Conventional Home Loans: What They Are and How They Work

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Conventional home loans are private (not government-backed) mortgages. They are the most popular financing option for first-time buyers in the U.S. Term options can be flexible. And the rates and underwriting requirements can vary widely depending on the lender, property, size of the down payment, etc. As such, this traditional loan suits the needs of many homebuyers.

Most conventional home loans require borrowers with less than 20% down to purchase private mortgage insurance (PMI), which is an additional fee that protects the lender if a borrower defaults on the loan. Before signing on the dotted line, borrowers, especially those with low down payments, should compare the cost of a conventional home loan plus PMI to that of a government-backed mortgage.

Key Takeaways

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You don’t always need 20% down to get a mortgage. Conventional loans can be approved with as little as 3% down.

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Conforming conventional mortgages must adhere to guidelines established by Freddie Mac or Fannie Mae.

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Nonconforming conventional mortgage guidelines are established by lenders and can vary widely.

What Is a Conventional Loan?

Conventional mortgages are residential loans that are not backed by the government. They comprise 82% of the mortgage market in the U.S., while government-insured VA, FHA and USDA home loans make up the remaining 18%.

Conventional loans in the United States evolved substantially following the Great Depression. Before then, most borrowers had to put 50% down and repay the balance in just five to ten years. Interest rates were variable. Financing challenges kept the U.S. homeownership rate under 50%.

To increase homeownership, the federal government created the Federal National Mortgage Association (FNMA) in 1938. The FNMA (aka Fannie Mae) improved mortgage terms and availability for borrowers by establishing a market for lenders to sell conventional home loans to investors.

Today, American conventional mortgage standards are the most generous in the world. Typical loans feature 30-year terms and have minimum credit score requirements of 620. And conventional loan down payments can be as low as 3%. Government-backed programs are also magnanimous: FHA loans allow credit scores as low as 500, and VA and USDA loans require no down payment at all.

Today's Mortgage Rates
  • Type of Loan
    Rate
    APR
  • Conventional 5/1 ARM
    2.435%
    3.211%
  • Conventional 15-Year Fixed
    2.161%
    2.263%
  • Conventional 30-Year Fixed
    2.95%
    3.015%
  • FHA 5/1 ARM
    3.167%
    3.54%
  • FHA 15-Year Fixed
    2.275%
    3.337%
  • FHA 30-Year Fixed
    2.695%
    3.734%
  • VA 5/1 ARM
    2.795%
    2.607%
  • VA 15-Year Fixed
    2.075%
    2.188%
  • VA 30-Year Fixed
    2.504%
    2.563%
rates powered by Zillow

Top Conventional Mortgage Lenders

Conventional home loans are funded by private companies, which vary widely in their pricing, guidelines and quality. Before choosing a lender, it’s recommended that you shop around to find the best conventional mortgage lender for your specific needs and situation. Even so, MoneyGeek chose three top lenders to feature that provide a great place to start your search.

Quicken Loans via Rocket Mortgage

One of the country's largest mortgage lenders, Quicken Loans has a national presence and extensive experience helping homebuyers with the mortgage process. Customers also think highly of the lender: Quicken Loans was rated number one in J.D. Power's 2020 Primary Mortgage Origination Satisfaction Study. By going through the Rocket Mortgage experience, applicants can quickly complete the entire process — from the application to approval and beyond — online. And loan experts are available by phone and online chat to help you with any questions along the way.

Bank of America

Bank of America offers competitive rates on conventional mortgage loans. And as one of the largest financial institutions in the U.S., it has a nationwide presence with over 4,300 branches, so homebuyers have the option to apply in person or online. Existing Bank of America customers will likely find it easier to have their bank accounts and mortgage loans under one company. They may even be eligible for existing discounts if they meet specific balance requirements, including a $200–$600 reduction in the mortgage origination fee.

Caliber Home Loans

Caliber Home Loans offers several conventional mortgage options in addition to government-backed options, like FHA, VA and USDA loans. Perhaps most noteworthy, the lender has made it relatively simple for those with sparse or spotty credit histories or irregular income streams to receive financing. So particularly young homebuyers, those who are rebuilding their credit or self-employed individuals may benefit from Caliber's programs.

The online application process is straightforward, and loan consultants are available to help you through the process. Caliber's mobile app also enables you to monitor the status of your application, so you’re never left wondering which step of the process it’s in.

Types of Conventional Loans

Conventional home loans can be grouped in many different ways, but the most common is conforming versus nonconforming.

Conforming Loans

Conforming mortgages get their name because they conform to guidelines established by government-created home financing corporations Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. The loans are bundled together in large pools, and shares (similar to stock) are sold to investors. Fannie Mae’s and Freddie Mac’s guidelines are not identical, but they are similar.

