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Your Stress-Free Guide to Shopping for Home Loans

With this super-simple breakdown of loan types, you won’t get overwhelmed — you’ll find the right mortgage.

it comes to buying a house, most people know what they prefer: a
bungalow or a condo, a hot neighborhood or a sleepy street.

too, come in many styles — and recognizing which type you should choose
is just slightly more involved than, say, knowing that you prefer
hardwood floors over wall-to-wall carpeting.

First things first:
To pick the best loan for your situation, you need to know what your
situation is, exactly. Will you be staying in this home for years?
Decades? Are you feeling financially comfortable? Are you anxious about
changing loan rates? Consider these questions and your answers before you start talking to lenders. (And before you choose a lender, read this.)

You’ll want to have an understanding of the different loans that are
out there. There are lots of options, and it can get a little
complicated — but you got this. Here we go.

Mortgages Are Fixed-Rate or Adjustable, and One Type Is Better for You

Let’s start with the most common type of mortgage, that workhorse of home loans — the fixed-rate mortgage.

A fixed-rate mortgage:

  • Lets
    you lock in an interest rate for 15 or
    30 years. (You can get 20-year loans, too.) That means your monthly
    payment will stay the same over the life of the loan. (That said, your
    property taxes and insurance premiums will likely change over time.)

It’s ideal when: You want long-term stability and plan to stay put.

Here’s what else you need to know about fixed-rate mortgages:

  • 30-year fixed-rate mortgage offers a lower monthly payment for the loan amount (for this reason, it’s more popular than the other option, the 15-year).
  • 15-year fixed-rate mortgage typically offers a lower interest rate but a higher monthly payment because you’re paying off the loan amount faster.

Now let’s get into adjustable-rate, the other type of mortgage you’ll be looking at. 

An adjustable-rate mortgage (ARM): 

  • Offers
    a lower interest rate than a fixed-rate mortgage for an initial period
    of time — say, five or seven years — but the rate can fluctuate after
    the introductory period is over, depending on changes in interest rate
    conditions. And that can make it difficult to budget.
  • Has caps that protect how high the rate can go.

It’s ideal when: You plan to live in a home for a short time or you expect your income to go up to offset potentially higher future rates.

Here’s what else you need to know about adjustable-rate mortgages:

  • Different
    lenders may offer the same initial interest rate but different rate
    caps. It’s important to compare rate caps when shopping around for an
  • Adjustable-rate mortgages have a reputation for being complicated. As the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau advises, make sure to read the fine print.

general rule of thumb: When comparing adjustable-rate loans, ask the
prospective lender to calculate the highest payment you may ever have to
make. You don’t want any surprises.

Conventional Loan or Government Loan? Your Life Answers the Question

fixed-rate or adjustable-rate mortgage you qualify for introduces a
whole host of other categories, and they fall under two umbrellas:
conventional loans and government loans. 

Conventional loans: 

  • Offer some of the most competitive interest rates, which means you’ll likely pay less in interest over the period of the loan.
  • Typically you can get one more quickly than a government loan because there’s less paperwork.

Who qualifies? Typically, you need at least a credit score of 620 or above and a 5% down payment to qualify for a conventional loan.

Here’s what else you need to know about conventional loans:

  • If you put less than 20% down for a conventional loan, you’ll be required to pay private mortgage insurance (PMI),
    an extra monthly fee designed to mitigate the risk to the lender that a
    borrower could default on a loan. (PMI ranges from about 0.3% to 1.15%
    of your home loan.) The upshot: The lender has to cancel PMI when you
    reach 22% equity in your home, and you can request to have it canceled
    once you hit 20% equity.
  • Most conventional loans also have a
    maximum 43% debt-to-income (DTI) ratio, which compares how much money you owe (on student loans, credit cards,
    car loans, and other debts) to your income — expressed as a percentage.

Mae and Freddie Mac set limits on how much money you can borrow for a
conventional loan. A home loan that conforms to these limits is called a
conforming loan: 

  • In most cities, the maximum amount for a conforming loan is $453,100. 
  • Limits are revisited annually and are subject to change based on each area’s average home price.

