FAQ: Mortgage Loans – Conforming, Jumbos, FHA, Jumbo Lights

Although I’m not a mortgage broker or lender, I get a lot of questions from my clients and in my first time homebuyer classes about interest rates, points, and fees. There’s a lot of confusion out there right now about what the conforming limits are, how FHA works, and what the stimulus package impact will be. The short answer is that we don’t have all the answers yet—the mortgage market changes by the minute. I always recommend to my clients that they choose a lender they trust and then stick with him/her (I’m happy to make a recommendation or two if you contact me.) An online mortgage calculator will never keep up with the pace of change and options (both coming and going) in today’s market. In my opinion they are nearly worthless if you’re seriously thinking of buying a home (though if someone has found a good one, by all means, let me know!)

Here are some of the basics, including some basic economics on risk and reward (I admit these are over simplified, but I think will suffice to give buyers an idea.) You have to think of your mortgage as an investment product. Somewhere out there is an individual investor with a million dollars to invest; He can invest in the stock market, in gold, in CDs, are in mortgages, for example. The higher the risk he takes with his money, the more reward he will expect. These are some of the “flavors” of mortgages and rates:

  • “Conforming” Loans. Until recently this meant ONLY loans less than $417,000 that met Fannie and Freddie underwriting guidelines. Fannie and Freddie are government sponsored entities that purchase loans from banks, package them up, and sell them off. Because the bank has a “guaranteed” buyer for your loan, it lowers their risk and hence lowers the interest rate (low risk for a bank = low reward for a bank.) Fannie and Freddie also slap their own guarantee on these products, so the people they sell them to are willing to earn a lower return because there is less risk. These loans have the most competitive rates. All Fannie and Freddie loans are subject to their underwriting guidelines, including their downpayment restrictions. Because both entities have slapped a “declining market” label on our area, downpayment requirements are higher now than they were a year ago to the tune of 5%. So if previously you were the quality of borrower that could have qualified for a 95% loan-to-value (that is 5% downpayment), this new label means that you now only get 90% (a 10% downpayment) if you want a Fannie- or Freddie- backed loan.
  • “Jumbo” Loans. Loans that are above $417,000. They carry a higher rate because Fannie and Freddie are prohibited from buying them, and hence the risk to your bank is higher—they need to find a buyer out there, or they need to keep it in-house.
  • “Jumbo light” or “jumbo conforming” Mortgages. These are new in 2008 as a result of the stimulus package. Fannie and Freddie are temporarily allowed to buy loans up to 125% of the median purchase price of an area. For the Washington, DC, area, that means $729,950. So this new layer represents a loan that meets Fannie and Freddie’s guidelines and is between $417K and $729,950. Rates on these loans are still in flux, but chances are that it will be somewhere between “conforming” and “jumbo.” Fannie and Freddie put some limitations on which ones they will buy though, so expect some hoops: at least 10% down, or 20% if your FICO score is less than 700, among others; Below 660 and you’re out of luck altogether. One thing the market (our individual investor out there) doesn’t like about this new layer is that it’s temporary, so he’s not sure what will happen to it in the future. Investors don’t like uncertainty, so even though there’s a theoretical “buyer” out there in Fannie and Freddie, he nonetheless wants a premium for it in the term of a higher rate of return.
  • FHA Loans. Once the stepchild of the mortgage industry, it’s quickly coming back in favor because of its low down-payment (3%) requirement. FHA loans are guaranteed by the government, so risk to an investor is low. Low risk = low reward, or in other words, lower rates charged to borrowers. FHA until recently had a very low limit, so was not widely used in this area. But Congress recently approved an upper limit of $729,950 in our area (same as the “jumbo lights”). Similar to that scenario, rates on that mid-tier (between the old limit of $362K and the new limit of $729K) will likely carry a small premium over “regular” FHA loans below $362K. FHA comes with its own set of hoops to jump through; for example condos must be on the FHA approved list.

Again, I highly recommend speaking to a mortgage professional if you’re not sure which product is right for you – they all have advantages and disadvantages, and programs and guidelines are changing daily. In a future post I’ll try to touch more on FHA loans, the Nehemiah program (a roundabout way for a seller to “gift” your downpayment!), and the rates/points/fees tradeoffs (the best rate isn’t always the right answer!)

If you’re interested in learning more, I encourage you to attend my first time home buyer class. Details are here, and you can email me to register.

Are you ready to begin your home search? I’d be happy to speak with you about some of the advantages and disadvantages of loan programs and how they impact your negotiating ability in a transaction. Just drop me an email or call and we’ll set up some time to talk about your search.

Read more: Why Don’t Fed Cuts Always Cause a Drop in Mortgage Rates?

Read more: What is Private Mortgage Insurance (PMI)?

Want to learn more or have more questions? Attend a free first time home buyer seminar that I teach.

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One thought on “FAQ: Mortgage Loans – Conforming, Jumbos, FHA, Jumbo Lights

  1. Katie,

    Really good article. Just got a loan for a house and didn’t understand why the rate jumped over the $400K mark. Now I do.

    Thanks!

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