Learn how you can qualify for an FHA loan with a low down payment and flexible approval requirements.
For most Americans, the purchase of a home is possible with a mortgage. However, saving the traditional 20% down payment is an unattainable goal for some would-be buyers.
Enter the Federal Housing Administration, or FHA, loan program, which has helped Americans buy homes since the Great Depression and remains a popular choice because of its affordability. FHA loans allow for smaller down payments while resolving some of the underwriting challenges borrowers face. The FHA insures these mortgages, which are issued by FHA-approved lenders. With a government guarantee, a lender can offer more flexibility with underwriting requirements, including credit guidelines and down payments.
This guide explains the FHA loan process and offers recommendations for lenders that can meet your home-buying needs.
What Are the Best FHA Loans of 2019?
No single FHA lender is perfect for every borrower. U.S. News recommends these lenders for their overall performance in product offerings, eligibility requirements and customer satisfaction. These FHA lenders sell directly to the consumer and lend nationwide, and recommendations are meant to aid your research by showing companies that are most likely to meet your needs.
Best Lender for Customer Satisfaction
Fairway Independent Mortgage was established more than 20 years ago and has funded more than $50 billion in loans. The lender has excellent customer satisfaction ratings and offers most mortgage products, including USDA loans.
- Mortgage types offered: Conventional, jumbo, ARM, VA FHA, USDA refinance
- Minimum FICO credit score: 580 (FHA), other loans vary
- Maximum debt-to-income ratio: 43%
- J.D. Power satisfaction rating: Five out of five
Best Lender for FHA Streamline Refinance
Quicken Loans is a nationwide mortgage lender with several mortgage options. Known for customer service, the lender has an A+ Better Business Bureau rating and received a rating of five (among the best) in the 2018 U.S. Primary Mortgage Origination Satisfaction Study.
- Mortgage types offered: Conventional, jumbo, ARM, VA FHA, refinance
- Minimum FICO credit score: 580 (FHA), other loans vary
- Maximum debt-to-income ratio: Varies
- J.D. Power satisfaction rating: Five out of five
Best for No Minimum Loan Amount
A major financial institution serving homeowners nationwide, Bank of America has good customer satisfaction ratings. The bank has an A+ Better Business Bureau rating and a J.D. Power rating of four, which is better than most.
- Mortgage types offered: Conventional, VA FHA, refinance, home equity
- Minimum FICO score: 620
- Maximum loan-to-value ratio: 100%
- Maximum debt-to-income ratio: 55%
- Loan amounts: Up to $5,000,000
- Total closing costs: Varies
- J.D. Power overall satisfaction rating: Four out of five
Best Lender for Up to $3 Million Loans
Guild Mortgage serves homebuyers nationwide with multiple mortgage options. Mortgage shoppers can choose from conventional or agency loans with this lender, which has an A+ BBB rating and a four out of five J.D. Power satisfaction rating.
- Mortgage types offered: Conventional, jumbo, ARM, VA, FHA, USDA, refinance
- Minimum FICO credit score: 620
- Maximum debt-to-income ratio: 45%
- J.D. Power satisfaction rating: Four out of five
Best for Fair Credit
LoanDepot was established in 2010 and since then has financed more than $70 billion in mortgages. It offers FHA, conventional and other mortgage options. Borrowers may qualify for a loan with a FICO credit score as low as 580.
- Mortgage types offered: Conventional, jumbo, ARM, VA, FHA, home equity
- Minimum FICO credit score: 580
- Maximum debt-to-income ratio: Not disclosed
- Maximum combined loan-to-value ratio: 90%
- J.D. Power satisfaction rating: Four out of five
Best Lender for a $1,000 On-Time Closing Guarantee
Chase Bank is a major financial institution with several mortgage options, including adjustable-rate mortgages. Borrowers can choose from 5/1, 7/1 and 10/1 ARMs.
- Mortgage types offered: Conventional, Jumbo, ARM, VA FHA
- Minimum FICO credit score: 620
- Maximum debt-to-income ratio: 50%
- J.D. Power satisfaction rating: Three out of five
How Do FHA Loans Work?
An FHA loan works like any other mortgage in that it’s secured by the home, the lender pays for the home, and you repay the lender, with interest, over time. Your name will appear on the deed, but the lender will keep a lien against it until the loan is repaid in full. If you default, the lender has the right to sell the property and recover the balance due.
