What Is a VA Loan and How Does It Work?

By Laurel Tincher · July 10, 2023 · 8 minute read

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What Is a VA Loan and How Does It Work?

VA loans are available to active-duty military members, veterans, reservists, National Guard members, and certain surviving spouses. They require no down payment or mortgage insurance and typically come with lower interest rates than other types of mortgages. If you think you might qualify for a VA loan, it’s worth comparing the costs to those of a conventional loan.

What Is a VA Home Loan?

VA loans were created in 1944 as part of the G.I. Bill, and they have grown in popularity since. They are one way to buy a house with no money down.

Most VA loans are VA-backed loans. Approved private lenders issue the loans, part of which the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs agrees to repay if the borrower stops making the payments. That guarantee incentivizes lenders to offer VA loans with attractive terms.

The VA issues direct loans to Native American veterans or non-Native American veterans married to Native Americans. The agency also refinances VA and other mortgages.

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

How Does a VA Home Loan Work?

To receive a VA loan, a veteran, service member, reservist, National Guard member, or surviving spouse first has to apply for a Certificate of Eligibility. Once you have your COE and have decided what you wish to spend on a home, you’ll seek out a lender. Most lenders charge a flat 1% fee for VA loans but there may be other fees as well.

Once you have a lender and find a home to purchase, you’ll need to have the home appraised by a VA-approved appraiser to ensure it meets the minimum qualifications for a VA loan. If it does, you’re on your way to moving day.

Types of VA Home Loans

VA loans are available to help eligible borrowers buy, build, renovate, or refinance. Here are the main programs.

VA-Backed Loans

VA-backed home loans are full of advantages. They require no down payment or mortgage insurance, and have fairly loose rules about qualifying.

The home must be a primary residence, but up to a four-unit multifamily property may be purchased if one unit will be owner-occupied.

Approved condos and manufactured homes classified as real property are eligible.

VA Direct Home Loans

If either a veteran or their spouse is Native American, they may qualify for a Native American Direct Loan (NADL) to purchase, construct, or improve a home on federal trust land.

The VA issues these loans directly to borrowers who meet credit standards and whose tribal government has an agreement with the VA.

VA Refinancing

The VA offers an interest rate reduction refinance loan (IRRRL) and a cash-out refinance.

An IRRRL, or VA Streamline Refinance, refinances an existing VA-backed home loan. No verification of credit, income, or employment is required, and you might not need a home appraisal.

The VA-backed cash-out refinance can be used to convert any type of home loan to a VA mortgage with cash back at closing. (Cash back is optional: You can also use a VA cash-out refi to switch to a VA loan, shed mortgage insurance, and possibly lower your mortgage rate.)

VA Renovation and Construction Loans

The VA renovation loan is Veterans Affairs’ answer to the FHA 203(k) loan. It allows eligible borrowers to purchase and repair a property using a single VA loan with no down payment.

VA construction loans can help borrowers finance land and the construction of a home without a down payment. The hitch is, few lenders offer these loans.

Some states also administer their own loan programs for qualified veterans. California, for example, may have a high cost of living but it does offer its own home loan program to veterans.

Who Should Apply for a VA Home Loan

Eligible applicants for a VA loan are:

•   Current service members who have served for 90 consecutive days.

•   Veterans who served after 1990 for 24 continuous months or for the full period (at least 90 days) when called or ordered to active duty. (Those who served prior to 1990 may also be eligible; check VA.gov for detailed requirements.)

•   Service members who served at least 90 days of active duty in the Reserves or the National Guard after 1990. (Those who served prior to 1990 may also be eligible; visit VA.gov for details.)

•   Spouses of service members who died in the line of duty or from a service-connected disability, or who are missing or are prisoners of war.

VA Home Loan Requirements for Buying a House

If you apply and meet the requirements for a VA loan, you’ll receive a certificate of eligibility. Approved lenders can check eligibility quickly, or potential borrowers can contact va.gov.

The document indicates “full entitlement.” For full entitlement, at least one of these must be true:

•   You’ve never used your home loan benefit

•   You’ve paid a previous VA loan in full and sold the property

•   You’ve used your home loan benefit but had a foreclosure or short sale and repaid the VA in full

Credit, Income, Debt

For a VA loan, the lender will determine how much of a mortgage you can afford based on your credit history, income, debts, and assets.

