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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 home loan?
A VA loan is a mortgage guaranteed by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs 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 1944 GI Bill of Rights established the VA home loan program to help veterans get a foothold in civilian life after World War II.
You might find it helpful to go with a lender and a real estate agent who have experience working with VA borrowers. The home will be subject to a VA appraisal, and an experienced agent will help you avoid homes that won’t meet the minimum required standards.
How does a VA home 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.
VA loan rates are typically lower than offers you’d find for conventional loans. The rate could be fixed, meaning payments will remain the same, or adjustable, meaning that payments could change over time. Adjustable-rate mortgages (ARMs) come with some risk, as you’ll pay more if rates rise.
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. It’s a good idea to apply with multiple lenders in order to compare rate offers.
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VA home loan eligibility
You are likely eligible for a VA mortgage if:
You’re an active-duty military member or veteran who meets length-of-service requirements (90 days of service during wartime or 181 days of service during peacetime).
You served in the National Guard or Reserve for at least six years, or served 90 days (with at least 30 of them being consecutive) in active duty under Title 32 orders.
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. Surviving spouses can retain eligibility if they remarried after the age of 57 and after 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. Borrowers are typically required to occupy the residence within 60 days, though this may be extended to 12 months under certain circumstances.
» MORE: VA loan requirements for 2023
How to apply for a VA home loan
Obtain a certificate of eligibility: A VA certificate of eligibility shows a mortgage lender that your military service meets the requirements for a VA loan. A VA-approved lender can obtain the document for you, which is needed before the loan can close. You can also request the certificate from the VA online or by mail.
Find the right lender: Some VA lenders consider borrowers with lower credit, while others offer a larger variety of VA loan types. Get preapproved with more than one VA mortgage lender to compare their qualification requirements and mortgage rates. Preapproval is nonbinding, but it will give you an idea of what kind of mortgage you qualify for and how much you may be eligible to borrow. Getting preapproved also shows sellers that you are motivated to buy and can qualify for a mortgage.
Find a home: An experienced real estate agent can help you find a home that meets minimum property requirements regarding cleanliness, safety and structural soundness. After you work with your agent to make an offer, the mortgage lender will evaluate your finances and order a VA appraisal to make sure the home meets all the requirements. If your application and appraisal are approved, the final steps are to close on the loan and move into the house. The application process will be essentially the same as when you applied for preapproval, except now you’ll be applying with a specific property in mind.
Pros and cons of VA home loans
Like any type of loan, VA loans have their advantages and disadvantages. Borrowers who may benefit from a VA loan will have to contend with specific fees and eligibility requirements in exchange for features like low rates and no minimum down payment requirements.
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%.
Lower rates. VA loans usually have lower rates than conventional mortgages.
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.
VA loans can be assumed. This means that when you’re ready to sell your home, you have the option of allowing the buyer to take over your existing mortgage. This can be a selling point if your rate is lower than the current average mortgage rate.
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. As of April 7, 2023, the fee ranges from 1.25% to 3.3% 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 are only for primary homes. You can't use a VA loan to buy an investment property or a vacation home.
Not all properties are eligible. A VA-approved appraiser will evaluate the home you want to buy to estimate the value and make sure it meets minimum property requirements. Some fixer-uppers may not meet the VA's minimum standards.
» MORE: VA loans vs. conventional loans
What is the VA loan limit?
The VA loan limit is the maximum amount you can borrow without having to make a down payment. In 2020, limits were eliminated for current members of the military and veterans who have access to their full VA loan entitlement. However, loan limits still apply to borrowers who already have a VA loan or have defaulted on a VA loan.
In 2023, the standard VA loan limit is $726,200 for a single-family home in a typical U.S. county, but it can run as high as $1,089,300 in high-cost areas. It’s possible to get a VA loan even if the home price exceeds the county limit, but you’ll be required to make a down payment. You can use NerdWallet’s search tool below to find the loan limit for your county.
» MORE: VA loan limits in 2023
Refinancing a VA home loan
You can refinance an existing VA loan with a standard (also called a “streamline") refinance loan. This is formally called a VA Interest Rate Reduction Refinance Loan (VA IRRRL). Just as it sounds, the intention behind these loans is to change the rate of your VA loan, either by qualifying for a lower rate or by switching from an adjustable rate to a fixed rate.
Borrowers who want to access some of their equity — or who want to convert their conventional mortgage to a VA loan — may be interested in a VA cash-out refinance. This would involve taking on a larger loan, paying off your original mortgage, and pocketing the difference. It’s typically recommended that you use this extracted equity to finance wealth-building expenses, like renovations or repairs to the home.
» MORE: How to refinance a VA loan
Types of VA home loans
The VA loan program offers a variety of options, including purchase and refinance mortgages, rehab and renovation loans and the Native American Direct Loan. Here's an overview.
VA loan type
VA purchase mortgage
Native American Direct Loan (NADL)
» MORE: Government home loans
How many times can you use a VA home loan?
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. Just once, you can get another VA loan to purchase an additional home as your primary residence.
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