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FHA vs Conventional Loans: Key Differences

FHA vs Conventional Loan, fha loan vs conventional loan

When it comes to selecting a home loan, there are several loan types to consider. Two of the most common are an FHA loan and a Conventional loan. Each loan type operates a bit differently and qualification requirements for one versus the other can vary. Also, these are only two of the various home mortgage options that are available to homebuyers. If you are a first-time homebuyer, buying a second home, or buying a vacation home, your options can vary. But for many homebuyers, comparing FHA vs Conventional is a good place to start.

Throughout this guide, you’ll start to get a better idea of how FHA loans and Conventional loans differ. You’ll also discover their similarities. One of the first things to keep in mind is that there is no one-size-fits-all answer that applies to all homebuyers. When comparing Conventional loans to FHA loans, the goal is to figure out which loan type is right for you and your unique homebuying situation. What may be optimal for you may not be right for your neighbor. Therefore, when considering the differences and similarities, always consider your unique homebuying needs when evaluating which loan is the best one for you.

FHA vs Conventional Loan Types: Which is Right for Me?

An FHA loan allows for lower credit scores and can be easier to qualify for than a Conventional loan. However, Conventional loans may not require mortgage insurance with a large enough down payment. The benefit of FHA vs Conventional down to the individual needs of the borrower.

Let's take a look at both mortgage types to help you decide what's right for you. 

With conventional loans, you are required to pay for mortgage insurance for down payments under 20%. With FHA loans, mortgage insurance is required regardless of the down payment amount. Credit score requirements vary for conventional loans and FHA loans.

FHA vs Conventional Loans Comparison Chart

  Conventional 97 loan FHA loan
Minimum down payment 3% 3.50%
Minimum credit score 620 500*
Maximum debt-to-income ratio 45% 57%
Loan limit for 2023 (in most areas) $726,200 $472,030
Income limit No income limit No income limit 
Minimum out-of-pocket contribution 0%

(Down payment and closing costs can be 100% gift funds, grants, or loan)

(Down payment and closing costs can be 100% gift funds, grants, or loan)
Mortgage insurance Monthly payments are required if you have a down payment of less than 20%, but generally, the insurance auto terminates when your loan-to-value ratio reaches 78%. Upfront Mortgage Insurance Premium required, which may be paid in full at loan closing or financed over the life of the loan. For loans with loan-to-value ratio greater than 90%, a monthly mortgage insurance premium is required for the life of the loan. For loans with LTV ratio equal to or less than 90%, monthly mortgage insurance is required for 11 years.

*Higher down payment may be required for credit scores below 580

FHA vs. Conventional Loans: Key Differences

FHA loans require mortgage insurance regardless of down payment amount, compared to conventional loans where you need mortgage insurance for down payments under 20%.  FHA mortgage insurance payments will be the same regardless of your credit score.

FHA Loans

  • Lower credit scores allowed
  • More rigid property standards
  • Somewhat higher down payment needed
  • Monthly mortgage insurance required for the life of the loan on mortgages where the LTV exceeds 90%. For loans where LTV is less than or equal to 90%, monthly mortgage insurance premiums required for 11 years

Conventional Loans

  • Higher credit score needed (at least 620)
  • Slightly smaller down payments allowed
  • Private Mortgage Insurance (PMI) is required for down payments less than 20%
  • More liberal property standards

If you are a first-time home buyer or looking to refinance, you are probably asking yourself these kinds of questions. Different situations require different types of loans. In this blog, we will take a look at FHA and Conventional loans. Using examples, this blog will give you a better understanding of these two types of loans, their benefits and their drawbacks.

Do you meet the FHA loan requirements?

Joe the Gnome Collector: FHA Loan Benefits & Requirements

Joe has a low credit score due to his obsession with garden gnomes. He maxed out many credit cards buying garden gnomes, and traveling to see different gnomes throughout the world. Joe now needs a house (and garden) to put all his gnomes. His parents offered to help him with the down payment, but he is still not sure how he will be approved for a loan.

An FHA loan may be the perfect loan for Joe, here's why:

An FHA loan offers more flexible credit qualifying guidelines than other loan types. This is due to the fact that the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) insures this type of loan. The FHA does not lend the money, rather they guarantee the loan. Since the government is backing the loan, a lender is able to offer a competitive interest rate, which can save borrowers money. 

The requirements necessary for obtaining an FHA loan are relatively simple. Joe does not need to be worried about having the perfect credit score due to late payments, foreclosures, bankruptcies, tax liens, or legal judgments, in order to get an FHA loan. Currently, FHA guidelines state you only need a 580 credit score to qualify for maximum financing on an FHA loan, where a conventional loan will require at least a 620 credit score. However, this number may vary from lender to lender.

