After declining in importance during the go-go years 2000-2006, FHA regained prominence when the crisis erupted and lenders retreated to a source of safety, as they had during the 1930s.

FHA Mortgages: A 2009 Update
March 2, 2009, Revised September 25, 2009

The Ups and Downs of FHA:

The importance of FHA in the home mortgage market has changed markedly over the years. This has been due less to changes in the FHA itself than to changes in the broader market in which it operates.  

In the early 90s, FHA had about 15% of the home purchase market. In subsequent years through 2006, FHA lost business to the growing sub-prime market, which took many borrowers who could have gone FHA. In addition, FHA lost business to the prime conventional market, which developed and aggressively merchandised option ARMs and interest-only products, as well as reduced documentation underwriting, none of which FHA offered. In 2006, FHA’s share of the purchase market had fallen to less than 4%. 

Then came the financial crisis. With home prices declining and defaults rising, the sub-prime market largely disappeared; option ARMs declined to a trickle; and documentation requirements on conventional loans were substantially tightened. In addition, FHA loan limits were raised materially in 2008, and again in 2009. In early 2009, FHA’s market share of new purchases was back to about 15%, and its share of refinances was substantially higher.

The FHA Market Niche

An FHA borrower in early 2009 1) Doesn’t need a loan larger than the FHA maximum in the borrower’s county; 2) Can put 3.5% down, which is the FHA requirement, but no more; 3) Is not eligible for a VA or USDA loan, which allow zero down; and 4) Can’t be approved for a conventional loan but can be approved under FHA’s more liberal underwriting rules.

On conventional conforming loans (those eligible for purchase by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac), mortgage insurance is required if the loan-to-value ratio exceeds 80%, and private mortgage insurance is not available to borrowers with FICO scores below 680. Hence, borrowers with LTVs above 80% and FICOs below 680 must go FHA, which will take scores down to 620.

A borrower who can put 10% down on a loan no larger than the FHA maximum, and with a credit score of 680 or higher, will usually do better with a conventional loan, but there can be exceptions – see below.

FHA Loan Limits

The loan limits on FHAs effective until year-end 2009, established on a county basis, ranged from $271,050 to $729,750 on one-family houses. Loan limits on 2-4 family houses were higher. The limits were the same as those applicable to Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae except that the lowest limit for the agencies was $417,000. You can find the FHA limit applicable to any particular county at

Down Payment Requirements

In 2009, FHA’s 3.5% down payment compared to 5%-10% on most conventional loan programs. Zero down loans, which were widely available in the conventional sector during the go-go years 2000-2006, had largely disappeared, The only generally available zero-down loans are VAs and USDA loans in rural counties.

FHA borrowers in some cities, counties or states have access to special programs that eliminate the need for a down payment by offering second mortgages at favorable terms. Usually, no payments are required on the second until the house is sold. The public agencies offering these programs have their own eligibility rules that are independent of FHA.

On cash-out refinances, FHA requires 15% down compared to the 20% requirement on conforming loans.

Other Underwriting Requirements

FHA will accept lower credit scores than are acceptable on prime conventional loans, as noted above, and are more forgiving of past mistakes. FHA will forgive a bankruptcy after only 2 years, and a foreclosure after 3 years.  FHA is also more flexible than private insurers on the ratio of total expenses (housing plus other debt service) to income.

Mortgage Insurance

FHA borrowers pay a monthly mortgage insurance premium of ½% per year (.55% on loans with less than 5% down)), and an upfront premium of 1.75% which is almost always included in the loan amount. In contrast, most conventional loans have only a monthly premium which is higher than the FHA monthly premium but can be terminated when sufficient equity has accumulated. (See Cancelling Private Mortgage Insurance (2)) Because of the higher mortgage insurance premiums, an FHA will be more costly to a borrower when the rate and points are the same.

Differences in Rate and Points Between FHAs and Conventionals

In shopping lenders who offer both FHA and conventional loans, I have found that in many cases the rate and points quoted on FHAs are higher. Lenders often charge larger markups on FHAs, partly because they are more costly to originate, and also because “they can”. There isn’t as much competition for FHAs because a large proportion of brokers and smaller lenders don’t offer them.

On the other hand, I found that some lenders quote the same or even lower rates and points on FHAs. This kind of market fragmentation, which surprised me, appears to be a consequence of the financial crisis. It places an added burden on borrowers shopping for the best deal, as if that wasn’t already difficult enough.

Comparing Prices

Borrowers should be able to compare the all-in costs of an FHA and a conventional by comparing their APRs. The APR takes account of the rate, points, other lender fees, and all mortgage insurance premiums. Unfortunately, the APR assumes that all loans run to term, which makes it deceptive for any borrower who expects to have the loan less than 10 years.

Furthermore, most of the lenders I checked are not calculating the APR on FHAs correctly. The most common mistake is ignoring the upfront mortgage insurance premium, which their software was never programmed to accommodate. If you want to make an all-in price comparison over the period you expect to have the loan, use my calculator 9c. 

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