FHA loans are made by lenders, just like traditional mortgages. The difference is that FHA loans have a government guarantee. This guarantee allows lenders to work with borrowers who might not qualify for a conventional mortgage.
Conventional mortgage lenders typically expect a 20% down payment, but the FHA minimum down payment requirement is 3.5%. FHA loans have lower credit score requirements and may allow a higher debt-to-income, or DTI, ratio.
“If a borrower has good credit but limited cash on hand, other government-backed loans are available for less money down,” says Stephen Moye, senior loan officer for Citywide Home Loans. “For a borrower with a bankruptcy, foreclosure or other credit issues, the FHA loan has a much lower barrier to entry.”
General FHA loan requirements include:
- The loan must be for a property used for your primary residence.
- The property must be appraised by an FHA-approved appraiser.
- The property must be safe, sound and secure, in compliance with minimum property standards as defined by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, or HUD.
- You must have a valid Social Security number and be a legal U.S. resident.
- You must have a minimum credit score of 580 with a down payment of at least 3.5%, or a minimum credit score of 500 with a down payment of at least 10%.
- You may not have delinquent federal debt or judgments, or debt associated with past FHA loans.
- You must have a steady employment history.
- You must make a down payment of at least 3.5% of the purchase price. If the down payment was gifted by a family member, documentation is required.
- You must have a DTI ratio that does not exceed program limits.
- Any judgments or collections on your credit report must be resolved or satisfactorily explained.
- Any required waiting period has passed, as follows:
|Event||Waiting period||Waiting period with extenuating circumstances (nonrecurring events beyond your control that result in a sudden, significant, prolonged reduction in income or a catastrophic increase in financial obligations)|
|Chapter 7 or 11 bankruptcy||Four years||Two years|
|Chapter 13 bankruptcy||Two years from discharge, or
four years from dismissal
|Multiple bankruptcies||Five years if more than one filing in last seven years. Most recent bankruptcy must have been caused by extenuating circumstances.||Three years from the most recent discharge or dismissal|
|Foreclosure||Seven years||Three years, with additional requirements after three years up to seven years:
90% maximum loan-to-value purchase, principal residence, limited cash-out refinance
|Deed-in-lieu of foreclosure, preforeclosure sale (short-sale), or charge-off of a mortgage account||Four years||Two years|
Debt-to-Income Ratio Limits
Two DTI ratio figures are calculated when considering an FHA mortgage. The front-end DTI ratio is your total monthly housing expense, which includes the mortgage principal and interest, mortgage insurance, homeowners insurance, property taxes, and applicable homeowners association fees, divided by your total monthly income. The back-end DTI ratio is your total monthly debt obligation, including housing, minimum credit card payments, auto loans, student loans and any other required monthly debt payment, divided by your total monthly income.
Standard FHA front- and back-end DTI limits are 31% and 43%, respectively. If your gross earnings are $3,500 monthly, your front-end DTI cannot exceed $1,085, and the sum of all your monthly debt obligations cannot exceed $1,505.
Applications for borrowers with low income and high DTI ratios are manually underwritten. Manual underwriting means that your lender assigns a person to review your loan application and documents versus running your information through an automated underwriting system. Manually underwritten FHA loans allow for front- and back-end DTI ratios of up to 40% and 50%, respectively. To qualify for these higher DTI limits, you will need to meet other requirements.
FHA Loan Limits for 2019
FHA loan limits are based on median local home values, county by county. Where the median local home value exceeds the baseline loan limit, the limit is raised. The limit for your FHA loan will depend on where you live.
Loan limits are higher in high-cost areas, including San Francisco, New York City and Washington, D.C., and lower in low-cost markets such as Montgomery, Alabama.
If you live in a low-cost county, the upper limit for FHA loans on single-family homes is $314,827; in high-cost areas, the upper limit is $726,525. Special exception loan limits apply in a select few very high-cost areas, such as Honolulu. In these areas, the upper limit for an FHA loan on single-family properties is $1,089,787.
Most of the U.S. is subject to standard loan limits. You can use HUD’s FHA loan limit lookup tool to find out the limit in your county.
The loan term is the number of years you will make payments. Typical mortgage loan terms are 10, 15, 20 or 30 years. FHA loan terms depend on the lender.
Interest Rate Types
The two main types of mortgage interest rates are fixed and adjustable.
