What Are Subprime Mortgages and What Are Their Risks?

By Alene Laney · January 27, 2024 · 7 minute read

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What Are Subprime Mortgages and What Are Their Risks?

Subprime mortgages allow borrowers with lower credit scores to obtain homeownership, but the homebuyers pay a steep price for the privilege, thanks to the higher risk to lenders. Fortunately, there is hope for subprime borrowers who raise their credit profiles through consistent, on-time payments: They can look into refinancing. Here’s a closer look at the subprime mortgage world.

What Is a Subprime Mortgage?

A subprime mortgage is a housing loan made to a borrower with a subprime credit score, typically one in the 580 to 669 range, although what constitutes a prime and subprime credit score can vary among lenders and organizations. A credit score above 670 is considered prime, according to Experian, which tracks data on the credit industry. (And generally speaking, to qualify for the best interest rates, a borrower needs a “super prime” score of 740 or better.)

Borrowers with lower credit scores represent a greater risk to the lender; they are statistically more likely to have trouble paying on time. So subprime mortgages often come with higher interest rates and larger down payments to help protect the lender from the increased risk of default.

Subprime borrowers accept these terms because they cannot qualify for a conventional mortgage — one from a private lender like a bank, credit union, or mortgage company — with lower costs. Subprime mortgages are different from government-backed loans for borrowers with low credit scores (such as FHA loans backed by the Federal Housing Administration).

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How Subprime Mortgages Work

The main difference between a mortgage loan offered to a prime borrower vs. a subprime borrower is cost. Borrowers go through the same rigorous underwriting process with a lender and must submit documentation to verify income, employment, and assets.

But in the end, a prime borrower is offered the best rates, while a subprime borrower with so-called bad credit has to put more money down, pay more in fees, and pay a much higher interest rate over the life of the loan. Subprime mortgages also are often adjustable-rate mortgages, which means the payment can go up based on market indices after a predetermined period of time.

Subprime Mortgages and the 2008 Housing Market Crash

Subprime mortgages became popular in the 2000s as more high-risk mortgages were made available to subprime borrowers. In 2005, subprime mortgages accounted for 20% of all new mortgage loans.

It became possible for a lender to originate more of these high-risk mortgages because of a new financial product called private-label mortgage-backed securities, sold to investors to fund the mortgages. The investments masked the risk of the subprime mortgages within.

Home prices soared as more borrowers sought out the various subprime mortgages being offered. Rising home prices also protected the investors of mortgage-backed securities from losses.

When the housing market had passed its peak and borrowers had no viable option for selling or refinancing their homes, properties began to fall into default. In an attempt to reduce their risk exposure, lenders originated fewer loans and increased requirements for all borrowers. This depressed the market further.

Financial institutions that had taken strong positions in mortgage-backed securities were also in trouble. Many of the largest banking institutions in the world filed for bankruptcy, and the world learned once again what stock market crashes are.

In response to the financial crisis, the Federal Reserve implemented low mortgage rates in an attempt to jumpstart the economy.

Subprime Mortgage Regulations

In the wake of the financial crisis, Congress passed the Dodd-Frank Act to reduce excessive risk-taking in the mortgage industry. It established rules for what qualified mortgages are, which gave lenders a set of rules to follow to ensure that borrowers had the ability to repay the loans they were applying for.

It also provided regulation of qualified mortgages, including:

•   Limiting mortgages to 30-year terms

•   Limiting the amount of debt a borrower can take on to 43%

•   Barring interest-only payments

•   Barring negative amortization

•   Barring balloon payments

•   Putting a cap on fees and points a borrower can be charged for a loan

Subprime mortgages are not qualified mortgages. Borrowers who seek non-qualified mortgage loans may include self-employed people who want a more flexible financial verification process, people who have high debt, and people who want an interest-only loan.

Types of Subprime Mortgages

The most common types of subprime mortgages are adjustable-rate mortgages (ARMs), extended-term mortgages, and interest-only mortgages.

•   ARMs. Adjustable-rate mortgages have an interest rate that will change over the life of the loan. They often come with a low introductory rate, which after a predetermined time period changes to a rate tied to market indices.

•   Extended-term mortgages. A subprime mortgage may have a term of 40 years instead of the typical 30-year term. Add to this the higher interest rate, and borrowers pay much more for the mortgage over the life of the loan.

•   Interest-only mortgages. Interest-only loans offer borrowers the ability to only repay the interest part of the loan for the first part of the repayment period. Borrowers have the option of not repaying any principal for five to 10 years. The annual percentage rate is typically higher than for conventional loans. Origination fees may be higher as well.

