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Related topics: mortgage, home financing, homes, refinance, Liz Weston

The mortgage world has changed dramatically in a few short years.

At the peak of the real-estate bubble, mortgage professionals joked that you needed only to be able to fog a mirror to get a loan. These days, even borrowers with good incomes and good credit scores can get turned down.

Much of the change is driven by the higher standards of the companies that buy mortgage loans, including Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac and various large banks.

Here's what you need to look out for if you're trying to land a mortgage, whether you're buying a home or refinancing:

1. The house needs too much work

A lot of properties on the market these days are foreclosures owned by banks, and many aren't in great repair. If a house is in really bad shape, it can be tough, if not impossible, to persuade another lender to give you the money to purchase it.

Liz Pulliam Weston

Liz Pulliam Weston

Broken windows, defective appliances, roof leaks and serious water damage can all cause a lender to bail, said Dick Lepre, a senior loan officer with RPM Mortgage.

"A lot of deals just fall apart" after appraisers examine the homes, Lepre said. "Some sellers have gotten shot down so many times because the buyers couldn't get a mortgage that some homes are put on the market as 'all cash.'" In essence, the sellers won't consider buyers who need mortgages to purchase their homes.

In the past, Lepre said, a lender might have been more willing to set aside some of the cash from a deal to pay for necessary repairs. Today, lenders are far more likely to simply refuse to do deals.

Bottom line: If it's a real fixer-upper, you may need to pay cash.

2. The appraisal came up short

Occasionally during the bubble an appraiser would decide a home was worth less than the price a buyer and seller had agreed upon. But that was relatively rare. Critics accused appraisers of colluding with lenders to "hit the number" -- deliver the values needed for loans to be approved. Some appraisers acknowledged the pressure, saying banks would turn to their competitors if they didn't hit the number.

These days, the situation is drastically different. New rules hold appraisers to higher standards and sharply limit communication between appraisers and lenders. So the appraisal on the home you want to buy may fall short of the agreed-upon selling price.

Even if the first appraisal goes well, Lepre said, a second evaluation -- known as the review appraisal and now ordered by most investors that buy home loans -- may not.

Bottom line: You may be able to nudge an appraisal a bit by showing there are better "comparable sales" available than the ones the appraiser used. In general, though, appraisers are much harder to influence. You may need to reopen negotiations with the seller or come up with a bigger down payment to make a deal work -- or pay down your mortgage in order to refinance.

3. You have too much debt

Lenders look at how much of your income will go toward housing expenses (mortgage, property taxes and insurance) as well as how much you spend on other debt payments.

The total amount of your income that can be eaten up by these expenses can vary by the lender and even by the day. Over a matter of months, one major mortgage buyer dropped the ceiling of total debt from 65% to 55% and then to 50% of gross income, said Matt Hackett, the underwriting manager for New York lender Equity Now. Some have lower limits.

The mortgage industry still isn't as conservative about debt as it probably should be, said Michael Moskowitz, Equity Now's founder and president. Moskowitz noted that people can still get approved for loans that don't leave them enough breathing room for other costs, such as adequately maintaining the house or saving for other goals, including retirement.

Bottom line: If your projected housing-and-debt ratio exceeds 40% of your income, you should think twice about buying a home -- not because you won't get approved (you might) but simply because you're carrying too much debt. At the very least, you should pay off all credit cards and other toxic debt. Such debt indicates you're already living beyond your means, a situation that's likely to worsen if you buy a home.

4. You're self-employed and your income has declined

To get a mortgage, you typically need to submit the past two years' tax returns. If your 2009 income was lower than your 2008 income and you're a W-2 wage earner, lenders will simply use the lower figure to decide how big a mortgage you can get.

The industry is far more leery of declining income if you're self-employed, Moskowitz said. Some lenders will use the 2009 figure, but others won't make the loan at all because they're worried your income will drop further and you'll default.

Bottom line: If you're self-employed and your income has dropped, talk to your mortgage professional about how that might affect your loan.