You may also qualify for an FHA loan with a credit score as low as 500, but you may be required to provide a higher down payment than those with a higher credit score. Also, FHA made changes to rules regarding student loans making it easier to qualify for a loan.

FHA Loan Benefits at a Glance

One of, if not the biggest advantage to an FHA loan is that only a 3.5% down payment is required for home loan purchase for borrowers with a credit score of 580 or above. This number is a lot smaller than other conventional types which will ask for anywhere from 5-20% of the loan. See FHA loan details by state for more information.

It should also be noted that combining the FHA loan with a down payment assistance program could potentially mean only needing to put 0.5% down.

In addition, the down payment does not necessarily have to come from the borrower’s pocket. The money is allowed to come from a family member, employer or charitable organization as a gift. In Joe’s case, his parents can “gift” him the down payment. 

Further, if you prepay your mortgage before a certain amount of time, many lenders will charge a prepayment penalty, but with an FHA loan there is no penalty for prepayment.

What is a debt-to-income ratio?

A person’s debt-to-income (DTI) ratio is the percentage of their gross monthly income spent to cover debts such as a mortgage, student loans, car loans, credit cards, etc.  Lenders take your DTI into consideration because it’s often a strong indicator of how likely you are to have a hard time paying your bills.

To qualify for an FHA loan, you cannot spend more than half of your gross income on debt; that is, a DTI of 50% or more.  In some cases, a person may qualify with such a DTI.  In general, however, lenders will want to see your debt-to-income ratio be no greater than 43%.

"What is mortgage insurance and do I pay it with an FHA loan?"

While there are many upsides to an FHA loan, a big downside to the FHA loan is the Upfront Mortgage Insurance Premium (UFMIP). This is collected at loan closing but may also be financed into the loan amount.

FHA loans also require payment of monthly mortgage insurance premium (MIP) to protect the lender in case of default. In most cases MIP stays on for the life of the loan unless you put 10% down, then it’s a minimum of 11 years.

You can also get rid of your monthly mortgage insurance if you refinance your FHA to a conventional loan.

With an FHA mortgage, you will pay the same insurance premium regardless of your credit score. Conventional loans ask you to pay mortgage insurance each month if you put down less than 20%, but this premium may be less than with an FHA loan if you have a credit score over 720.

With an FHA loan, the borrower ends up paying more over the life of loan. 

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Kate: A Conventional Loan Is the Easy Choice

Kate has a very high credit score. She wants to buy a home and has saved enough to make a down payment of 20%. Kate has decided to settle in Beverly Hills, her dream home is a bit pricey so she will need a large loan. A Conventional loan is likely the right choice for Kate.

A conventional loan, or conventional mortgage, is not backed by any government body like the FHA, the US Department of Veteran’s Affairs (or VA), or the USDA Rural Housing Service.

Roughly two-thirds of US homeowners’ loans are conventional mortgages, while nearly three in four new home sales were secured by conventional loans in the first quarter of 2018, according to Investopedia.

Sometimes conventional loans are mistakenly referred to as conforming mortgages, which is a separate type of loan which meets the same criteria for funding from Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, but although conforming loans are technically conventional loans, the reverse is not always true. For example, an $800,000 jumbo mortgage is a conventional mortgage, since it does not qualify as a conforming mortgage because it exceeds the maximum loan amount Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac guidelines will permit. 

2 Types of Conventional Loans

Let’s outline these two types of conventional loans: conforming and non-conforming.

Conforming loans have terms and conditions that comply with guidelines dictated by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, (shorthand for the Federal National Mortgage Association and the Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corporation, respectively). These two companies purchase mortgage loans from lenders then package them into securities and sell them to investors.

Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac guidelines establish certain criteria such as:

  • The maximum loan amount
  • Borrower income
  • Credit standards
  • The down payment necessary to get a home loan

Loans that are above the maximum loan amount set forth by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac guidelines are called non-conforming loans, and are also known as Jumbo loans. These loans are distributed on a smaller scale and have higher interest rates than regular conforming loans.

What do I need to qualify for a conventional loan?

You will need to complete a mortgage loan application and, along with paying applicable fees, have a credit report run that examines your credit history and provides a credit score, and also provide supporting documentation.

Such documentation can include:

  • Proof of income such as pay stubs, two years of federal tax returns, two years of W-2 statements, etc.
  • Asset accounting of bank statements and investments to establish that you can pay the down payment and closing costs.
  • Employment verification demonstrating you have a stable work history to encourage lenders to work with you.
  • Miscellaneous documents including your driver’s license or state identification card and your Social Security number

Conventional loans give the borrower more flexibility when it comes to loan amounts while an FHA loan caps out at $472,030 for a single family unit in most lower cost areas and $1,089,300 in most high cost areas. 
Conventional loans often do not come with the amount of provisions that FHA loans do. They also do not require mortgage insurance if the loan to value is less than 80%: in other words, if the borrower can make a down payment of 20%.