Fixed-rate mortgage: Fixed-rate loans are the most popular type of mortgage. With a fixed-rate loan, the interest does not change over the life of the mortgage. The advantage of a fixed-rate loan is a predictable payment set for the life of the mortgage. The disadvantage is that even if market conditions cause rates to fall in the future, the rate will not change.
Adjustable-rate mortgage: With an adjustable-rate mortgage, also called an ARM, the interest rate fluctuates along with a benchmark rate. The primary advantage of an ARM is that it often starts at a rate that is lower than the lowest available rate on a fixed-rate mortgage. Not all FHA lenders offer ARMs.
With the most popular type of ARM, the hybrid ARM, the rate is fixed for a few years at the beginning of the loan and then adjusts periodically according to market conditions. For the early years of the loan, you might save money on interest. However, when the adjustable rate kicks in, the rate on an ARM could be higher than the rate available for a fixed-rate loan.
Whether your lender requires mortgage insurance hinges on your loan-to-value ratio or LTV. This number refers to how much you’re borrowing compared with the value of the property. Mortgage insurance is typically required on any mortgage with an LTV ratio of more than 80%. It protects the lender from losses if you default on the loan. If you make a 3.5% down payment, your LTV ratio is 96.5% and will be higher if additional costs are rolled into the loan.
Private mortgage insurance, or PMI, is one of the most important aspects of FHA loans to understand because it can make FHA loans more costly than conventional mortgages. FHA lending standards are less stringent than conventional mortgage lending standards, so FHA borrowers pay two different mortgage insurance premiums, or MIPs: upfront MIP and annual MIP.
Upfront MIP is 1.75% of the loan amount. This may be paid at closing or rolled into the loan.
Annual MIP depends on the loan size, loan term, LTV ratio, and annual outstanding loan balance (see the chart below).
For example, if the loan is less than $625,500, the term is more than 15 years and the down payment is less than 5%, the premium is equal to 0.85% of the outstanding balance. Annual MIP is calculated each year based on the outstanding loan balance, divided into 12 equal monthly payments, which are added to your regular payments.
|Loan term of more than 15 years|
|Base loan amount||LTV ratio||MIP factor||Duration|
|Less than or equal to $625,000||≤ 90%||0.0080||11 years|
|> 90% but ≤ 95%||0.0080||Life of loan|
|> 95%||0.0085||Life of loan|
|Greater than $625,000||≤ 90%||0.10||11 years|
|> 90% but ≤ 95%||0.10||Life of loan|
|> 95%||0.105||Life of loan|
|Loan term of less than or equal to 15 years|
|Base loan amount||LTV ratio||MIP factor||Duration|
|Less than or equal to $625,000||≤ 90%||0.0045||11 years|
|> 90%||0.0070||Life of loan|
|Greater than $625,000||≤ 78%||0.0045||11 years|
|> 78% but ≤ 90%||0.0070||11 years|
|> 90%||0.0095||Life of loan|
Borrowers who make a down payment of at least 10% will pay annual MIP for 11 years; borrowers who make smaller down payments are obligated to pay this premium for the entire mortgage term.
Here’s what these costs might look like for a typical borrower:
|Home purchase price||$175,000|
|Down payment (3.5%)||$6,125|
|Base loan amount||$168,875|
|Closing costs (2%)||$3,378|
|Total amount financed with upfront MIP and closing costs rolled into loan||$175,208|
|Annual MIP first year||$1,489, or $124 per month|
If this loan has an interest rate of 5%, the principal, interest and MIP monthly payment in year one is $1,065. This figure does not include property taxes, homeowners insurance or homeowners association fees, if required.
Hawaiian Home Lands loans are not subject to either form of MIP, and Indian lands are not subject to upfront MIP.
How Can You Apply for an FHA Loan?
The process of obtaining an FHA loan is largely the same as the process for obtaining any other mortgage. The main difference is that the search for a suitable lender is limited to those that offer FHA loans. As with any borrowing decision, compare the loan terms you may qualify for with multiple FHA-approved lenders before committing to a mortgage. You can then move on to the next steps to get prequalifed or preapproved for a loan.
Prequalification: You’ll supply basic information to the lender about your debt, income and assets. No verification or credit check are performed. This allows you to start your home search with a general idea of the loan size and terms you might qualify for.
Preapproval: You’ll provide more detailed information and documentation to the lender about your income, assets, debts and regular expenses. The lender will check your credit and tell you what loan amount and terms you qualify for. Preapproval does not guarantee loan approval, but it can alert you to problems in your credit report so that you are not surprised during the application process.
