How to Qualify for USDA Loans: Requirements & Tips

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ByChristopher Boston
Edited byLukas Velunta
ByChristopher Boston
Edited byLukas Velunta

Updated: October 14, 2023

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USDA loans, backed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, offer a path to homeownership for people who might find traditional mortgages out of reach. These loans are particularly useful for first-time homebuyers or families with low to moderate incomes. Its goal is to make living in rural areas more attainable. But like any loan, USDA loans come with their own set of rules. That's where understanding USDA loan eligibility comes into play. If you're unaware of the requirements, you could waste time and energy on a home or area that doesn't qualify, leaving you back at square one.

How Does a USDA Loan Work?

The U.S. Department of Agriculture — in addition to its farming and food mandate — also helps people secure homes in rural areas. These loans specifically target low-to-moderate-income families who aim to live in qualified areas, making homeownership more attainable for a demographic that might otherwise find it out of reach.

USDA loans can be a more accessible mortgage option, especially when you compare them with traditional loans that often require hefty down payments and strict credit requirements. One of the biggest perks of USDA loans is their zero down payment feature, allowing you to finance up to 100% of the home's value. That said, don’t dive in headfirst without understanding USDA eligibility and income requirements. You could land in a home or an area that doesn't meet USDA criteria, ultimately preventing you from qualifying.

You also need to be aware of certain costs, like upfront and annual fees, which can add to your financial burden. There are also different types of USDA loans, each with its unique benefits and caveats. So, while USDA loans offer many advantages, it's important to understand all the angles — from loan types to eligibility rules — to make an informed decision.

Types of USDA Loans

Knowing the different types of USDA loans can help you determine which one aligns with your specific needs and financial situation. It allows you to make the most of the benefits while minimizing any drawbacks. Let's explore the three main types you can consider:

  • USDA Guaranteed Loan: With this option, local lenders provide the loan, but the USDA guarantees it, making lenders more willing to offer favorable terms. Benefits include no down payment and lower mortgage insurance costs. However, there are income limitations, and you'll have to pay a guarantee fee.

  • USDA Direct Loan: Here, the USDA is your lender. These loans are for low and very low-income families, and the interest rates can go as low as 1%. The upside is that you can get favorable terms that you might not get elsewhere. The downside is that there are stricter income and credit requirements to meet.

  • USDA Rural Repair and Rehabilitation Loans and Grants: These are for homeowners who need to make immediate and crucial home repairs. They're usually small amounts and sometimes even grants that don't require repayment. You can get the necessary repairs done, but funding is limited, so you might find yourself on a waiting list.

Choosing the right type of USDA home loan hinges on several factors like your income, credit score and the condition of the property you're eyeing. By understanding the different options, you can better gauge which one aligns with your circumstances, ensuring that you make the most informed decision possible.

Associated Fees with USDA Loans

USDA loans come with their own set of costs. Two costs in particular often catch borrowers off guard — upfront and annual fees.

  • Upfront Fee: This is a one-time cost calculated as a percentage of the loan amount. It's generally used to sustain the USDA loan program. You can often roll this fee into your loan balance, so it doesn't require out-of-pocket payment. However, that increases the total amount you'll have to pay back.

  • Annual Fee: Think of this as similar to private mortgage insurance (PMI) in a conventional loan. It's a recurring fee, also calculated as a percentage of the loan balance. It serves to protect the lender in case of default. While it can’t be waived, it does shrink as you pay down the loan balance.

Knowing these costs upfront enables you to budget better and make more informed decisions. Some borrowers opt for a slightly cheaper home to offset these costs, while others adjust their savings plan to accommodate them. Either way, a little planning now can save a lot of stress later.

Residency Requirements for USDA Loans

Residency is foundational to USDA loan eligibility requirements. You either need to be a U.S. citizen or have eligible non-citizen status. The loan isn't for buying a vacation home — you have to live in the property as your main residence.

To prove your residency, you'll need legal documents like a Social Security card or valid passport. One common issue people run into is not having updated documents. Make sure all your documents are current before you start the application process. Simple steps like these can save you time and inconvenience later.

