If you took a fixed-rate mortgage anytime in the past year, you ought to look at rates again. You might get a new loan for 1 percent to 1.5 percent less. The loan might even be tailored to your personal risk profile.
People with imperfect credit histories can get reduced rates, too. Many reliable lenders currently are vying for that business. Closing costs on a new or refinanced loan could run to $5,000 or more.
Whether that's worth it depends on how much you'll save each month and how long you'll stay in the house.
Some lenders minimize your interest rate but pick up extra money by charging higher closing costs.
At this writing, the averages are running at 7.3 percent for a 30-year fixed loan, 6.8 percent for a 15-year fixed and 6.5 percent for a one-year adjustable, according to HSH Associates.
You don't have to refinance a one-year adjustable mortgage. It declines by itself on the loan's anniversary date without having to pay new closing costs.
During the past two years, one-year adjustables have risen by anywhere from 1 point to 1.4 points. But compared with fixed rates during that period, they've been a terrific deal.
Many borrowers avoid adjustable loans because they don't want their rate to rise. But adjustables should cost less in the long run, as long as inflation remains controlled.
So far, I've been talking about mortgages with average rates. It's worth comparing them with new-style loans that adjust your rate to the level of risk your loan presents.
The idea of tailored rates took root when mortgage lenders started using credit scores to judge how creditworthy you are. Your score sums up your credit history how many credit cards you have, how much you've borrowed and how fast you pay.
Credit bureaus typically compute your score although mortgage lenders may use systems of their own. The score is added to information about your income, job, down payment and net worth.
In most of the industry, high-scoring people are granted loans at standard rates. Lower-scoring people known as "subprime'' risks are turned down or sent to an affiliated subprime lender. They might pay up to 2 percentage points more.
In general, credit scoring is good for subprime borrowers. Computers can spot the people who seem more likely to repay. As a result, they have better access to mortgages and at lower rates.
Some subprime borrowers are still being overcharged.
"About 20 percent of the subprime loans we've taken in could have qualified for prime rates,'' said Alfred King of Fannie Mae, which supplies funds to the mortgage market.
At the same time, borrowers who are virtually zero credit risks should probably be getting lower mortgage rates than they're paying now.
Here's where tailored mortgages come in.
Lenders are developing systems to match your interest rate more closely with your loan's entire risk profile.
Standard rates are becoming the baseline rate, says Bob O'Toole, a senior staff vice president for the Mortgage Bankers Association of America in Washington. How much more or less you pay than the baseline rate will depend on the entire picture you present.
Two online lenders Priceline.com and Indymacmortgage.com now offer customized rates.
Priceline asks you for general information, then shows you a mix of rates and up-front points you might qualify for. You can either pick one or name the rate and points you want. You might as well name an aggressive rate.
Next, Priceline asks for more detailed information about your finances. Priceline's computers either offer you the loan you want or send a counteroffer.
There's a "floatdown'' option meaning that your rate could fall automatically, if interest rates fall before you close your loan.
IndyMac asks you to choose either the interest rate or level of upfront points you want. The computer vets the personal information you supply. You get an offer in about three minutes and have 20 minutes to decide, CEO Michael Perry says.
Both lenders estimate how long you'll hold the loan, based on such things as the size of the down payment, the rate you want and perhaps where the house is located. The longer you're likely to keep the loan, the lower your rate can be.
In general, mortgage shoppers today tend to check rates online but use a local lender.
Pat McInerney, president of Pricelinemortgage says, "It should be the other way around.''