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What Is Manual Underwriting And How Does It Work?

Victoria Araj7-minute read

July 22, 2021

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Underwriting is the step in the mortgage process when your lender decides whether you qualify for a loan. There are two ways that a lender can underwrite your loan: automatically or manually. You might be able to increase your chances of getting a loan with manual underwriting if you have a unique financial situation.

In this article, we’ll take a look at some of the differences between manual and automated underwriting. We’ll also show you what your lender looks at during manual underwriting and when they might use a manual process.

What Is Manual Underwriting For A Mortgage?

When you initiate your mortgage application, your lender decides if you qualify for a loan by looking at your information and deciding whether you’re likely to pay it back. In the majority of cases, the decision is made by a computer program – not a human being. If you’re self-employed or applying for an FHA or a jumbo loan, you can expect to be rejected by the algorithm.

That’s when your application is reviewed by a human being, during the process known as manual underwriting.

Manual Underwriting Vs. Automated Underwriting

Even with technology, there’s a need for human involvement and insight in the mortgage process.

How Automated Underwriting Works For Mortgages

Automated underwriting uses a computer algorithm to underwrite your loan. The algorithm takes your information and uses it to decide whether your data meets the lender's minimum standards. With just a small amount of inputted information (like your Social Security number and address), the computer can learn about your finances. The automated system compares your credit score, debt and other factors to the requirements and guidelines of the loan you’re applying for. The machine does most of the heavy lifting. After the computer draws a conclusion, your lender will briefly double-check the result and issue a decision. Lenders use automated underwriting because it’s much faster and more cost-efficient than manual underwriting.

How Manual Underwriting Works For Mortgages

Manual underwriting is just the opposite. Instead of using a computer to analyze your application data, a human looks at your finances. Manual underwriting takes more time than automated underwriting and requires more documentation. However, if you have a unique financial situation, manual underwriting can improve your chances of getting a loan.

When Is Manual Underwriting Done?

A lender might choose to manually underwrite a loan under a few circumstances:

  • You’re living debt-free. Paying back debt is the foundation of a great credit score. But if you choose to live without debt, you might not have much of a FICO® This doesn’t mean that you have bad credit – just that you have no credit at all. If this is your situation, your lender will need to manually consider your repayment ability.
  • You’re new to building credit. Building credit can take years. If you’re a young adult or you’ve just moved to the United States, you may not have a credit score. In this case, your lender may manually underwrite your loan.
  • You’ve had financial problems in the past. Buying a home with a bankruptcy or foreclosure in your past may seem difficult, but it’s not impossible. Even if you have a lower credit score, with a large down payment and plenty of savings, your mortgage lender might decide to give you a loan. However, this requires manual underwriting before approval.
  • Your debt-to-income ratio (DTI) is too high. Lenders, or government regulators, put in place DTI and credit score limits to set the borrower up for repayment success. If your DTI is too high but you can show that it’s temporary or a normal part of your business endeavors, you may be able to demonstrate your creditworthiness during the manual underwriting process.

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Manual Underwriting And Your Mortgage

Your options depend on the type of mortgage you’re seeking.

Conventional Mortgage

A conventional loan is any loan originated by a bank or mortgage company and sold to Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac. This allows the lenders to have the liquidity, or cash on hand, to continue originating mortgages. To sell their mortgages to Fannie and Freddie, lenders must conform to their requirements.

Fannie and Freddie use automated systems to complete their initial assessment of a mortgage applicant. Lenders can assign your application for manual underwriting, but they’re not required to do so. 

Jumbo Loans

Jumbo loans are non-conforming loans, which means that they’re not subject to regulations, except for those dealing with non-discriminatory lending practices. Although lenders are automating the jumbo mortgage application process, there’s still a need for manual underwriting in the jumbo loan market, particularly for home loans exceeding $2.5 million.

Rocket Mortgage offers Jumbo Smart loans up to $2.5 million.

Government-Backed Mortgages

Lenders who offer FHA, VA or USDA loans – which are commonly known as government-backed mortgages – must comply with agency rules regarding manual underwriting. 

FHA Manual Underwriting Guidelines From 2020

FHA manual underwriting guidelines were updated in 2020 and require that, for those applicants with credit scores below 620 or a debt-to-income (DTI) ratio that exceeds 43%, mortgage applications must be manually underwritten.

FHA loans can be approved with credit scores as low as 580 or with a DTI of 50%, if the applicant can make a larger down payment than the required 3.5% or has any of these sufficient compensating factors, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development:

  • Verified and documented cash reserves that equal or exceed three total monthly mortgage payments (one and two units) or that equal or exceed six total monthly mortgage payments (three and four units).
  • A new total monthly mortgage payment is no more than $100 in value or 5% higher than their previous total monthly housing payment, whichever is less, and a documented 12-month housing payment history with no more than one 30-day late payment. In cash-out transactions, all payments on the mortgage being refinanced must have been made within the month due for the previous 12 months.
  • Residual income.

VA Loans

VA loan applications are among those most frequently referred for manual underwriting. That’s because VA loans are a way of giving back to our veterans (and their families) as a thanks for their service, so lenders go out of their way to approve these loans if possible.

Those seeking a VA loan and facing a manual underwrite will likely need to meet tighter requirements for such factors as DTI, derogatory credit and financial documentation, among others.

USDA Loans

USDA loan applications that are rejected by that automated system can be resubmitted for manual underwriting. USDA applicants can also request that a manual process be initiated if they’re rejected by the automated system.

How Does Manual Underwriting Work?

Here’s what to expect if your lender manually underwrites your loan.

