What is an FHA loan – Learn all about FHA loans – what they are, their history, requirements, pros and cons, and alternatives. This in-depth guide covers everything you need to know about FHA mortgage loans to empower you to make the best home financing decision.
Gain insight into low down payment options, flexible credit standards, mortgage insurance, and more to determine if an FHA loan is right for your situation.
What is an FHA loan?
What is an FHA loan – An FHA loan is a mortgage insured by the Federal Housing Administration (FHA). It is designed for low-to-moderate income borrowers and has more flexible lending standards than conventional loans.
The FHA insures these loans, so lenders are willing to approve borrowers with lower credit scores or higher debt-to-income ratios. However, FHA loans require mortgage insurance no matter how much you put down on the home. (H2)
The FHA has been providing mortgage insurance since 1934 in an effort to make homeownership more accessible. It is a part of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). FHA loans offer options for first-time homebuyers who may not have the funds for a large down payment or ideal credit scores for other loan programs. Over 15% of the U.S. mortgage market is made up of FHA loans.
A Brief History of the FHA Loan Program
The FHA loan program was created in response to the Great Depression when mortgage lending had dried up and homeownership was out of reach for many Americans. As part of the National Housing Act of 1934, the FHA was established to promote home financing, improve housing standards, and stimulate the building industry as part of President Roosevelt’s New Deal.
At the time, most home loans required 50% down and had short repayment timeframes of 3-5 years. These restrictive terms made owning a home difficult for the middle class. By insuring private lenders against losses if borrowers defaulted, the FHA enabled longer 30-year mortgages with lower down payments.
Over time, the FHA program has gone through periods of expansion and retraction. During the housing boom of the 2000s, its market share declined as subprime mortgages and private mortgage insurance companies took off. But when those higher-risk loans led to mass foreclosures during the crash, the FHA returned to prominence by providing more sustainable loans.
Today, the FHA insures over 1.3 million single-family home loans per year. It is especially useful for minority, low-income, or first-time buyers who may have more obstacles qualifying for conventional mortgages. The FHA helps fulfill the dream of homeownership for borrowers across diverse economic and social backgrounds.
FHA Loan Requirements
To qualify for an FHA loan, you must meet certain requirements:
Minimum Down Payment
The minimum down payment for an FHA loan is just 3.5%. This makes it more affordable for borrowers who do not have 20% to put down on a home. However, if you put down less than 20%, you will be required to pay mortgage insurance.
With conventional loans, you typically need at least 5% down, with 20% down avoiding private mortgage insurance. So the 3.5% FHA requirement provides an easier entry point. This lower barrier to entry opens up homeownership to more buyers who haven’t been able to save up a substantial down payment yet.
You can put down more than 3.5% on an FHA loan if you have a bigger down payment saved up. But even putting 10% or 15% down will still require you to pay mortgage insurance. The only way to avoid it is to put down the full 20% on an FHA loan. Still, for buyers without much in savings, that 3.5% minimum makes an FHA loan within reach.
Credit Score Requirements
The minimum credit score for an FHA loan is 580. Many lenders prefer scores of at least 620, but the FHA program allows more flexibility for borrowers with weaker credit histories. While it is possible to qualify with a 580 FICO score, you will likely get better terms with a higher score.
Conventional mortgages typically require a minimum credit score of 620 for 3% down payment options or 680 for the lowest interest rates. VA loans have a minimum credit score requirement of 620. So the 580 FICO floor for FHA loans opens up approvals to those will less-than-perfect credit.
However, the higher your credit score, the lower your interest rate and overall costs will be. Aim for a score over 740 if possible, as you will save substantially on an FHA loan with excellent credit compared to fair credit. But even if your score is on the lower end, an FHA loan can be an accessible financing option.
Debt-to-Income Ratio Limits
Your debt-to-income (DTI) ratio includes your total monthly debt payments divided by your gross monthly income. It provides a snapshot of how much you owe each month compared to how much you earn.
FHA loans require your DTI ratio to be less than 43%. A lower ratio is ideal, but the FHA allows for more wiggle room than conventional loans. For example, many conventional mortgages cap DTI ratios around 36%.
Your DTI ratio takes into account your entire financial picture – not just the future mortgage payment, but also existing debts like credit cards, auto loans, student loans, child support, and other obligations.
Keeping your DTI ratio below 43% shows lenders you can manage your finances responsibly. Having substantial monthly income compared to your debts makes it less risky for the lender. But the FHA understands buyers may carry higher debt loads, so their threshold accommodates this.
Pros of FHA Loans
There are some key advantages to FHA loans that make them appealing to first-time homebuyers:
Low Down Payment Options
The 3.5% minimum down payment makes an FHA loan one of the easiest loans to qualify for with limited funds saved up. This lower barrier to entry opens up homeownership to more buyers who may just barely have enough saved for a small down payment and closing costs.
With a conventional loan, you typically need at least 5% down, if not the full 20% to avoid expensive private mortgage insurance. Very few Americans have actually saved 20% of a home’s value, so most buyers depend on low down payment programs. The FHA caters well to this need.
