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Conventional Loans: Everything You Need to Know

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Conventional Loans: Everything You Need to Know

In the complex world of real estate and homeownership, understanding the intricacies of various mortgage options is essential. Among the plethora of choices available to prospective homebuyers, conventional loans stand out as a fundamental pillar of financing.

In this article, we will delve into the world of conventional loans, shedding light on what they are, how they work, and why it’s crucial to comprehend their nuances when embarking on your homeownership journey.

Definition of Conventional Loans

Conventional loans are a type of mortgage loan that is not backed or insured by any government agency. Unlike government-backed loans such as FHA, VA, or USDA loans, conventional loans are funded and serviced solely by private financial institutions, like banks and credit unions.

They are essentially loans that conform to the guidelines set by two major government-sponsored entities: Fannie Mae (Federal National Mortgage Association) and Freddie Mac (Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corporation).

Conventional loans are the most common type of mortgage loan in the United States, accounting for over 70% of all mortgages originated in 2022.

Importance of Understanding Conventional Loans

Understanding conventional loans is paramount for anyone considering homeownership or refinancing. Here’s why:

Widespread Availability

Conventional loans are widely available, making them an attractive option for many homebuyers. Knowing how they work allows you to explore a broad range of properties and financing options.

Competitive Terms

Conventional loans often come with competitive interest rates and terms, especially for borrowers with strong credit profiles. Understanding these terms can help you secure a more favorable loan.

Tailored Financing

Familiarity with conventional loans enables you to tailor your financing to your specific needs. You can choose from fixed-rate or adjustable-rate options, various loan terms, and down payment sizes to find the right fit for your situation.

Comparison with Other Options

When you understand conventional loans, you can make informed comparisons with other mortgage options, such as FHA, VA, or USDA loans. This empowers you to make the best decision for your financial future.

Financial Preparedness

Knowledge of the eligibility requirements, credit score expectations, and down payment constraints associated with conventional loans helps you prepare financially for the homebuying process. This preparation can save you time and effort down the road.

How conventional loans are different from government-backed loans?

Conventional loans are not backed by the government, which means that lenders are taking on more risk when they make a conventional loan. As a result, conventional loans typically have higher interest rates than government-backed loans. Some other key differences are given below;

Conventional Loans

  • Not insured or guaranteed by a government agency.
  • Offered by private lenders.
  • More stringent credit and down payment requirements.
  • Borrowers may need private mortgage insurance (PMI) with a down payment less than 20%.
  • Loan limits set by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

Government-Backed Loans (FHA, VA, USDA):

  • Insured or guaranteed by a government agency.
  • Easier qualification for borrowers with lower credit scores and smaller down payments.
  • FHA loans require mortgage insurance premiums (MIP).
  • VA loans are exclusively for eligible veterans and military personnel.
  • USDA loans target rural and suburban areas with income restrictions.

Despite the stricter requirements and higher interest rates, conventional loans offer several benefits over government-backed loans.

First, conventional loans offer more flexibility in terms of loan terms and features. For example, conventional loans can be obtained for a wider range of property types and for longer loan terms than government-backed loans.

Second, conventional loans can be refinanced more easily than government-backed loans.

Understanding these distinctions is vital for selecting the right mortgage type for your financial situation and homeownership goals. In the subsequent sections, we will delve deeper into the specifics of conventional loans, so you can make an informed choice when considering this popular financing option.

Types of conventional loans

There are two main types of conventional loans: conforming loans and non-conforming loans.

Conforming loans 

Conforming loans meet the size and other requirements of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, two government-sponsored enterprises that purchase mortgages from lenders and sell them to investors. Conforming loans are the most common type of conventional loan, and they typically have the lowest interest rates.

Non-conforming loans 

Non-conforming loans do not meet the requirements of Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac. Non-conforming loans can be used to finance a wider range of property types and for longer loan terms than conforming loans. However, non-conforming loans typically have higher interest rates than conforming loans.

