What Is a Conventional Loan?

Current mortgage rates are low, making the path to homeownership a reality for a wide group of potential homebuyers. Not only are rates low, but there are many different types of mortgages to choose from that come with low rates. Conventional loans are the most common, but what is a conventional loan, and more importantly, is it the right home financing solution for you?

Conventional loans are a type of mortgage that is not guaranteed or insured by any government agency and is issued by a private mortgage lender or bank. This type of loan accounts for over 71% of all U.S. mortgages and often has a fixed interest rate and term. Conventional loans require most buyers to have a credit score of 620 or higher and a substantial down payment to avoid paying for extra insurance. There are, of course, exceptions to those rules, however.

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If you’re on the market for a home loan and have a good credit history, minimal debt, sufficient income and can afford a larger down payment, a conventional mortgage might be a good option for you. Still, it’s important to know the ins and outs of this type of loan before making the choice.

In this article

    What is a conventional loan?

    Lenders rely on your creditworthiness and other criteria to qualify you for a conventional loan. Conventional loans can require a high credit score, a large down payment — usually 10% to 20% of the total home value — and may require costly private mortgage insurance if you can’t afford to put down the full 20% on a home. PMI gives lenders peace of mind by protecting their investment should you default on the loan. PMI can be costly, though, and is often required until your balance has been paid down to 80% of the home value. If you have to pay PMI, you’ll be required to pay for a mortgage premium when you close and a monthly premium that will be tacked onto your regular payment as well. If you can afford to put down at least 20%, though, most lenders often won’t require the monthly PMI.

    Credit score requirements for conventional loans vary by lender, but you’ll need a minimum score of 620 to satisfy a lot of conventional mortgage lenders and garner lower interest rates on loans. That doesn’t mean that you won’t qualify for a conventional home loan with a lower score, but you’ll probably pay more in interest if your credit score is lower.

    How conventional mortgages work

    Conventional mortgages originate from a lender and come in a variety of terms depending on the loan amount, the amount of the down payment, the credit score and a ton of other factors, including the debt-to-income ratio.

    Most conventional loans have 15-year and 30-year fixed-rate terms with an annual percentage rate that is locked in for the duration of the term. Lenders also offer adjustable-rate mortgages with terms that vary by lender, but some of the most common ARMs include 5/1, 7/1 and 10/1 terms. The rates for ARMs remain fixed for the first several years of the term and adjust according to the market each year after.

    Down payment requirements are often the same for both fixed-rate and ARM mortgages. Most lenders require at least 10% to 20% down no matter what the terms of the loan are, but there are exceptions, and some lenders will accept a 5% down payment for well-qualified buyers. Remember, though, that any down payment of less than 20% will likely require you to pay a PMI. If you can afford to wait, it might be better to save for a larger down payment and avoid the PMI entirely.

    Conforming vs non-conforming home loans

    You should know that not all conventional loans are the same. There are two main types of conventional loans: conforming and non-conforming loans. The type that’s right for you will depend on your situation and your budget.

    Conforming loans are the most common type of conventional loans and the standards for this type of loan are set by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. There are caps on how much you can borrow with a conforming loan. The maximum loan for most areas across the country was raised to $510,400 recently, though there are exceptions for areas where the average home value exceeds that amount. In these areas, the maximum loan amount can be as high as $765,600.

    Non-conforming loans are commonly referred to as “jumbo” loans and are meant for home purchases that exceed conforming loan limits. Non-conforming mortgages cannot be purchased by Fanny Mae or Freddie Mac and often carry more of a risk to the lender. Due to that higher risk, jumbo loans often come with a higher interest rate than conforming loans. Lenders may also require a higher credit score to qualify, among other more stringent criteria.

    FHA vs. conventional loans

    FHA — or Federal Housing Administration loans — are government-backed loans issued by traditional lenders that are easier to obtain due to looser requirements. Compared with conventional private loans, the credit score requirements are lower for FHA loans, making it easier for first-time homebuyers or people with bad credit to secure a loan.

