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USDA loans are one of many options available to finance a home purchase. However, their attributes and eligibility requirements make them unique from other types of home loans. Still, if a USDA home loan is an option for you, there are some big perks you might want to take advantage of.
What is a USDA loan?
A USDA home loan is a no-down payment mortgage for low- and moderate-income homebuyers in largely rural areas. USDA loans are part of a national program created by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to help create loans for first-time homebuyers or people who don’t meet conventional mortgage requirements. They are sometimes referred to as rural development or RD loans.
Along with no need for a down payment, USDA loans have another advantage: You could qualify for a low, fixed interest rate if you have low income.
Some drawbacks, though, are that the property must be located in a USDA-approved area, and borrowers cannot exceed income limits.
Types of USDA loans
Different types of USDA loans cater to different buyers, each coming with its own requirements and reasons for use. Let’s break them down.
USDA guaranteed loans
The USDA guaranteed home loan program (officially known as Section 502 Guaranteed) allows approved mortgage lenders to provide 30-year fixed-rate loans to borrowers in USDA-eligible locations. It’s called a “guaranteed loan” because the USDA guarantees 90 percent of the loan to lenders in the event you were to default on the mortgage.
Along with buying a home in a USDA-approved area, you’ll also need to meet an income requirement: no more than 115 percent of your area’s median household income (AMI). You can find income limits for your market using this tool.
USDA direct loans
Also known as Section 502 Direct, USDA direct loans offer low-rate home loans to individuals in rural areas in need of adequate housing. Unlike USDA guaranteed loans, you’ll apply for a direct loan through the USDA’s Rural Development Service Centers.
Direct loans are only available to households with low and very low income. (You can view income limits here). There’s also a limit on how much you can borrow, depending on the county where the home is located. (You can view area loan limits here.)
Direct loans have a fixed interest rate, which can be reduced to 1 percent if you qualify for payment assistance. The loan terms range up to 33 years, or 38 years for very low income borrowers.
USDA repair loans and grants
The USDA repair loan program (Section 504 Home Repair) is similar to the direct program in that it caters to low-income individuals. But it’s different in that it provides loans only up to $40,000 and only to help improve or repair a home. It also offers grants to very low-income homeowners aged 62 or older to help remove hazards at home. These are capped at $10,000.
USDA loan requirements
Some USDA loan requirements are unique to this loan type. These include property eligibility, income requirements and what credit score you need.
The easiest way to find out if a home is in a USDA-eligible area is to check the USDA website. Homes purchased with USDA loans must be located in eligible rural areas. The USDA defines these areas as “open country or any town, village, city, or place, including the immediately adjacent densely settled area, which is not part of or associated with an urban area.”
USDA mortgages are only available in these rural areas as part of a government initiative to promote homeownership and economic growth. These loans can help attract and retain people in these locations.
The USDA guaranteed loan program is geared toward low- and moderate-income homebuyers. For this reason, applicants can’t earn more than certain income limits, which vary by metro area and family size. In more expensive areas, the income ceiling is higher. You can check income limits for your county and household size using the same property eligibility tool on the USDA website.
To prove income, you’ll need to provide the lender with documentation such as:
- Tax statements (W-2s, 1040s and 1099s)
- Alimony and child support payments
- Social Security payments
- Statements for bank and investment accounts
The USDA doesn’t impose a blanket credit score requirement for all borrowers, but typically, USDA-approved lenders look for a score of at least 640.
Pros and cons of USDA loans
The major benefit of a USDA home loan is that there’s no down payment requirement. This can be a great program for homebuyers on a budget who are flexible about where they live. The cons mostly have to do with the restrictions on where you can buy or how much your family can make in terms of income.
- No down payment required
- No formal loan limit for guaranteed loans
- Seller can pay the closing costs
- Available for both purchasing property and refinancing
- Low, fixed interest rates for direct loans
- Strict guidelines around where property is located
- Must use home for primary residence
- Limited income requirements
- Upfront and annual fees
How do USDA loans compare to other types of loans?
