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What is a conventional mortgage?

These home loans are not insured by the government

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Written by Bradley Schnitzer
Edited by Cassidy McCants
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A conventional mortgage is a homebuying loan you get entirely through a private lender. It’s not backed or offered by a government agency like the Federal Housing Administration, Department of Veterans Affairs or Department of Agriculture.

Instead, banks, credit unions and private mortgage lenders offer this kind of home loan on their own. One thing to keep in mind with these mortgages is that they may come with stricter lending requirements since they don’t have government backing.

Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac — two government-sponsored enterprises — do guarantee many conventional mortgages, known as conforming mortgages. Conforming loans meet guidelines set by the Federal Housing Finance Agency and the two GSEs, which back most mortgages in the U.S.

What’s the difference between conventional loans and government-backed loans?

Overall, government-backed loans are less risky for lenders than conventional mortgages because the government guarantees them. As a result, borrowers may have an easier time qualifying. They tend to have lower requirements for credit score, debt-to-income ratio and down payments. Government-backed mortgages are designed for specific purposes, and they don’t fit every borrower. Government-backed loans include:

Conforming loans are the most common type of home loan, according to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
  • FHA loans have a low minimum credit score requirement and allow you to borrow with a down payment as low as 3.5%.
  • VA loans are designed for service members, veterans and spouses and don’t require a down payment.
  • USDA loans help low- and moderate-income residents in qualifying rural areas buy homes with no down payments.

Conventional loans may have stricter requirements than government-insured loans, but the borrower doesn't have to fit a specific demographic or live in a certain area.

Conventional loans tend to cost less than government-backed loans, with lower interest rates for those with high credit scores.

Conventional home loan types

There are several types of conventional mortgages:

A conventional loan can be either conforming or nonconforming, depending on whether it meets FHFA, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac requirements.
  • Conforming: These must meet FHFA, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac requirements. In 2021, the maximum conforming loan limit in most of the country is $548,250. Conforming loans are the most popular mortgage type.
  • Nonconforming: These loans do not meet requirements to be acquired by Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac.
  • Jumbo: Jumbo loans are nonconforming loans with amounts that exceed the conforming loan limit. You need good credit and a large down payment to be eligible.
  • Fixed-rate: With a fixed-rate loan, your interest rate remains the same throughout the life of the loan.
  • Adjustable-rate: Adjustable-rate mortgages, or ARMs, start with a fixed interest rate for an initial period, then adjust based on economic conditions.

Pros and cons of conventional loans

In general, conventional mortgages have fewer restrictions than government-backed loans — even if some of the requirements are stricter for borrowers. Lenders have more flexibility with conventional loans because they set their own eligibility standards.

Conventional mortgages offer competitive rates and low down payment options, but they generally require higher credit scores and a better debt-to-income ratio to qualify than government-backed loans do. This is because the government isn’t insuring the loan in case of a borrower default.

Pros

  • Fewer restrictions on eligible properties
  • Higher loan limits
  • Competitive fixed and variable rates

Cons

  • Stricter borrower requirements
  • Private mortgage insurance required if down payment is under 20%

Conventional mortgage requirements

Requirements differ slightly by lender for conventional mortgages. However, most conventional mortgage lenders have these eligibility standards:

  • Credit score: You want a credit score of at least 620 — or 680-plus for jumbo loans.
  • Debt-to-income ratio: Your DTI ratio should be at 50% or lower.
  • Down payment: These loans require at least 3% down, although this can vary by the lender, your profile as an applicant and the loan type. Putting down 20% helps you avoid private mortgage insurance.
  • Proof of income: You should have at least two years of documentation proving stable income (e.g., tax returns, W-2s, pay stubs, bank statements).
  • Loan amount: The amount of a conventional loan can’t exceed the maximum conforming loan limit, which is set each year by the FHFA.

Bottom line: Is a conventional mortgage right for you?

A conventional mortgage is the most common type of mortgage in the industry. If you have good credit, low debts and a healthy income, and you don’t meet requirements for special government loans, a conventional mortgage is often a good choice.

This type of loan has flexibility with loan amounts, down payments, term lengths and interest rates. Conversely, if you have poor credit or a lower income, or you meet the requirements for a VA or USDA loan, you may want to compare conventional and government loan offers.

ConsumerAffairs writers primarily rely on government data, industry experts and original research from other reputable publications to inform their work. To learn more about the content on our site, visit our FAQ page.
  1. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, “Conventional loans.” Accessed Nov. 17, 2021.
  2. Federal Housing Finance Agency, “FHFA Announces Conforming Loan Limits for 2021.” Accessed Nov. 17, 2021.
  3. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, “What are Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac?” Accessed Nov. 29, 2021.
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