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7 Types of Conventional Loans to Choose From

Updated on:
Content was accurate at the time of publication.

If you’re looking for the most cost-effective home loan available, you’re likely in the market for a conventional loan. Before committing to a lender, though, it’s crucial to understand the types of conventional loans available to you. Every loan option will have different requirements, benefits and drawbacks.

Conventional loans are simply mortgages that aren’t backed by government entities like the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) or U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). Homebuyers who can qualify for conventional loans should strongly consider this loan type, as it’s likely to provide less costly borrowing options.

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Understanding conventional loan requirements


Conventional lenders often set more stringent minimum requirements than government-backed loans. For example, a borrower with a credit score below 620 won’t be eligible for a conventional loan, but would qualify for an FHA loan. It’s important to look at the full picture — your credit score, debt-to-income (DTI) ratio, down payment amount and whether your borrowing needs exceed loan limits — when choosing which loan will be the best fit for you.

What are they?

Conforming loans are the subset of conventional loans that adhere to a list of guidelines issued by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, two unique mortgage entities created by the government to help the mortgage market run more smoothly and effectively. The guidelines that conforming loans must adhere to include a maximum loan limit, which is $766,550 in 2024 for a single-family home in most U.S. counties.

Who are they best for?

Borrowers who:
 Meet the credit score, DTI ratio and other requirements for conforming loans
 Don’t need a loan that exceeds current conforming loan limits

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What are they?

Portfolio loans are mortgages that are held by the lender, rather than being sold on the secondary market to another mortgage entity. Because a portfolio loan isn’t passed on, it doesn’t have to conform to all of the strict rules and guidelines associated with Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. This means that portfolio mortgage lenders have the flexibility to set more lenient qualification guidelines for borrowers.

Who are they best for?

Borrowers looking for:
 Flexibility in their mortgage in the form of lower down payments
 Waived private mortgage insurance (PMI) requirements
 Loan amounts that are higher than conforming loan limits

What are they?

A jumbo loan is one type of nonconforming loan that doesn’t stick to the guidelines issued by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, but in a very specific way: by exceeding maximum loan limits. This makes them riskier to jumbo loan lenders, meaning borrowers often face an exceptionally high bar to qualification — interestingly, though, it doesn’t always mean higher rates for jumbo mortgage borrowers.

Be careful not to confuse jumbo loans with high-balance loans. If you need a loan larger than $766,550 and live in an area that the Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA) has deemed a high-cost county, you can qualify for a high-balance loan, which is still considered a conventional, conforming loan.

Who are they best for?
 Borrowers who need access to a loan larger than the conforming limit amount for their county.

What are they?

A fixed-rate loan has a stable interest rate that stays the same for the life of the loan. This eliminates surprises for the borrower and means that your monthly payments never vary.

Who are they best for?
 Borrowers who want stability and predictability in their mortgage payments.

What are they?

In contrast to fixed-rate mortgages, adjustable-rate mortgages have an interest rate that changes over the loan term. Although ARMs typically begin with a low interest rate (compared to a typical fixed-rate mortgage) for an introductory period, borrowers should be prepared for a rate increase after this period ends. Precisely how and when an ARM’s rate will adjust will be laid out in that loan’s terms. A 5/1 ARM loan, for instance, has a fixed rate for five years before adjusting annually.

Who are they best for?
 Borrowers who are able to refinance or sell their house before the fixed-rate introductory period ends may save money with an ARM.

What are they?

Homebuyers looking for a low-down-payment conventional loan or a 100% financing mortgage — also known as a “zero-down” loan, since no cash down payment is necessary — have several options.

Buyers with strong credit may be eligible for loan programs that require only a 3% down payment. These include the conventional 97% LTV loan, Fannie Mae’s HomeReady® loan and Freddie Mac’s Home Possible® and HomeOne® loans. Each program has slightly different income limits and requirements, however.

Who are they best for?
 Borrowers who don’t want to put down a large amount of cash.

 Tip: In cases where a borrower wants to split their loan amount to avoid a jumbo loan, it’s also possible to take out a conventional loan and then use a piggyback loan to cover the remainder of the home price.

What are they?

Just as nonconforming loans are defined by the fact that they don’t follow Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac’s rules, nonqualified mortgage (non-QM) loans are defined by the fact that they don’t follow a set of rules issued by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB).

Borrowers who can’t meet the requirements for a traditional loan may qualify for a non-QM loan. While they often serve home loan borrowers with bad credit, they can also provide a way into homeownership for a variety of people in nontraditional circumstances. The self-employed or those who want to purchase properties with unusual features, for example, can be well-served by a nonqualified mortgage, as long as they understand that these loans can have high mortgage rates and other uncommon features.

Who are they best for?

Homebuyers who have:
 Low credit scores
 High DTI ratios
 Unique circumstances that make it difficult to qualify for a traditional mortgage, yet are confident they can safely take on a home loan

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Pros
Cons

 Lower down payment than an FHA loan. You can put down only 3% on a conventional loan, which is lower than the 3.5% required by an FHA loan.

 Competitive mortgage insurance rates. The cost of PMI, which kicks in if you don’t put down at least 20%, may sound onerous. But it’s less expensive than FHA mortgage insurance and, in some cases, the VA funding fee.

 Higher maximum DTI ratio. You can stretch up to a 45% DTI, which is higher than FHA, VA or USDA loans typically allow.

 Flexibility with property type and occupancy. This makes conventional loans a great alternative to government-backed loans, which are restricted to borrowers who will use the property as a primary residence.

 Generous loan limits. The loan limits for conventional loans are often higher than for FHA or USDA loans.

 Higher down payment than VA and USDA loans. If you’re a military borrower or live in a rural area, you can use these programs to get into a home with zero down.

 Higher minimum credit score: Borrowers with a credit score below 620 won’t be able to qualify. This is often a higher bar than government-backed loans.

 Higher costs for certain property types. Conventional loans can get more expensive if you’re financing a manufactured home, second home, condo or two- to four-unit property.

 Increased costs for non-occupant borrowers. If you’re financing a home you don’t plan to live in, like an Airbnb property, your loan will be a little more expensive.

A 620 score is the minimum needed to qualify for a conventional loan, but some lenders may set a higher minimum credit score threshold.

Loan limits are set by number of units and location. In 2024, the maximums for most U.S. counties are:

  • One unit: $766,550
  • Two units: $981,500
  • Three units: $1,186,350
  • Four units: $1,474,400

No, you don’t have to put down 20% to borrow a conventional loan. You can put down as little as 3% but, any time your down payment is less than 20%, you’ll have to pay private mortgage insurance premiums. However, you can get rid of PMI once you build up 20% equity in the home.

People who can’t qualify for a conventional loan due to a low credit score or a high DTI ratio will need to seek more flexible options. For those with excellent credit, a conventional loan is generally the most cost-effective option — but if your credit just barely qualifies, it can pay to do a little more research. In some cases, an FHA loan may be cheaper.

There are several programs that cater to borrowers who want a single conventional loan that will fund both the purchase of a fixer-upper and the renovation costs. Fannie Mae’s HomeStyle® Renovation loan allows down payments as low as 3%, and interest rates typically out-compete a home equity line of credit (HELOC) or personal loan. Freddie Mac offers a similar rehab loan, called the CHOICERenovation® mortgage, which is designed to be especially helpful for first-time homebuyers, seniors and multigenerational families.

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