    Borrowers need a credit score of at least 580 to secure an FHA loan with a 3.5% down payment. If your credit score is lower than 580, you may be still eligible for an FHA loan, though you’ll have to pay at least 10% for your down payment. Whether or not you actually qualify will depend on the lender you’re working with, though.

    Though FHA loans have fewer requirements and are usually easier to secure, extra mortgage insurance is necessary, and there are more strict property standards for homeowners, too. For conventional loans, you can likely waive the need for mortgage insurance if you pay at least 20% of the sales price with your down payment. On other hand, you’ll be paying for mortgage insurance with an FHA loan for at least 11 years, even if you have a high credit score.

    Overall, conventional loans still offer more flexibility, but FHA loans are a great option if you have poor or no credit, or if you have a higher debt-to-income ratio to contend with.

    Credit score requirements vs. other types of loans

    Credit score requirements for conventional loans vary by lender, but most want a minimum score of 620 to approve you for a loan. The higher your score, the higher your approval odds, and, in turn, the lower your interest rates. For example, people with excellent credit scores of 740 or higher may be able to make a minimum of a 3% down payment, while people with lower credit scores may be required to put down at least 10% or more to be approved for their loan.

    FHA loans only require a 580 credit score, but borrowers with even lower scores are still eligible for a loan in some cases. FHA loans traditionally offer lower interest rates for all borrowers, too, since they’re considered less risky to the lender since the FHA backs them. Still, borrowers can potentially get lower interest rates on conventional loans if they have higher credit scores.

    VA loans, on the other hand, are a type of government-backed loan that is only offered to veterans or active duty military members who qualify. These types of loans have extremely loose requirements when it comes to credit scores and down payment requirements, but they’re limited in scope as to who can qualify. If you can qualify for a VA loan, you can get it with no down payment requirement and a low interest rate as well. The credit score requirements are also lower with this type of loan — and unlike FHA loans, you won’t be required to pay for extra mortgage insurance premiums, even if you don’t put any money down on the home.

    Non-conforming loans are another option. Non-conforming loans are generally used for homes that surpass the maximum lending amounts for conventional or FHA loans. These jumbo loans come with strict qualification criteria because you’re borrowing more from the lender and the lender is on the hook if you default. Given the risks, lenders are more careful about who these loans are extended to. You’ll need at least a 700 credit score to qualify, as well as a lower debt-to-income ratio. If you do qualify for a jumbo loan, you can usually get a low interest rate, though you’ll have to make a higher down payment than a conventional or government loan.

    When a conventional home loan makes sense

    Conventional mortgages are not backed by the federal government like FHA loans, VA loans and USDA loans are because the stricter criteria reduces the risk to lenders. It is possible to secure a conventional loan with a 5% down payment, but most lenders will want 10% to 20% down to fund a loan. It’s important to keep in mind that even if a lender will accept less than 20% down, any down payment of less than that will likely require the addition of PMI.

    If you are low income, a veteran or plan to live in a rural area, government-backed loans might be a good option over a conventional loan. These loans often require a minimum credit score of 580 but you can often get away with making a smaller minimum down payment or potentially no down payment at all. Some borrowers might even qualify for down payment assistance on these loans.

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    Holly Johnson

    Contributing Writer

    Holly Johnson is a frugality expert and award-winning writer who is obsessed with personal finance and getting the most out of life. A lifelong resident of Indiana, she enjoys gardening, reading, and traveling the world with her husband and two children. In addition to The Simple Dollar, Holly writes for well-known publications such as U.S. News & World Report Travel, PolicyGenius, Travel Pulse, and Frugal Travel Guy. Holly also owns Club Thrifty.

    Reviewed by

    • Angelica Leicht
      Angelica Leicht
      Mortgage Editor

      Angelica Leicht is an editor at The Simple Dollar who specializes in mortgages, mortgage refinancing, home equity loans, and HELOCs. She is a former contributing editor to Interest.com and PersonalLoans.org.