When you apply for a mortgage, the lender looks through your credit and finances to determine your level of risk as a borrower. Depending on what that review reveals, you might qualify for a subprime mortgage instead of a conventional loan.

Key takeaways
  • Subprime mortgages are extended to borrowers with low credit scores that prevent them from qualifying for conventional mortgages.
  • Regulatory changes during the Great Recession protect borrowers from many of the risks they faced in the bad old days of subprime mortgages.
  • Subprime mortgages can come with fixed rates, adjustable rates or interest-only terms.
  • These loans carry higher interest rates and more onerous down payment requirements.

What is a subprime mortgage?

Subprime mortgages — also known as non-prime mortgages — are for borrowers with lower credit scores, typically below 600, that prevent them from being approved for conventional loans. Conventional loans are widely available and tend to have more favorable terms, such as better interest rates.

Subprime mortgages were one of the main drivers of the financial crisis that fueled the Great Recession. In the years leading up to the economic meltdown, lenders approved many subprime mortgages that borrowers were unable to pay back. In fact, approximately 30 percent of all mortgages originated in 2006 were subprime, according to a Credit Union National Association analysis of Home Mortgage Disclosure Act data.

While subprime mortgages still exist today — and might be referred to as a non-qualified mortgage — they are subject to more oversight. They also tend to have higher interest rates and larger down payment requirements than conventional loans.

How do subprime mortgages work?

Subprime mortgages are now regulated by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), the agency created as part of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, which was enacted in response to the subprime crisis.

One of the key rules the CFPB put in place is a requirement that any borrower who obtains a subprime mortgage must undergo homebuyer counseling through a representative approved by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).

Additionally, lenders must underwrite subprime mortgages according to Dodd-Frank standards, including the “ability-to-repay” (ATR) provision that requires a lender to thoroughly assess whether a borrower is capable of paying back the loan.

“If you violate the ATR rule as a lender, you can potentially be sued or be subject to regulatory enforcement,” says Austin Kilgore, director of Corporate Communications at financial firm Achieve. “So lenders that operate in the non-qualified mortgage space have a strong incentive to make sure they are adequately evaluating borrowers much more than the subprime lenders of 15 to 20 years ago did.”

That “non-qualified mortgage” designation limits legal protections for lenders, as well, which has kept many from operating in the space.

“Lenders aren’t making the same kinds of subprime loans that they did during the run-up to the Great Recession,” says Kilgore. “The biggest reason is regulatory issues.”

Subprime vs. prime mortgage requirements

Compared to subprime mortgages, prime mortgages are available to highly qualified borrowers who pose little risk to lenders. When lenders advertise rates “as low as” a certain percentage, those rates are typically reserved for borrowers who are candidates for prime mortgages, with good to excellent credit scores, from 700 on up —those who qualify for a conventional loan.

With a prime mortgage (a conventional loan), the down payment requirements can be relatively small, too — as low as 3 percent or 5 percent of the home’s price.

The interest rates on subprime mortgages, on the other hand, can be much higher — more than 10 percent. Lenders often ask for a larger down payment, as well, such as 25 percent to 35 percent, to avoid loaning a large sum to a riskier borrower.

Credit score Down payment Interest rate
Prime mortgage requirements 700+ As low as 3% 7% (as of October 2022)
Subprime mortgage requirements > 560 As much as 25%-35% 10% or higher

Subprime vs. prime mortgage example

Because subprime mortgages are for borrowers with low credit scores, these loans raise risk for the lender. To make up for that risk, the lender charges higher interest rates and fees than you might see on a conventional loan. With a higher rate, you’ll pay significantly more overall for a subprime mortgage:

Home price Down payment Interest rate Loan term Monthly payment Interest total
Prime $400,000 $12,000 (3%) 7% 30 years $2,581 $541,616
Subprime $400,000 $100,000 (25%) 10% 30 years $2,632 $649,135

Types of subprime mortgages

Subprime fixed-rate mortgage

A subprime fixed-rate mortgage works just like a conventional fixed-rate mortgage in that the borrower gets a set interest rate and the monthly payment remains the same for the length of the loan repayment period. The difference is that subprime fixed-rate mortgages sometimes have longer terms, such as 40 years, compared to the typical 15 or 30 years for a conventional fixed-rate loan.

Subprime adjustable-rate mortgage (ARM)

There are also subprime adjustable-rate mortgages, or ARMs, such as the 3/27 ARM, in which the borrower gets a fixed interest rate for the first three years, then the rate readjusts once a year for the remaining 27 years. The adjustments are based on the performance of a market index plus a margin. Most lenders have a cap on how much your rate can increase, but if you can’t make the peak monthly payment, you could be at risk of default.

Interest-only loan

With an interest-only loan, the borrower pays only interest during the first few years, typically seven or 10. This could mean smaller monthly payments at first, but no initial payoff of the loan principal, and delayed equity.

Dignity mortgage

With a dignity mortgage, the borrower makes a down payment of at least 10 percent and takes on a high interest rate. If the borrower makes timely payments for a certain period — typically five years — the amount paid toward interest gets used to lower the loan balance, and the interest rate is lowered to the prime rate, or the rate that most large banks charge the most creditworthy borrowers. (This rate is largely determined by the federal funds rate set by the Federal Reserve.) This type of mortgage could be beneficial if you can afford to make larger payments during the beginning of your term.

Alternatives to a subprime mortgage

  • FHA loans – If your credit score is at least 580, consider an FHA loan with a down payment of 3.5 percent. If your credit score is between 500 and 579, you can qualify for an FHA loan with 10 percent down.
  • VA loans – If you’re a veteran or active member of the armed forces, look into VA loans. Guaranteed by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, these loans require no down payment and could have lower credit score requirements.
  • USDA loans USDA loans are designed for low- to moderate-income borrowers in rural designated areas. (Some qualifying locations are actually near large metro areas.) While some lenders might have a credit score minimum for USDA loans, others might have relatively lenient standards that can help you qualify.

Another alternative is to simply wait. Continue paying your bills on time, and focus on taking crucial steps to improve your credit. You might want to buy a house now, but you also don’t want to get stuck paying an overwhelmingly high interest rate.

Is a subprime mortgage right for me?

A nonprime mortgage isn’t ideal – you’ll pay more interest over the life of the loan, and you might have to come up with a hefty down payment. However, if this mortgage is the only way you can become a homeowner, this type of loan might be worth the downsides. Consumer protections are more robust now than they were during the subprime go-go days of the mid-2000s.