Characteristics of Conventional Loans

In this section, we will explore three key characteristics of conventional loans: fixed vs. adjustable interest rates, loan terms, and amortization, as well as down payment requirements.

Fixed vs. Adjustable Interest Rates

Fixed Interest Rates (FRMs): A fixed-rate conventional loan is characterized by an interest rate that remains constant throughout the entire loan term. This means your monthly mortgage payments will stay the same, providing predictability and stability for homeowners.

Fixed-rate mortgages are particularly attractive when interest rates are low, as they allow borrowers to lock in a favourable rate for the duration of the loan.

Benefits of Fixed-Rate Conventional Loans:

  • Predictable monthly payments.
  • Protection against rising interest rates.
  • Easier budgeting and financial planning.

Adjustable Interest Rates (ARMs): Adjustable-rate conventional loans, also known as ARMs, feature an interest rate that is initially lower than that of fixed-rate mortgages. However, this rate is subject to periodic adjustments based on market conditions.

Typically, ARMs have an initial fixed-rate period, such as 5, 7, or 10 years, during which the interest rate remains constant. After this initial period, the rate adjusts periodically, often annually.

Benefits of Adjustable-Rate Conventional Loans:

  • Lower initial interest rates and initial monthly payments.
  • Potential for lower interest costs if rates remain stable or decrease.
  • Suitable for borrowers who plan to sell or refinance within the initial fixed-rate period.

It’s important to carefully consider your financial goals and risk tolerance when choosing between fixed and adjustable-rate conventional loans. Fixed-rate loans offer stability, while ARMs provide potential cost savings in the short term but carry the risk of rising rates in the future.

Loan Terms and Amortization

Conventional loans come with various loan term options, typically ranging from 10 to 30 years. The loan term is the duration over which you will repay the mortgage. Here are some common loan terms:

  • 15-Year Loan: This term results in higher monthly payments but allows borrowers to pay off the loan more quickly. It often comes with lower interest rates.
  • 30-Year Loan: The 30-year term offers lower monthly payments, making it more affordable for many borrowers. However, you’ll pay more in interest over the life of the loan compared to shorter terms.

Amortization is the process by which you gradually pay off your loan balance over time. With each monthly payment, a portion goes toward the principal (the original loan amount) and the rest goes toward interest. In the early years of a loan, a larger portion of your payment goes toward interest, but as time passes, more of your payment is applied to the principal. This results in the gradual reduction of your loan balance.

Down Payment Requirements

Conventional loans are known for their flexibility in terms of down payment requirements, but the amount you need to put down can vary based on factors like your creditworthiness, the type of property you’re buying, and the loan program you choose. Here are some common down payment scenarios for conventional loans:

  • 20% Down Payment: Putting down 20% of the home’s purchase price is often considered ideal because it typically eliminates the need for private mortgage insurance (PMI). This option is attractive to borrowers who have saved a significant amount for a down payment.
  • Less Than 20% Down Payment: If you’re unable to put down 20%, you may still qualify for a conventional loan with a lower down payment. However, you’ll likely be required to pay PMI until you reach a 20% equity stake in your home.
  • 5% Down Payment or Lower: Some conventional loan programs, such as Fannie Mae’s HomeReady and Freddie Mac’s Home Possible, offer low down payment options, sometimes as low as 3%. These programs are designed to make homeownership more accessible, especially for first-time buyers.

Understanding the characteristics of conventional loans empowers you to make informed decisions about your mortgage, from choosing the type of interest rate that suits your needs to determining the loan term and down payment that aligns with your financial situation.

How to qualify for a conventional loan

In this section, we will explore the key factors that lenders consider when evaluating your eligibility for a conventional loan: credit score and credit history, debt-to-income ratio (DTI), and employment and income requirements.