Because Kate has saved enough to put 20% down, this loan will be a better option because she will not have to pay for mortgage insurance. In addition, if the property you are buying is more of a fixer-upper, a conventional loan or FHA 203k loans could be an option.

Lastly, if you have a credit score over 720, a conventional loan will be more beneficial to you since you may end up receiving a better rate on a conventional than an FHA loan.

Kate wants to get the best interest rate possible, so she will likely get a better rate with a conventional loan because her credit score is above 720.

In sum, an FHA loan is more flexible to obtain, but no matter how large your down payment, you will have to pay mortgage insurance. A Conventional loan requires a higher credit score and more money down, but does not have as many provisions.

Use our mortgage payment calculator to estimate how much your mortgage payments might be.

FHA Streamline Refinancing

An FHA loan can even be used to refinance your home, even if you have less than perfect credit. FHA Streamline Refinance Loans traditionally require less documentation than a traditional loan, and do not require an appraisal. 

FHA Streamline Refinance Loan Types

  • FHA Streamline 30 Year Fixed Rate Refinance Loan: Designed to either lower your payment on your current FHA loan by lowering your current interest rate, or to convert an FHA Adjustable Rate Mortgage into a fixed rate mortgage. The FHA Streamline refinance loans require less documentation than a traditional loan, and there is no appraisal required. Generally, this loan is easy to apply for and does not require qualifying debt ratios or income verification.
  • FHA 203k Streamline 30 Year Fixed Rate Refinance Loan: The FHA 203k allows borrowers to pull out up to $35,000 in equity to pay for home improvements or renovations.
  • FHA Streamline 5/1 Adjustable Rate Refinance Mortgage: The FHA 5/1 ARM establishes low initial interest rate for the first five years; after that, your interest rates will fluctuate depending on market interest rates. Adjustable Rate Mortgages typically have the lowest rates and may be useful if you plan on selling your home in the near future.

FHA Fixed Rate Mortgages

  • FHA 30 Year Fixed Rate Loan: A fixed rate loan that generally requires a small down payment. This loan may be obtained by buyers with low credit scores.
  • FHA 15 Year Fixed Rate Loan: Similar to the 30 Year Fixed Rate Loan, it offers the benefits of a stable monthly mortgage payment, except that the interest you pay over the life of the loan is significantly less because the loan is expected to be paid in half the time.
  • FHA 203k 30 Year Fixed Rate Loan: The 203k loan program provides borrowers special financing to buy a fixer-upper with enough extra money to complete necessary renovations.

Need Help Deciding?

FHA vs. Conventional FAQ

Which is a better loan: FHA or Conventional?

It really depends on the situation. Each borrower is different. Each financial situation is different. Each home is different. Likewise, each loan has its benefits. FHA loans are easier to qualify for, but a Conventional loan is likely to be less expensive if you qualify. Ask your mortgage professional which loan makes more sense for your financial situation and needs.

Why do sellers prefer Conventional over FHA?

To some sellers, homebuyers who secure Conventional financing are viewed as “safer” than borrowers who qualify for an FHA loan. That’s because, in the eyes of some, FHA loans may be seen as a last resort for borrowers who can’t qualify for another loan. Whether that’s true or not is an entirely different question. In fact, getting an FHA loan may make more financial sense than a Conventional loan, regardless of whether the borrower qualifies for a Conventional loan as well or not. Just be aware that that perception is out there.

Additionally, FHA loans may have different (or more rigorous) appraisal and inspection requirements since the loan is being insured by the government. That may turn off some sellers who don’t want to be left haggling over who’s going to be pay for needed home repairs in advance of the sale closing.

What is the downside of an FHA loan?

FHA loans have many benefits, but one drawback to FHA loans is the mortgage insurance rules. On an FHA loan, the borrower is required to pay an Upfront Mortgage Insurance Premium (UFMIP), which is due at loan closing but may be rolled into the loan amount.

Additionally, FHA loans require the borrower to pay a monthly mortgage insurance premium for the life of the loan if their original loan-to-value ratio is above 90%, meaning the borrower puts less than 10% down. If the borrower puts down more than 10% on an FHA loan, they pay monthly mortgage insurance for 11 years. Meanwhile, borrowers may terminate their MI payments on a Conventional loan once their loan-to-value ratio reaches 78% regardless of how much they put down.

Is it a good idea to get an FHA Loan?

It depends on each borrowers’ individual situation, but FHA loans offer more flexible credit qualifying guidelines than other loan types and many other benefits. Consider speaking to a mortgage professional to determine whether an FHA loan is right for you.

FHA vs. Conventional Loan Comparison Infographic

FHA vs. Conventional Loan Comparisoin Infographic

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