How Does a Lender Evaluate Your Borrowing Ability?

If you are thinking about buying a home, one of the first things you should do is go to a lender to get pre-approved. This will determine how much money you can borrow on a mortgage. This will also help you filter your home search by sale price, which will narrow your choices within your financing range.

So how does a lender evaluate — called underwriting — and determine how much you can borrow? It involves the three C’s: Credit, capacity and collateral!

Credit or FICO Score

The first item a lender will review is your credit profile, also known as your credit score or FICO score. This can range from 350 – 850. This is where all the decisions you’ve made in the past regarding will be reflected, such as:

  • How much debt you have outstanding
  • How much debt you have outstanding as a percentage of open credit accounts
  • How much debt you have in the different types of credit accounts (credit cards, car loans, school loans, etc.)
  • How well you’ve paid your bills over the years

Lenders used to allow much lower credit scores for borrowing purposes, but they’ve gone up the past few years. You need, in general, at least a 640 FICO score to borrow on a loan. The optimal score is 740-760 or above. The lower your score, the higher your interest rate and points on your mortgage loan.

[Related: Estimate your credit score]

Capacity or Income

If you pass the FICO score test and the lender says you are creditworthy, the next item you will be evaluated for is your “capacity.” Capacity means that based on the lender’s allowed maximum percentage debt to your gross income, less all of your other debt payments, how much do you have available for a housing payment? It also has to be stable income, such as $65,000 per year for two years in a row.

Per the chart, you can generally have your total mortgage payment, less other debt payments, be up to about 35% to 40% of your gross income. In the chart the bank took 35% of this borrower’s $6,000 gross monthly income and subtracted out other debt payments to get a maximum allowed housing payment of $1,750. And that $1,750 equates to about a $225,000 house with a $200,000 mortgage (this means you will need to put down a downpayment of $25,000 to buy the $225,000 house) per the bottom of the chart.

[Related: Get a free loan quote]

Collateral or the Property

If you’ve got the credit, and the capacity, you only need one more piece and that’s the collateral. This is the easiest part. You will pay the bank and they will order an independent appraiser to determine a market value of the property. And the lender will lend you up to a certain percentage of that value (or purchase price whichever is lower) like 80% loan to value (LTV) or maybe 90% LTV or maybe up to 96.5% LTV. This depends on the bank and the loan program in which you qualify. So even if your income qualifies you for a higher loan amount, the MOST any one bank will lend you on any particular property is up to their maximum allowed loan to value percentage on that property.

That’s it! If you’ve got credit, and capacity, go out and find the collateral!

Leonard Baron, MBA, CPA, is a San Diego State University Lecturer, a Zillow Blogger, the author of several books including “Real Estate Ownership, Investment and Due Diligence 101 – A Smarter Way to Buy Real Estate.” Read useful tips for real estate buyers in his blog, Making Smart and Safe Real Estate Decisions. See more at ProfessorBaron.com.

Note: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or position of Zillow.