Income Requirements for USDA Loans

When it comes to USDA loan income eligibility, lenders are playing a balancing act. They want to ensure you earn enough to afford the loan, but not so much that you exceed the income limits. That’s where your Adjusted Gross Income (AGI) comes into play. Your AGI is your total income minus specific deductions like student loan interest and contributions to retirement accounts. Lenders use it to see if you fall within the income guidelines for USDA loans.

The income thresholds vary based on the size of your household. For most areas, if your household has 1 to 4 members, the income limit is $110,650. If your household has 5 to 8 members, the limit goes up to $146,050.

Income doesn’t only refer to your salary. Other forms, like child support and alimony, can also be considered. You'll typically need tax returns, pay stubs and W-2 or 1099 forms to your lender as proof of verifiable income. Remember, your income level can affect your loan terms. For example, if you're on the higher end of the income limit, you might get less favorable terms than someone with a lower income.

Location Requirements for USDA Loans

USDA loan eligibility has a unique twist: the property you buy must be in an eligible rural area. But don't let the term "rural" throw you off — some locations are closer to cities than you might think. You can use the USDA's online tools to check if a property is in an eligible area. Overlooking this requirement can derail your home-buying plans, so check eligibility early on. And surprisingly, what many consider "suburban" areas can sometimes qualify as "rural" for a USDA loan. Knowing the location requirements not only narrows down your home search but also plays into other eligibility factors, like income limits, which can vary by area. So, pay attention to location — it’s more pivotal than you might assume.

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According to the USDA, a rural area is a community with a population of 35,000 or fewer residents. Some areas you might not think of as "rural" actually fit this definition. For example, small towns near major cities sometimes qualify because they have fewer people but are still in close proximity to urban amenities.

Population size plays a significant role here. If a community has too many residents, it won't be eligible, which directly impacts your USDA loan approval. And these definitions can change. As communities grow or shrink, their eligibility status may shift, so check the most current guidelines.

Property Requirements for USDA Loans

USDA-approved homes must be of a modest size and meet federal safety standards. While you might dream of a sprawling mansion, USDA loans are geared towards affordability and basic living conditions. The program generally accepts single-family homes, modular homes and even certain types of condos. However, the home you select should be your primary residence — you can't use it for commercial activities or as an investment property.

Here are common pitfalls that could make a property ineligible:

  • Size: While the USDA doesn't specify a maximum square footage, local lenders might. For example, some lenders cap eligibility at 2,000 square feet. Any property exceeding that limit could be viewed as too luxurious for a USDA loan.

  • Safety: Homes must meet the USDA's RD Instruction 1924-A regarding thermal and site standards. This could include specifics like a home needing to have insulation that meets a certain R-value, or failing to meet safety codes like peeling lead paint.

  • Property Use: USDA loans are designed for primary residences, not for investment properties or businesses. If your prospective property has a shop, barn or any structure that could be used for commercial purposes, it could be disqualified.

  • Restrictions: For condos or co-ops, the homeowners association's policies could be a stumbling block. For instance, if more than 50% of units in a complex are non-owner-occupied, that could make the entire complex ineligible for USDA loans.

When you're out there looking for a home, avoid falling in love with a property at first sight. Make sure it ticks all the boxes for USDA loan eligibility, and you'll save yourself from future headaches.

Appraisal Requirements for USDA Loans

Just like with other mortgage types, getting an appraisal is necessary for USDA loans. It confirms the value of the property you're eyeing and makes sure it's a good investment for you and the lender. However, USDA loan appraisal requirements do have some unique elements, such as the following:

  • Sanitary Systems: The home needs to have adequate plumbing and waste disposal systems. In other words, everything from your toilet to your sewage system should be in working condition.

  • Safety Checks: USDA loans require the home to meet specific safety standards. That means working fire alarms, secure windows and no health hazards like mold or lead-based paint.

  • Basic Amenities: The property has to include essential amenities like electricity, heating and clean water. Missing any of these basics can put a halt on loan approval.

