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What Is a Conventional Loan?

By Janet Siroto · October 06, 2022 · 8 minute read

We’re here to help! First and foremost, SoFi Learn strives to be a beneficial resource to you as you navigate your financial journey. Read more We develop content that covers a variety of financial topics. Sometimes, that content may include information about products, features, or services that SoFi does not provide. We aim to break down complicated concepts, loop you in on the latest trends, and keep you up-to-date on the stuff you can use to help get your money right. Read less

What Is a Conventional Loan?

There are few things as exciting as touring a house and thinking, “This is it! I’ve found my dream home.” Maybe the property has a fireplace or the perfect patio that has you imagining how great it would be to make it yours.
Then comes the less fun part: figuring out how to finance your home purchase.

For the vast majority of people, acquiring a new home means taking out a mortgage. For 90% of homebuyers, that means opting for a conventional 30-year fixed-rate mortgage.

Conventional mortgages are those that are not insured or guaranteed by the government.

But that doesn’t mean what is called a conventional home loan is right for everyone. Here, learn more about conventional mortgages and how they compare to other options, including:

•   How do conventional mortgages work?

•   What are the different types of conventional loans?

•   How do conventional loans compare to other mortgages?

•   What are the pros and cons of conventional mortgages?

•   How do you qualify for a conventional loan?

How Conventional Mortgages Work

Conventional mortgages are loans that are not backed by a government agency. Provided by private lenders, they are the most common type of home loan. A few points to note:

•   Conventional loans are offered by banks, credit unions, and mortgage companies, as well as by two government-sponsored enterprises, known as Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. (Note: Government-sponsored and government-backed loans are two different things.)

•   Conventional mortgages tend to have a higher bar to entry than government-guaranteed home loans. You might need a better credit score and pay more in interest, for example. Government-backed FHA loans, VA loans, and USDA loans, on the other hand, are designed for certain kinds of homebuyers or homes and are often easier to qualify for. You’ll learn more about them below.

•   Among conventional loans, you’ll find substantial variety. You’ll have a choice of term length (how long you have to pay off the loan with installments), and you’ll probably have a choice between fixed-rate and adjustable-rate products. Keep reading for more detail on these options.

•   Because the government isn’t offering any assurances to the lender that you will pay back that loan, you’ll need to prove you are a good risk. That’s why lenders look at things like your credit score and down payment amount when deciding whether to offer you a conventional mortgage and at what rate.

First-time homebuyers can
prequalify for a SoFi mortgage loan,
with as little as 3% down.


Conventional vs Conforming Loans

As you pursue a home loan, you’ll likely hear the phrases “conventional loan” and “conforming loan.” Are they the same thing? Not exactly. Let’s spell out the difference:

•   A conforming loan is one in which the underlying terms and conditions adhere to the funding criteria of Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae. There’s a limit to how big the loan can be, and this figure is determined each year by the Federal Housing Finance Agency, or FHFA. In 2022, that ceiling was set at $647,200 for most of the United States. (It was a higher number for those purchasing in certain high-cost areas.)

So all conforming loans are conventional loans. But what is a conventional mortgage may not be conforming. If, for instance, you apply for a jumbo mortgage (meaning one that’s more than $647,200 in 2022), you’d be hoping to be approved for a conventional loan. It would not, however, be a conforming mortgage because the amount is over the limit that Freddie Mac or Fannie Mae would back.

Types of Conventional Loans

When answering, “What is a conventional loan?” you’ll learn that it’s not just one single product. There are many options, such as how long a term (you may look at 15- and 30-year, as well as other options). Perhaps one of the most important decisions is whether you want to opt for a fixed or adjustable rate.

Fixed Rate

A conventional loan with a fixed interest rate is one in which the rate won’t change over the life of the loan. If you have one of these “fully amortized conventional loans,” as they are sometimes called, your monthly principal and interest payment will stay the same each month.

Although fixed-rate loans can provide predictability when it comes to payments, they may initially have higher interest rates than adjustable-rate mortgages.

