Borrowers who need large home loans will find an increasing number of lenders willing to offer jumbo mortgages. They’ll also find low rates. But the qualification requirements remain stringent.

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Borrowers who need large home loans will find an increasing number of lenders willing to offer jumbo mortgages. They’ll also find low rates. But the qualification requirements remain stringent.

A jumbo loan is a mortgage for more than the conforming limit set by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. In most counties, any mortgage of more than $417,000 is a jumbo loan. In counties with high home prices, the conforming limit is higher — up to $625,500. In other places, the limit is between. That’s the case for King, Pierce and Snohomish counties, which have a jumbo limit of $540,500, according to Bankrate.com.

Lower jumbo rates

Many lenders and investors who buy jumbo loans from lenders had pulled back from the jumbo market after the 2008 financial crisis. But they’ve slowly returned, said David Adamo, CEO of Luxury Mortgage in Stamford, Conn.

“That demand in the secondary market translates into very good rates for borrowers,” Adamo said.

Historically, the interest rate on jumbo loans usually has been higher than the rate on mortgages that fall within Fannie and Freddie limits. But that has changed, and now there is little difference.

Qualifying for a jumbo

While it may have gotten cheaper to get a jumbo loan, the requirements to get one remain strict.

“Qualifying for a jumbo loan is still very tricky,” said Mathew Carson, a mortgage broker at First Capital Group in San Francisco.

In a high-cost area such as San Francisco or Seattle, borrowers who need jumbo mortgages aren’t necessarily wealthy. They are middle-income families and even first-time homebuyers.

But if you need a jumbo mortgage, don’t get discouraged — unless you have bad credit.

“Though the barrier of entry for any loan has been raised from the ‘stated-income’ days, quality borrowers will not find it difficult to secure a jumbo loan,” said James Campanella, chief operations officer for Miami-based City National Bank of Florida.

In the eyes of jumbo lenders, a quality borrower is someone with sterling credit, sufficient income, assets and not too much debt.

Most lenders require a minimum credit score of 720 for jumbo mortgages, said Jason Auerbach, former division manager for First Choice Loan Services in New York City, and now a wealth-management loan officer for Bank of America. But a few accept lower scores. Campanella said City National accepts scores as low as 660 depending on the size of the mortgage. The bank lends up to 80 percent of the home’s value, which is the limit on what most jumbo lenders are willing to lend.

For multimillion dollar homes, lenders generally ask for down payments of 25 to 40 percent.

As with most mortgages, lenders don’t want borrowers who have too much debt. To help determine whether you can afford the mortgage payments, lenders look at your debt-to-income ratio, or DTI, which compares your monthly debt obligations to your pretax income.

Some lenders will allow DTIs up to 45 percent. Others won’t give you a mortgage if your DTI is higher than 36 percent or 38 percent.

As lenders scrutinize your financial life, they’ll want to see that you have enough money saved to cover your housing expenses in an emergency. Generally, borrowers must have 10 percent of the amount they are borrowing in a savings or brokerage account. Some lenders require more than that.

That means a borrower taking out an $800,000 loan would need at least $80,000 in savings in addition to the down payment.

Shop around

Because the requirements vary by lender, it’s important for borrowers to shop around, Auerbach said.

“It is still a developing market,” he said. “We see wide latitude of guidelines. For example, one of our investors only lends up to 60 percent (of the home’s value), up to $3 million — but their interest rates are significantly lower than some of our investors who will do 80 percent financing.”

And remember, just because one lender said no, it doesn’t mean you don’t qualify for a jumbo mortgage, Carson said.

He cites the case of a client he helped recently. The borrower was a first-time homebuyer with great credit and more than sufficient income to afford the million-dollar mortgage he applied for.

“You think it would have been a no-brainer, right?” But the lender rejected the application simply because the borrower had never carried any large debt. Carson tried a different lender, and his client was approved on the spot.