Understanding FHA Home Loans

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Because of lower down payment requirements and less stringent lending standards, FHA loans are popular with mortgage borrowers. Simply stated, an FHA loan is a mortgage insured by the Federal Housing Administration, a government agency within the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Borrowers with FHA loans pay for mortgage insurance, which protects the lender from a loss if the borrower defaults on the loan. Why people get FHA loans? Because of that insurance, lenders can — and do — offer FHA loans at attractive interest rates and with less stringent and more flexible qualification requirements. Minimum credit scores for FHA loans depend on the type of loan the borrower needs. To get a mortgage with a down payment as low as 3.5 percent, the borrower needs a credit score of 580 or higher.

Those with credit scores between 500 and 579 must make down payments of at least 10 percent. People with credit scores under 500 generally are ineligible for FHA loans. The FHA will make allowances under certain circumstances for applicants who have what it calls “nontraditional credit history or insufficient credit” if they meet requirements. Ask your FHA lender or an FHA loan specialist if you qualify. For most borrowers, the FHA requires a down payment of just 3.5 percent of the purchase price of the home. That’s a “huge attraction,” says Dennis Geist, senior director of compliance and fair lending at Treliant Risk Advisors and formerly a vice president of government programs for another lender. In late 2014, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac reduced minimum down payments to 3 percent from 10 percent, but such loans have limited availability. FHA borrowers can use their own savings to make the down payment. But other allowed sources of cash include a gift from a family member, or a grant from a state or local government down payment assistance program.

Because the FHA is not a lender, but rather an insurance fund, borrowers need to get their loan through an FHA-approved lender (as opposed to directly from the FHA). Not all FHA-approved lenders offer the same interest rate and costs — even on the same FHA loan. Costs, services and underwriting standards will vary among lenders or mortgage brokers, so it’s important for borrowers to shop around.

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