Fixed-rate conventional loans can be a great option for homebuyers during periods of low rates because they can lock in a rate and it won’t rise, even decades from now.

💡 Recommended: What Is a Fixed-Rate Mortgage?

Adjustable Rate

Adjustable-rate mortgages (also sometimes called variable rate loans) have the same interest rate for a set period of time, and then the rate will adjust for the rest of the loan term.

The major upside to choosing an ARM is that the initial rate is usually set below prevailing interest rates and remains constant for a specific amount of time, from six months to 10 years.

There’s a bit of lingo to learn with these loans. A 7/6 ARM of 30 years will have a fixed rate for the first seven years, and then the rate will adjust once every six months over the remaining 23 years, keeping in sync with prevailing rates. A 5/1 ARM will have a fixed rate for five years, followed by a variable rate that adjusts every year.

An ARM may be a good option if you’re not planning on staying in the home that long. The downside, of course, is that if you do stay put, your interest rate could end up higher than you want it to be.

Most adjustable-rate conventional mortgages have limits on how much the interest rate can increase over time. These caps protect a borrower from facing an unexpectedly steep rate hike.

Also, read the fine print and see if your introductory rate will adjust downward if rates shift lower over the course of the loan. Don’t assume they will.

💡 Recommended: Fixed-Rate vs Adjustable-Rate Mortgages

How Are Conventional Home Loans Different From Other Loans?

Wondering what a conventional home loan is vs. government-backed loans? Learn more here.

Conventional Loans vs. FHA Loans

Wondering whether a conventional or FHA loan is better for you? FHA loans are geared toward lower- and middle-income buyers; these mortgages can offer a more affordable way to join the ranks of homeowners. Unlike conventional loans, FHA loans are insured by the Federal Housing Administration, so lenders take on less risk. If a borrower defaults, the FHA will help the lender recoup some of the lost costs.

But are FHA loans right for you, the borrower? Here are some of the key differences between FHA loans and conventional ones:

•   FHA loans are usually easier to qualify for. Conventional loans usually need a credit score of at least 620 and 3% down. With an FHA loan, you may get approved with a credit score as low as 500 with 10% down or 580 to put down 3.5%.

•   Unlike conventional loans, FHA loans are limited to a certain amount of money, depending on the geographic location of the house you’re buying. The lender administering the FHA loan can impose its own requirements as well.

•   An FHA loan can be a good option for a buyer with a lower credit score, but it also will require a more rigorous home appraisal and possibly a longer approval process than a conventional loan.

•   Conventional loans require private mortgage insurance (PMI) if the down payment is less than 20%, but PMI will terminate once you reach 20% equity. FHA loans, however, require mortgage insurance for the life of the loan if you put less than 10% down.

💡 Recommended: Private Mortgage Insurance (PMI) vs Mortgage Insurance Premium (MIP)

Conventional Loans vs VA Loans

Not everyone has the choice between conventional and VA loans. Conventional loans are available to all who qualify, but VA loans are only accessible to those who are veterans, active-duty military, or surviving spouses of those who served.

VA loans offer a number of perks that conventional loans don’t:

•   No down payment is needed.

•   No PMI is required, which is a good thing, because it’s typically anywhere from 0.58% to 1.86% of the original loan amount per year.

There are a couple of potential drawbacks to be aware of:

•   Most VA loans demand that you pay what’s known as a funding fee. This is typically 1.25% to 3.3% of the loan amount.

•   A VA loan must be used for a primary residence; no second homes are eligible.

Conventional Loans vs USDA Loans

Curious if you should apply for a USDA loan vs. a conventional loan? Consider this: No matter where in America your dream house is, you can likely apply for a conventional loan. USDA loans, however, are only available for use when buying a property in a qualifying rural area. The goal is to encourage people to move into certain areas and help them along with accessible loans.

Beyond this stipulation, consider these upsides of USDA loans vs. conventional loans:

•   USDA loans can offer a very affordable interest rate versus other loans.

