By Jennifer Hiller – Express-News

Mortgage rates are at an average of 5.5 percent and the federal government continues dangling a free $8,000 in front of first-time buyers — two huge incentives to get people to commit to real estate.

But those seeking a mortgage won’t find rose petals lining the path to their new front door.

Higher lending standards and newly cautious lenders mean that closing on a home is an often a slower, more paperwork-ridden process for home buyers than in recent years.

While many mortgage loans still close in a matter of a few weeks, real estate professionals say it’s not unusual for it to take much longer for buyers to line up financing.

“You can’t get decisions made on the lender’s end,” said James Gaines, research economist with the Real Estate Center at Texas A&M University. “It takes 60 days. It used to take 30 days. If you haven’t crossed every ‘t’ and dotted every ‘i’ on the paperwork, it comes back to you.”

John Flournoy, managing broker with the Phyllis Browning Co., said many San Antonio homes are taking at least 45 days to close from the time the contract is signed. The standard used to be 30 days for home inspections, appraisals and securing financing.

“A lot of lenders and mortgages companies let staff go,” Flournoy said. “They’re reluctant to add a significant number of people.”

For those who have worked in the mortgage industry for a long time, though, the more cautious lending attitude is a back-to-basics approach.

“There’s a lot more paperwork,” said Sean O’Donnell, senior mortgage counselor at Colonial Bank. “It’s just back to 1994 again.”

He tells his clients this: “For every piece of paper you give me, you have to give me three more to prove it.”

Mortgage loans can be closed within a few weeks as long as the person handling the loan is experienced enough to know what’s needed — pay stubs, several months of account statements and so on — in advance, O’Donnell said.

Other factors can slow down a closing, including lender appraisals that may not meet the contract price, scuttling a deal.

“Sometimes a buyer or seller will ask for reconsideration of value,” Flournoy said.

And Bob Gardner, CEO of Legacy Mutual Mortgage, said appraisers sometimes have a hard time finding comparable sales. “The market is stabilizing, and in some areas we’re starting to see price increases,” Gardner said. “If you have new price increases, it’s hard to find comparables to justify the new sale.”

Credit cards, too, are playing an unexpected role in home buying, even for borrowers who have been pre-approved.

Craig Loeffler, loan officer at Affiliated Bank Mortgage, has had clients partially pay down credit cards thinking it best to eliminate debt. Then the credit card company lowers their available limit, which makes it appear the person has been burning through credit. Their credit score drops prior to the closing date, and they no longer qualify for that mortgage.

“You’re worse off than when you started,” Loeffler said. “It’s the most frustrating thing. People can provide a paper trail, but they can’t do anything about this.”

His advice for buyers: wait to pay down a credit card unless your lender requests you do so.