Collection Of Your Financial Information

Before an underwriter can decide whether you qualify for a mortgage, they need to understand your financial situation. Your lender will ask you for quite a bit of documentation if they’re manually underwriting your loan. Some things you might need to provide include:

  • Up to 12 months of bank statements
  • Several years of tax returns
  • Your resume or CV (for your underwriter to verify your employment)
  • Account information from your retirement account or taxable brokerage account
  • Verification of any other assets you own, like vehicles or homes
  • Recent pay stubs that prove you have consistent, reliable income
  • Profit and loss statements if you’re self-employed or own a small business

Your job is to provide your lender with any documentation or information they need. For fastest results, you’ll need to have all this documentation on hand before your lender asks for it.

Review Of Your Credit Report

Your credit report contains information about your relationship to debt. Your credit report shows your lender things like loans and credit accounts in your name, and it also contains information about any missed or late payments on these accounts. When your underwriter looks at your credit report, they aren’t just looking at your credit score. Additionally, they’re checking to see if you have a history of consistent, on-time payments.

If you don’t have any items on your credit report, your lender might ask you for proof of past payments. Records of on-time rent, utility and even insurance payments can boost your chances of approval during a manual underwrite.

During this stage, your lender might ask you for a letter of explanation. This is a personal letter written by you that explains an item on your credit report. Let’s say you have a foreclosure or bankruptcy on your credit report – your lender will want to know what happened.

Try not to panic or take it personally if your lender asks you to explain an item on your credit report. A request for a letter of explanation won’t stop you from getting a mortgage. On the contrary, this request means that your lender is still considering you for a loan. If you didn’t qualify, the lender would instead outright reject you. Write a short, direct letter explaining any discrepancies to keep your application on track.

Review Of Your Income And Assets

Next, your lender will look at your personal income and assets. Your lender will compare how much money you have coming in to how much you’ll need to pay each month if they give you a loan.

Your underwriter might reach out to your employer to learn more about bonuses, overtime or commissions you earn. They might also ask about your history with the company and how long you’ve been employed there. This is to determine the probability of you leaving your job in the near future. Although there can be exceptions, you’re less likely to lose your job and fall behind on your payments if you have a long history with your employer.

Your underwriter will also look at your assets during this stage. Anything that you own that has significant value is an asset. Cash in the bank is the most obvious example of an asset, but your underwriter will also look at your retirement and brokerage accounts as well. The goal of analyzing your assets is to ensure that you’ll be able to cover your closing costs and down payment and to keep up with your loan payments.

Review Of Your Debt And Liabilities

Your lender will next look at your debt and financial liabilities. One of the first things that your underwriter will calculate is your DTI. Your DTI describes how much of your monthly income goes toward expenses. If most of your income goes to things like credit card payments, rent and loan payments, your DTI will be very high. You’ll have a lower DTI if you have income left over after you pay your bills. Lenders like to see low DTI because they signify that you aren’t overstretched in paying your bills each month.

Underwriters will also look at other regular recurring financial liabilities. Let’s say you pay child support, back taxes or other court-ordered judgments. Your lender will consider this in their decision. Your underwriter wants to know that you’ll be able to afford your mortgage in addition to all of your current debts.

Review Of Your Collateral

Finally, your underwriter considers your collateral – that’s your down payment and your property value.

The larger your down payment, the less of a risk you are to a lender. You borrow less money when you bring a larger down payment to the closing table. You don’t need a full 20% down payment, but you almost always need at least 3% down. This down payment must come from your savings or a gift if allowed by your loan type. If you take out a loan to pay for your down payment, that’s a sign of risk for the lender.

Your underwriter will comb through your bank statements to determine where your down payment is coming from. Large or sudden deposits will trigger a red flag. You may need to write a letter of explanation for any unusual deposits outside of your standard income. You’ll also need documentation to back up your claim.

For example, let’s say you sell a car and deposit the money into your bank account. Your underwriter may ask to see the title transfer and proof of sale. The person who gave it to you may need to write a letter confirming that the money isn’t a loan.

Finally, your lender will order a home appraisal for your property. During the appraisal, a home value expert will take a tour of your property and assign an official estimate of value. Lenders require appraisals because they want a professional opinion of the value of your property. You may need to adjust your offer or bring a larger down payment if an appraisal comes back low.

Final Decision

Your underwriter will then issue a final decision on your loan application. The underwriter can deny your loan, approve it or issue a suspension with contingencies. If your application has contingencies, it means that your underwriter needs more documentation before they can approve you. You might get an approval, a denial or a suspension with contingencies. If your application has contingencies, it means that your underwriter needs more documentation before they can approve you. Be sure to respond to these inquiries quickly to receive a decision.

The Bottom Line: Sometimes, Humans Can Understand Us In A Way Algorithms Can’t

Mortgage lenders use computer programs to underwrite most of their loan applications. This is easier on the lender and allows them to produce results quickly. However, if you have a unique financial situation, a lender might manually underwrite your loan.

During manual underwriting, an actual underwriter analyzes your finances and decides whether you qualify for a mortgage. Manual underwriting requires more paperwork than automated underwriting, and it also takes more time. Your underwriter will ask for documents like tax returns and bank statements. They will look at your income, assets, debt, liability and credit report before giving you an approval or denial.

Your lender will automatically choose manual underwriting for your loan if you have no credit, a major financial event on your record or if you’re getting a jumbo loan. You may also be able to request manual underwriting, depending on your lender.

Want to learn more about the underwriting process? Find out about appraisals in our Learning Center.

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Victoria Araj

Victoria Araj is a Section Editor for Rocket Mortgage and held roles in mortgage banking, public relations and more in her 15+ years with the company. She holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism with an emphasis in political science from Michigan State University, and a master’s degree in public administration from the University of Michigan.