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It seems the Great Thaw may be upon us.

Credit score requirements have loosened in recent months, a sign that at least some mortgage lenders are starting to take a softer approach after years of tight lending.

Nearly a third of all successful mortgage applications in August featured FICO scores below 700, according to mortgage technology behemoth Ellie Mae. In August 2012, only about 15% of green-lighted borrowers had a sub-700 score.

A sudden wave of lender benevolence is not at the heart of this. Refinance demand has fallen sharply on the heels of rising interest rates. A 30-year fixed-rate mortgage averaged 4.23 percent the week ending Oct. 10, nearly a full percentage point higher than the year prior, according to Freddie Mac. The Mortgage Bankers Association Refinance Index showed that refinance applications in the third quarter were down 25 percent from the second quarter.

Lenders are likely prying loose their credit requirements to compensate and keep pace with competitors as the focus shifts to purchase transactions. That new game plan may signal a promising shift for prospective homebuyers.

Barely two years removed from a bankruptcy discharge, Army veteran Toni Speight closed on her Maryland home in late September. Neither she nor her husband had a credit score above 695.

“I didn’t think that I would ever be able to do it,” said Speight, who used a VA loan to become the first homeowner in her family. “I got a new start, I’ve learned and I’m moving forward.”

More lax credit minimums give both lenders and borrowers more room to maneuver, but these scores are still just a piece of the home-purchasing puzzle. Plenty of consumers with and without great credit are still struggling to secure home financing.

The bottom line is some home loans are still generally easier to obtain than others. Here’s a brief survey of the field.

Conventional Loans

Conventional home loans are “conventional” because they don’t come with a government backing and generally conform to requirements set by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the biggest purchasers of home loans issued by private lenders.

Before you start shopping for a home, it’s important to get familiar with your credit reports and credit scores. You’re entitled to your free credit reports, as mandated by the government, once a year from each of the three credit reporting agencies. There are tools on the market that allow you to check your credit score for free (Credit.com offers a tool like this). The score — whether you get it for free or purchase it — may not be identical to the credit score your lender will see, but it will give you a good range to work with when you apply for a mortgage.

When it comes to credit scores, conventional loans are traditionally tougher to obtain than government-backed mortgages, and that’s still pretty much the case today. Conventional lenders are generally looking for a credit score of at least 740, which is higher than the typical minimum score required for government-backed loans. The average credit score for conventional borrowers in August was 758, according to the Ellie Mae report.

You’ll typically need a down payment of at least 5% to secure a conventional loan. Usually anything shy of 20% will require the added expense of monthly mortgage insurance, which you’ll pay until you reach a loan-to-value ratio of 80%. The exact amount will vary based on your down payment, your credit score and other factors, but 0.5% to 1% of the loan amount is a decent rule of thumb.

Consumers with sterling credit and the assets necessary to put down 20% will often be hard-pressed to find a more competitive loan product than this one.

FHA Loans

The government doesn’t make home loans. Rather, it insures them. Federal backing tends to mean less stringent requirements, and that’s a big reason why loans guarantied by the government represented nearly half of all mortgages last year, as recorded by the Federal Reserve.

This loan program was created to help improve access to homeownership for lower-income buyers. FHA loans require only a 3.5 % down payment, but they do come with both an upfront mortgage insurance premium and a monthly version, the latter of which you now pay for the life of the loan. That potentially decades-long expense is essentially the price for getting into a home today.

FHA lenders are considerably more forgiving to consumers with bruised and battered credit. Successful FHA homebuyers this August had an average 691 FICO score. The Ellie Mae report showed that applicants who failed to land an FHA loan had an average score of 667.

Previous homeowners who lost theirs to foreclosure also have a friend in FHA loans. The program recently altered its three-year “seasoning” policy to allow qualified homeowners to purchase just one year removed from a foreclosure.

In comparison, some conventional borrowers may face a four- to seven-year wait.

VA Loans

The other major government-backed loan program is also booming. VA loan volume has more than tripled since 2007, and that’s in no small way because of how difficult it’s become for many veterans and service members to qualify for conventional financing.

These loans don’t require a down payment or private mortgage insurance. The minimum 620 credit score most VA lenders are looking for falls into a “Fair” score range, which is a step below “Good” (and that’s a step below “Excellent”).

VA borrowers without a service-connected disability pay a funding fee on both purchase and refinance loans. The fee is typically 2.15% of the loan amount and helps keep the self-funded program running. It’s also a cost veterans are able to finance.

Perhaps surprisingly, in the face of all this flexibility, VA loans have had the lowest foreclosure rate out there for nearly all of the past five years.

In some respects, VA loans are both the easiest and most difficult loans to land. Nine in 10 come with no down payment, and the typical VA borrower has less than $7,000 in assets.

But just becoming eligible for this program requires a level of service and sacrifice to which few Americans commit. Less than 1% of the population currently serves in the U.S. military.

Image: iStock

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  • http://www.credit.com/ Credit.com Credit Experts

    There may be — and you may have more options than you think. You’ll find information about that here: How You Could Be Underestimating Your Homebuying Chances. Good luck to you.

  • jennifer

    Thank you for this article/blog, This was the most consolidated and helpful information i have found on the web. Being a combat veteran and a single mother I want to provide a stable environment for my daughter. I am always looking for reliable information on home financing and how to go about buying our first home.

  • Pingback: Are Preapproved Mortgages Becoming Extinct? | Best Credit Repair()

  • Pingback: The Hardest & Easiest Home Loans to Get | RalphMagin's Blog()

  • US_Homeowner


    I’m afraid your statement “The government doesn’t make home loans.” is not entirely correct.

    My mortgage documentation states: “This Security Instrument is given to the United States of America acting through the Rural Housing Service or successor agency, United States Department of Agriculture (“Lender”)”. Yes, the United States Department of Agriculture. And I don’t live on a farm.

    There are a few direct governmental housing loans administered by USDA. One version is the section 502 Rural Housing Development loan.

    Admittedly, this is a very difficult loan (I was told the most difficult) to get and to work with.

    There are stiff restrictions on income and the credit scores of the applicants should be good (If I remember correctly, 670 or above – difficult to have in the required income ranges).

    In addition, there is a labyrinthine set of conditions that the property must meet; it must be in USDA “designated rural area”, it cannot be above a certain square footage, it cannot have certain features, it must pass a more-lengthy-than-normal list of inspections, and the list goes on. And the subsidy (which is in the form of an interest rate reduction) must be repaid when the house is sold or once the mortgage is paid off. No free ride or forgiveness if you live in the house for XX years – you must repay it.

    So, they are certainly not for everyone. Especially if you cannot locate to a “designated rural area”.

    However, they require no down payment and, for those who can make it past all the hurdles, they are a blessing for those who would otherwise be unable to obtain a home loan (of any other type, including those listed above.)

    I am grateful everyday for the wonderful staff who worked on my application and closing and for the loan I have. I would not have a place to call my own otherwise.

    USDA also does guaranteed loans (a lot like FHA loans) and rental housing loans (mostly to assist nonprofit organizations or agencies in purchasing of multifamily units to be used for low-income rentals).

    Information on USDA housing programs can be found on the USDA site and at this site:

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