REAL ESTATE

FHA loan versus 'conventional' mortgage: Which is better?

If you have a FICO score of 620 to 719 and a down payment of 5% or less, FHA is likely to be your first choice

If you saw the recent White House announcement of lower insurance payments on Federal Housing Administration home mortgages, you might have wondered: Does this matter to me as a potential home buyer or refinancer? Who specifically will benefit from the decrease in fees?

The Obama administration estimates that by lowering the FHA's annual mortgage insurance premiums by half a percentage point, as many as 250,000 new buyers will be able to purchase a house. That's great news and overdue. The FHA almost priced itself out of competition with giant investors Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac by raising its premiums several times in recent years. The FHA made itself too expensive and its market share has plunged.

So who is best positioned to take advantage of the new, more consumer-friendly mortgage pricing? Here's a quick overview.

Start with your FICO credit score. If you've got a score of 620 to 719 and you have a down payment of 5% or less, the FHA is likely to become your first choice in terms of monthly payments. It will cost you less in principal, interest rate and mortgage insurance charges compared with what you'd pay for a "conventional" loan eligible for purchase by Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac with private mortgage insurance.

Consider this example using data provided by MGIC, one of the major private insurance underwriters. Say you want to buy a $220,000 first home with a 5% down payment. You've got a slightly-below-average FICO score between 680 and 699. Before the premium reduction, your monthly payment using a 30-year FHA loan at current interest rates would have been $1,225. The same conventional loan with private mortgage insurance would have cost you $1,168 a month — $57 less than the FHA. After the premium reduction, the monthly payment on the FHA loan will drop to $1,138 — $30 cheaper than the conventional alternative.

But what if you've got a higher FICO score? On the same 5% loan and rate and term assumptions as above, with a FICO score of 729 to 759, your monthly payment should be lower with a conventional loan. You'd pay $1,106 a month compared with $1,138 — $32 more — for an FHA-insured mortgage with the reduced premiums. With a FICO score of 760 and above, the payment drops to $1,092. So FICOs matter.

What other factors might influence you to opt for an FHA loan over a competing conventional mortgage and vice versa? There are several important issues to consider. The FHA is more flexible when it comes to underwriting. Take debt-to-income ratios. Conventional lenders using private mortgage insurance typically will not approve you if the ratio of your recurring monthly debt payments to your documented monthly gross income exceeds 45%.

The FHA, by contrast, may stretch that if other aspects of your application — steady income, reasonable financial reserves — look strong. Some lenders say they can squeeze their FHA applicants through with debt ratios higher than 50% — one lender told me he's done 56%.

Plus, the FHA is more sympathetic in the way it treats one of the biggest obstacles facing many millennial applicants: student debt. According to Paul Skeens, president of Colonial Mortgage Group in Waldorf, Md., buyers whose student debts have been deferred for 12 months or more won't have them factored into the application, whereas conventional lenders include them.

Some downsides of FHA loans? Tops on the list: The FHA charges borrowers an upfront premium of 1.75% that typically gets tacked onto the principal they're borrowing, financed over the term of the loan. The FHA could have, but did not, lower that fee.

Why's that significant? Because unlike private mortgage insurance, which by federal statute can be canceled once a borrower's equity position reaches 20% of the home's value, FHA's premiums on most loans continue for the life of the mortgage. That add-on to principal stays with you for years beyond the date you'd be able to cancel your private insurance payments, which in some scenarios can be as early as four to five years. Put another way: You will build equity in your home faster with a conventional mortgage compared with an FHA loan.

Bottom line: If you have a FICO score well above 720, and you've got money for a 5% down payment and a debt ratio below 45%, conventional is probably your better bet. But if your FICO is in the 600s and you have some complications to your application or debt issues, the FHA will probably treat you kindlier.

kenharney@earthlink.net

Distributed by Washington Post Writers Group.

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