USDA eligibility maps: what they are and how to use them

Take one of the first steps in USDA loan qualification

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If you're hoping to purchase a primary residence in a rural area and have been researching U.S. Department of Agriculture loans, you'll want to also become acquainted with USDA eligibility maps. These maps show where eligible low- and moderate-income borrowers can use government-backed USDA home loans to purchase a property.

To qualify for a USDA loan, you need to be a U.S. citizen (or eligible noncitizen) with income at or below 115% of the median household income in the relevant area. You’ll also need to have a minimum credit score of 620 to 640 and a debt-to-income (DTI) ratio that’s no higher than 41%.

Unlike FHA loans, which are not limited by location, USDA loans are specifically intended to help people afford homes in rural areas.

As you begin shopping for homes and prepare to line up your financing, you should learn everything you can about USDA home loans, including where they can be used and the basic requirements.

Key insights

  • USDA loans are government-backed mortgages that help low- and moderate-income borrowers purchase a primary residence in eligible rural areas.
  • The U.S. Department of Agriculture offers maps that help you search whether a USDA loan is possible in a certain area or at a specific address.

What is the USDA eligibility map?

According to Al Murad, executive vice president at AmeriSave Mortgage, USDA eligibility maps are searchable maps you can browse online that show you which areas of the country meet the location requirements for a USDA loan.

These maps let you check desired parcels for eligibility before getting too deep into the research process, he says, adding that USDA eligibility maps are created based on area population and typically updated on an annual basis.

Murad points out that USDA eligibility maps are an informational tool only. In other words, these maps can help you get an idea of whether a property qualifies, but they do not guarantee it.

You can use USDA loan maps as a starting point to search for a specific address or rural area and find out if a USDA loan might be a possibility. From there, you have to apply for a USDA loan for the property, confirm the home meets property and other eligibility requirements and qualify for financing.

» MORE: Does mortgage preapproval affect your credit score?

How do I use the USDA eligibility map?

To search for eligible rural areas with the USDA, visit the U.S. Department of Agriculture website. There, you'll see a map of the United States as well as a search bar and a tool that lets you zoom in and out.

From here, you can either:

  • Browse the map by zooming into different regions of the country, noting the differences in colors on the map. Be aware that properties in darker-colored areas are not eligible for USDA loans.
  • Search for a specific address in the search bar. Unfortunately, you cannot search by ZIP code or town only.

When you input a specific address, the map will show a pop-up indicating whether it is located in an eligible area.

What constitutes USDA loan eligibility?

While homebuyers need to meet specific eligibility requirements to get a USDA loan for their primary residence, there are property eligibility requirements, too. These include the following:

  • Must be located in an eligible rural area: USDA loans can only be used in areas that are designated as “rural.”
  • Must be a single-family dwelling: Properties must be for a single family; stand-alone homes, condominiums, manufactured homes, town homes and some other properties can qualify.
  • HUD standards must be met: Properties must meet U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) requirements for safety and suitability and meet state building code standards.
  • Must be modest: USDA loans only work for properties deemed "modest" by the USDA, meaning they do not have a market value in excess of the applicable area loan limit.
  • Cannot have certain elements: USDA loans cannot be used for properties that have certain features, like an in-ground swimming pool or income-producing structures.

» MORE: Homebuying checklist

What qualifies an area as rural?

Properties deemed "rural" by the USDA are located in the "open countryside," in towns with fewer than 2,500 inhabitants or in urban areas with larger populations that are not part of larger metro areas.

The best way to determine if a property is located in a rural area as defined by the USDA is to use the eligibility maps. You can search by area or by inputting a specific address.

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    How accurate is the USDA eligibility map?

    The USDA eligibility map is a tool for informational purposes only, and it does not guarantee a property is eligible for a USDA loan. That said, the map is updated regularly and aims to offer the most accurate and recent information.

    What income do I need to get approved for a USDA loan?

    USDA home loans come with income limits that vary based on the state and county in which a property is located. To qualify, you typically cannot earn more than 115% of the median income for the area. Your income must be stable and dependable.

    Is there a downside to getting a USDA loan?

    While USDA home loans help eligible buyers purchase homes in rural areas with no money down, there are a few potential downsides. For example, these home loans only apply to properties in certain areas of the country, and income limits apply. Plus, USDA loans can only be used for a single-family property used as a primary residence, and they require an upfront guarantee fee and an annual fee.

    Bottom line

    USDA eligibility maps can help you figure out where you can use a USDA loan to purchase a home, but don't forget about all the other requirements you'll have to meet. For example, there are income-based qualifications, and the property must adhere to certain standards.

    If you can qualify for this type of loan from a reputable USDA lender, however, you can purchase a rural property at a competitive rate with no money down. That's worth exploring if you're considering a move out into a rural area. USDA eligibility maps are a great place to start your research.

    Article sources
    ConsumerAffairs writers primarily rely on government data, industry experts and original research from other reputable publications to inform their work. Specific sources for this article include:
    1. U.S. Department of Agriculture, " Single Family Housing Guaranteed Loan Program ." Accessed Dec. 14, 2022.
    2. U.S. Department of Agriculture, " USDA Rural Home Loans Offer 100% Financing and No Down Payment ." Accessed Dec. 14, 2022.
    3. U.S. Department of Agriculture, " Overview of USDA Single Family Housing Programs ." Accessed Dec. 15, 2022.
    4. U.S. Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service, " Rural Classifications ." Accessed Dec. 15, 2022.
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