FHA Loan vs. Conventional Mortgage: Decoding the Differences

By Kevin Brouillard · January 16, 2024 · 4 minute read

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FHA Loan vs. Conventional Mortgage: Decoding the Differences

There are many steps in the homebuying process, not least of which is deciding what type of mortgage to use. Comparing two common mortgage categories — a loan backed by the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) vs a conventional loan — is a smart place to start. This may be especially true for first-time homebuyers, who often find it challenging to save a substantial amount of money for a down payment.

Understanding FHA Loans and Conventional Mortgages

Buying a home is often the largest investment of a lifetime. It’s important for borrowers to understand how the FHA loan vs conventional loan decision could impact their interest rate, loan terms, and minimum down payment. Eligibility requirements also vary between different types of home mortgages. Let’s examine how each loan type works, plus the factors to consider when deciding between an FHA vs a conventional loan.

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What Is an FHA Loan?

An FHA loan is a government-backed loan that’s issued by a lender, such as a bank or credit union, but insured by the Federal Housing Authority (FHA). FHA loans offer low down payment options, as well as flexible income and credit guidelines. For a first-time homebuyer, it may be easier to secure an FHA loan than a conventional mortgage, although it’s always worth exploring both options.

What Is a Conventional Mortgage?

Conventional loans are not insured by the government. They typically have stricter borrower requirements than FHA loans but can cost less over the life of the loan.

Basic Eligibility and Application Process for Each

There are some key differences in eligibility requirements between these two popular mortgage types. Eligibility for FHA and conventional loans is based in part on financial factors like credit score and debt-to-income ratio (DTI). Additionally, FHA loans can only be used for a primary residence and require borrowers to occupy the property within 60 days. Buyers can typically have only one FHA loan at a time, unless they meet specific exceptions.

Applying for either type of home loan involves many of the same steps of the mortgage preapproval process. With either mortgage type, lenders may ask borrowers to submit information on the property they’re purchasing and documentation of income, assets, debts, and employment.

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

Recommended: The Mortgage Loan Process Explained in 9 Steps

FHA vs. Conventional Loans: Key Distinctions

In a head-to-head FHA vs conventional loan comparison, it’s worth noting some key distinctions. The minimum down payment, credit requirements, insurance, loan limit, and property eligibility varies between each loan type. Here’s how it looks:

Down Payment Requirements and Differences

Pitting an conventional loan vs. an FHA loan will show you how much money you need to put down on a house. (To get a good sense of how much home you are prepared to buy, use a home affordability calculator.) The minimum down payment for FHA loans is 3.5% for borrowers with at least a 580 credit score and 10% for borrowers with credit scores between 500-579. Meanwhile, conventional loans can offer down payments as low as 3% for a fixed-rate loan, or 5% for an adjustable-rate mortgage.

Credit Score Requirements and Impact on Approval

Lenders will look at your credit score with either loan type. Borrowers can secure an FHA loan with a credit score of 500, though as noted above, this requires a down payment of 10% versus just 3.5% with a credit score of 580 or higher. Conventional loans have stricter credit requirements — borrowers will typically need a credit score of at least 620 to qualify.

Mortgage Insurance: PMI vs. MIP

Mortgage insurance premiums (MIPs) are required with an FHA loan. This includes an upfront payment equivalent to 1.75% of the loan and an annual premium that’s spread across monthly mortgage payments. MIP runs for the full loan term or for 11 years if a borrower puts 10% or more down. With a conventional loan, buyers who put less than 20% down will need private mortgage insurance (PMI), which is paid monthly with the mortgage payment.

Loan Limits and Property Eligibility

The amount you can borrow and the condition and intended use of the property are key factors when deciding between an FHA vs. conventional loan. FHA loan limits are set annually by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). For 2024, the limit for single-family residences is $498,257 for low-cost areas and $1,149,825 for high-cost areas. The limits increase for two-, three-, and four-unit properties. In 2024, the conventional loan limit for single-family properties is $766,550 in low-cost areas and $1,149,825 in high-cost areas.

Property eligibility also differs by loan type. FHA loans involve stricter appraisals that consider safety and building codes, not just the home’s value. Additionally, conventional loans can be used for a second home while FHA loans are limited to primary residences.

Interest Rate Variations

Interest rates are influenced by several factors, including a borrower’s income, credit score, down payment amount, and the overall state of the economy. Because FHA loans are backed by the government, they generally have more competitive interest rates compared to conventional mortgages.