Application: If you are preapproved, the lender will confirm all the details you provided and may require up-to-date documentation. If you were not preapproved, you will begin the process. The lender will now require details about the property you want to buy.
Loan estimate: Within three business days of receiving your application, the lender will give you a loan estimate. This is a standard three-page document that explains the terms and details of your loan. If you apply with multiple lenders, you can compare loan estimates and choose the best one. You must notify the lender within 10 business days if you intend to proceed.
Processing: After you notify the lender of your desire to proceed, the lender will verify all your financial information and order a property appraisal and title report.
Additional documentation: If questions arise during loan processing, the lender may ask you to submit additional documentation.
Appraisal: An appraisal lets the lender and borrower know the value of the home. For an FHA loan, the lender will choose a professional HUD-approved appraiser to evaluate the property you want to buy and give an opinion of its value. By law, the lender must provide a copy of the appraisal to you no later than three days before closing.
Underwriting: Once the application and appraisal are complete, a loan underwriter will evaluate the entire package and determine whether the loan is acceptable. It must meet guidelines set by the FHA and the lender.
Closing disclosure: The lender will provide a closing disclosure at least three business days before your loan closes. This is a standard five-page form that describes the final details of the loan. You can compare it with your loan estimate to find out whether any terms or details have changed.
Insurance: Before your loan closes, you will need to purchase homeowners insurance that is effective no later than your closing date. You must bring proof of insurance to your closing.
Closing: To close your loan, you’ll meet with your lender’s closing agent. At this meeting, you’ll show identification and proof of insurance, sign all the necessary documents, and deliver a cashier’s check for the down payment and closing costs. Then you will receive the keys to the home.
For more information about the mortgage process, including how interest rates are determined, and details about additional costs and fees, see the U.S. News Mortgage Guide.
How Can You Choose an FHA Lender?
To find the best FHA mortgage lender to meet your needs, you should consider criteria including:
- Product offerings
- Eligibility requirements
- Interest rates
- Closing costs
- Customer satisfaction
Product offerings include loan terms and loan types. A large menu of FHA offerings may mean that the lender is more likely to have the right loan to meet your needs. Examples of popular product offerings include:
- 15-year fixed-rate loans
- 20-year fixed-rate loans
- 30-year fixed-rate loans
- 5/1 ARMs
- 7/1 ARMs
- 10/1 ARMs
While an FHA loan with 3.5% down is available if you have a FICO score as low as 580, lender guidelines vary. You should verify that you can qualify for each lender’s FHA loan offerings before applying to minimize credit inquiries and save time.
Although the FHA will guarantee the loan, not all lenders will make loans to borrowers who meet only the minimum requirements. Research each lender’s minimum credit score and maximum DTI ratio requirements.
Compare APRs from one lender to the next. Because this figure includes the interest rate, points, and other fees, the APR will be higher than the interest rate and is a more accurate measure of the true cost of the loan. Even a few tenths of a percent can equate to thousands of dollars saved over the life of a loan.
While fixed rates don’t tend to be widely different from one lender to the next, you may find a broader range of options for adjustable-rate mortgages. So if you’re shopping for an ARM, pay special attention to the APR.
Virtually all FHA lenders offer fixed-rate loans, but not all offer adjustable-rate loans.
You can shop for a lender that has lower closing costs than the competition. Some common closing costs you can expect include:
- Application fee
- Origination fee
- Appraisal fee
- Credit report fee
- Title search fee
- Title insurance fee
You might find detailed closing costs on a lender’s website, or you may need to talk to the lender’s representative or apply for a loan to get a more clear picture of the lender’s costs. Because an application does not obligate you to a loan, you may wish to apply with multiple lenders before making a choice. Some lenders are willing to negotiate or waive certain costs to gain your business.
Evaluate closing costs and the interest rate to determine the total cost of the loan over time. Low closing costs and a high-interest rate could cost more over time than higher closing costs and a lower interest rate. Remember, if you roll closing costs into your loan, you will pay interest on those costs.
To gauge customer satisfaction, check with market research company J.D. Power. In its 2018 U.S. Primary Mortgage Origination Satisfaction Study, J.D. Power surveyed customers to measure satisfaction and rated lenders on a scale of 2 to 5, with 5 indicating “among the best.”
Not every lender is included in the J.D. Power report. You should review these and other lenders with the Better Business Bureau.
How Can First-Time Homebuyers Prepare?