Conforming loan guidelines include restrictions on loan size, debt-to-income ratios and credit scores. They also establish acceptable property standards.

Jumbo Loans

The term "nonconforming" covers conventional loans that deviate from conforming guidelines for any reason. Mortgages that don’t conform because they are too large are called jumbo mortgages. Jumbo home loans are generally harder to get and are often more expensive than conforming loans.

Other Nonconforming Loans

Other loans might be nonconforming because of the way the lender chooses to verify borrower income. Conforming mortgage guidelines require tax returns or pay stubs. But some nonconforming guidelines determine borrower income by averaging bank deposits over several years.

Nonconforming loans also cover atypical property types — such as a farm or condotel. And finally, nonconforming loans can include financing for borrowers with low credit scores. These loans are called non-prime.

Portfolio Loans

Lenders have more leeway to get creative with products and guidelines when they don’t sell their loans to outside investors. That’s because they aren’t passing the risk to others; they instead lose their own money if a mortgage doesn’t work out. These creative mortgages that lenders keep on their books are often called "portfolio loans."

Nonconforming loans are harder to find, and comparing rates and terms can be a greater challenge for borrowers. But they are great options for those who don’t fit neatly into typical conventional financing options.

Advantages of Conventional Loans

Conventional loans offer a few advantages over their government-backed counterparts:

  • FHA and USDA loans require upfront mortgage insurance premiums (MIP) plus monthly mortgage insurance payments. For most borrowers, MIP is more expensive than the PMI required for conventional loans exceeding 80% of the purchase price.
  • The MIP for FHA and USDA loans apply for the life of the loan, while homebuyers with PMI can request cancellation once they pay their loan down to 80% of the purchase price.
  • Government-backed loans can’t be used for vacation homes or rental properties, only owner-occupied property.
  • Homebuyers who have defaulted on federal obligations like taxes, student loans or other government-guaranteed financing are often ineligible for government-backed home loans.

Anyone looking for a mortgage should compare conventional and government-backed loans to determine which offers the best terms at the lowest cost.

The main advantage of conventional loans for many is cost. The required insurance premiums for most government loans are the same regardless of the borrower’s credit score. That’s nice if you have a low credit score and a small down payment, but it’s expensive if you have an excellent credit score or a larger down payment.

For example, the MIP for a typical FHA 30-year mortgage (3.5% down) is 0.85% per year. In contrast, PMI for a conventional loan with 3% down is as low as 0.46% for borrowers with excellent credit. And borrowers who put down 5% still pay 0.85% with FHA, but their premium could be as low as 0.35% with a conventional loan.

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MONEYGEEK EXPERT TIP

If you currently have a government-backed loan, refinancing to a conventional mortgage might save you a great deal if it allows you to cancel expensive MIP coverage. Even if your interest rate doesn’t drop, you might pay much less over the life of your loan. Add your MIP percentage to your mortgage rate when you use MoneyGeek’s Refinance Calculator to see your potential savings.

Disadvantages of Conventional Loans

Conventional home loans are usually cheaper than government-backed mortgages, but they are not always the best option. Conventional home loan underwriting guidelines require higher minimum credit scores and lower debt-to-income ratios than those of most government-backed mortgages.

Factors that can make FHA, VA or USDA loans a better choice include:

  • Government-backed loans are assumable, which can make it easier to sell when interest rates are higher.
  • Some condominium projects are approved for government loans but not conventional loans.
  • Government-backed loans allow down payments to be 100% gifted.

Finally, anyone eligible for VA financing (service members and veterans, mainly) should compare VA home loans to conventional mortgages before committing to a program. The VA mortgage is a benefit earned by service members, and it often comes with a lower mortgage rate than conventional loans. There is no monthly mortgage insurance, even with no down payment. (The VA does add a one-time funding fee, which can be wrapped into the mortgage.)

Alternatives to Conventional Mortgages

Conventional loans are popular, but they aren't the only option. There are mortgage programs designed for veterans, buyers with a lower credit score and homeowners in rural areas. Depending on your circumstances, these other types of mortgages may better fit your needs.

Alternate Types of Loans

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FHA Loans

FHA mortgages are not just for first-timers or low-income borrowers. There are no special eligibility requirements as long as the borrower and property qualify for financing. Maximum loan amounts depend on local housing costs. Borrowers with credit scores exceeding 579 can finance with 3.5% down, while those with scores between 500 and 579 must put at least 10% down.