The VA does not have a minimum credit score, but most mortgage lenders will want to see a FICO credit score above 620. Some may go lower.

According to VA residual-income guidelines, borrowers should have a certain amount of discretionary income left over each month after paying major expenses.

The VA does not name a maximum debt-to-income ratio, but it does suggest placing more financial scrutiny on borrowers with a DTI of more than 41%, which includes the projected mortgage payments.

VA Loan Rates

For VA-backed loans, approved private lenders set their own VA loan rates and fees. It’s smart to contact more than one lender when shopping for a mortgage and compare offers.

VA Funding Fee

There will be no mortgage insurance on a VA loan, but most borrowers will pay a one-time funding fee for a VA-backed or VA direct home loan. The fee can be rolled into the loan.

For the first use of a VA-backed purchase or construction loan, the funding fee is 2.3% of the loan amount if the borrower is putting less than 5% down.

The NADL funding fee for a home purchase is 1.25%.

A few borrowers, including those who are receiving VA compensation for a service-connected disability, do not have to pay the funding fee.

Benefits of VA Home Loans

Here are the main selling points of VA loans:

•   No down payment.

•   More attractive interest rates and terms than loans from some mortgage lenders.

•   Possibly lower closing costs. The VA allows lenders to charge up to 1% of the loan amount to cover origination, processing, and underwriting costs. Sellers can pay all of your loan-related closing costs, but yes, that’s a big ask. VA loans have an appraisal fee that is set by area. Buyers may purchase mortgage points to reduce the interest rate.

•   There’s no limit to the amount that can be borrowed with a VA home loan. However, there is a limit to the amount of the loan that the VA will guarantee.

•   No minimum credit score requirement (although some lenders may still not lend to those with lower credit scores).

•   A VA home loan can be for first-time homebuyers or repeat buyers.

•   VA loans are assumable, meaning the loan could be taken over by the home’s next purchaser.

Downsides of VA Home Loans

Although there are many benefits to VA loans, there are a few potential pitfalls to keep in mind.

The main one is the funding fee. If rolled into the loan, this increases monthly payments as well as total interest paid over the life of a loan.


•   VA loans can’t be used to purchase investment properties or vacation homes.

•   Some approved condos are eligible, but co-op properties are not.

•   Zero down payment is a nice option, but if the housing market falters, borrowers may be paying more on their home than it’s worth.

What Is the VA Loan Limit?

As of 2020, if you have full entitlement, you don’t have a VA loan limit.

If you have a remaining entitlement (e.g., you have a VA loan you’re still paying back), you can use your remaining entitlement — on its own or with a down payment — to take out another VA loan.

In that case, the VA loan limit is based on the county conforming loan limit where you live. (In most of the country, the 2023 conforming loan limit for one-unit properties is $726,200.)

VA Loan vs Traditional Mortgage

After comparing the pros and cons of VA loans, some borrowers may find that a conventional loan with a low down payment is a better fit for their long-term financial goals. Even if they save money upfront, in the long term, VA loan borrowers often end up paying more.

Conventional loans can be used for vacation homes or investment properties. They don’t include the VA funding fee.

And some borrowers who put less than 20% down may be able to avoid PMI.

The Takeaway

VA loan requirements are more flexible than some others, and VA loan rates may be slightly lower. VA loans have benefits, but it might pay to get loan estimates for conventional loans, too, and compare. For one thing, nothing down means starting out with no equity.

Applying for a home mortgage loan with SoFi requires as little as 3% down for qualifying first-time homebuyers. The fixed rates are competitive. SoFi finances primary homes, second homes, and investment properties.

Check out SoFi Mortgages and get your rate with no obligation.


What are the disadvantages of a VA loan?

The main downside of a VA loan is its funding fee. VA loans also can’t be used to purchase investment or vacation properties, or co-ops (although some condos are eligible).

What is the difference between a VA loan and a regular loan?

The main difference between a VA loan and a conventional loan is that VA loans do not require a down payment or mortgage insurance. And, of course, VA loans are only available to qualified service members, veterans, and certain spouses.

Do you pay a VA loan back?

Yes. A VA loan is a loan, not a gift, and It must be repaid. A homeowner who doesn’t make payments could lose their home and any equity they had built up in it.

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.

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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