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USDA Loan Program

A Step-by-Step Look at the USDA Loan Process

Buying a home is one of the single-largest investments in a person’s life – and also one of the most exciting. A home is more than a financial investment, but a step toward the American Dream, and the USDA loan program opens the door to homeownership for many who otherwise may not be able to qualify for home financing.

The process to get a USDA loan is similar to any other loan program out there, but comes with a few exceptions due to the government's guarantee.

To help potential homebuyers prepare for the USDA loan process, the major steps to getting a USDA loan are outlined below.

1) Prequalify For a USDA Loan

Prequalifying for a USDA loan is a relatively simple task that provides a general estimate of what you can afford, and if you are even eligible for the program. This vital step can save you significant time and effort by helping narrow down what homes you may be able to purchase. During this step, your lender will discuss how much you can afford and any red flags that may hold you back from qualifying for a USDA loan.

Be prepared to answer some initial questions about your financial situation. Most lenders will focus on:

  • How much you wish to borrow,
  • Your gross monthly income and other assets, and
  • Your total monthly debts.

Many lenders will also ask your permission to do a hard credit inquiry at this time.

2) USDA Loan Preapproval

Preapproval is a more thorough process than prequalification, taking into account your financial situation instead of mere estimates.

During this step, your lender will work to verify information about your income and finances. Some of the common documents that lenders require during preapproval include:

  • W-2's and tax returns
  • Pay stubs
  • Photo ID
  • Bank statements
  • Social Security awards letter

At this stage, the paperwork may seem like a lot, but once you are preapproved, sellers are more likely to take your offers seriously.

However, understand that preapproval does not mean you are guaranteed a USDA home loan. There are often supplemental conditions that must be met for final approval, including a satisfactory appraisal and further income and employment verification if necessary.

MORE: Learn more about USDA prequalification and preapproval.

3) Find a USDA-Approved Home

If you haven’t already, find a knowledgeable real estate agent and start your home search. Finding a real estate agent with USDA loan experience can help you navigate the housing market to find homes that are eligible for USDA funding.

The USDA requires that all properties be located in a qualified "rural" area. In addition, the USDA requires that the property serves as your primary residence and meets all other property condition and use requirements set forth by the USDA and lender.

Armed with your preapproval letter, and the knowledge of what areas are eligible for a USDA loan, you and your agent will have no trouble securing your dream home.

MORE: Learn more about property eligibility and requirements.

4) Sign a Purchase Agreement

After you find the perfect home, you will work with your lender and agent to make an offer. This is the time to negotiate with the seller about covering some or all of your closing costs.

Once you and the seller sign a purchase agreement, your lender will order a USDA loan appraisal. Appraisals are different from a home inspection and are required by the USDA as a safeguard to the homebuyer. The appraiser will ensure the home is move-in ready and that the property meets USDA standards. If something does not meet standards, it must be fixed before closing.

5) Processing & Closing

Once you are under contract, an underwriter will review your information and examine the file to make sure your application and documentation are accurate and truthful.

The underwriting process for USDA loans can take longer than traditional mortgages because the program uses a two-party approval system. First, your lender will underwrite the loan file to ensure it meets all USDA requirements.

Then the USDA will underwrite the file, which is either done automatically or manually. The USDA requires a credit score of at least 640 to qualify for their automated system known as GUS.

Once underwriters are satisfied, your lender will issue a clear to close, and you’ll move toward your final step: the loan closing. At closing, you’ll sign paperwork, finalize your USDA loan and take ownership of your new home.

MORE: Learn more about GUS and manual underwriting.

How Long Do USDA Loans Take?

While the process to secure a USDA loan is a lot like other loan programs, the actual timeline can vary based on your financial situation, credit score and selected property.

The initial USDA appraisal can take up to a week to complete. If repairs are necessary then a secondary appraisal may also be required, which can delay your loan from progressing.

Further, if you do not qualify for GUS, the USDA will have to manually underwrite the loan application, which could in turn require additional time to gather needed verification.

Borrowers can typically expect the USDA loan process to take anywhere from 30 to 60 days, depending on the qualifying conditions.

Check your USDA loan eligibility here.

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