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Types of mortgage loans

Learn how to choose the right mortgage

Profile picture of Michele Lerner
by Michele Lerner Mortgage & Real Estate Contributing Editor
Houses in a neighborhood

A mortgage is a legal agreement between you and a lender in which immediate funds are provided for a property in exchange for repayment of the loan with interest over time. When you get a mortgage loan, your property is used as collateral, meaning the lender has the right to foreclose your house to recoup their funds if you fail to repay the loan within specific agreed-upon terms.

What are the different types of mortgage loans?

There are many types of mortgages for homebuyers. They can all be categorized first as conventional, government or nonconforming loans, and these loans can have fixed or adjustable interest rates. Refinance and renovation loans are considered second mortgages because they are loans taken out against a property that already has a mortgage.

  • Government loans: When a government agency such as the Federal Housing Administration (FHA), Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) or the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) insures a home loan that is issued by a private lender, that mortgage is considered a government or government-backed loan. These loans often have more lenient eligibility requirements than conventional loans.
  • Conventional loans: Conventional loans are mortgages issued by private lenders that are not guaranteed by the federal government. Conventional mortgage loans are further classified as either conforming or nonconforming, depending on whether they conform to federal mortgage loan limits set by the Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA).
  • Nonconforming loans: Nonconforming loans are mortgage loans that are above the federal conforming loan limits. These loans are also sometimes called portfolio loans since they have to stay on lenders' books and can't be sold to the government. Nonconforming loans are also called jumbo loans because they are available for higher amounts than conforming loans.
  • Home renovation loans: Renovation loans are commonly taken out by both homeowners and homebuyers. If a homebuyer wants to purchase a house that needs some work, they can borrow money for the necessary renovations at the same time they are taking out money to buy their house. Combining the loan needed to purchase a home with the loan needed to renovate the home often gets you a better deal overall.
  • Home refinance loans: Home refinance loans are a way for homeowners to pay off their current mortgage with a new loan. Often, home refinance loans are a way to lower monthly payments and reduce interest rates.
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Compare mortgage types: Which mortgage is right for me?

The best type of mortgage for you is primarily determined by whether you meet the eligibility requirement of a conventional or government loan, the type of interest rate you prefer and the total amount you need to borrow.

Conventional loan vs. FHA and other government-backed loans

First, you need to determine if you qualify for a conventional loan or government-backed mortgage. A conventional loan is privately funded and offered by a bank or credit union. It is not federally guaranteed or insured. If a loan is guaranteed by a federal agency, then it is considered a government-backed loan. Government-backed mortgages are typically easier to qualify for than conventional mortgage loans. Both conventional and government-backed loans can be available with fixed or adjustable interest rate options, depending on lender programs.

  • Government-backed mortgages have more relaxed lending guidelines and payment terms. They are ideal for low- and moderate-income borrowers with average financial profiles and credit scores. Some programs exist for specific groups or areas, like USDA loans for rural development or VA loans for veterans. Government-backed loans usually come with fixed interest rates, but not always.
  • Conventional mortgage loans tend to have higher interest rates than government-backed loans, and their terms vary depending on the size and length of the loan, the borrower's financial profile and the financial market's current condition. Conventional loans are usually sought after by moderate- to high-income earners and can be used to finance investment properties and second homes.
ARMs fluctuate based
on market conditions.

Fixed-rate vs. adjustable-rate mortgages

Depending on what type of mortgage you get, you might have a choice between a fixed or adjustable interest rate. Your interest rate will vary based on the amount you pay your lender in addition to the amount of the loan, or principal. Figuring out if you want a fixed or adjustable rate often comes down to what interest rates are available to you at the time of purchase. Depending on your finances, a lower initial rate on an ARM might not be worth it if it increases in a few years and you're not financially prepared to cover it. Keep in mind that you can usually lower a fixed rate by shortening the length of time on the mortgage terms by five or more years.

  • Fixed-rate mortgages are loans that have the same interest for the life of the loan. If you get a fixed-rate mortgage, you'll always pay the same rate until the loan is paid off in full — the interest rate is known at the time of issue, and the installment payments remain constant. Most borrowers opt for fixed-rate mortgages because they are more predictable and stable. Fixed-interest rates are best for borrowers who buy a home while interest rates are low.
  • Adjustable-rate mortgages (ARM) are home loans with interest rates that change based on market conditions. An ARM will have one rate for a period of time and then reset based on the condition of the housing market. Most of the time, the adjustable-interest rate will fluctuate monthly, quarterly, annually or once every three years. For example, a 5/1 ARM will have a fixed rate for the first five years of the loan and then adjust once per year after that; a 7/1 ARM is fixed the first seven years and followed by yearly adjustments. Adjustable interest rate mortgages are generally considered to be more risky for the borrower because of their volatility.

