What is a USDA Loan?
Officially known as the Section 502 Single Family Housing Guaranteed Loan Program, the USDA loan is a zero down payment mortgage option available to homebuyers in the United States who wish to purchase in a qualified rural or suburban area. USDA loans are issued by private lenders and guaranteed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).
USDA Loan Guide Index
- Purpose of the USDA Loan
- USDA Loan Benefits
- USDA Loan Eligibility
- USDA Income Limits
- USDA Loan Property Eligibility
- USDA Loan Rates
- USDA Loan Process
- USDA Loan Refinancing
- Guaranteed vs Direct
Purpose of the USDA Loan
The USDA loan’s purpose is to provide affordable homeownership opportunities to low-to-moderate income households to stimulate economic growth in rural and suburban communities throughout the United States.
These rural development loans are available in approximately 97% of the nation’s land mass, which includes over 100 million people*.
USDA Loan Benefits
Because of the USDA loan guarantee, lenders are willing to take on more risk and offer eligible homebuyers advantageous rates and terms.
Some of the primary benefits of USDA loans include:
- $0 down payment
- Competitive interest rates
- Low monthly mortgage insurance
- Flexible credit requirements
USDA loans open the door to homeownership for many first-time homebuyers who otherwise could not afford a traditional 5-20% down payment. However, the USDA has its own guidelines and requirements, including eligibility requirements for both the homeowner and the property. Lenders will often have their own internal guidelines and requirements in addition to those set by the USDA.
USDA Loan Eligibility
To qualify for a USDA loan, borrowers must meet credit and income criteria set forth by the lender and the USDA.
At a minimum, the USDA requires:
- U.S. citizenship or permanent residency
- Dependable income, typically two consecutive years
- The ability and willingness to repay the mortgage – generally no late payments or collections 12 months prior to the application
- An acceptable debt ratio, which can vary by lender and other factors
- The homebuyer’s adjusted annual income cannot exceed 115% of the area median income, depending on family size
- The property be located in a qualified rural area
While the USDA does not set a minimum credit score requirement, many USDA lenders require at least a 640 score in order to use the USDA’s Guaranteed Underwriting System (GUS). Those with credit scores below 640 may still qualify for a USDA loan, however the file will require manual underwriting.
FICO Credit Score Categories
Credit Score Range
750 and higher
700 - 749
650 - 699
550 - 649
549 and lower
USDA Income Limits
Because USDA loans are meant to assist low-to-moderate income homebuyers, the USDA sets income limits based on the property’s location and household size. The base USDA income limits are:
- 1-4 member household: $82,700
- 5-8 member household: $109,150
USDA counts the total annual income of every adult member in a household towards the USDA income limit, regardless if they are a part of the loan.
But it’s also not as simple as looking at your annual pay. USDA ultimately looks at what it calls adjusted annual income, which takes into account acceptable deductions for things like child care, medical expenses and more.
USDA Property Eligibility
USDA loans are only available to homebuyers wishing to purchase in what the USDA considers a rural area, although some suburban areas may be eligible as well.
The USDA defines a qualified “rural” area as any area with a population under 35,000, is rural in character and has a serious lack of mortgage credit for low- and moderate-income families.
Additionally, USDA loans are only available to homebuyers wishing to purchase a single-family home that will be their primary residence. Homes with acreage may be eligible, if the site size is typical for the area and not used principally for income-producing purposes. Income-producing property and vacation homes do not qualify.
Boundary lines for USDA property eligibility can change every year.
USDA Loan Rates
USDA loans typically offer some of the lowest interest rates on the market.
Interest rates on USDA loans are determined by several contributing factors, however the primary factor is your credit profile, as is the case with all mortgage options. Those with higher credit scores often receive the most competitive rates, although borrowers with less than stellar credit may still qualify for a low rate due to the USDA guarantee.
The USDA does not set interest rates. Lenders are free to set their own, and rate quotes can vary based on a host of factors.
USDA Loan Process
Going through the USDA loan process can be different for each homebuyer; however, the typical flow is as follows:
- Prequalify with an approved lender
- Provide all necessary documents and reach preapproval
- Find a USDA-approved home in an eligible “rural” area
- Sign a purchase agreement and order a USDA appraisal
- Be patient during loan processing and underwriting, then close on your home!
USDA Loan Refinancing
The USDA offers three refinancing options for borrowers looking to lower their rate:
- USDA Streamline Refinance: Homeowners without any late payments for the previous 12 months may be able to refinance without a new appraisal. Cash cannot be taken out of a streamline refinance; however, it is possible to roll the guarantee fee into the final loan amount.
- USDA Streamline-Assist Refinance: Allows borrowers to refinance without a new appraisal, credit check or debt-to-income calculation. Homeowners with little to no equity in their home may also apply.
- Non-Streamlined Refinance: Nearly identical to the streamline-assist option, however borrowers are required to get a new appraisal. Borrowers typically use this option to avoid the $50 payment reduction requirement for the streamline-assist program.
Refinancing a USDA loan can help borrowers lower their monthly mortgage payment by taking advantage of the market’s current interest rates.
Direct vs Guaranteed
The USDA offers two different loan options to help rural families achieve the dream of homeownership: the USDA Guaranteed Loan and the USDA Direct Loan.
The primary difference in the two programs is who funds the loan. With the guaranteed loan, a USDA-approved lender issues the loan. However, with the direct loan, the USDA issues the loan and provides payment assistance in the form of a subsidy.
While the purpose of both loan programs is to boost homeownership in rural areas, the two programs have significant differences and are meant for two very different financial situations.
For example, with the USDA direct loan, the homebuyer must:
- Not have access to safe or sanitary housing
- Have an income classification as low or very low
- Be unable to obtain financing anywhere else
- Not be suspended or banned from participating in federal programs
The USDA Guaranteed Home loan has assisted thousands of homeowners en route to their dream home and continues to be one of the most advantageous programs on the market today. Learn about the many advantages of the USDA loan in our next section.