Credit Score and Credit History

Your credit score and credit history play a crucial role in determining your eligibility for a conventional loan. These factors provide lenders with insights into your past financial behavior and your ability to manage debt responsibly.

Credit Score: Lenders often have minimum credit score requirements for conventional loans. While these requirements can vary, a FICO credit score of 620 or higher is generally considered acceptable for conventional financing. However, a higher credit score, such as 740 or above, is typically required to secure the most competitive interest rates.

  • Credit Score Improvement: If your credit score falls below the desired threshold, consider strategies to improve it, such as paying down existing debts, making payments on time, and addressing any errors on your credit report.

Credit History: Lenders also review your credit history, which includes factors like your payment history, types of credit accounts, and the length of your credit history. A positive credit history, with a track record of on-time payments and responsible credit usage, can enhance your eligibility.

  • Review Your Credit Report: Before applying for a conventional loan, obtain a copy of your credit report from all three major credit bureaus (Experian, Equifax, and TransUnion) and review it for accuracy. Dispute any inaccuracies to ensure your credit report reflects your true financial history.

Debt-to-Income Ratio (DTI)

Your debt-to-income ratio (DTI) is a critical metric that lenders use to assess your ability to manage your monthly mortgage payments alongside your other financial obligations. DTI is calculated by dividing your total monthly debt payments by your gross monthly income. The two primary components of DTI are;

Front-End DTI: This ratio considers your housing expenses, including your monthly mortgage payment (principal, interest, taxes, and insurance). Lenders typically prefer a front-end DTI of 28% or lower.

Back-End DTI: Back-end DTI factors in all of your monthly debt obligations, including credit card payments, car loans, student loans, and your proposed mortgage payment. Lenders usually prefer a back-end DTI of 36% or lower.

  • DTI Reduction Strategies: To improve your DTI and increase your eligibility, you can pay down existing debts, avoid taking on new debts, and explore ways to increase your income.

Employment and Income Requirements

Lenders also assess your employment and income stability to determine your eligibility for a conventional loan;

Stable Employment: Lenders generally prefer borrowers with a stable employment history. Consistent employment with the same employer or within the same industry can enhance your eligibility.

Income Verification: You’ll need to provide documentation to verify your income, such as pay stubs, W-2 forms, and tax returns. Lenders assess your ability to make mortgage payments based on your income.

  • Self-Employed Borrowers: If you are self-employed, you may need to provide additional documentation, such as profit and loss statements or business tax returns, to verify your income.

Sufficient Income: Lenders evaluate whether your income is sufficient to cover your monthly mortgage payment, property taxes, homeowners insurance, and other debts. Your income-to-debt ratios play a significant role in this assessment.

These stricter criteria can make it more challenging for some borrowers to qualify for conventional loans, especially if they have lower credit scores or higher levels of debt. In such cases, alternative mortgage options like FHA or VA loans may be more accessible.

Advantages of Conventional Loans

Conventional loans offer several advantages that make them an attractive choice for many homebuyers. In this section, we will deeply explore three key benefits of conventional loans: lower interest rates, no mortgage insurance premiums with a 20% down payment, and more flexibility in loan terms.

Lower Interest Rates

One of the primary advantages of conventional loans is the potential for lower interest rates compared to some other mortgage options. Several factors contribute to these competitive rates;

  • Strong Credit Profiles: Borrowers with excellent credit scores often qualify for the most favorable interest rates on conventional loans. Lenders reward responsible credit behavior with lower borrowing costs.
  • Private Funding: Since conventional loans are not backed by a government agency, lenders rely on private capital to fund these mortgages. This competition among lenders can lead to lower rates for borrowers.
  • Loan Size: Conventional loans can accommodate both small and large loan amounts, and interest rates tend to be competitive across a wide range of loan sizes.
  • Market Dynamics: Economic conditions, including changes in the broader financial markets and the Federal Reserve’s interest rate policies, can impact interest rates on conventional loans.

