Editor's Note
  • February 20, 2018 - We’ve updated this review to clarify how we found the best mortgage companies, and to reflect current loan offerings. Along the way we vetted our top picks to make sure they’re still best-in-class: As of 2018, Quicken, Alliant Credit Union, and First Internet Bank still offer the best rates and mortgage tools. Citibank, a former top pick, has accumulated multiple regulatory actions since 2016 and no longer passes our high quality standards. We also eliminated New American Funding, a previous winner, because its website and customer service provide poor support for homeowners.

The Best Mortgage Lenders

Our top pick, Quicken Loans, has everything we looked for in a mortgage lender: low interest rates, great customer support, and rapid approval. Quicken also has some of the best learning resources in the industry — its website walks you through the intricacies of mortgage lending in simple, understandable language. We’d recommend this company to anyone, but it’s an especially good choice if you’re a thorough shopper who likes to understand a product inside and out before you buy.

If you’re a first-time homeowner in particular, it may help to work with a company that can give you personalized (human) assistance throughout the mortgage process. In that case, we recommend Alliant Credit Union. Alliant has outstanding customer service reps that not only respond quickly, but will walk through each step of the application process with you and lend a hand when need be.

For seasoned homeowners looking for a straightforward, simple refinance then we suggest starting your search with First Internet Bank. This company puts rates and refinance options right on its homepage, and had us in and out of the preapproval process faster than any other lender. It’s a great choice for people who have already been around the mortgage block once or twice.+

Our Top Picks for the Best Mortgage Lenders

Best Overall
Quicken Loans
Quicken Loans
Quicken had the best combination of rates, resources, and customer service.

Quicken Loans has everything we were looking for in a mortgage lender: Great online resources, speedy customer service, fair rates, and mortgage options to fit anyone’s needs.

Those online resources really hit it out of the park. Quicken offers everything you need to manage your mortgage from beginning to end, even without the help of a broker. If you value thoroughness, and want to learn all you can about mortgages before committing to one, we highly recommend Quicken for its best-in-class learning tools.

We especially loved the homebuyers guide and refinance guide: These tutorials patiently walked us through every step of the mortgage lending process, and explained complicated concepts like underwriting and refinancing in plain language that was easy to understand. We also appreciated the mortgage options chart, which compared adjustable rate, fixed rate, and other loan types side-by side. These tools made it easy to figure out what we needed.

home-loan-quicken

Quicken’s loan comparison chart lets you scan for important options like ‘Easier Qualification’ or ‘Lower Equity/ Money Down.’

If you run into any questions that Quicken’s online resources can’t answer, its customer support is readily available to lend a hand. The online chat feature offers immediate live support — and when we wanted a more in-depth conversation, we reached a rep over the phone in under five minutes. The quality of help they gave was top-tier, second only to Alliant Credit Union’s exceptionally helpful phone service.

When it comes time to pull the trigger on a loan, Quicken gets you pre-approved and on the house market fast. The online pre-approval form took less than 15 minutes and asked questions we could actually answer (unlike Chase Bank’s). After we hit “apply,” it only took the company 15 minutes to get back in touch with us. End-to-end, we were pre-approved in under 30 minutes. The only company to get us through faster was First Internet Bank.

One thing really set Quicken’s pre-approval process apart: After applying, we weren’t inundated with emails and phone calls. This company knows to give you a little space during the shopping around phase. Considering that most companies badger you after your approval, we appreciated the extra breathing room at a time when most people’s minds would be weighed down with plenty of other considerations.

It’s also worth noting that Quicken quoted the lowest interest rates for our sample profile. But, like we said, interest rates vary depending on your personal information. We recommend requesting rates from or other top picks as well, to see which is the best fit for you.

Best for First-Time Buyers
Alliant Credit Union
Alliant
With deeper resources and more responsive customer service than our other lenders, Alliant is a great choice for anyone new to the process.

Alliant Credit Union impressed us with its singularly helpful customer service. While we put a lot of stock in online learning tools like Quicken’s, there are some situations where a website just won’t cut it. If you’re a first-time homeowner, for instance, you may want more human contact as you navigate the ins and outs of getting a mortgage. Bruce Ailion, a realtor and attorney at Re/Max Town and Country advised us that first-time buyers often need “a patient, in-person, hand-holding lender” to help them through the process.

That level of care and attention is exactly what we got with Alliant. When we called to ask about its pre-approval process, we got through to a loan officer on the third ring. The officer was pleasant, and even offered to help us complete the pre-approval application if we weren’t sure how to do it ourselves.

As a Credit Union, Alliant has fewer employees than a mega-lender like Quicken (read: there’s a chance you could wait a little longer on hold). But ultimately you’ll be treated with a level of patience and personalization that most big name institutions just don’t offer. First-timers may be grateful for this when the about-to-close-on-my-first-house panic sets in.

Best for Refinancing
First Internet Bank
First Internet Bank
Already been through this whole process? First Internet Bank makes it quick and easy to refinance your home.

Maybe you’re well past your first mortgage, and just looking for an easy and affordable refinance. In that case, we suggest starting your search with First Internet Bank. This company quoted us the second lowest interest rates, and really shined for its seamless application process.

The key to a smooth refinancing is to get through the process without hassle. After all, you’re refinancing, not applying for your first mortgage all over again — most people want to know rates and and get approved as quickly as possible so they can lock in the new terms without delay. In this regard, First Internet Bank nailed it.

