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VA Loan Vs. Conventional Loan: What’s The Difference?

Victoria Araj6-Minute Read

November 28, 2022

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Not all borrowers have the same mortgage opportunities available to them. But if you’re an eligible active-duty or former service member (or a surviving spouse), you have the option of a VA loan.

Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) loans stand out against other home loans for their low costs and flexible requirements. However, they’re not the only choice out there. Conventional loans can also offer competitive rates based on the lender and your financial profile. So which one should you choose when buying or refinancing a home?

Here’s a rundown on how a VA loan versus a conventional loan stack up against each other.

Comparing VA Loans Vs. Conventional Loans

VA loans and conventional loans are two types of mortgages available to borrowers looking for a home. However, they both come with unique traits. Let’s take a look at those differences now.

Conventional Loan

Most conventional loans are conforming loans, which means they meet the guidelines to be sold to mortgage buyers such as Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae. An exception is a jumbo loan, which is a conventional home loan that’s considered non-conforming – instead of conforming – because it exceeds the loan limits set by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

As a type of conforming loan, conventional loans tend to be more common, with a relatively standardized process. Additionally, since lenders can offload the mortgage and its potential risk to mortgage buyers, they’re usually cheaper than non-conforming loans.

VA Loan

VA loans are considered government or non-conforming loans. Because VA mortgages are non-conforming, they must be held by their lender or sold to another – but not Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac. Non-conforming loans also include jumbo loans, Federal Housing Administration (FHA) loans and U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) loans.

While their requirements vary, non-conforming loans usually have less restrictive loan limits compared to conventional loans. That makes VA loans – and other non-conforming loans – more accessible to borrowers outside the middle class.

If you’re ready to borrow but aren’t sure whether a conventional loan or a VA loan best fits your need, you can start a mortgage application with Rocket Mortgage® today and speak with a Home Loan Expert.

Find the best mortgage option for you.

Apply online for expert recommendations and to see what you qualify for.

Mortgage Requirements For VA Loans Vs. Conventional Loans

While some requirements for VA loans are similar to those of conventional loans, each loan program has its key differences. Some of the most important distinctions involve:

  • How you qualify for the mortgage loan
  • What the loan’s eligibility requirements are
  • The additional fees you’ll be required to pay

Here’s a table to break down these and other crucial features in both types of loans.

Mortgage Qualifications

VA Loan

Conventional Loan

Credit Score

Usually 580 – 620

620 

Down Payment

0%

3%

Debt-To-Income Ratio (DTI)

None, but preferred below 41%

Maximum of 50%

Private Mortgage Insurance (PMI)

Not required

Required with a down payment less than 20%

Property Type

Primary residence

Primary residence, secondary home, or investment property

Special Borrower Eligibility

Need a Certificate of Eligibility (COE)

No special eligibility requirements

Additional Fees

VA funding fee along with other potential fees, like loan origination

Varies according to lender, usually involves an origination fee

 

Credit Score

It’s generally easier to receive a VA loan approval than a conventional mortgage because of the low credit score requirements for VA loans.

The Department of Veterans Affairs itself doesn’t require a minimum credit score. Instead, the minimum comes from the mortgage lenders that offer VA loans. Although the credit score requirements vary, you may find that they use more flexible criteria than a conventional loan does. While conventional loan lenders will also have different credit score requirements, the minimum usually sits around 620. Rocket Mortgage® offers VA loans with a minimum credit score of 580.

Down Payment

One of the major benefits of a VA loan is the lack of a minimum down payment. Your lender may still require some money down if your credit score is low. They may also require a down payment if the property’s purchase price is high. However, this is more common in a competitive market with multiple bids.

On the other hand, lenders that offer conventional loans typically prefer larger down payments. The minimum may be 3%, but they recommend 20% or larger. By doing so, you avoid paying mortgage insurance.

Debt-To-Income Ratio

During the underwriting process, your lender will look at your debt-to-income ratio (DTI), which measures the amount of gross income you put toward debt each month. Your DTI helps your lender estimate whether you can reasonably afford the mortgage payments you apply for based on your current personal finances.

The VA will accept borrowers with any DTI ratio. But VA lenders may prefer DTI that doesn’t exceed 41%. In comparison, a conventional mortgage may allow you to qualify with a DTI as high as 50%. However, lenders may prefer borrowers with a lower ratio.

Private Mortgage Insurance

Traditionally, paying less than 20% down with a conventional loan will result in private mortgage insurance (PMI). Your credit score may also be a contributing factor as well. A low down payment or credit score are red flags for loan default, so your lender may require PMI so that they can protect themselves from the potential loss.

