As of January 1, 2010, lenders are required to use a new Good Faith Estimate (GFE) form that puts the important features of your loan right in front, and lists the fees and interest rates. The most powerful change is the requirement that if fees are different at closing from what they are on the form, the lender has to eat the difference--not the borrower. The new GFE also features a section for mortgage shoppers--you can compare the costs of several lenders and select your best deal. The only problem is that lenders are finding a way to avoid using the form.

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Instead, lenders offer loan shoppers a "worksheet" or "loan scenario" form. It contains a lot of the same information as a GFE disclosure, but does not commit the lender to anything. This gets lenders around one of the fundamental protections provided by the new law. Are they trying to pull a fast one? Not necessarily.

It may not be a bait and switch. Lenders are not required to give you an"official" disclosure until you have applied for a home loan. And, more importantly, lenders can't provide a meaningful GFE unless they know a great deal about you--for example, your EXACT credit score--with the risk-based pricing imposed by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, a single point on your score can add a half point to your loan fees. Lenders also need to know where the property is. If you're trying to buy a house but aren't under contract yet, the lender can't commit to a rate and fees. Ditto if you can't provide a property type--condos and manufactured homes cost more to finance.

So how do you shop for a loan? Some writers suggest that you hold lenders' feet to the fire and refuse to do business with those who don't furnish a GFE to shoppers. This, I think, is counterproductive. Any lender who wants to mess with you can still give you a GFE and then legally change the costs once there is a change of circumstances (for example when you lock you loan or find a property).

If you want information, you have to provide information. To shop, you need your credit scores. You can get your credit history for free at www.annualcreditreport.com and you can purchase your scores there too. If you are refinancing, get a good idea of your property's value by checking sources like Realtor.com (which can tell you what your neighbor's homes sold for) or Zillow.com. Or you can ask the lender--many large banks have their own automated valuation systems and can estimate your home's worth in seconds. If you are buying, tell them the zip code you are looking in and the type of residence you are buying. Construct a scenario (for example, a single family home in the 89511 zip code priced at $400,000 with a $40,000 down payment) and use it for every lender you contact. Then, ask them for GFEs. Try to get all of this done on the same day--rate quotes obtained on Monday can't be compared to rates from Friday.

If you don't like your "final" GFE, take your business elsewhere. The lender isn't locked into specific pricing until you lock your mortgage rate. If it's a big step up from your last disclosure, shop a bit more and tell the loan agents you have a complete package and want to lock today. See if your lender is pricing fairly or if you could get a better deal elswhere.