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1. Compare loans

Most mortgage lenders offer both 30- and 15-year terms. Compare the current average rates between the two loan products, then zero in on a couple of lenders and look at the spreads.

If 15-year mortgage rates don't seem substantially lower, it may not seem worth it to accept the stiffer monthly payment that comes with the shorter-term loan.

Still, the long-haul savings can be considerable, especially with rates now at or near all-time lows. You could wind up with a payment very similar to what you have with your current 30-year mortgage.

On a $200,000 loan, you might qualify for a 15-year loan at 2.6% or a new 30-year mortgage at 3.15%.

Your monthly payment would be $1,343 on the 15-year loan and just $859 on the 30-year mortgage. But you'd pay total interest of about to $41,700 on the shorter-term loan, versus more than $109,000 over the course of the 30-year mortgage.

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2. Shop around for a great mortgage rate

Fifteen-year mortgages have several pros and cons.

The primary disadvantage is the plumper payment, which can make it more difficult for you to meet other expenses and can become a huge problem if you lose your job.

The advantages include: a lower interest rate; lower lifetime interest costs; and the ability to pay off the loan and build equity in your home faster.

If you decide to move forward with a refinance into a 15-year mortgage, gather rates from multiple lenders.

As you research rates online, you may want to check the websites of the major banks operating in your area. They often have similar pricing on their mortgages, but you might find one offering a cheaper rate or more favorable terms.

Savvy borrowers may find more affordable rates through small local banks and credit unions, but the approval processes can be slower.

3. Make yourself look your best as a borrower

A lender wants to feel confident you'll pay back the loan and not default. A very good (740 to 799) or excellent (800 or higher) credit score will help provide that assurance.

If you don't know your credit score you can get a peek at it for free.

If your score could stand improvement, obtain copies of your credit reports from the three major credit reporting bureaus (Equifax, TransUnion and Experian) and make sure they're accurate.

Bad information — such as debts that aren't yours, or debts that are too old and should have fallen off — can weigh down your credit score.

Shore up your score by paying down debt (especially credit card balances), getting bill payments in on time, and not opening new credit accounts while you're shopping for a home loan.

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4. Pay as much as you can upfront

If you don't have much equity in your home, making a larger down payment on your refinance loan can score you a lower 15-year mortgage rate.

Like a decent credit score, a bigger down payment is a way of demonstrating to the lender that you're a good risk and deserve a low rate. If you're heavily invested in your house, it's less likely you'll walk away from your mortgage.

Plus, making a down payment big enough to give you at least 20% equity will keep troublesome private mortgage insurance (PMI) premiums from being tacked onto your house payments.

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Doug Whiteman Former Editor-in-Chief

Doug Whiteman was formerly the editor-in-chief of MoneyWise. He has been quoted by The Wall Street Journal, USA Today and CNBC.com and has been interviewed on Fox Business, CBS Radio and the syndicated TV show "First Business."

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