While it’s been a bumpy road for those in the housing and mortgage industries in recent years, the path ahead now appears smoother. But navigating it remains a somewhat perilous process.

Yet this is not the time to pull over, says Mark Cooper, branch manager for USA Mortgage, one of the state’s largest independent mortgage banks. “Home loans are readily available, and lenders are providing financing for homes for sale, refinance and debt consolidation,” he says. “Terms are still very good.”

Consumers who feel they missed out on refinancing or new home loan opportunities after the historically low interest rates of 2010 should keep in mind that today’s rates continue to offer excellent opportunities, Cooper notes.

Within the past six months, 30-year mortgage interest rates decreased to about 4 percent. By mid-January, those rates had rebounded to around 5 percent. “While rates have gone up and will likely continue to rise throughout 2011, they are still fantastic,” Cooper says. Taking advantage of the lowest available rates requires a credit score of at least 740, he adds. “Another important thing to remember is that even though home values have declined, a refinance may still be possible through some programs put in place by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac,” Cooper continues. “Also, if you are pretty confident that you will be moving within the next 10 years, either downsizing, up-sizing or for whatever reason, a five-, seven- or 10-year ARM (Adjustable Rate Mortgage) is an excellent way to reduce your monthly payment.”

Joseph Bayer, president of First Integrity Mortgage Services, a St. Louis-based independent mortgage-banking firm, agrees that consumers with good credit and income are positioned to take advantage of current financing opportunities. “We find that in today’s market, people want to leverage their cash whenever possible,” he says.

For instance, through First Integrity’s PowerPlus program, consumers with high credit scores and stable earnings potential can apply for a ‘piggyback loan.’ “This is just another option for people who qualify. People with higher credit scores like options,” Bayer says. Instead of a single mortgage, the loan amount is divided into two less-expensive loans: a 30-year fixed-rate first mortgage and a smaller second mortgage that is fixed for seven years and amortized over 30 years. “With this type of loan, borrowers can put less than 20 percent down on a conventional mortgage and still avoid private mortgage insurance (PMI) that protects the lender,” Bayer explains. “This type of program isn’t available from all lenders, but as private mortgage bankers, First Integrity has special relationships with private investors that make this possible.”

Regardless of the type of mortgage loan you pursue, Cooper advises any potential borrower to make sure he or she understands all the options and products available. “It’s important to work with someone reputable who has been in the business a long time,” he says. “Also, mortgage bankers that are non-bank affiliated were required in the past year to take a national and state test plus continuing education. It is my belief that these loan officers are better suited to best advise clients on the products and loan options available.”

Bayer adds, “If borrowers have reasonable expectations, they can get some incredible buys out there, enjoy low interest rates, and discover a nice market of available homes at reasonable prices. It comes down to whether people have confidence in their personal situation and can take advantage of the times.”