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VA Loans

VA home loans have no official maximum loan amount or minimum credit score. (However, individual lenders can set their own guidelines.) VA eligibility is mainly restricted to service members and honorably discharged veterans. VA home loans are earned benefits with many advantages.

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USDA Loans

USDA mortgages were created to finance rural properties. About half of Americans live in areas considered "rural" and eligible for the program. Low-income borrowers may qualify for direct loans from the government with subsidized interest rates and extended repayment terms. Moderate-income borrowers may be eligible for USDA-guaranteed loans. USDA mortgages require no down payment.


Conventional Loans by the Numbers

Conventional loans are the most popular mortgage options today, with about 82% market share. However, economic factors, government regulations and lender policies influence this number continually.

In 2005, for example, homebuyers chose conventional loans 80% of the time. But during the Great Recession, conventional lenders raised their lending standards and pricing, making it difficult for many to obtain financing. By the end of 2009, conventional loans financed just 54% of home purchases.

Conventional mortgages include conforming loans sold to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and nonconforming loans like jumbo mortgages. Jumbo mortgages are too large to meet conforming loan guidelines.

For 2021, the limit for conforming mortgages in most of the U.S. is $548,250 for single-family homes. It’s higher for multi-unit properties like duplexes and in designated high-cost areas. So a conforming loan in Alameda County, California, is a jumbo mortgage in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Here are the ranges for conforming loans in the U.S.:

  • 1-unit homes: $548,250­–$822,375
  • 2-unit homes: $702,000–$1,053,000
  • 3-unit homes: $848,500–$1,272,750
  • 4-unit homes: $1,054,500–$1,581,750

In 2019, jumbo mortgages comprised just under 7% of conventional home loans and just under 5% of all purchase mortgage originations. Market share for these products tends to increase when the economy is healthy and decrease when lending becomes more restrictive.

In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic shook up the nonconforming mortgage market, and many lenders like Wells Fargo Bank suspended jumbo mortgage lending. Companies servicing conforming mortgages are protected from losses if their borrowers are in a COVID-19 (CARES Act) forbearance program, so lenders are still willing to make these loans.

Conventional Mortgage Loan FAQs

Next Steps To Get Your Conventional Mortgage

Once you know that a conventional mortgage is right for you, you’ll want to run some numbers and get comfortable with mortgage payments, interest rates and affordability calculations. You can start looking at homes for sale once you have a price range in mind.

1

Check Mortgage Rates

Mortgage lenders are private companies with their own set of products, pricing and policies. Check today’s mortgage rates to get a look at current offers. You have to know what current rates are to calculate prospective mortgage payments.

2

Calculate Your Mortgage Payment

Your prospective monthly mortgage payment depends on the loan amount, interest rate and repayment term. Use a mortgage calculator to see how these variables affect your future mortgage payment.

3

Determine What Mortgage Can You Afford

You can test-drive a mortgage payment with a debt-to-income calculator. Input your current debt payments and an estimated mortgage payment to see if your DTI is low enough to qualify for a home loan approval.

Expert Insight on Conventional Loans

Conventional loans are the most popular mortgage loans on the market today, but this wasn't always the case. MoneyGeek interviewed industry leaders and academic experts to provide insight on home insurance and, in particular, on conventional mortgages: why their popularity has increased and where they're most utilized. The views expressed are the opinions and insights of the individual contributors.

  1. Conventional loan market share (versus government-backed loans) has ranged from about 55% to approximately 80% in recent years. What do you believe drives changes in the popularity of these loans?
  2. Per the NAHB, in 2019, reliance on non-conventional financing was heaviest in Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana and Arkansas at 48.5 percent. And it was significantly lower in New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania at 15.8 percent. Why might that be the case?
  3. What do you believe is the most pervasive myth about conventional mortgage financing?
  4. Per NCRC, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac make conventional loans “that mimic FHA lending.” But lenders are “offering LMI (low median income) and minority borrowers the higher-cost government-insured alternatives." Are conventional 97 mortgages under-utilized?
Dr. Guy Baker, PhD
Dr. Guy Baker, PhD

Co-Manager, Insight Wealth Solutions

Jeff Landau
Jeff Landau

Top Producing Real Estate Agent at Team 805 Real Estate

Gustan Cho
Gustan Cho

National Managing Director of Loan Cabin Inc.

Learn More About Home Loans

About the Author


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Gina Pogol writes about mortgages and personal finance for several national publications. Pogol is a licensed Nevada mortgage lender (#963502) with more than 20 years of experience. Gina is a well-rounded business professional with experience as an estate planning and bankruptcy paralegal, a systems consultant for Experian and a tax accountant with Deloitte. She loves teaching and empowering consumers.


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