While an even lower down payment would reduce costs further, the 3.5% requirement balances skin in the game and affordability. This minimal investment from the buyer shows they are committed to the home. But it doesn’t price out those without substantial assets already.
More Flexible Credit Requirements
A minimum 580 FICO score and maximum 43% DTI ratio provides more leeway than conventional mortgage standards. The FHA understands many buyers may not have perfect credit histories or untarnished financial records.
Life happens – medical emergencies, student loans, or unemployment can negatively impact your finances through no fault of your own. People can fall on hard times yet turn things around quickly. Your credit score doesn’t always tell the whole story.
So for borrowers who may have dings on their credit reports or higher debt levels but demonstrate responsible habits now, an FHA loan provides an accessible path to ownership. The program recognizes that past mistakes or challenges don’t have to prevent you from achieving your dreams.
Lower Monthly Mortgage Insurance
FHA loans require monthly mortgage insurance if you put down less than 20%. However, FHA mortgage insurance rates are lower than conventional loans at 0.85% of the total loan amount per year.
With a private mortgage insurer on a conventional loan, you could pay over 1% annually. This adds hundreds of dollars each year in payments. So the FHA mortgage insurance provides a discount compared to alternatives while allowing low down payments.
While it is an added cost, lower monthly mortgage insurance makes an FHA loan more competitive and budget-friendly. And you can always request to have it removed once you reach 20% home equity by paying down the loan or through appreciation.
Access to First-Time Homebuyer Programs
In addition to the standard FHA benefits, you may also be eligible for special state and local down payment assistance programs by using an FHA loan. These programs can provide grants, forgivable loans, or secondary mortgages to cover your entire down payment and closing costs.
Down payment assistance is often reserved only for FHA loans, to help make them more affordable. When paired with an FHA mortgage, your out-of-pocket costs to purchase can be significantly reduced or eliminated.
Be sure to check with your state Housing Finance Agency or local housing non-profits to see if you qualify for one of these programs based on your income, residency, and other factors. The combination of an FHA loan and down payment assistance can be the perfect recipe for first-time homebuyers.
Cons of FHA Loans
However, there are also some potential drawbacks of FHA loans to consider:
Mortgage Insurance is Required
The biggest downside is that mortgage insurance is mandatory if you put down less than 20%, and this monthly cost is not insignificant. It is typically 0.85% of the total loan amount divided by 12 months. On a $300,000 loan, you would pay around $212 extra per month in mortgage insurance.
With a conventional loan, you have the option to avoid mortgage insurance by putting down 20% or more upfront. But with an FHA loan, you are stuck paying mortgage insurance for the life of the loan unless you refinance. Even with a lower premium, it still adds to the monthly costs.
Conventional loans let borrowers with good credit and down payments avoid this permanent insurance requirement. So you give up that option with an FHA loan.
Limit on Loan Amount
FHA loans have conforming loan limits that typically cap out around $420,000 depending on the county, except for certain high-cost areas where limits go up to $970,800. These maximums are lower than the limits for conforming conventional loans, which can go up to $970,800 nationwide.
So FHA loans are not ideal for luxury homes or expensive real estate markets. The lower caps mean your buying power will be limited compared to a conventional mortgage, especially as you look at higher price tiers.
In moderately-priced markets, the standard FHA loan limits are usually sufficient for most first-time buyers. But in high cost-of-living cities or for larger homes, you may bump into the FHA ceiling.
These conforming loan limits are re-evaluated each year based on housing data nationally and locally. But FHA caps typically lag behind conventional loans. This restricts purchasing power and choice for borrowers in high-end markets.
More Upfront Costs
FHA loans require an upfront mortgage insurance premium of 1.75% of the loan amount. On a $300,000 loan, this equates to over $5,000 at closing. This gets rolled into your loan balance, but it does increase upfront costs compared to alternatives.
On top of this upfront premium, you must pay an annual mortgage insurance premium monthly as well if your down payment is under 20%. So you end up paying a significant amount both at closing and each month.
Conventional loans avoid this large upfront mortgage insurance fee if you put down 20%. While FHA mortgage insurance costs are lower monthly, the high initial premium can be an expensive surprise and deterrent for some borrowers.
Lower Loan-to-Value Ratio
The maximum loan-to-value ratio on an FHA loan is 96.5%. This means your loan amount plus down payment and closing costs can equal up to 96.5% of the purchase price or appraised value – whichever is lower.
Many conventional loans will go up to 97% LTV, covering almost the entire purchase price plus costs. So you may be able to purchase a more expensive house by going with a small down payment conventional loan rather than FHA financing.
That extra 1.5% in LTV can be tens of thousands in additional purchasing power. So first-time buyers may feel more constrained by the FHA limits when shopping at the top of their budget. You need to keep some cash reserves.