The PMI may be a one-time closing charge, a regular fee or premium added to your monthly payment, or a combination of the two. The exact amount will vary between lenders.

VA loans, however, don’t require any mortgage insurance. That’s partially due to the lack of a minimum down payment requirement. Instead, the VA relies on the VA funding fee.

Property Eligibility

If you want to buy a primary residence, then either a VA loan or a conventional loan will work. However, purchasing a second home or investment property using a VA loan is complex and not doable for many people. You may still be able to earn rental income by making your primary residence a multi-unit property.

While conventional loans allow you to buy investment properties or secondary homes, it may be slightly harder to purchase other types of property after you purchase a second home because the qualifications may shift. For example, a lender may require a slightly higher down payment depending on how many conventional loans you’re currently borrowing on.

Borrower Eligibility

Conventional loans don’t have special requirements to determine borrower eligibility. You and the property have to qualify, but this depends on standard factors, such as income level or credit score.

Borrower eligibility works differently for VA loans. The process of showing your eligibility hinges on a document called a Certificate of Eligibility (COE). To obtain a COE, you must have at least one of the following qualifications:

  • Meet the minimum military service requirements for an active-duty or veteran borrower
  • Be a surviving spouse of a service member who died in the line of duty
  • Have a qualifying discharge

Borrower Fees

Both conventional and VA loans require an origination fee. Lenders charge this fee to cover the cost of processing the loan. It generally costs 0.5% –1% of the loan’s total amount, and you pay it as part of your closing costs. Lenders who don’t charge an origination fee tend to make it up elsewhere.

While both loans share origination fees, VA loans have a cap on the amount. They also do not allow certain fees, such as prepayment penalties or settlement charges.

VA loans also require a VA funding fee, which is a singular, upfront cost that usually sits between 1.4% – 3.5% of the loan’s amount. The actual percentage can depend on whether you previously used your VA loan benefit and your down payment.

The funding fee is designed to cover potential costs in case the borrower defaults. While it’s a one-time charge, the fee often gets rolled into the total loan amount. That adds to your monthly payment and the amount of interest you pay over the loan’s life.

Veterans receiving VA disability compensation do not have to pay this fee.

Additional Requirements To Consider

While the above comparisons are vital to know, they’re not the only differences between these two loan types.

For example, VA loans don’t possess loan limits, but conventional loans do. These limits are set by each county, with most counties setting their limit at $647,200 for a single-family property in 2022.

They also differ in their mortgage rates. Typically, when you compare rates for the average 30-year VA loan and a 30-year conventional loan, VA loans usually have lower interest rates. The percentage difference tends to sit between 0.25% – 0.42%.

The VA also caps closing costs, which – along with competitive interest rates – can make VA loans financially favorable.

What Are The Benefits Of A VA Loan Vs. A Conventional Loan?

Certain benefits of a VA loan versus a conventional loan are hard to ignore. Let’s review the advantages of VA loans one more time:

  • No down payment: VA home loans have no minimum down payment requirement, so you can still purchase a home with no money down.
  • No mortgage insurance: You don’t face consequences like PMI if you forego a down payment on a VA loan.
  • More lenient terms: Because VA loans are backed by the government, lenders don’t have to be as afraid of you defaulting on the loan, which is reflected in their more lenient terms. You can find relatively low interest rates and other favorable features in a VA loan as a result.

Overall, VA loans tend to be more flexible during the approval process and include a range of low-cost benefits. And without PMI or a large down payment, VA loans stand out as more affordable upfront.

The Bottom Line: Which Loan Option Is Right For You?

At the end of the day, it’s a personal choice. VA loans are promising cost-wise and during approval. However, conventional loans can also include favorable terms based on the lender.

If both VA loans and conventional loans are available to you, compare their requirements. You may find one fits your situation better than the other. For example, if you’re a first-time home buyer, you may find the mortgage qualifications of VA loans to be more accessible. If you’re already a homeowner and looking to purchase a second home or investment property, you’ll need to finance with a conventional loan.

Once you find the one that meets your needs, begin your mortgage application to see how much you qualify for and jumpstart the home buying process.

Take the first step toward the right mortgage.

Apply online for expert recommendations with real interest rates and payments.

Victoria Araj

Victoria Araj is a Section Editor for Rocket Mortgage and held roles in mortgage banking, public relations and more in her 15+ years with the company. She holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism with an emphasis in political science from Michigan State University, and a master’s degree in public administration from the University of Michigan.