  • Condition of Roof and Foundation: A leaky roof or a cracked foundation can be deal-breakers. These are critical structural elements that need to be in good shape.

If the appraisal comes in low, you have options. You can renegotiate the price with the seller or pay the difference out-of-pocket. Appraisals usually cost between $300 to $500, and in most cases, the buyer covers this cost. Awareness of USDA loan appraisal requirements can help you avoid surprises and keep your homeownership dreams on track.

Credit Score Requirements for USDA Loans

USDA loans technically have no minimum credit score requirement. However, most lenders like to see a score of at least 640. Your credit score can significantly influence your loan terms, especially your interest rates. A higher figure often means you'll land a more favorable rate.

If your credit history is limited or not-so-great, don't worry. You can still make strides toward a USDA loan with these strategies:

  • Build a Credit History: No credit is almost as challenging as bad credit. Start by opening a credit card, use it for small purchases and pay off the balance in full every month. It’s a straightforward way to build a credit history that lenders can evaluate.

  • Pay Down Debt: High levels of debt compared with your income can impact your credit score. Paying down debts, like credit card balances, can improve your score and make you a more appealing borrower.

  • Get a Co-signer: Having a co-signer with a strong credit score can boost your application. But remember, they're also on the hook for the loan if you can't make payments.

  • Consider a Secured Loan: These are loans backed by an asset, like a car. They're easier to get and can improve your credit score if you make timely payments, but they often come with higher interest rates.

  • Check for Reporting Errors: Sometimes, your credit score is low due to errors on your credit report. Scan your report for inaccuracies like incorrect balances or outdated information and dispute them.

So, while there's no set minimum, a good credit score can work in your favor for a USDA loan. Whether you're starting from scratch or improving what you've got, these strategies offer a roadmap to meeting lender expectations and securing better loan terms.

Debt-to-Income Ratio Requirements for USDA Loans

Debt-to-income ratio (DTI) is another critical factor that lenders consider, along with your credit score. It's a measure of your monthly debt payments as a percentage of your monthly income. The USDA generally prefers a DTI of 41% or less, but there can be some wiggle room depending on other aspects of your financial situation.

Your DTI takes into account various kinds of debt you may have, from consumer credit card debt and student loans to car payments and existing mortgages or rent. If your DTI is higher than you’d like, here are some strategies to help you out:

  • Pay Down Debt: Reducing your outstanding balances decreases your monthly obligations, helping to improve your DTI.

  • Increase Your Income: Whether it's a raise at your current job or a side gig, higher income will lower your DTI by increasing the denominator in the ratio.

  • Refinance Loans: By refinancing existing loans, you may be able to secure lower monthly payments, ultimately reducing your DTI ratio. However, keep in mind that refinancing could extend the life of the loan, potentially costing you more in long-term interest.

  • Debt Consolidation: Combining multiple high-interest debts into a single lower-interest loan can also reduce monthly payments and improve your DTI. However, consolidating debt often requires a good credit score and may also extend your repayment period.

If you're close to the DTI limit set by USDA loan eligibility requirements, don't worry too much. Consider using one of these strategies to improve your financial metrics and make your loan application more appealing to lenders.

Frequently Asked Questions About USDA Loan Requirements

Questions are natural if you’re gearing up for a USDA loan. However, not everyone is familiar with the eligibility and income requirements that come with it. We addressed frequently asked questions to provide you with actionable information.

What are USDA loans and who are they for?
How do I know if my property is in an eligible location for a USDA loan?
What are the different types of USDA loans available?
What income limits apply to USDA loans?
Are there credit score requirements for USDA loans?
What is the debt-to-income ratio for a USDA Loan?
How do I prove my residency status for a USDA loan?
Can I get a USDA loan if I'm a non-U.S. citizen?
Are there any property use restrictions with USDA loans?

About Christopher Boston

Christopher Boston headshot

Christopher (Croix) Boston was the Head of Loans content at MoneyGeek, with over five years of experience researching higher education, mortgage and personal loans.

Boston has a bachelor's degree from the Seattle Pacific University. They pride themselves in using their skills and experience to create quality content that helps people save and spend efficiently.