A home loan that exceeds these limits is called a jumbo loan:

  • Jumbo
    loans typically require a higher down payment (up to 30% for some
    lenders) and a credit score of at least 720. Some borrowers can qualify
    while putting down 20%, but their credit score has to be higher.) 
  • They also tend to have stricter debt-to-income requirements, generally allowing for a maximum DTI ratio of 38%.

are practical considerations to take into account before getting a
jumbo loan too, mainly: Are you comfortable carrying that much debt? The
answer depends on your current financial situation and long-term
financial goals. 

Government loans:

  • Include
    loans secured by the Federal Housing Administration (FHA), U.S.
    Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), and the U.S. Department of
    Agriculture (USDA) Rural Development.
  • Are meant to stimulate the
    housing market and enable folks who may be unable to qualify for
    conventional loans to still become homeowners.

Who qualifies? That depends on which government loan you’re looking at.

If you’ve had trouble qualifying for a mortgage because of income limitations or credit: 

FHA loans are used by a broad swath of people, including those with lower credit scores and income. 

  • You
    can get an FHA loan with a downpayment of 3.5% if you have a minimum
    credit score of 580. You can still qualify with a credit score below 580
    — even with no credit score — but the down payment and other requirements will be much higher.
  • FHA loans
    conform to loan limits set by county; these limits typically range from
    $294,515 to $679,650 in high-cost areas. You can view the FHA mortgage
    caps for your county at
  • If you get an FHA loan, you
    must pay an upfront mortgage insurance premium (MIP) and an annual
    premium of 0.85%. Currently, the MIP is 1.75% of the loan amount — so,
    $1,750 for a $100,000 loan. This premium can be paid upfront at the
    mortgage closing, or it can be rolled into the monthly mortgage

Also, a heads-up — the date an FHA loan was issued affects the MIP. 

  • If you received an FHA loan on or before June 3, 2013:
    You’re eligible for canceling MIP after five years, but you must have
    22% equity in your home and have made all payments on time.
  •  If you received an FHA loan after June 3, 2013: To stop paying MIP, you’d have to refinance into a conventional loan and have a current loan-to-value of at least 80%.

If you’re in the military, a veteran, or a veteran’s spouse:

  • VA loans offer active or retired military (or a veteran’s surviving spouse) a mortgage with a 0% down payment. 
  • VA
    loans also can have more lenient credit requirements — typically around
    a minimum 620 credit score — and lower DTI requirements.
  • The VA
    only allows lenders to charge 1% maximum to cover the costs of
    originating and underwriting the loan, so you save money at closing.
    There is, however, an additional upfront, one-time funding fee of

VA loans also don’t charge borrowers mortgage
insurance — potentially helping you save a significant chunk of cash on
your monthly payment.

Given the benefits, a VA loan is often the best mortgage option for people who qualify.

If your income is limited and you live in a small or rural town:

USDA loans
are mortgages for limited-income home buyers in towns with populations
of 10,000 or less, or that are “rural in character,” meaning that some
areas that now have bigger populations are grandfathered in. You can see
whether your town is eligible on the USDA’s website. 

  • USDA loans typically have lower interest rates than non-USDA loans.
  • Down payments can be as low as 0%. 
  • USDA mortgages also have more lenient credit score requirements than conventional loans. 
  • Income limits to qualify depend on location and household size. 
  • USDA loans charge an upfront mortgage insurance fee of 1% of the loan amount and annual mortgage insurance premium of 0.35%. 
  • And
    USDA loan borrowers must buy a “modest home” — a property with a market
    value deemed reasonable for the area, though the USDA does not set
    specific price limitations.

Only a select number of lenders offer USDA loans. 

Now You know the Basics

Ultimately, you’ll be working with your loan officer or broker to
narrow down these choices, and to find a loan that works for you and
your finances. (Just another reason why it’s important to choose a
lender you’re comfortable with.)

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