FHA (Federal Housing Administration) Loans are Gaining Popularity Again. 

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What is the Federal Housing Administration?

The Federal Housing Administration, generally known as "FHA", provides mortgage insurance on loans made by FHA-approved lenders throughout the United States and its territories. FHA insures mortgages on single family and multifamily homes including manufactured homes and hospitals. It is the largest insurer of mortgages in the world, insuring over 34 million properties since its inception in 1934.

What is FHA Mortgage Insurance?

FHA mortgage insurance provides lenders with protection against losses as the result of homeowners defaulting on their mortgage loans. The lenders bear less risk because FHA will pay a claim to the lender in the event of a homeowner's default. Loans must meet certain requirements established by FHA to qualify for insurance.

Why does FHA Mortgage Insurance exist?

Unlike conventional loans that adhere to strict underwriting guidelines, FHA-insured loans require very little cash investment to close a loan. There is more flexibility in calculating household income and payment ratios. The cost of the mortgage insurance is passed along to the homeowner and typically is included in the monthly payment. In most cases, the insurance cost to the homeowner will drop off after five years or when the remaining balance on the loan is 78 percent of the value of the property -whichever is longer.

How is FHA funded?

FHA is the only government agency that operates entirely from its self-generated income and costs the taxpayers nothing. The proceeds from the mortgage insurance paid by the homeowners are captured in an account that is used to operate the program entirely. FHA provides a huge economic stimulation to the country in the form of home and community development, which trickles down to local communities in the form of jobs, building suppliers, tax bases, schools, and other forms of revenue.

The History of FHA

Congress created the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) in 1934. The FHA became a part of the Department of Housing and Urban Development's (HUD) Office of Housing in 1965.

When the FHA was created, the housing industry was flat on its back:


  • Two million construction workers had lost their jobs.

  • Terms were difficult to meet for homebuyers seeking mortgages.

  • Mortgage loan terms were limited to 50 percent of the property's market value, with a repayment schedule spread over three to five years and ending with a balloon payment.

  • America was primarily a nation of renters. Only four in 10 households owned homes.

During the 1940s, FHA programs helped finance military housing and homes for returning veterans and their families after the war.

In the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, the FHA helped to spark the production of millions of units of privately-owned apartments for elderly, handicapped and lower income Americans. When soaring inflation and energy costs threatened the survival of thousands of private apartment buildings in the 1970s, FHA's emergency financing kept cash-strapped properties afloat.

The FHA moved in to steady falling home prices and made it possible for potential homebuyers to get the financing they needed when recession prompted private mortgage insurers to pull out of oil producing states in the 1980s.

By 2001, the nation's homeownership rate had soared to an all time high of 68.1 percent as of the third quarter that year.

The FHA and HUD have insured over 34 million home mortgages and 47,205 multifamily project mortgages since 1934. FHA currently has 4.8 million insured single family mortgages and 13,000 insured multifamily projects in its portfolio.

In the more than 60 years since the FHA was created, much has changed and Americans are now arguably the best housed people in the world. HUD has helped greatly with that success.

Gaining Popularity 2009

In the early 1990s, FHA had about 15 percent of the home-purchase market. In subsequent years through 2006, FHA lost business to the growing subprime 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 percent.

Then came the financial crisis. With home prices declining and defaults rising, the subprime market largely disappeared, option ARMs declined to a trickle, and documentation requirements on prime 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 percent, 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't put more than 3.5 percent down, which is the FHA requirement; 3) Is not eligible for a VA loan, which allows zero down; and 4) Can't be approved for a conventional loan but can be approved under FHA's more liberal underwriting rules.

A borrower who can put 10 percent down on a loan smaller than the FHA maximum and can be approved for a conventional loan will usually do better with the 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, were the same as those applicable to Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae. On a one-family house, they ranged from $271,050 to $729,750 in 76 higher-price counties. Loan limits on 2-4 family houses are higher. On HECMs (reverse mortgages), the maximum was raised to $625,500 for the balance of 2009. You can find the limit applicable to any particular county here.

Down Payment Requirements:

 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 mortgage until the house is sold. The public agencies offering these programs have their own eligibility rules that are independent of FHA. The only generally available zero-down loans are VAs and USDA loans in rural counties.

Underwriting Requirements:

FHA will accept lower credit scores than are acceptable on prime conventional loans, and are more forgiving of past mistakes. FHA will forgive a bankruptcy after only two years, and a foreclosure after three years.

Mortgage Insurance:

 FHA borrowers pay a monthly mortgage insurance premium of percent per year (.55 percent on loans with less than 5 percent down), and an upfront premium of 1.75 percent, 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 disappears at 20 percent down. 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 weren'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 for less than 10 years. Borrowers can compare rate at various websites and use tools of LendingUniverse.com to select the best possible and most optimum loan.   

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.