Check Your Credit
The first step in the home buying process is to find out where your credit stands. Get copies of your credit reports from all three major credit reporting agencies by visiting AnnualCreditReport.com. You are entitled to receive one free copy from each agency every 12 months; you don’t have to get all three at the same time.
Review your credit report for errors. Some errors can affect your credit score. Follow each agency’s process for requesting a correction.
Your free credit report will not include a free credit score. Many banks and credit card issuers offer free credit scores to customers and noncustomers alike. Checking your own history or score does not hurt your credit.
If your credit history and score need improvement, take six to 12 months to clean them up before you apply for an FHA loan. A better credit standing may get you a better interest rate and save you thousands of dollars over the life of the mortgage.
Preapproval tells you whether you can afford the home you want and lets sellers know that you are a legitimate buyer who stands a good chance of closing the deal. A preapproval does not commit you to a loan, but it can enlighten you to the true cost of a loan so that you can choose the best possible deal.
Avoid Credit Changes
After you are preapproved, don’t apply for any new loans or credit cards. New debt will change your DTI ratio and could render you unqualified for the loan you want. Many lenders do a final credit check just before closing and could cancel the agreement in light of new information they find in your report.
Don’t close accounts, either. Closing a credit card account can negatively affect your credit utilization ratio if you have outstanding debt on one or more accounts. A higher credit utilization ratio could lower your credit score and prevent you from qualifying for the loan you want.
Make all of your mortgage applications within a time frame of 14 to 45 days, depending on the credit-scoring model used. Because you likely won’t know which scoring model your lender will use, the safest bet is to shop within a two-week period.
That’s because credit inquiries can lower your credit score, but credit bureaus make exceptions for mortgage rate shoppers. Multiple inquiries from mortgage lenders within a certain time frame are treated as a single inquiry against your score.
Anticipate Closing Costs
In addition to the purchase price, “budget an extra 1.5% to 2% for closing costs and prepaids,” Moye advises. Prepaids are costs you must pay before their due dates, like property taxes, homeowners insurance and mortgage interest that accrues between your closing date and the end of the month. “Especially in high-cost markets, these can add significantly to the out-of-pocket costs,” he says.
Some sellers are willing to negotiate closing costs (for example, by offering a seller’s concession), and some lenders issue credits toward closing costs, typically in exchange for a slightly higher interest rate on the loan.
Anticipate Additional Costs of Homeownership
Your total housing budget will be greater than your mortgage payment. Although your monthly payment will probably include property taxes and insurance, it won’t include maintenance and utility costs. A new roof can easily come with a five-figure price tag. Needed repairs inevitably become more costly if ignored.
“One popular strategy is to set aside 1% of your purchase price every year for home repairs, but I recommend at least twice that,” says Ed Hanisko, a general contractor in San Diego. “Some years you won’t spend it all, but other years you’ll spend all of it and then some.”
Even fixed costs can rise. Your property taxes and homeowners insurance are all but guaranteed to go up over time, and with them, the monthly payment you make to your mortgage loan servicer.
Work With a Buyer’s Agent
Avoid working directly with the listing agent, especially if it is your first time buying a home. That person’s job is to make a deal that is in the seller’s best interest, and your concerns are secondary. Also, a listing agent may only show you his or her own listings, which may not be the best homes for you. A buyer’s agent, on the other hand, works in your best interest.
Keep a prudent reserve
Don’t cash out all of your savings to increase the size of your down payment and avoid PMI or to cover other costs. Having no savings for a financial emergency could prove far costlier than a mortgage insurance premium.
HUD sponsors counseling agencies across the country that can help you navigate the homebuying process. Housing counselors can help you sort through industry jargon, avoid predatory lenders and choose the financial commitment that is in your best long-term interests.
“Numerous studies have demonstrated that pre-purchase homebuyer education can have a positive impact on a wide range of financial behavior,” says Bruce McClary, vice president of public relations and communications with the National Foundation for Credit Counseling and U.S. News contributor. “A 2016 randomized study sponsored by the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia revealed that pre-purchase homebuyer counselinghad overall positive effects on financial health. Recent data from a number of other sources has also shown that counseled homebuyers are about one-third less likely to default on their mortgage once they become homeowners.”
Financial help is available, too. Programs in many states offer financial assistance to first-time or low-income buyers, including grants that can be applied to closing costs or the down payment. Some of these programs require housing counseling. Find your state on HUD’s website to discover options that may be available to you.