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Originally published Friday, September 3, 2010 at 10:02 PM

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When is the best time to lock in a mortgage rate?

Bankrate.com

When is the timing right to lock in your mortgage rate?

With a rate lock, lenders are obligated (with a few exceptions) to offer a home loan at an agreed-upon rate regardless of whether mortgage rates have changed between the time of the loan approval and the closing date.

Consumers looking for a mortgage who find a great rate typically choose to lock it in for a specified period of time. Todd Dal Porto, a national sales executive with Bank of America Home Loans, says most lenders offer a loan-lock period of 30, 45, 60 or 90 days.

If you're shopping for a home loan, when is the best time to lock your mortgage rate?

"The time to lock in a loan depends completely on individual circumstances, so borrowers should work closely with their loan officer to make the decision," Dal Porto says.

The earliest point at which a borrower can lock in a loan is after the initial loan approval. However, many borrowers wait until they have found a home to purchase.

"The vast majority of homebuyers wait until they have a ratified contract to lock in their loan," says Brent Mendelson, a senior loan officer with Monarch Mortgage in Rockville, Md.

Brad Blackwell, executive vice president and national retail-sales manager of Wells Fargo Home Mortgage, generally urges clients to wait for an accepted offer before locking a loan.

"If you don't have a ratified contract, you don't want to lock in your rate and have the clock ticking while you start searching for a home."

However, Mendelson emphasizes that each borrower's individual circumstances dictate the best time to lock.

"There's no perfect time to lock a loan, but a lender or mortgage broker can check with the loan processor to get a feel for how long it will take to have the loan go through underwriting."

Dal Porto agrees that individual borrower circumstances influence the best time to lock.

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For example, Dal Porto says borrowers concerned that even a small increase in the interest rate could cause a budget problem should "lean toward locking in the rate as early as possible, especially in a market with increasing mortgage rates."

Choosing when to lock the loan for refinance is easier. The settlement date is driven by the lender, while a purchase loan usually has a settlement date that depends on the seller and the buyer.

Dal Porto says the industry average for a purchase loan is 45 days from application to closing, while a refinance averages 60 to 90 days.

Although the term "rate lock" sounds unyielding, many lenders are willing to be flexible with borrowers when circumstances change.

For example, many lenders will negotiate with the borrower if rates fall to prevent the borrower from opting to go to another lender. Blackwell says lenders sometimes charge a small fee to float down the rate.

What if the lock expires before closing? Lenders may offer an extension on the lock.

Borrowers should also remember that a rate lock is not guaranteed in all circumstances. Borrowers can lose a rate lock if their circumstances change — such as a shift in their credit score or in their debt-to-income ratio — before settlement.

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