A long list of rates for every loan option is clearly displayed on First Internet Bank’s homepage. You can compare fixed and adjustable rates, different term lengths, FHA- or VA-backed, and other mortgage options at a glance. After we filled out the pre-approval application, a response popped up directly on the webpage. To top it off, a loan officer called us within 30 minutes to follow up on our mortgage request. In our experience, personalized responses don’t come any faster than that. First Internet Bank will have you refinanced in almost no time (and with very little effort).

Five tips for understanding your mortgage and choosing the right lender.

To get the best rates and options, aim for a 20% down payment.

To receive the most affordable rates offered by our top picks, you’ll need to pay at least 20% of your home’s total value up front. Having at least 20 percent will also help you avoid private mortgage insurance (PMI), an additional monthly fee that protects the lender in the event you default on the loan.

Can’t get to 20 percent? Don’t worry, you can still qualify for a mortgage. One route is to pay that PMI insurance on a conventional loan. It’s also possible to take on a second smaller loan to cover the difference in your down payment (often called a piggyback loan). You may also qualify for a government-backed Federal Housing Administration (FHA) loan, especially if you’re a first-time buyer.

If you have limited credit, a difficult credit history, or can’t put 20% down, an FHA loan can help.

FHA loans are backed by the government, but issued by private mortgage companies. FHA loan programs were developed to help buyers who may not otherwise qualify for a mortgage, like first-time buyers with a smaller down payment, or people with or poor credit (think mid-600s and below). They can also help you get into a home sooner if you have a difficult credit history: “For people coming back from major credit events such as foreclosure and bankruptcy, FHA has shorter required waiting periods,” explains Mike Tizzano, senior loan officer of the Tizzano Team at Fairway Independent Mortgage.

Before applying for an FHA loan, it’s important to weigh the cost versus benefit. “You may have to pay mortgage insurance (which is a cost worthy of consideration) and there are typically more requirements to meet compared to a conventional loan,” says Andrew Schrage, co-founder of MoneyCrashers. On the other hand, getting an FHA-backed loan and paying mortgage insurance may be more affordable than paying rent on a different property while you save up for a 20% down payment on your new home. If you’re wondering about the costs of renting versus buying, check out this mortgage calculator from First Internet Bank.

After carefully choosing the right mortgage lender, don’t be afraid to vet your loan officer too.

Choosing an awesome mortgage lender is a big first step, but finding the right loan officer is just as critical. You loan officer acts as your point person within the company: They help you find and structure your home loan, and guide you through the mortgage process. It’s important to work with someone you like and trust. Our experts recommend vetting individual loan officers on Zillow and Yelp before committing to one.

Your loan officer is advising you on the biggest debt you'll ever have in your life. Small nuggets can help you choose the right loan product for your needs, the right price level, and can save you tens of thousands of dollars over time. A competent, experienced, ethical advisor who is fluent at financial math is crucial to your financial well-being.

Other federal programs can help homeowners with unique circumstances.

Military personnel should look into a home loan from the VA.

Both active duty and retired military personnel are typically eligible for VA home loans. “These loans are great options for military veterans with program eligibility,” says Tizzano, “they allow qualified veterans to finance 100% of the purchase price of the home without a monthly mortgage insurance premium.”

If you live in a rural area, check your loan options with the USDA.

Rural homeowners (or those with dreams of moving to a big farm in the country) may qualify for a USDA loan. “USDA loans have many benefits,” notes Glenn Phillips, CEO of Lake Homes Realty. “These include 100 percent financing, lower-than-market interest rates, low monthly private mortgage insurance premiums, and flexible credit qualification rules.” These are great perks when applicable, but be aware: Finding USDA loans may be more difficult; the paperwork requirements may increase; and only homes in actual rural areas (not suburbs or edge-of-town scenarios) typically qualify.

How to Prepare for Your First Mortgage

Our experts agree: You’ll get the best deal if you financially prepare before you fill out your first pre-approval form. Here’s how:

Bump up your credit scores.

Lenders vary on what credit score approval numbers they require, but the higher you can get yours, the better. Dispute errors on your credit report, pay down large debts, and pay your bills on time in the months leading up to applying. “When preparing to buy a first home, it can save you a lot of time and money if you have your credit history in order. Don’t wait to find your dream home only to find you can’t qualify for the mortgage,” says Phillips.

To check in on your credit history, pull your credit report and score. Thanks to a federal law, you’re entitled to one free credit report from each of the three major bureaus — Equifax, TransUnion, and Experian — from AnnualCreditReport.com. Your scores aren’t included, though. You’ll have to pay a small fee to each bureau to get them.

Don’t take on new debts leading up to applying.

“If you're trying to qualify for a home loan, the last thing you want to do is to take out a major credit purchase, such as a car loan,” says Schrage, “though FHA loans allow for a higher percentage of debt-to-income ratio than conventional loans.” In general, adding new debt can lower your scores and hurt your chances of getting a mortgage.

Practice making your payments.

Use a monthly payment estimate calculator to figure out what your monthly mortgage payment will be, then “pretend” to pay it for several months by sending the difference between your current rent or mortgage right into savings. It may seem silly, but this small step can help you make sure the payments are doable.

All of our top picks have mortgage calculators on their sites — we highly recommend this mortgage calculator from First Internet Bank. It has a variety of options that can be used to predict monthly payments as well as refinancing costs, price differences based on term length, renting vs. buying costs, and more.

Our Mortgage Lender Review: Summed Up

Mortgage Lender
Best...
Quicken Loans
Overall
Alliant Credit Union
For First-Time Buyers
First Internet Bank
For Refinancing