Benefits and Drawbacks of FHA Loans

Lower Down Payment but with Mortgage Insurance Premium

For borrowers with credit scores of 580 or higher, the ability to put as little as 3.5% down is a key reason for choosing an FHA loan. But FHA borrowers pay MIP, regardless of the down payment amount.

Recommended: Private Mortgage Insurance (PMI) versus Mortgage Insurance Premium (MIP)

Flexible Credit Requirements

In terms of credit score, FHA loans are easier to qualify for than conventional loans. FHA loans require a credit score of 580 to put 3.5% down or 500 to put 10% down.

Property Eligibility and Restrictions

FHA loans are intended for primary residences, so they can’t be used for vacation homes or investment properties. The appraisal process for FHA loans is also more strict than for conventional loans. The FHA appraisal assesses the property value and the home condition to ensure it meets minimum property standards set by HUD. These extensive standards cover design, as well as building materials such as insulation.

Interest Rate Variability

FHA loans usually have lower interest rates since lenders incur less risk with government-backed loans. Interest rates vary by lender, so it’s worth shopping around to compare options, whether you are considering an FHA or a conventional mortgage.

Advantages and Disadvantages of Conventional Mortgages

Opting for a conventional loan vs FHA loan comes with a mix of potential benefits and drawbacks.

Higher Down Payment but No Upfront Mortgage Insurance

Though borrowers could qualify for a conventional loan with a 3% down payment, a higher down payment is more common. The average down payment on a house is 13%, although younger borrowers and first-time buyers often put down less than this. Borrowers can choose to put 20% down on a conventional loan to avoid the cost of private mortgage insurance.

Stricter Credit Score Requirements

The minimum credit score to qualify for a conventional loan is 620, though this can vary by lender.

Property Eligibility and Restrictions

Conventional loans don’t have the same occupancy requirements as FHA Loans. This allows borrowers to purchase a variety of property types, including primary residences, vacation homes, and investment properties.

Interest Rate Stability and Flexibility

There are two types of conventional loans: fixed-rate and adjustable-rate. The former has the same interest rate for the loan term, offering predictability and stability. Adjustable-rate mortgages, on the other hand, tend to have a lower introductory rate for several years before the rate fluctuates based on market conditions. This can provide upfront savings at the onset of the mortgage.

FHA Loan vs. Conventional: Costs Comparison

When comparing FHA loans vs conventional loans, it’s worth considering the monthly payment and overall cost over the life of the loan with each option. For home buyers with a good credit score, a conventional loan may be more attractive. That’s because conventional loan costs are more dependent on your credit score and down payment amount than FHA loan costs. And as a result, your monthly payments and PMI are lower when your credit score is higher. This is a key difference from how FHA loans work.

Upfront and Monthly Costs for Mortgage Insurance

FHA loans require paying MIP for 11 years or the life of the loan depending on the down payment amount. MIP also involves an upfront cost that’s equal to 1.75% of the loan amount. The ongoing cost of MIP is between 0.45% and 1.05% annually, divided across monthly payments.

With a conventional loan, borrowers pay PMI, which typically ranges from 0.5% to 2% of the total loan amount annually. The cost of PMI depends on the borrower’s credit score, loan-to-value (LTV) ratio, and other factors. Borrowers can stop paying PMI once the mortgage balance is at 78% of the home’s original value or current value following an appraisal. For borrowers with stronger credit, PMI with a conventional loan can cost less than MIP with an FHA loan

Interest Rates and Overall Loan Costs

Though FHA loans can offer more competitive rates and be less expensive in the short-term, borrowers with strong credit could save in the long-term with a conventional loan. Once borrowers get out of PMI on a conventional loan, the annual percentage rate (APR) — the annual cost of the loan — may be lower than an FHA loan.

Down Payment Impact on Immediate and Long-Term Finances

If you can afford to put 20% down on a conventional loan, you’ll avoid the upfront and ongoing cost of PMI. Putting more money down could translate to a lower interest rate, providing further savings on monthly payments and long-term finances.

Increasing your down payment on an FHA loan to 10% can reduce the duration of paying MIP to 11 years and potentially lower the interest rate. However, borrowers who can afford a higher down payment may save more with a conventional loan since PMI can be canceled sooner.

FHA vs. Conventional Loans: Eligibility and Qualification Criteria

Borrowers have to meet certain eligibility requirements to qualify for either an FHA or a conventional loan. Generally, FHA loans are easier to qualify for, but they have stricter property eligibility requirements than conventional loans.

Qualifying Credit Scores for FHA and Conventional Loans

To qualify for a conventional loan, borrowers typically need a credit score of 620 or higher. Meanwhile, borrowers could qualify for an FHA loan with a credit score of 500 if they put 10% down. Borrowers with a 580 credit score can put just 3.5% down.