•   USDA loans are available without a down payment.

•   These loans don’t require PMI.

But, to provide full disclosure, there are some downsides, beyond limited geographic availability:

•   USDA loans have income-based eligibility requirements. The loans are designed for lower- and middle-income potential home buyers, but the exact cap on income will depend on your geographic area and how many household members you have.

•   This program requires that the loan holder pay a guarantee fee, which is typically 1% of the loan’s total amount.

Benefits and Drawbacks of Conventional Mortgages

Now that you’ve learned what is a conventional loan and how it compares to some other options, let’s do a quick recap of the pros and cons of conventional loans.

Benefits of Conventional Loans

The upsides are:

•   Competitive rates. Yes, mortgage rates have been rising steeply recently, but they are still far from their high point of 16.63% in 1981. Plus, lenders want your business and you may be able to find attractive offers.

•   The ability to buy with little money down. Some conventional mortgages can be had with just 3% down.

•   PMI isn’t forever. Once you have achieved 20% equity in your property, your PMI can be canceled.

•   Flexibility. There are different conventional mortgages to suit your needs, such as fixed and variable rate home loans. Also, these mortgages can be used for primary residences (whether single- or multi-family), second homes, and other variations.

Drawbacks of Conventional Loans

Now, the downsides of conventional loans:

•   PMI. If your mortgage involves a small down payment, you do have to pay that PMI until you reach a target number, such as 20% equity.

•   Tougher qualifications vs. government programs. You’ll usually need a credit score of 620 and, with that number, your rate will likely be higher than it would be if you had a higher score.

•   Stricter DTI requirements. It’s likely that lenders will want to see a 45% debt-to-income ratio (or DTI, your total monthly recurring payments divided by your monthly gross income). Government programs have less rigorous qualifications.

How Do You Qualify for a Conventional Loan?

Conventional mortgage requirements vary by lender, but almost all private lenders will require you to have a cash down payment, a good credit score, and sufficient income to make the monthly payments. Here are more specifics:

•   Down Payment: Many lenders that offer conventional loans require that you have enough cash to make a decent down payment. Even if you can manage it, is 20% down always best? It might be more beneficial to put down less than 20% on your dream house.

•   Credit score and history: You’ll also need to demonstrate a good credit history to buy a house, which means at least 620, as mentioned above. You’ll want to show that you make loan payments on time every month.

Each conventional loan lender sets its own requirements when it comes to credit scores, but generally, the higher your credit score, the easier it will be to secure a conventional mortgage at a competitive interest rate.

•   Income: Most lenders will require you to show that you have a sufficient monthly income to meet the mortgage payments. They will also require information about your employment and bank accounts.

💡 See what your mortgage payments would be using our mortgage calculator.

The Takeaway

A conventional home loan is a very popular option for homebuyers. These mortgages, which are not guaranteed by the government, have their pros and cons, as well as variations. It’s also important to know how they differ from government-backed loans, so you can choose the right product to suit your needs. Buying a home is a major step and a big investment, so you want to get the mortgage that suits you best.

That’s where SoFi can help. We offer fast, competitive fixed-rate mortgage loans with as little as 3% down for qualifying first-time homebuyers. Let us help make your dreams of homeownership come true.

It takes just minutes to get prequalified online.

FAQ

What is the minimum down payment for a conventional loan?

What is a conventional home mortgage’s minimum down payment? In most cases, 3% of the purchase price is the lowest amount possible.

How many conventional loans can you have?

A lot! The Federal National Mortgage Association (FNMA, aka Fannie Mae) allows a person to have up to 10 properties with conventional financing. Just remember, you’ll have to convince a lender that you are a good risk for each and every loan.

Do all conventional loans require PMI?

Most lenders require PMI (private mortgage insurance) if you are putting less than 20% down when purchasing a property. However, you may find some PMI-free loans available. They typically have a higher interest rate, though, so make sure they are worthwhile given your particular situation.


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