The “dignity mortgage,” a new kind of subprime loan, could help borrowers who expect to redeem their creditworthiness. The borrower makes a down payment of about 10% and agrees to pay a higher rate of interest for a number of years, typically five. After that period of on-time payments, the amount paid toward interest goes toward reducing the mortgage balance, and the rate is lowered to the prime rate.

Subprime vs Prime Mortgages

Subprime mortgages have many of the same features as prime mortgages, but there are some key differences.

Subprime Mortgage

Prime Mortgage

Higher interest rate Lower interest rate
Borrowers have fair credit, with scores generally between 580 and 669 Borrowers have good credit, with scores generally from 670 to 739
Larger down payment requirements Smaller down payment requirements
Smaller loan amounts Larger loan amounts
Higher fees Lower fees
Longer repayment periods Shorter repayment periods
Often an adjustable interest rate Fixed or adjustable rates

Applying for Subprime Mortgages

Most lenders require a minimum credit score of 620 for a conventional mortgage, but there are lenders out there that specialize in subprime mortgages.

Generally, applying for a subprime mortgage is much the same as applying for a traditional mortgage. Lenders will check your credit and analyze your finances. They will ask for proof of income, verification of employment, and documentation of assets (such as bank statements). They may also ask for documentation regarding your debts or negative items in your credit reports.

Mortgage rates for subprime loans will vary depending on the prime rate, lending institution, the home’s location, the loan amount, the down payment, credit score, the interest rate type, the loan term, and loan type. The rate is typically much higher than a prime mortgage’s.

A mortgage calculator can help you find out what your monthly payments will be with a subprime mortgage. Simply adjust your mortgage rate to the one quoted by a lender for your credit situation.

Alternatives to Subprime Mortgages

Subprime loans are not the only option for borrowers with fair credit scores. Borrowers with credit issues can also look at mortgages backed by the FHA and the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA).

FHA loans have more flexible standards for borrowers than conventional loans. Though borrowers can obtain a mortgage with a credit score as low as 500 (assuming they have a 10% down payment), FHA loans are not considered subprime mortgages. Instead, FHA loans are government-backed loans that provide mortgage insurance to FHA-approved lenders to use if the borrower defaults on the loan.

For many borrowers with good credit and a moderate down payment, FHA loans are more expensive and don’t make sense. However, for borrowers with lower credit scores and smaller down payments, an FHA loan could be the best option.

VA loans have no minimum credit requirement, but instead, lenders review the entire loan profile. The VA advises lenders to consider credit satisfactory if 12 months of payments have been made after the last derogatory credit item (in cases not involving bankruptcy).

💡 Quick Tip: Keep in mind that FHA home loans are available for your primary residence only. Investment properties and vacation homes are not eligible.1

The Takeaway

Subprime mortgages allow borrowers with impaired credit to unlock the door to a home, but to mitigate risk, the lender may charge more for the loan. Borrowers considering this type of mortgage would be smart to look closely at terms and costs, and to also consider other options such as FHA loans.

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.

SoFi Mortgages: simple, smart, and so affordable.

Photo credit: iStock/shapecharge

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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.

Financial Tips & Strategies: The tips provided on this website are of a general nature and do not take into account your specific objectives, financial situation, and needs. You should always consider their appropriateness given your own circumstances.

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.
Veterans, Service members, and members of the National Guard or Reserve may be eligible for a loan guaranteed by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. VA loans are subject to unique terms and conditions established by VA and SoFi. Ask your SoFi loan officer for details about eligibility, documentation, and other requirements. VA loans typically require a one-time funding fee except as may be exempted by VA guidelines. The fee may be financed or paid at closing. The amount of the fee depends on the type of loan, the total amount of the loan, and, depending on loan type, prior use of VA eligibility and down payment amount. The VA funding fee is typically non-refundable. SoFi is not affiliated with any government agency.
Disclaimer: Many factors affect your credit scores and the interest rates you may receive. SoFi is not a Credit Repair Organization as defined under federal or state law, including the Credit Repair Organizations Act. SoFi does not provide “credit repair” services or advice or assistance regarding “rebuilding” or “improving” your credit record, credit history, or credit rating. For details, see the FTC’s website .

Third-Party Brand Mentions: No brands, products, or companies mentioned are affiliated with SoFi, nor do they endorse or sponsor this article. Third-party trademarks referenced herein are property of their respective owners.


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