Conforming vs. nonconforming loans

Whether you need a conforming or nonconforming loan will likely be determined by how large of a loan you need. A conforming loan is a mortgage for any amount within the federal loan limit. This doesn't mean it's impossible to get a loan above the conforming limit, but the loan will be nonconforming and therefore can't be securitized by Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac.

  • Conforming loans are mortgages for amounts that are within the conforming limit set by the Federal Housing Finance Agency. As of 2020, the FHFA sets conforming loan limits at $510,400 in most parts of the country and $765,600 in some high-demand housing markets. All conforming loans fall within these maximum loan limits. With a conforming loan, you'll typically be able to make a lower down payment or pay a lower interest rate than with a nonconforming loan that is not backed by a government-sponsored enterprise (GSE). Most first-time homebuyers get conforming loans.
  • Nonconforming loans are mortgages that exceed federal conforming limits and cannot be secured by a GSE such as Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac. If you need to mortgage a house in an area with much higher than average median housing prices, your only option might be to take out a loan for an amount greater than federal conforming limits. Nonconforming loans are best for high-income homebuyers who want to borrow above the limits of conforming loans and are willing to pay higher interest rates or make a larger down payment.

Government loans

Government-backed home loans make homeownership possible for borrowers with lower credit scores and less savings built up for a down payment if they meet other minimum eligibility requirements. The most common types of government mortgages are backed by the Federal Housing Administration (FHA), U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) or the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). All government-backed loans are within maximum conforming loan limits.

  • FHA loans are loans intended for low- and moderate-income homebuyers. There are different types of FHA loans, but they are all insured by the Federal Housing Administration and issued by lenders approved by the FHA. FHA loans are appealing to first-time homebuyers because they require lower down payments and credit scores than conventional loans.
  • VA loans are mortgage loans available to people who have served or are serving in the military and surviving spouses who have not remarried. These loans are guaranteed by the Department of Veterans Affairs but granted by private lenders like savings and loan associations, banks and mortgage companies. To receive this loan, you have to meet certain eligibility requirements set by the VA, primarily on the type of service and length of time you have served.
  • USDA home loans are available for low- to moderate-income buyers to buy a single-family home in qualifying rural and suburban areas. USDA loans have low fixed rates and flexible credit requirements. They typically don’t require a down payment.

Conventional loan

Conventional mortgages are usually best for prospective homebuyers with a strong credit history, stable income and the ability to make a down payment of at least 5%. Conventional mortgage loans can be used to finance a primary residence, secondary home or investment property.

  • Conventional 97 loans are loans offered by Fannie Mae to low- and moderate-income homebuyers for an amount up to 97% of the property value. To qualify for a conventional 97 mortgage, the property must be a single-unit home that will be used primarily as a residence. Conventional 97 loans have fixed rates and carry a term of up to 30 years. They come in two programs: the HomeReady program and the Fannie Mae Standard, which is offered to first-time buyers.
  • HomeReady is one of two loan programs offered by Fannie Mae to low-income buyers who need to buy or refinance a home. It offers a lower down payment and borrower contribution, more affordable mortgage premiums and a flexible approval process. It allows family members or friends to co-sign on your loan and considers income from other household members for loan approval. To qualify, you must meet a preset income limit requirement, which is typically income equal to or less than the area median income, have a minimum credit score of 620 and participate in homeownership education.
  • Home Possible and Home Possible Advantage mortgages are offered by Freddie Mac to low- and moderate-income borrowers. Eligible properties for Home Possible mortgages are one- to four-unit homes, condos, planned unit development homes (PUD) and manufactured homes with certain restrictions. These mortgages require a down payment as low as 3%, have fixed rates and carry a term of up to 30 years. Home Possible and Home Possible Advantage loans differ in the eligible properties they finance, rate pricing adjustments and loan-to-value ratio (LTV) for each property and amount of loan.

Nonconforming loans

Nonconforming loans are conventional loans that are available for higher amounts than conforming loans. Since you won't be bound by Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac, terms and conditions can vary drastically by lender, and you'll typically pay higher rates than with conforming loans because lenders consider nonconforming loans riskier. Nonconforming loans require a down payment of at least 20% and typically come with a higher mortgage interest rate than conforming loans, but you'll be able to get a larger amount. The most common types of nonconforming mortgages are jumbo loans.

  • Jumbo loans are home loans with larger conforming limits than those set by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Jumbo loans are issued by private lenders, such as banks and other financial institutions. The private lenders set their own rules on requirements and approval and typically hold the loans as an investment.
  • Super jumbo loans are intended for buyers who want to acquire bigger and more expensive homes. The loan limits are higher than those of jumbo loans and carry fixed or adjustable rates. The down payment normally ranges between 10% and 20%. Interest rates may be higher or lower than those of conforming mortgages, depending on market conditions. To qualify, borrowers must have large incomes and assets, excellent credit history, high credit scores and a low debt-to-income ratio.