Having a lower interest rate can translate into significant long-term savings over the life of your mortgage. It results in lower monthly payments and a reduced overall cost of homeownership.

No Mortgage Insurance Premiums (with 20% down payment)

One of the standout advantages of conventional loans is the opportunity to avoid private mortgage insurance (PMI) when you make a substantial down payment, typically 20% or more of the home’s purchase price. PMI is an additional cost that protects the lender in case the borrower defaults on the loan. Avoiding PMI offers several benefits;

  • Cost Savings: By eliminating PMI, borrowers can save a substantial amount of money over the life of the loan. PMI can add hundreds of dollars to monthly mortgage payments.
  • Increased Buying Power: A 20% down payment not only eliminates PMI but also allows you to qualify for larger loan amounts, giving you more buying power in the housing market.
  • Equity Building: Making a significant down payment helps you build equity in your home faster, which can be valuable if you plan to refinance or sell in the future.

However, it’s important to note that you can still qualify for a conventional loan with a lower down payment, but PMI will be required in such cases.

More Flexibility in Loan Terms

Conventional loans offer borrowers more flexibility in tailoring their loan terms to suit their specific needs and financial goals. This flexibility includes;

  • Choice of Loan Term: Conventional loans come with various loan term options, allowing borrowers to select a term that aligns with their financial situation and objectives. Common terms include 15, 20, and 30 years.
  • Customization: Borrowers can customize their conventional loans to include features such as fixed or adjustable interest rates, which can provide further flexibility in managing their monthly payments.
  • Property Type: Conventional loans can be used to finance various property types, including single-family homes, condos, townhouses, and even multi-unit properties.

This flexibility empowers borrowers to create a mortgage structure that best meets their unique homeownership goals, whether it’s paying off the loan quickly or optimizing monthly affordability.

Disadvantages of Conventional Loans

While conventional loans offer numerous advantages, they also come with certain disadvantages that borrowers should be aware of. In this section, we will explore three key disadvantages of conventional loans: stricter qualification criteria, higher down payment requirements, and the potential for private mortgage insurance (PMI).

Stricter Qualification Criteria

Conventional loans generally have stricter qualification criteria compared to some other mortgage options, such as FHA or VA loans. Lenders carefully assess borrowers’ financial profiles, making eligibility requirements more rigorous in several ways;

  • Credit Score: Conventional loans often require higher minimum credit scores, typically in the range of 620 to 740 or higher for the most competitive interest rates. Borrowers with lower credit scores may face challenges in securing approval or may receive less favorable terms.
  • Debt-to-Income Ratio (DTI): Lenders typically have lower acceptable DTI ratios for conventional loans. Borrowers must demonstrate their ability to manage monthly mortgage payments along with their other debt obligations, which can be challenging for those with high levels of debt.
  • Income and Employment Verification: Lenders scrutinize borrowers’ employment history and income stability. Self-employed borrowers may face additional documentation requirements to verify their income.
  • Property Appraisal: The property being financed must meet specific appraisal requirements to ensure it’s worth the loan amount. If the appraisal falls short, it can affect loan approval.

These stricter criteria can make it more challenging for some borrowers to qualify for conventional loans, especially if they have lower credit scores or higher levels of debt. In such cases, alternative mortgage options like FHA or VA loans may be more accessible.

Higher Down Payment Requirements

Conventional loans are often associated with higher down payment requirements compared to government-backed loan programs. While there is some flexibility in down payment amounts, borrowers who cannot make a substantial down payment may face challenges.

  • 20% Down Payment to Avoid PMI: To avoid private mortgage insurance (PMI), borrowers typically need to make a down payment of at least 20% of the home’s purchase price. For many homebuyers, saving this amount can be a significant hurdle.
  • Lower Down Payment Options with PMI: Borrowers who cannot meet the 20% threshold may still qualify for conventional loans but will be required to pay PMI, which can increase their monthly mortgage payments.
  • Jumbo Loan Requirements: For borrowers seeking jumbo loans (loan amounts that exceed conforming loan limits set by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac), even higher down payment percentages may be required, often 20% or more.