Alternatives to FHA Loans
Those who do not qualify or find the drawbacks of FHA loans to be problematic may consider these common alternatives:
Conventional 97% LTV Loans (H3)
Conventional loans with just 3% down avoid the permanent mortgage insurance of an FHA loan. However, you’ll still pay higher monthly private mortgage insurance rates until reaching 20% equity. Minimum credit scores and debt ratios are higher too, around 680+ FICO and 43% DTI. But for buyers with good credit who can afford a slightly higher down payment, conventional financing can make sense over FHA.
VA Loans (H3)
VA loans help eligible military members, veterans, and surviving spouses get 0% down mortgages without monthly mortgage insurance. Credit score minimums still apply around 620+, and a VA funding fee is charged. But for those who served, a VA home loan provides the best terms and least costs usually.
USDA Loans (H3)
For moderate to low-income borrowers in designated rural areas, USDA home loans offer 100% financing options with no down payment or mortgage insurance required. However, property and applicant eligibility limitations apply. If you qualify though based on location and income, USDA loans are hard to beat.
Down Payment Assistance Programs
First-time buyers may look into down payment assistance (DPA) programs offered in their state or locality. These programs provide funds through grants, forgivable loans, or secondary mortgages to cover most or all of the down payment and closing costs. When paired with an FHA, VA, or USDA first mortgage, DPA can eliminate most out-of-pocket costs. Availability depends on your location and eligibility.
Finally, first-time buyers are often able to turn to family members for down payment support through gifts or private low-interest loans. While not always an option, family help can provide the needed boost to cover larger down payments and entry costs needed for conventional mortgages. Be sure to document funds properly.
Is an FHA Loan Right for You?
FHA loans can be a great option for first-time homebuyers ready to break into the housing market. The low down payment requirements and flexible credit standards help qualified borrowers who may struggle to get approved elsewhere. Just be prepared for the permanent monthly mortgage insurance payments or look into other alternative loans if your credit score is over 740.
Sit down with a loan officer to go over your specific situation – your income, debts, assets, credit history and score – to see if an FHA loan is a good fit or if other programs may better suit your financial profile and savings. Having a thorough discussion about both your qualifications and personal goals will guide you toward the optimal mortgage solution.
The FHA exists to make the dream of owning a home accessible to more Americans. For many, it provides that first step onto the property ladder and a chance to start building wealth through equity. While the FHA is not right for all buyers, for those who need flexible terms, it can be an invaluable opportunity.
What is an FHA loan Conclusion
What is an FHA loan – FHA loans open the door to sustainable homeownership for many buyers who may not initially qualify through conventional channels. If you have limited funds saved up or past credit challenges, an FHA loan can offer competitive interest rates and more forgiving approval standards. Just be sure you understand the trade-offs like mortgage insurance requirements and loan limits before pursuing an FHA loan. It is a program that allows more people to achieve the dream of owning a home when other options are out of reach.
What is an FHA loan FAQs
What is an FHA case number and how do you get it?
An FHA case number is essentially a pre-approval valid for 4 months. Once issued, it enables you to shop for FHA approved properties. Your lender will order the case number after you complete an application and they review your eligibility.
Can I get out of FHA mortgage insurance?
Yes, you can request to cancel FHA mortgage insurance once you reach 20% equity through a combination of down payment and home appreciation or by paying down the loan balance. Refinancing into a conventional loan also ends the insurance requirement.
What closing costs should I expect with an FHA loan?
FHA loans require a 1.75% upfront mortgage insurance premium along with other typical closing costs like lender fees, appraisal fee, title insurance, etc. Budget for at least 4-5% of the loan amount for all costs. Down payment assistance can cover these if eligible.
How do I find a lender that offers FHA loans?
Most national lenders and local banks or credit unions offer FHA loan programs. Ask your preferred lender if they underwrite FHA loans in-house or through a sponsored originator model. FHA approved lenders can be found via the Department of Housing and Urban Development website as well.
What are the limits on how much I can borrow with an FHA loan?
The current 2023 FHA lending limit in most U.S. counties is $420,000 for a single family home. Higher cost areas can go up to $970,800. Conforming limits adjust annually, so verify the latest caps when applying.
What is an FHA loan FAQ
Q : What is the minimum credit score for an FHA loan?
Ans : The minimum credit score to qualify for an FHA loan is 580. But many lenders prefer scores of at least 620 or 640. The higher your score, the better the loan terms will be.
Q : How much is an FHA down payment?
Ans : FHA loans only require a minimum down payment of 3.5%. This makes them one of the easiest loans to qualify for without a substantial down payment saved up.
Q : Do FHA loans require mortgage insurance?
Ans : Yes, if you put down less than 20% the loan requires both upfront and annual mortgage insurance premiums. This is a key difference from conventional loans.
Q : What are the income limits for FHA loans?
Ans : There are no strict income limits for FHA loans. But your debt-to-income ratio must be below 43% to qualify. Income limits impact your purchasing power more than loan eligibility.
Q : Are FHA loans only for first-time homebuyers?
Ans : No, FHA loans are open to all qualified homebuyers, not just first-time buyers. However, the low down payment options do cater well to new homebuyers.