If you've served in the military and need a mortgage, then a VA loan might be right for you, whether you're buying a home or refinancing. Here's what to know.
What is a VA loan?
A VA loan is a mortgage guaranteed by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) and issued by a private lender, such as a bank, credit union or mortgage company. A VA loan can make it easier to buy a home because it typically doesn't require a down payment.
Only qualified U.S. veterans, active-duty military personnel and some surviving spouses are eligible for VA loans. The GI Bill of Rights created the VA home loan program in 1944 to help veterans get a foothold in civilian life after World War II.
How does a VA loan work?
The VA’s guarantee means the government will repay the lender a portion of a VA loan if the borrower doesn't make payments. This assurance reduces the risk for lenders, which makes it possible for them to offer favorable terms and require no down payment.
If eligible, you can complete the VA mortgage application process through a lender of your choice. Many, but not all, lenders offer VA loans, and some lenders specialize in serving VA loan borrowers.
Who can get a VA home loan?
You are likely eligible for a VA mortgage if:
You’re an active-duty military member or veteran who meets length-of-service requirements.
You're the surviving spouse of a service member who died while on active duty or from a service-connected disability and you have not remarried or remarried after age 57 or Dec. 16, 2003. Spouses of prisoners of war or service members missing in action are also eligible.
You meet the lender’s requirements for credit and income. The VA doesn't set a minimum credit score for VA loans, but lenders can set their own minimum standards. The lender will also consider your income and debts to evaluate your ability to repay the mortgage.
The property you want to buy meets safety standards and building codes and will be your primary residence.
To show that you meet the military service or surviving spouse requirements, you'll need to get a VA certificate of eligibility before the loan closes. You can ask a VA-approved lender to obtain the document for you or request the certificate through the VA.
Types of VA loans
Besides mortgages to purchase homes, the VA loan program offers refinancing options and loans for home improvements:
A VA cash-out refinance replaces your mortgage with a new loan while tapping some of your home’s value for things like paying off debt or making home improvements. It also can be used to replace a non-VA loan with a VA loan.
A VA IRRRL (which is pronounced "Earl") is also called a streamline refinance loan. You can replace an existing VA loan with a mortgage offering a lower interest rate, or move from an adjustable-rate loan to one with a fixed interest rate.
VA renovation loans let borrowers buy or refinance a home and roll the cost of improvements into the mortgage.
VA supplemental loans for home improvements can be added to an existing mortgage or included in a VA refinance.
In addition, the VA offers a Native American Direct Loan program and adapted housing grants. The NADL program helps qualified Native Americans buy, build, improve or refinance a home on federal trust land. Adapted housing grants help veterans with service-related disabilities buy, build or modify homes for better livability.
VA loan benefits
Here are the biggest advantages of VA loans compared with conventional and FHA loans:
No down payment or mortgage insurance required: Other loan types require down payments and can include an extra cost for mortgage insurance. FHA loans require mortgage insurance regardless of the down payment amount and conventional loans usually require mortgage insurance if the down payment is less than 20%.
Competitive interest rates: Average 30-year mortgage rates were lower for VA home loans than for FHA and conventional mortgages in every month of 2019, according to mortgage data provider Ellie Mae.
Limited closing costs: Closing costs are the various fees and expenses you pay to get a mortgage. The Department of Veterans Affairs limits the lender's origination fee to no more than 1% of the loan amount and prohibits lenders from charging some other closing costs.
Disadvantages of VA home loans
Every type of loan has drawbacks for some borrowers. Here are potential disadvantages of a VA loan.
VA loan funding fee: Although VA loans don't require mortgage insurance, they come with an extra cost called a funding fee. The fee is set by the federal government and covers the cost of foreclosing if a borrower defaults. The fee ranges from 1.4% to 3.6% of the loan, depending on your down payment and whether it’s your first VA loan. You can pay the fee upfront or fold it into the loan.
Purchase loans only for primary homes: You can't use a VA loan to buy investment property or a vacation home.
Not all properties eligible: A VA-approved appraiser will evaluate the home you want to buy to estimate the value and make sure it meets the VA's minimum property requirements. Some fixer-uppers may not meet the VA's minimum standards.
How many times can you use a VA loan benefit?
Getting a VA loan isn’t a one-time deal. After using a VA mortgage to purchase a home, you can get another VA loan if:
You sell the house and pay off the VA loan.
You sell the house, and a qualified veteran buyer agrees to assume the VA loan.
You repay the VA loan in full and keep the house. For one time only, you can get another VA loan to purchase an additional home as your primary residence.