These higher down payment requirements can limit homeownership opportunities for those who do not have substantial savings or equity from a previous home.

Private Mortgage Insurance (PMI)

One of the most notable disadvantages of conventional loans is the potential requirement for private mortgage insurance (PMI). PMI is typically required when the down payment is less than 20% of the home’s purchase price. While PMI serves to protect the lender in case of borrower default, it adds an extra cost for borrowers. Key points about PMI include;

  • Cost: PMI can add several hundred dollars or more to monthly mortgage payments, increasing the overall cost of homeownership.
  • Cancellation: Borrowers can request PMI removal once they have built up at least 20% equity in their home. This usually requires an appraisal to confirm the property’s current value.
  • Termination: Lenders are required to automatically terminate PMI when the borrower’s loan balance reaches 78% of the original property value, but borrowers can request its removal earlier if they meet certain criteria.

It’s important for borrowers to consider the impact of PMI on their monthly budget when opting for a conventional loan with a lower down payment.

Conventional Loan Process

In this section, we will guide you through the conventional loan process, which typically includes prequalification and preapproval, the loan application and documentation stage, and the crucial underwriting and approval process.

Prequalification and Preapproval

Prequalification: The conventional loan process often begins with prequalification, which is an initial assessment of your financial situation by a lender. During prequalification, you provide basic financial information, including your income, assets, debts, and credit score. The lender uses this information to estimate how much you may be eligible to borrow.

  • Informal Process: Prequalification is usually a relatively informal process that helps you get a sense of your purchasing power and the price range of homes you can consider.

Preapproval: Preapproval takes the process a step further and involves a more comprehensive review of your financial information. Here’s what you can expect during preapproval;

  • Detailed Application: You complete a formal mortgage application, providing in-depth financial documentation such as pay stubs, tax returns, bank statements, and employment history.
  • Credit Check: The lender pulls your credit report to assess your creditworthiness and determine your credit score.
  • Interest Rate Quote: You may receive a preliminary interest rate quote based on your financial profile and current market conditions.
  • Conditional Approval: If you meet the lender’s criteria, you receive a conditional preapproval letter, which demonstrates your seriousness as a homebuyer to sellers.

Loan Application and Documentation

Once you’ve found a property and are ready to move forward, you will transition from preapproval to the formal loan application stage. Here’s what you can expect;

  • Complete Application: You’ll complete the formal loan application, providing all the necessary documentation and information required by the lender.
  • Property Appraisal: The lender arranges for an appraisal of the property you intend to purchase to determine its current market value. The appraisal is essential to ensure the property’s value aligns with the loan amount.
  • Title Search and Insurance: The lender conducts a title search to verify the property’s legal ownership and identify any existing liens or issues. Title insurance is typically required to protect against title-related problems.
  • Home Inspection: While not always mandatory, a home inspection is advisable to identify any potential issues with the property’s condition.
  • Additional Documentation: Throughout this stage, the lender may request additional documentation to verify your financial status, such as updated bank statements or employment verification.

Underwriting and Approval

The underwriting process is where the lender thoroughly reviews your loan application, documents, and the property to determine whether to approve your loan. Here’s what takes place during underwriting;

  • Evaluation of Risk: Underwriters assess your creditworthiness, financial stability, and the property’s condition to evaluate the risk associated with the loan.
  • Loan Conditions: The underwriter may issue conditions or additional requirements that must be met before final loan approval. These conditions can range from providing more documentation to addressing property-related issues.
  • Property Valuation: The property’s appraisal report is reviewed to ensure it supports the loan amount requested.
  • Final Approval: Once all conditions are met, the underwriter grants final approval for the loan, and the lender issues a formal commitment letter.
  • Closing Disclosure: You’ll receive a Closing Disclosure document that outlines the final loan terms, closing costs, and other details about the transaction.

