A Guide to Government Home Loans

December 17, 2020 · 7 minute read

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A Guide to Government Home Loans

Ah, homebuying. It’s invigorating! Complex. Expensive, too. Which is why the vast majority of homebuyers rely on mortgages to obtain their dream homes.

Conventional loans are the most popular, but government-backed loans are often easier to qualify for and may have lower interest rates and more lenient terms.

The powers that be offer a variety of mortgages and mortgage insurance programs that can keep your down payment and interest rates low. But raking through government websites can be exhausting and far less fun than comparing paint swatches.

So which government home loan might be right for your purposes? Here are the details.

Why Government Home Loans?

First of all, it’s important to understand that there are many types of mortgage loans.

Home loans range from fixed rate (meaning the interest stays consistent over time) to adjustable rate (interest rates can fluctuate with the market) and from conforming (meeting the amount caps established by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac) to jumbo (very large mortgages).

For the purposes of this article, we’re mostly concerned with the difference between conventional mortgage loans—those originated by private banks and lenders—and government-insured mortgage loans, which are offered by private banks and lenders but backed, or insured, by government institutions.

While conventional loans are the most popular type on the market, there are good reasons for borrowers to seek out government-insured loans.

Because lenders covered by government insurance can rest assured that they’ll get something for their trouble, even if borrowers default, government-backed loans are often easier to qualify for than conventional mortgages, and may have lower interest rates and more lenient terms.

In some cases, government-backed loans, or even loans offered directly by the government, can help families secure housing when doing so would otherwise be out of reach.

For example, the U.S. Department of Agriculture offers government-assisted home loans specifically for low-income rural families who cannot otherwise afford housing.

The government offers and insures a wide range of home loans and related financial assistantships, aimed toward everyone from first-time buyers to those looking to rehabilitate or refinance a residence.

Below, find our brief guide to the most common and well-known government home loans.

FHA Home Loans

The Federal Housing Administration offers mortgage insurance on single-family and multifamily properties, as well as residential care facilities like hospitals, and has been doing so since 1934.

For the everyday consumer, that can translate to a home loan with a low down payment and closing costs, as well as easier credit qualification than with many private lenders.

The FHA backs a variety of loans that cater to the specific needs of the borrower, such as FHA Reverse Mortgages for senior citizens and FHA Energy Efficient Mortgages for those looking to finance home improvements that will increase energy efficiency (and therefore lower housing costs).

However, FHA loans are perhaps most popular among first-time buyers looking for government home loans—in large part because of the low down payment requirement.

Borrowers with FICO® credit scores of 580 or more may qualify for a down payment as low as 3.5% of the sales price of the home, whereas some conventional home loans may require 15% or even 20%. (Borrowers with credit scores under 580 are required to put 10% down even with an FHA government-insured loan.)

Most FHA loans do require mortgage insurance—although it’s not quite the same as the private mortgage insurance required in a conventional mortgage when a borrower can’t come up with a certain down payment.

FHA loan borrowers are required to pay an upfront mortgage insurance premium of 1.75% of the base loan amount, as well as an annual mortgage insurance premium whose rate is calculated based on the loan-to-value ratio and mortgage term.

Mortgage insurance premium rates range from 0.45% to 1.05% and are lower for those who opt for shorter mortgage terms.

USDA Home Loans

The USDA is another government entity that helps make homeownership more achievable for low-income Americans—specifically those who reside in, or are willing to reside in, rural areas. Two of its most popular programs are the Single Family Housing Guaranteed Loan Program and Single Family Housing Direct Home Loans.

Both programs require a minimum borrower credit score of 640, and both require the property to be in an area the department recognizes as rural. (Generally, towns with populations less than 35,000 qualify, but the USDA offers an interactive map that can help consumers figure out whether or not a community is considered rural.)

The income requirements and application process differ, however. Here are the important distinctions.

USDA Single Family Guaranteed Loan Program

The Single Family Housing Guaranteed Loan Program is a government-insured mortgage that helps approved applicants purchase or improve rural properties.

Because it offers approved third-party lenders a 90% loan note guarantee, borrowers can receive 100% financing with absolutely no down payment, which is a pretty special deal.

Eligibility requirements state that borrowers’ income can’t exceed 115% of the median household income of the area, meaning the loan is directed toward low- to moderate-income families.

Interest rates depend on credit history and lender but are often lower than those associated with conventional loans.

USDA Single Family Direct Home Loans

Single Family Housing Direct Home Loans are offered, as the name suggests, directly from the USDA, making them different from most of the other government-insured loans discussed in this article. These loans provide payment assistance to qualified borrowers to reduce their mortgage payment for a limited period of time.

