What is a USDA Loan?

When you're looking for a simple life, and you’re also looking for a mortgage with a low down payment, it’s time to check out what the US Department of Agriculture has to offer. We have all the details below, but if you’d prefer a more personal introduction, contact our experts at Home.Loans and we’ll walk you through it point by point.

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) designed these loans to pull the population out of cities and into surrounding areas. USDA eligible properties are typically located outside of city limits, in suburbs or rural areas. The USDA Guaranteed Loan is not meant to finance farms; rather, they are geared towards the standard single-family home.

This zero-down, 100% financing home loan has income limits and property eligibility requirements. However, you don’t have to be a first time home buyer to take advantage of this great home mortgage option. The USDA Loan is available to anyone that meets income and credit requirements.

USDA Loan Basics

Mortgages and home repair loans available through the USDA are a special kind of beast that’s tightly limited in scope. In general, they’re limited to rural areas. That’s defined as populations of less than about 35,000. USDA loans are designed for those who have low to modest incomes. USDA loans can be used for first-time home buyers. They can also be used to make a second-time purchase. There are also options for home repair loans to renovate and rehabilitate an already owned property.

Like with FHA’s mortgage program, the USDA has a wide range of offerings to fulfill a number of different needs. Some of the department’s loans are serviced by banks. Others are self-serviced (these can also come with subsidized interest rates). Because the USDA is very particular in how its loans are handled, it can be challenging to find a lender who will make a USDA home loan. But, they are out there!

Why USDA Rural Development has a mortgage program

Providing affordable homeownership opportunities promotes prosperity, which in turn creates thriving communities and improves the quality of life in rural areas. This program assists approved lenders in providing low- and moderate-income households the opportunity to own adequate, modest, decent, safe, and sanitary dwellings as their primary residence in eligible rural areas. Eligible applicants may build, rehabilitate, improve, or relocate a dwelling in an eligible rural area. The program provides a 90% loan note guarantee to approved lenders. This reduces the risk of extending 100% loans to eligible rural home buyers.

Pros and Cons of USDA Loans

USDA mortgages and loans have some commonalities that set them apart from other mortgages. Let's look at the benefits and drawbacks of the USDA mortgage program.

two kids carrying boxes entering new home ahead of parents

Benefits of the USDA Loan

Low down payment options. USDA loans are either guaranteed or made directly by the USDA. This means buyers are often able to come to closing with zero money down and leave with their own home.

Easy, flexible repayment terms. Both USDA mortgage loan programs make it easy to make payments, but the Direct Loan program goes a step further. Loan terms are partially calculated on how you’re able to repay the loan itself. Terms range from 33 to 38 years, based on your income.

Lower mortgage insurance. USDA loans typically have lower mortgage insurance than conventional or FHA loans.

Less stringent credit terms. There is no minimum credit score requirement for USDA loans. However, if your credit report shows 680 or higher, your application might move a bit faster. And, you might get to take out a slightly larger loan.

Financing even low-income buyers. It can be difficult for a low-income buyer to buy a house. Mortgage minimums imposed by some programs and banks can put home ownership out of their financial reach. USDA fills that gap by providing financing with smaller loans designed for rural areas that often have lower property values.

Another USDA Loan advantage is that the mortgage insurance fee is just 0.35% monthly. That’s nearly half of what is charged on a conventional loan and a quarter of what is charged on FHA. There are no loan amount limits like FHA; instead, the applicant’s income determines the maximum loan size. USDA Loans also allow buyers to roll closing costs into the mortgage — up to 100% of the appraised value of the home.

Drawbacks of the USDA Loan

Loans are limited to rural areas as defined by the USDA. If you’re a city dweller or looking to move closer in, you’ll have to find a different loan. USDA limits its loans primarily to areas with populations of 35,000 or less.

Income eligibility is required. This can be great for lower-income buyers. But buyers with higher incomes are out of luck — even if they have no assets or a lot of debt. This can be frustrating for those who are right on the edge of qualification or have a lot of debt.

Monthly payments are limited by income. In most cases, a borrower’s PITI ratio (principal, interest, taxes, insurance) cannot exceed 29% of their monthly income. And, their TD ratio (total debt including car payments, student loans, etc.) cannot exceed 41% of their monthly income.

Your property must meet eligibility criteria. FHA requires a basic property inspection, but that’s nothing compared to what happens during a USDA inspection. It’s great for the future owner, if the house can pass muster. In some areas, the only homes that will be approved for USDA loans are homes built specifically for the program.

Types of USDA Loans

There are two types of USDA home loans: the Direct and the Guaranteed. The Direct is when the borrower obtains a loan directly from their local USDA office. The Guaranteed is when the borrower works with a private lender. As with all home loans, a person’s income and credit are considered. However, with USDA Loans the property location and the number of people in a buyer’s home also come into play.