Renovation loans

If you already own your home and would like to make expensive improvements or repairs, you can also get a renovation loan from your current lender or a new lender. In this case, you'll pay on the renovation loan separate from the mortgage loan you took out to purchase your house.

  • FHA 203(k) renovation loans are FHA-insured mortgages issued by private lenders to borrowers to finance renovation. They may also finance temporary house rentals while construction is ongoing. They come with a 3.5% down payment, either a fixed or variable rate and repayment terms of up to 30 years. Interest rates vary depending on the borrower's credit history and score. A monthly upfront mortgage insurance premium is required, and an origination fee may be charged. Homeowners can receive these loans, but real estate investors and house-flippers are not eligible. Luxurious renovations, such as pools, are not covered by FHA 203(k).
  • A Streamlined-K mortgage loan is a type of FHA 203(k) loan that only covers minor work that lets household members live in the home while the renovation is ongoing. Major structural work, such as adding new rooms, wings or floors, is not covered. The loan limit is $35,000.
  • HomeStyle renovation mortgages are loans backed by Fannie Mae to be used primarily to purchase and renovate a home as a primary residence of the borrower. It is also open to small buy-and-sell investors looking to buy a single-unit investment property. Loan amounts typically range from 65% to 95% of a property's purchase price, which means these loans require a down payment of 5% to 35%. Repayment terms vary from 15 to 30 years. Renovations must start within 30 days of approval and be completed within six months. DIY projects are allowed as long as the project cost is less than 10% of the after-repair value.
  • Freddie Mac renovation mortgages can be used to purchase and renovate a new home, a second home or an existing one- to four-unit site-built home. They’re available in 15-, 20- and 30-year fixed-rate mortgages. Manufactured homes are not eligible.

Home refinance loans

Getting a home refinance loan can help you pay off your mortgage faster. Home refinance loans are available to homeowners who want to lower their monthly payments, reduce their interest rate or switch mortgage programs from an adjustable-rate to a fixed-rate loan. Home refinance loans typically reset your loan's value.

Refinancing your mortgage
can help lower
your monthly payment.
  • Home equity loans let homeowners borrow against the equity in their home. Home equity is the difference between the current market value of a home and the remaining amount of mortgage on that home. Home equity loans can be used to finance major home repairs or family expenses, including college education or medical bills. They are provided in a lump-sum payment equivalent to 80% to 90% of the home equity on fixed rates.
  • Home equity conversion mortgages (HECM) are part of an FHA reverse mortgage program that lets seniors get cash from their home equity. The loan amount is based on the appraised value of the home and subject to FHA limits. Interest accrues on the loan balance, but payment is not required until the property is sold or the borrower dies, in which case the heirs will pay off the loan. To qualify, you must be at least 62 years old, live in an FHA-approved property, meet financial eligibility requirements set by HUD, not be delinquent on any federal debt and attend a session with an HUD-approved HECM counselor.
  • HELOC, or home equity line of credit, is a type of second mortgage on your home equity that can be withdrawn on a staggered basis during a set draw period, typically up to 10 years. Interest is variable and depends on the benchmark market rate the lender uses. You can opt to pay only the interest or the interest plus principal during the draw period. When the draw period expires, you can start repaying your loan for up to 20 years.
  • Cash-out refinancing is a mechanism available to borrowers who want to replace their existing mortgage for a new and larger one by using their home equity. Cash-out refinance lets homeowners finance major repairs or refurbishments. Many borrowers also use this method to negotiate for better terms on their mortgage, such as lower interest rates, lower monthly payments and shortened or extended payment periods.
  • Reverse mortgages are FHA-insured loans intended for seniors who are at least 62 years old to help cover basic living expenses. They can be drawn from the borrower's home equity. After receiving the proceeds of the reverse mortgage, the borrower must pay the balance of the existing mortgage. Borrowers are not required to pay back the reverse mortgage as long as they live in the home if they remain current on property taxes, home insurance and homeowners association dues. Upon the death of the borrower, the heirs can either pay the reverse mortgage or sell the home to cover the cost of paying back the reverse mortgage. Whatever is left of the sale proceeds goes to the heirs.

Bottom line

Understanding the different types of mortgages available is an important early step in choosing the best home loan for you or your family. The best type of mortgage for you will depend on factors like your credit score, income level and loan term preferences. If a traditional home loan isn't quite right for you, you can also look into owner financing. After you review the types of mortgages, you'll need to understand how to get a mortgage. You should also compare multiple lenders to be sure you're getting the best rate on your new home.

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Profile picture of Michele Lerner
by Michele Lerner Mortgage & Real Estate Contributing Editor

Michele Lerner, author of “HOMEBUYING: Tough Times, First Time, Any Time”, has been writing about personal finance and real estate for more than two decades. Michele writes for regional, national and international publications in print and online for a variety of audiences including consumers, real estate investors, business owners and real estate professionals.