After receiving final approval, the conventional loan process enters the closing stage, where you’ll sign the necessary documents, transfer funds, and officially become the homeowner.

It’s essential to work closely with your lender, real estate agent, and other professionals to ensure a smooth and successful homebuying experience.

Closing the Conventional Loan

In this section, we will guide you through the closing of a conventional loan, which includes finalizing the loan terms, the closing process itself, and your post-closing responsibilities.

Finalizing the Loan Terms

Before you proceed to the closing table, it’s crucial to review and understand the final loan terms. Here are the key aspects to consider;

  • Interest Rate: Verify that the interest rate on your loan matches the rate quoted in your preapproval or conditional approval letter.
  • Loan Amount: Ensure the loan amount aligns with the purchase price of the property, minus your down payment.
  • Loan Type: Confirm that you are receiving the type of conventional loan (e.g., fixed-rate, adjustable-rate) that you applied for and were approved to receive.
  • Loan Term: Double-check the loan term (e.g., 15 years, 30 years) to ensure it matches your preferences and the terms you agreed upon.
  • Monthly Payment: Review the monthly mortgage payment amount, including any escrowed amounts for property taxes and insurance.
  • Closing Costs: Carefully review the closing costs, which can include fees for the appraisal, title search, attorney fees, and lender charges. Make sure these costs align with what you expected based on the Closing Disclosure.

The Closing Process

The closing process, also known as settlement, involves the finalization of the home purchase transaction. During the closing, you will;

  • Review and Sign Documents: You’ll review and sign numerous legal documents related to your mortgage, the property, and the transaction. This includes the promissory note, deed of trust or mortgage, and other disclosures.
  • Pay Closing Costs: You’ll be required to pay your portion of the closing costs, which can include the down payment, loan origination fees, title insurance, and prepaid items such as property taxes and homeowner’s insurance.
  • Receive Keys: Once all documents are signed, funds are disbursed, and the transaction is recorded, you’ll receive the keys to your new home.
  • Walkthrough: Before closing, it’s customary to conduct a final walkthrough of the property to ensure it’s in the agreed-upon condition.
  • Closing Agent: A closing agent, such as an escrow officer or attorney, will facilitate the closing process, ensuring that all parties involved (buyer, seller, lender) fulfill their obligations.

Post-Closing Responsibilities

After the closing is complete, you will have several responsibilities as a new homeowner;

  • Mortgage Payments: Continue to make your mortgage payments according to the agreed-upon schedule. Be aware of the due dates and payment methods.
  • Property Maintenance: As the homeowner, you are responsible for the maintenance and upkeep of the property, including repairs and routine maintenance tasks.
  • Property Taxes and Insurance: Pay your property taxes and homeowner’s insurance premiums when they come due. If these expenses are escrowed, your lender will manage the payments from your escrow account.
  • Monitor Your Loan: Keep track of your loan balance and any changes to your interest rate. You may also want to consider periodic mortgage reviews to explore opportunities for refinancing.
  • Homeowners Association (HOA): If your property is part of a homeowners association, stay informed about HOA fees and any rules or regulations that apply to your community.
  • Financial Planning: Continue to manage your finances responsibly and plan for any future expenses related to homeownership.

Remember that homeownership comes with ongoing responsibilities and financial commitments beyond the closing. It’s essential to stay informed and proactive in managing your home and mortgage to ensure a successful and enjoyable homeownership experience.


In this comprehensive guide, we’ve explored the world of conventional loans, shedding light on what they are, their advantages and disadvantages, eligibility criteria, and the entire loan process, from prequalification to closing.

When considering a conventional loan, it’s essential to be well-informed, thoroughly review your financial situation, and work closely with a knowledgeable lender and real estate professionals.

This will enable you to navigate the process with confidence and make informed decisions that align with your homeownership goals.

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