied with the speed, customer service or assertiveness of a mortgage banker you meet just walking into
If you work with a mortgage broker or a private mortgage banker you meet by referrals from your circle of friends and relatives, chances are good you'll get someone who understands that the long-term health of their business depends on you and clients like you getting a deal closed in a timely manner.
Specifically, you should request referrals from folks you know who have bought or refinanced homes relatively recently, as the mortgage pros who are still in business and closing deals successfully these days are necessarily skilled at navigating a very tricky and restrictive mortgage market.
Also, if you work with a mortgage broker whose company also has its own bank, you get the best of both worlds: a professional who will shop lots of banks' offerings to find the best options for you, and someone who can coordinate your transaction via a small pool of local, experienced appraisers. Many large banks select appraisers who don't know the area, which can kill your deal in the long run.
3. Thinking you're stuck with it for 30 years. I've heard people say they didn't want to buy a home because they were depressed by the thought of a debt that would last 30 years. I've heard others regret that they couldn't afford the payment on a 15-year mortgage and instead were stuck with a 30-year loan.
The fact is, you control when you pay your mortgage off, and it doesn't take a lottery or inheritance windfall to pay yours off sooner than later.
Some people pay half their mortgage payment every two weeks, which results in a full extra payment every year and can pay your mortgage off as much as five years early. Others just pay an extra $100 or so as often as they can, and ask their loan servicer to apply the overage to principal.
Some do much more, applying paycheck raises over the years or amounts they once paid to extinguish credit card debt toward their mortgage balances in an effort to pay them off early.
The theme is that, as a borrower, you may have much more power than you thought, from exploring little-known options for getting your upside-down mortgage's payment lowered to being aggressive about paying your home off sooner rather than later. So get clear on your personal goals for your mortgage, get educated about your options and get assertive about making them happen -- now.
Tara-Nicholle Nelson is author of "The Savvy Woman's Homebuying Handbook" and "Trillion Dollar Women: Use Your Power to Make Buying and Remodeling Decisions." Tara is also the Consumer Ambassador and Educator for real estate listings search site Trulia.com. Ask her a real estate question online or visit her website, www.rethinkrealestate.com.