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Demand has been sizzling for Veterans Affairs mortgages, better known as VA loans. These mortgages do not always require a down payment and are available to military veterans and active military members. VA loans are made through private lenders and are guaranteed by the Department of Veterans Affairs, so they do not require mortgage insurance. There’s no minimum credit score requirement.
The VA loan remains one of the few mortgage options for borrowers who don’t have the money for a down payment. Available to millions of veterans and active military members, VA loans are somewhat easier to qualify for than conventional mortgages.
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs is not a direct lender. The loan is made through a private lender and partially guaranteed by the VA, as long as guidelines are met.
If you think you may be eligible for a VA loan, here are some must-knows about the program.
Most members of the military, veterans, reservists and National Guard members are eligible to apply for a VA loan. Spouses of military members who died while on active duty or as a result of a service-connected disability may also apply.
Active-duty members generally qualify after about six months of service. Reservists and members of the National Guard must wait six years to apply, but if they are called to active duty before that, they gain eligibility after 181 days of service.
“Most reservists are qualifying under active duty,” says Michael Frueh, chief of staff for the Veterans Benefits Administration within the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Reservists, members of the National Guard and active-duty members generally are eligible after 90 days of service during war periods.
“If you were on any type of foreign soil, more than likely you are eligible,” says Grant Moon, a veteran and president of VA Loan Captain Inc., a loan referral company.
Potential borrowers must obtain a certificate of eligibility. The form can be submitted online.
“But you don’t need the Certificate of Eligibility in hand to start the mortgage process,” says Chris Birk, director of education for Veterans United Home Loans. “Lenders in many cases can get this document for borrowers during the preapproval phase.”
Advantages of a VA loan
Loans guaranteed by the VA can be obtained without any down payment.
“That’s a huge plus,” Frueh says.
Another plus: A VA loan doesn’t require mortgage insurance, as do Federal Housing Administration and conventional loans with less than a 20 percent down payment. The benefit translates into significant monthly savings for VA borrowers. For instance, a borrower who makes a 3.5 percent down payment on a $200,000 FHA-insured mortgage pays $100 a month for mortgage insurance alone.
“And with a VA loan, you don’t have to save all the money you would have to save for a conventional loan,” Moon says.
Although the costs of getting a VA loan are generally lower than for other types of low-down-payment mortgages, they still carry a one-time funding fee that varies, depending on the amount of the down payment and the type of veteran.
A borrower in the armed forces getting a VA loan for the first time, with zero down payment, would pay a fee of 2.15 percent of the loan amount, Frueh says. The fee is reduced to 1.25 percent of the loan amount if the borrower makes a down payment of 10 percent or more. Reservists and National Guard members normally pay about a quarter of a percentage point more in fees than active-duty members pay.
Those using the VA loan program for the second time, without a down payment, would pay 3.3 percent of the total loan amount.
“And if you receive disability compensation, the fee is waived,” Frueh says.
Veterans Affairs does not require a minimum credit score for a VA loan, but lenders generally have their own internal requirements. Most lenders ask for a credit score of 620 or higher, Moon says.
“There are players that would go lower, but they would probably charge a higher interest rate,” he says.
Borrowers must show sufficient income to repay the loan and shouldn’t have excessive debt, but the guidelines are usually more flexible than they are for conventional loans.
“We always tell underwriters to do their due diligence, but this is a benefits program, so there is some flexibility,” Frueh says.
VA guidelines allow veterans to use their home-loan benefits a year or two after bankruptcy or foreclosure.
“We look at the whole credit picture, what was the reason for the credit bankruptcy and where the borrower is now,” says John Bell, assistant director of loan policy at the VA.
VA loans are available only to finance a primary home. A VA loan cannot be used to purchase or refinance vacation and investment homes.
The VA says there is no cap on the amount you can borrow. “However, there are limits on the amount of liability VA can assume, which usually affects the amount of money an institution will lend you,” the agency says. “The loan limits are the amount a qualified Veteran with full entitlement may be able to borrow without making a down payment. These loan limits vary by county, since the value of a house depends in part on its location.
The limit on VA loans vary by county, but it’s $417,000 in most parts of the country and up to $625,500 in high-cost areas in the continental United States and even higher in four counties in Hawaii.
What if I stop paying the mortgage?
Another advantage of a VA loan is the assistance offered to struggling borrowers. If the borrower of a VA loan can’t make payments on the mortgage, the VA can negotiate with the lender on behalf of the borrower.
“We have dedicated staff nationwide committed to helping veterans who are experiencing financial difficulty,” Bell says.
VA’s financial counselors can help borrowers negotiate repayment plans, loan modifications and other alternatives to foreclosure, he says.
Regardless of whether they have VA loans, veterans who are struggling to make their mortgage payments can call (877) 827-3702 for assistance.