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FHA loans vs conventional loans

Deciding which type of loan to get is an important step when buying a home. The two most popular options for first-time home buyers are conventional and Federal Housing Administration (FHA) loans. Each loan has advantages and drawbacks to consider.

What is an FHA loan?

FHA-approved lenders can issue loans that are insured by the Federal Housing Administration and are ideal for buyers with low-to-moderate income.

Conventional loans aren't insured or guaranteed by government agencies. They are usually available with fixed or adjustable-rate terms, and often require higher credit scores and down payments than FHA loans.

Differences between FHA and conventional loans

There are several key differences between conventional and FHA loans. Consider the following when choosing the right mortgage for your situation:

  • Qualifying for loans
  • Property standards
  • Property types
  • Down payment requirements
  • Private mortgage insurance
  • Loan limits

Qualifying for loans

While lenders look at many things when reviewing applications, credit score and debt-to-income (DTI) are two important factors.

It's often easier to qualify for an FHA loan than for a conventional loan because buyers can have a credit score as low as 580 and a debt-to-income (DTI) ratio of 50% or lower. However, applicants with a lower credit score and higher DTI ratio may still qualify for an FHA loan. In this case, lenders would consider additional factors such as income and down payment. 

Property standards

Property appraisals for FHA loans are stricter than those for conventional loans. Appraisers assess the property for value, soundness of construction and safety. They also make sure it meets FHA Minimum Property Standards. For conventional loans, the Home Valuation Code of Conduct regulates the standards, protecting appraisers from realtor and lender influence. The appraised value generally must be greater than, or equal to, the requested loan amount.

For either loan type, the appraisal is not a home inspection.

Property types

Lenders also look at what buyers plan to use the home for. FHA loans require the borrower to live in the home as their primary residence, so they can’t invest in or flip properties. With conventional loans, individuals can buy a variety of property types including private homes, investment properties and vacation houses.

Mortgage insurance

When homebuyers put less than 20% down on a conventional loan, they also need private mortgage insurance (PMI). For FHA loans, borrowers have to pay mortgage insurance premiums (MIP). PMI and MIP protect lenders from financial losses should the borrower default on their loan. Premiums are calculated and applied differently depending on whether the loan is conventional or FHA.

Individuals with an FHA loan will pay both upfront and monthly premiums. FHA loans use a one-size-fits-all premium rate calculation, which stays in effect for the life of the loan.

With conventional loans, borrowers usually pay a monthly or single PMI premium. Factors such as credit score and down payment help determine the PMI rate. PMI ends for conventional loans when the borrower reaches 78% loan-to-value ratio.

Loan limits

When comparing FHA and conventional loans, it's important to note that both types of loans limit the amount you can borrow. Maximum loan amounts vary by county, and these limits usually change each year.

Conventional mortgages must meet loan limits set by the Federal Housing Finance Agency. These limits are usually the same regardless of where you're buying a home, except for some higher cost counties.

FHA mortgage limits vary by the county where the property you’re buying is located and tend to be lower than conventional limits.

FHA loan requirements

Homebuyers may qualify for an FHA loan if they:

  • Have a credit score of 580 or higher for a loan with a 3.5% down payment
  • Have a credit score between 500 and 579 for a loan with a 10% down payment
  • Have a DTI ratio of 50% or less
  • Will use the home as their primary residence
  • Can provide proof of employment and steady income

Potential barriers

Lenders will review your credit history during the underwriting process, so making payments on time will improve your chances of being approved. However, some things can make getting a loan more difficult, including:

  • No credit history: Lenders need to determine creditworthiness. For anyone without a credit history, they may be able to do this with non-traditional, merged credit reports or other means.
  • Bankruptcy: Bankruptcies don't automatically disqualify individuals from qualifying for an FHA loan. Buyers with a Chapter 7 bankruptcy must wait at least two years before applying for an FHA loan. They also need to re-establish good credit.
  • Late payments: Generally, applicants should have 12 months of on-time payments before applying for an FHA loan.
  • Foreclosure: Foreclosures don't necessarily disqualify someone from an FHA loan if at least three years have passed. Lenders will consider applications with foreclosures on a case-by-case basis.

Federal debt, collections and judgments: FHA loans usually require these to be paid off either before or by closing, or have an existing repayment plan with a satisfactory payment history for at least three months. It's important to choose a mortgage that meets your financial situation and future goals. Our home lending advisors can answer any questions and help you find the right loan for your needs.