The program is for low- and very low-income applicants. The amount of assistance offered is based on borrowers’ adjusted family income, but as with Single Family Housing Guaranteed Loans, no down payment is required.

The interest rate on USDA Direct Home Loans can be as low as 1%, and may be repaid over a term of up to 38 years.

Along with meeting the income eligibility requirements—which are lower in this case—borrowers must also be without safe, decent and sanitary housing, and must be financing a property of 2,000 square feet or less in an eligible rural area, as defined above.

Along with home purchase costs, the funds from this loan program can also be used to to build, repair, renovate, or relocate a home, as well as to cover costs associated with preparing land for dwelling such as drilling a well or installing a septic system.

VA Home Loans

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs insures conventional loans offered to service members, veterans, and eligible surviving spouses.

VA-backed purchase loans often result in better terms for the homebuyer. Case in point: Almost 90% of these loans don’t require a down payment.

While there’s no minimum credit score requirement on the VA side, the individual private lenders may have their own minimums—580 to 660 is typical.

VA-backed borrowers may also be able to forgo private mortgage insurance or mortgage insurance premiums, as well as enjoy fewer closing costs and lower interest rates than they’d otherwise receive. There is, however, a one-time VA Funding Fee, which lowers the cost of these loans to the taxpayer and is calculated based on the specific type and total amount of the home loan. The VA Funding Fee on purchase loans ranges from 1.4% to 3.6%.

The VA also helps those with existing home loans refinance their mortgages in order to reduce their interest rates or acquire cash that can be used toward other financial goals.

NADL Home Loans

Native American Direct Loans are offered directly by the VA to eligible Native American veterans and veterans married to Native Americans.

Like VA-backed purchase loans, those who qualify for an NADL can enjoy a $0 down payment and won’t have to pay private mortgage insurance or mortgage insurance premiums.

NADLs also offer borrowers a low, fixed interest rate repayable over a 30-year term. What’s more, the benefit is reusable, meaning a borrower can take out more than one of these loans in a lifetime. The funds can be used to purchase a residence as well as to build or improve one.

As with other VA loans, however, recipients of NADLs may be required to pay the VA Funding Fee. Borrowers will also need to provide documentation proving they earn a high enough income to cover their mortgage payments.

Other Types of Government Loans

While FHA, USDA, VA, and NADL loans are probably the best known, there are even more government housing loans and assistantship programs available.

For instance, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development offers the Good Neighbor Next Door Program , which offers law enforcement officers, grade school teachers, and first responders a 50% discount on the list price of homes in eligible revitalization areas. Participants must live in the property as their sole residence for three full years and sign a “silent second” mortgage for the discounted amount in case they fail to fulfill the three-year requirement.

In addition to its straightforward home loan program, the FHA offers 203k loans, which help borrowers buying older residences finance the extensive remodeling and repairs such properties often require. These loans simplify the process by providing one source of funding for both home purchase and home improvement, though borrowers can also take out a loan for home improvement alone.

Finally, keep in mind that state governments may also offer additional homebuying assistance programs that can ease the burden of paying for a house. Check out HUD’s directory of state sites and programs for information.

Is a Conventional Mortgage Right for You?

While government home loans can help low- and moderate-income families establish housing with low or no down payment and competitive interest rates, they’re not the only option on the market—and in some cases, a conventional loan can be an equally savvy money move.

For one thing, many government-backed home loans restrict which properties and borrowers are eligible to participate. Conventional loans can offer the borrower more agency and flexibility.

For homebuyers with credit scores in the “very good” or “excellent” categories and who have a substantial down payment, conventional loans may offer interest rates and terms that are nearly as attractive as those offered for government-backed mortgages. And if you can put down at least 20% on a conventional mortgage, you’ll avoid paying PMI—whereas every FHA loan requires mortgage insurance premiums.

Shopping around for the right mortgage is a lot of work, but it’s a worthwhile effort given how much money and hassle borrowers might save in the long run. SoFi offers a range of conventional, fixed-rate mortgages with competitive interest rates, low down payments, and personalized help through the homebuying process.

Borrowers who finance their home purchase with SoFi can put as little as 10% down (though PMI is still required for all conforming home loans with an LTV greater than 80%). SoFi members can also save $500 on their mortgage loan or refinancing processing fees, and have access to a team of member specialists.

Learning your rate takes about two minutes online and won’t affect your credit score.†

Want to see if a SoFi mortgage could unlock your dream home? Find your rate today.

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