USDA loans aren’t the only type of mortgage out there. If you’re not eligible for a USDA loan, you might be for an FHA or VA loan, or even a conventional loan. Here’s an overview of some key differences between these types of loans:
|USDA loan||Conventional loan||FHA loan||VA loan|
|Credit requirements||None, but 640 is standard||620||580||None unless lender requires|
|Debt-to-income (DTI) ratio requirements||Up to 41%||Up to 43%||Up to 50%||Up to 41%|
|Down payment requirements||None||3% or 5%||3.5%||None|
How to apply for a USDA loan
To apply for a USDA loan, you’ll first need to determine if you qualify. Consult the USDA property and income eligibility maps. If you meet those parameters, next consider whether you’ll want or need a guaranteed or direct loan. Remember: Guaranteed loans have higher income limits, and you’ll apply for one through a USDA-approved lender. Direct loans, on the other hand, are reserved for lower-income borrowers who lack access to safe housing.
When you’re ready to apply, you’ll submit paperwork about your finances, including income, assets and debt, and undergo a credit check. If preapproved, you can begin searching for a home in an appropriate area based on USDA eligibility.
USDA loan fees
USDA mortgages come with two fees:
- Upfront guarantee fee: The upfront guarantee fee this fiscal year is 1 percent of the loan amount. For example, for a $100,000 loan, this fee would be $1,000. This fee can often be rolled into the mortgage instead of paying it out of pocket.
- Annual fee: The annual fee is 0.35 percent of the loan amount. A $100,000 mortgage, for example, would have a $1,000 one-time payment (the upfront guarantee fee) and a $350 per year ongoing payment for the life of the loan.
Both of these fees are charged to the lender, who then usually passes the cost on to the borrower. These fees keep USDA loans subsidy-neutral, which means that any losses incurred by the program are paid for by these fees instead of taxpayer dollars. Depending on the needs of the program, the fees can change annually.
USDA loan FAQ
Along with the two USDA fees listed above, you’ll need to cover regular mortgage costs. These may include:
- Origination fee: Many lenders charge an origination fee on mortgages, regardless of loan type. The fee usually costs around 1 percent of the amount you’re borrowing.
- Loan application fee: Similar to applying for college, some lenders charge a nominal fee to complete the mortgage application.
- Title insurance and services: When you buy a home with a mortgage, you’ll need to pay for a title search and lender’s title insurance policy. The cost varies depending on the closing attorney or settlement or title company you work with.
- Processing or underwriting fees: In addition to (or sometimes in lieu of) an origination fee, some lenders charge a “processing” or “underwriting” fee. This cost covers the expense of underwriting your loan application.
- Credit report fee: Many lenders charge a small fee to run a credit check.
- Appraisal: As the homebuyer, you’ll be responsible for paying for the home appraisal before the lender can approve your loan. A home appraisal cost a median of $500 in 2022, according to the National Association of Realtors.
- Discount points: Many lenders offer the option to purchase mortgage points to buy down your loan’s interest rate. One point costs 1 percent of the amount you’re borrowing.
USDA loans do not require PMI, as PMI is only for borrowers of conventional loans who put down less than 20 percent. Instead of charging mortgage insurance, USDA loans charge two fees: the upfront guarantee fee (which equals 1 percent of the loan amount) and an annual fee (which equals 0.35 percent of the loan amount, charged yearly).
You can refinance an existing USDA mortgage into another USDA mortgage or refinance an existing USDA mortgage into a conventional mortgage. However, you cannot refinance a non-USDA mortgage into a USDA mortgage. If you have a USDA loan, you have three options for refinance: a USDA streamline, USDA non-streamline or conventional loan refinance.
The USDA sets loan limits by county, with the limit for most counties in the country being $377,600. However, in high cost areas, this can increase significantly. For instance, in Santa Cruz County, California, the limit is $970,800.In tandem with the loan limits, there are income limits that may be more restrictive. These vary more specifically by location. You can look up the eligibility requirements on the USDA’s eligibility tool.