There are a few home loan options under the USDA loan program. USDA mortgage solutions share the low-interest and zero-down-payment requirement; however, they do have different terms and purposes. Below are summaries of each USDA loan product.

barns and a grain silo on a farm

Single Family Direct HOME OWNERSHIP USDA Loan

The Single Family Housing Direct Home Loans program, also known as the Section 502 Direct Loan Program, is a USDA loan program designed to help low-income families in rural areas buy, renovate, or repair adequate housing. Unlike some other USDA programs, it provides payment assistance, a subsidy that helps reduce the borrower's mortgage payments for a certain period of time. Eligibility is restricted to families whose household income falls below 80% of the AMI, are planning to use the home as their primary residence, and are otherwise unable to find "decent, safe, and sanitary housing."

plowed farm field with home and wind turbines in background

Single Family Guaranteed Housing USDA Loan

This is a USDA loan for moderate-income households that make no more than 115% of the AMI. In addition, borrowers must agree to use the home as their primary residence, and be a U.S. citizen, U.S. non-citizen national or Qualified Alien. In general, the UDSA's Single Family Housing Guaranteed Loan program is meant to be used for modest housing in rural areas. Plus, it can also be used to refinance eligible loans. 

farm house in bad shape

Rural Repair and Rehabilitation USDA Loans and Grants

The USDA's Section 504 Home Repair program, also known as the Single Family Housing Repair Loans & Grants program, is designed to help low income homeowners repair their homes-- allowing them to remove health hazards and increase safety. To qualify for the program, a household needs to make less than 50% of the AMI and not be able to access to affordable credit from other sources. In addition, grants are available to homeowners 62 years and older who cannot pay back a home repair loan. The maximum loan available is $20,000, and the maximum grant available is $7,500, though these can be combined to create a total of $27,500 in loans and grants. For loans, the interest is capped at a cool 1%, making this a fantastic program for homeowners in need. 

farm house and empty pens

Mutual Self-Help USDA Loans

The USDA Mutual Self-Help loan is for low-income households that can't buy or build adequate housing. The program allows qualified organizations to monitor and help homeowners in the construction of safe, clean housing. Since 1965, the USDA's Mutual Self-Help Program has helped non-profit organizations build 50,000 homes in low-income areas. 

Who can apply for a USDA Home Loan?

Applicants must:

  • Meet income eligibility requirements

  • Agree to personally occupy the dwelling as their primary residence

  • Be a U.S. Citizen, U.S. non-citizen national or Qualified Alien

  • Have the legal capacity to incur the loan obligation

  • Have not been suspended or debarred from participation in federal programs

  • Demonstrate the willingness to meet credit obligations in a timely manner

  • Purchase a property that meets all program criteria

Who’s the Ideal Borrower for a USDA Loan?

Because of the limited scope of USDA loans, it’s not hard to imagine the buyer who would use this kind of program. These are buyers who:

  • Live in a rural area.

  • Have little free cash to use for a downpayment.

  • Are interested in building home equity for their future.

  • Make an average or below-average income for their area.

Rural development loans have been an important part of life in the country for a long time, enabling farmers to buy farms and their children to buy houses in villages and small towns nearby. For families that want to remain close, even if not everyone wants to stay on the family farm, they’re a solid option that ensures that a first home is affordable.

How can the funds be used?

Funds backed by loan guarantees can be used for:

  • New or existing residential property to be used as a permanent residence

  • Closing costs and reasonable/customary expenses associated with the purchase

  • A site with a new or existing dwelling

  • Repairs and rehabilitation when associated with the purchase of an existing dwelling

  • Refinancing eligible loans

  • Special design features or permanently installed equipment to accommodate a household member who has a physical disability

  • Reasonable and customary connection fees, assessments or the pro rata installment cost for utilities such as water, sewer, electricity, and gas for which the buyer is liable

  • A pro rata share of real estate taxes due and payable on the property at the time of loan closing

  • Funds can be allowed for the establishment of escrow accounts for real estate taxes and/or hazard and flood insurance premiums

  • Essential household equipment such as wall-to-wall carpeting, ovens, ranges, refrigerators, washers, dryers, heating, and cooling equipment as long as the equipment is conveyed with the dwelling

  • Purchasing and installing measures to promote energy efficiency (e.g., insulation, double-paned glass, solar panels)

  • Installing fixed broadband service to the household as long as the equipment is conveyed with the dwelling

  • Site preparation costs, including grading, foundation plantings, seeding or sod installation, trees, walks, fences, and driveways

The USDA Loan: In Review

USDA mortgages solve several different problems within the mortgage sphere. They address both rural properties, which are often difficult to finance because banks simply don’t want the headache of having to travel so far from a city center, and the low-value properties found in those areas, which many banks won’t even touch these days. In addition, buyers who may have non-traditional income, like farm income, for example, will find it easier to deal with the USDA. It opens up a lot of doors, provided you’re willing to hang your hat in rural America.

Are you looking for a little house on the prairie? We can help you navigate the paper trail that leads to the US Department of Agriculture’s door. Just contact us here at home.loans and we’ll get started.

USDA Loan Knowledge Base