Obtaining a mortgage is a crucial step in purchasing your first home, and there are several factors for choosing the most appropriate one. While the myriad of financing options available for first-time homebuyers can seem overwhelming, taking the time to research the basics of property financing can save you a significant amount of time and money.
Understanding the market where the property is located, and whether it offers incentives to lenders, may mean added financial perks for you. And by taking a close look at your finances, you can ensure you are getting the mortgage that best suits your needs. This article outlines some of the important details first-time homebuyers need to make their big purchase.
Conventional loans are mortgages that are not insured or guaranteed by the federal government. They are typically fixed-rate mortgages. They are some of the most difficult types of mortgages to qualify for because of their stricter requirements—a bigger down payment, higher credit score, lower income-to-debt ratios, and the potential for a private mortgage insurance requirement. However, if you can qualify for a conventional mortgage, they are usually less costly than loans that are guaranteed by the federal government.
Conventional loans are defined as either conforming loans or non-conforming loans. Conforming loans comply with guidelines, such as the loan limits set forth by government-sponsored enterprises (GSEs). These lenders (and various others) often buy and package these loans, then sell them as securities on the secondary market. However, loans that are sold on the secondary market must meet specific guidelines in order to be classified as conforming loans.
The maximum conforming loan limit for a conventional mortgage in 2021 is $548,250, although it can be more for designated high-cost areas.1 A loan made above this amount is called a jumbo loan, which usually carries a slightly higher interest rate. These loans carry more risk (since they involve more money), making them less attractive to the secondary market.2
For nonconforming loans, the lending institution underwriting the loan, usually a portfolio lender, sets its own guidelines. Due to regulations, nonconforming loans cannot be sold on the secondary market.
Federal Housing Administration (FHA) Loans
The Federal Housing Administration (FHA), part of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), provides various mortgage loan programs for Americans. An FHA loan has lower down payment requirements and is easier to qualify for than a conventional loan. FHA loans are excellent for first-time homebuyers because, in addition to lower upfront loan costs and less stringent credit requirements, you can make a down payment as low as 3.5%.3 FHA loans cannot exceed the statutory limits described above.
However, all FHA borrowers must pay a mortgage insurance premium, rolled into their mortgage payments. Mortgage insurance is an insurance policy that protects a mortgage lender or titleholder if the borrower defaults on payments, passes away, or is otherwise unable to meet the contractual obligations of the mortgage.
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) guarantees VA loans.4 The VA does not make loans itself, but guarantees mortgages made by qualified lenders. These guarantees allow veterans to obtain home loans with favorable terms (usually without a down payment).
In most cases, VA loans are easier to qualify for than conventional loans. Lenders generally limit the maximum VA loan to conventional mortgage loan limits. Before applying for a loan, you’ll need to request your eligibility from the VA. If you are accepted, the VA will issue a certificate of eligibility you can use to apply for a loan.
In addition to these federal loan types and programs, state and local governments and agencies sponsor assistance programs to increase investment or homeownership in certain areas.
Equity and Income Requirements
Home mortgage loan pricing is determined by the lender in two ways—both methods are based on the creditworthiness of the borrower. In addition to checking your FICO score from the three major credit bureaus, lenders will calculate the loan-to-value ratio (LTV) and the debt-service coverage ratio (DSCR) in order to determine the amount they’re willing to loan to you, plus the interest rate.5
LTV is the amount of actual or implied equity that is available in the collateral being borrowed against. For home purchases, LTV is determined by dividing the loan amount by the purchase price of the home. Lenders assume that the more money you are putting up (in the form of a down payment), the less likely you are to default on the loan. The higher the LTV, the greater the risk of default, so lenders will charge more.6
The DSCR determines your ability to pay the mortgage. Lenders divide your monthly net income by the mortgage costs to assess the probability that you will default on the mortgage. Most lenders will require DSCRs of greater than one. The greater the ratio, the greater the probability that you will be able to cover borrowing costs and the less risk the lender assumes. The greater the DSCR, the more likely a lender will negotiate the loan rate; even at a lower rate, the lender receives a better risk-adjusted return.
For this reason, you should include any type of qualifying income you can when negotiating with a mortgage lender. Sometimes an extra part-time job or other income-generating business can make the difference between qualifying or not qualifying for a loan, or receiving the best possible rate.
Private Mortgage Insurance (PMI)
LTV also determines whether you will be required to purchase private mortgage insurance (PMI). PMI helps to insulate the lender from default by transferring a portion of the loan risk to a mortgage insurer. Most lenders require PMI for any loan with an LTV greater than 80%. This translates to any loan where you own less than 20% equity in the home.7 The amount being insured and the mortgage program will determine the cost of mortgage insurance and how it’s collected.
Most mortgage insurance premiums are collected monthly, along with tax and property insurance escrows. Once LTV is equal to or less than 78%, PMI is supposed to be eliminated automatically. You may also be able to cancel PMI once the home has appreciated enough in value to give you 20% equity and a set period has passed, such as two years.
Some lenders, such as the FHA, will assess the mortgage insurance as a lump sum and capitalize it into the loan amount.
How Adjustable-Rate Mortgages (ARMs) Work
The most common types of ARMs are for one, five, or seven-year periods.9 The initial interest rate is normally fixed for a period of time and then resets periodically, often every month. Once an ARM resets, it adjusts to the market rate, usually by adding some predetermined spread (percentage) to the prevailing U.S. Treasury rate.
Although the increase is typically capped, an ARM adjustment can be more expensive than the prevailing fixed-rate mortgage loan to compensate the lender for offering a lower rate during the introductory period.
Interest-only loans are a type of ARM in which you only pay mortgage interest and not principal during the introductory period until the loan reverts to a fixed, principal-paying loan. Such loans can be very advantageous for first-time borrowers because only paying interest significantly decreases the monthly cost of borrowing and will allow you to qualify for a much larger loan. However, because you pay no principal during the initial period, the balance due on the loan does not change until you begin to repay the principal.
The Bottom Line
If you’re looking for a home mortgage for the first time, you may find it difficult to sort through all the financing options. Take time to decide how much home you can actually afford and then finance accordingly. If you can afford to put a substantial amount down or have enough income to create a low LTV, you will have more negotiating power with lenders and the most financing options. If you push for the largest loan, you may be offered a higher risk-adjusted rate and private mortgage insurance.
Weigh the benefit of obtaining a larger loan with the risk. Interest rates typically float during the interest-only period and will often adjust in reaction to changes in market interest rates. Also, consider the risk that your disposable income won’t rise along with the possible increase in borrowing costs.
A good mortgage broker or mortgage banker should be able to help steer you through all the different programs and options, but nothing will serve you better than knowing your priorities for a mortgage loan.