While many homebuyers, especially younger ones, now prefer to do their shopping online, most lenders are still warming to the idea that borrowers also would rather use their laptops, tablets and even smartphones to take out a mortgage.
Just as technology has not replaced a good real estate agent, it's doubtful it will replace a knowledgeable loan officer who can explain something when necessary. But to smooth the transaction and make it more comfortable for today's borrowers, the lending community is working hard to meet clients on their terms.
In a few weeks, for example, mortgage giant Fannie Mae will roll out an electronic mortgage app that will be able to verify a borrower's income using data from third-party sources.
With the new app, there will be no need for the borrower to deliver pay stubs to the lender. With a click, the lender can access the necessary information faster and more securely, a common concern for both borrowers and lenders.
Fannie Mae also is working on similar validation services for other required borrower income documents, such as bank statements and tax returns.
According to Jane Severn, Fannie Mae's director of product development, the idea of applying for funding online is gaining traction among borrowers who tend to be younger or at the high end of the price spectrum, and "are most active at 10 p.m. when they feel they don't need a loan officer and they're ready to go."
The art of "flipping" -- buying a house, fixing it up and reselling it within months or even days -- is still alive and well in America. According to RealtyTrac, 5.5 percent of all home sales last year were flips in which the property sold in an arm's-length transaction for the second time within 12 months.
But flippers beware: Uncle Sam may have his eye on you. The tax treatment of quick turnarounds hinges on whether the Internal Revenue Service sees you as a real estate dealer or investor.
If you are a dealer, net income is subject to the regular income tax plus the 15.3 percent self-employment tax, which is based on the first $118,500 of adjusted net self-employment income. The holding period of the house is irrelevant.
If you are an investor, on the other hand, net income from properties held a year or less is considered to be short-term capital gains, which are generally taxed at the taxpayer's ordinary income rate or bracket, from 10 to 39.6 percent.
"Investor" is probably the preferred title of most flippers, but the IRS has a list of factors it considers when making the determination, and no single one is more important than the other. Each finding is based on the circumstances surrounding each individual sale.
One factor is the number of flips per year. One or two does not normally trigger dealer status, but as the number rises, so do the chances that the tax collector will view the flipper as a dealer.
Other questions the IRS wants answered: How quickly was the property resold? Is the taxpayer a real estate professional? Is the taxpayer flipping houses full time? What percentage of the taxpayer's income comes from flipping?
One tax benefit available only to dealers is that they can deduct their total losses in the year they were incurred. Conversely, both an investor's long-term and short-term losses may be limited to $3,000 a year, depending on the investor's other capital gains or losses. But the remaining losses can be rolled over to the following year or years.
Would-be homebuyers would be wise to apply for their financing in locations where it is usually sunny, according to a working paper from the Cleveland Federal Reserve Bank.
Using data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, researchers found that loan approvals are higher when the sun is out. Approvals drop by 1.4 percent on cloudy days, but rise 0.8 percent when the sun is shining.
These are not insignificant shifts. "A rough estimate of the extra credit approved on one perfectly sunny day relative to one fully overcast day is about $150 million nationwide, or $91,000 per county-day," the paper says.
The bad news: Loans cleared on sunny days experience significantly higher defaults, the researchers found.