Time to refinance: Eight steps to getting the best deal now

With the Federal Reserve aggressively cutting interest rates, you may be wondering if it's time to refinance your current mortgage. The answer is a simple yes. Back in January I locked in a 4.5% 15-year fixed rate mortgage the day after the Fed rate cut. Rates went back up to 5.5% within a week.

Generally you will benefit from a refinance as long as your interest rate will go down by at least 1% and the new loan does not require you to pay points in order to get that lowered rate. In most cases, a refinance is only worth it if you plan to stay in the home for more than three years. If you think you'll be selling the home before that, the costs of a refinance probably won't be recovered unless you can lower your rate by 2% or more.

With interest rates so low, the only kind of mortgage you should consider today is a traditional fixed-rate mortgage. Lock in those low rates. Don't play games with variable rates. If you can't afford the payment on a 30-year fixed-rate, consider a 40- or 50-year mortgage rather than a variable rate mortgage. You can always make extra principal payments when you can afford them to shorten the life of the loan in the future. But, of course, be sure your loan doesn't have any pre-payment penalties. Never accept a mortgage loan with pre-payment penalties. Ask that question when you're shopping for a loan and ask it again before you sign the papers to close the loan. Make sure you see in writing that there are no pre-payment penalties before you close the loan.

Check your credit report and score. Before applying for any new major loan it's a good idea to check your credit report and credit score. If you find any erroneous information on your credit report, clean it up before you start the application process. Cleaning things up as part of the underwriting process will only delay the loan process and could even kill the loan. To get the best rates, your credit score must be 730 or higher. People with this credit score can often get rates below the national average rate you'll see quoted around the Internet. If your score is below 675, you will pay significantly higher rates than you are seeing quoted. People with scores between 620 and 674 generally pay 1.5% to 1.9% higher rates for a mortgage. People with scores between 560 and 619 will find their rates are about 3.8% higher than the national average, if they can find a lender at all in today's tight mortgage market. Below that you'll probably find it almost impossible to get a refinance in today's market. You can use the round robin debt startegy to improve your score quickly.