Down Payment Requirements for Both Loan Types

The minimum down payment for a conventional loan is typically 3% if it’s a fixed-rate mortgage or 5% if it’s an adjustable-rate mortgage. However, the down payment requirement can vary based on a borrower’s financial situation, loan amount, and type of property. FHA loans require either a 3.5% or 10% down payment depending on a borrower’s credit score.

Property Eligibility and Loan Limits

FHA loans can only be used for primary residences, while conventional loans apply to a primary residence, vacation home, or investment property. For 2024, FHA loan limits for single-family homes are $498,257 (in low-cost areas of the U.S.) and $1,149,825 (in high-cost areas). Conventional loan limits for single-family properties are $766,550 in low-cost areas and $1,149,825 in high-cost areas. Buyers who want to purchase a property that exceeds these limits will need to consider a jumbo mortgage loan.

FHA Loan vs. Conventional: Which Is Right for You?

There’s no one-size-fits all solution for buying a house. When deciding between FHA vs conventional loans, the right choice depends on your finances, your long-term financial goals, and the property type you wish to purchase.

Factors Influencing the Choice

Your credit score and ability to make a down payment are key considerations when weighing conventional loan vs FHA loan. If you have a lower credit score or a higher debt-to-income (DTI) ratio, an FHA loan could be a better bet for its flexible credit requirements and more competitive interest rate. However, borrowers with strong credit could qualify for a conventional loan with a down payment of just 3%.

Long-Term Financial Considerations

FHA loans can be more affordable upfront due to lower interest rates and down payment requirements. But borrowers will be on the hook for paying mortgage insurance for the full loan term unless they put 10% down or refinance later on.

If you’re able to qualify for a conventional loan and put 20% down on a house, not having to pay private mortgage insurance can save money in the long run. Conventional loans also offer more flexible repayment terms, whereas FHA loans are either 15- or 30-year mortgages.

Flexibility in Property Choices

FHA loans require occupancy within 60 days and the property must be the borrower’s primary residence. These loans also have strict rules for property conditions. For instance, a manufactured home built prior to 1976 is not eligible for an FHA loan. On the other hand, conventional loans can be used for second homes and a greater range of property types.

💡 Quick Tip: If you refinance your mortgage and shorten your loan term, you could save a substantial amount in interest over the lifetime of the loan.

The Takeaway

Deciding between an FHA loan vs a conventional loan depends on your specific financial situation and the property type. An FHA loan could be a better option if you have a higher DTI ratio, lower credit score, or less money to put toward a down payment. Whereas a conventional loan could be a better fit if you have strong credit and can afford a larger down payment.

Looking for an affordable option for a home mortgage loan? SoFi can help: We offer low down payments (as little as 3% - 5%*) with our competitive and flexible home mortgage loans. Plus, applying is extra convenient: It's online, with access to one-on-one help.

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What are the main differences between FHA and conventional mortgages?

FHA loans are insured by the Federal Housing Administration, whereas the lender assumes the risk for a conventional loan. For the borrower, an FHA mortgage typically has a lower credit-score requirement. It may also allow a lower down payment than some conventional loans.

Can I qualify for both an FHA loan and a conventional mortgage simultaneously?

It is possible to qualify for both an FHA loan and a conventional mortgage simultaneously. Note that lenders will look at your finances closely to ensure you can afford both loans.

How does property type affect the choice between FHA and conventional loans?

FHA loans are restricted to primary residences, while conventional loans can be used for second homes, such as investment properties or vacation homes. FHA loans also have stricter property condition requirements compared to conventional loans.

Photo credit: iStock/FotoDuets

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*SoFi requires Private Mortgage Insurance (PMI) for conforming home loans with a loan-to-value (LTV) ratio greater than 80%. As little as 3% down payments are for qualifying first-time homebuyers only. 5% minimum applies to other borrowers. Other loan types may require different fees or insurance (e.g., VA funding fee, FHA Mortgage Insurance Premiums, etc.). Loan requirements may vary depending on your down payment amount, and minimum down payment varies by loan type.

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¹FHA loans are subject to unique terms and conditions established by FHA and SoFi. Ask your SoFi loan officer for details about eligibility, documentation, and other requirements. FHA loans require an Upfront Mortgage Insurance Premium (UFMIP), which may be financed or paid at closing, in addition to monthly Mortgage Insurance Premiums (MIP). Maximum loan amounts vary by county. The minimum FHA mortgage down payment is 3.5% for those who qualify financially for a primary purchase. SoFi is not affiliated with any government agency.
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