After a tornado ripped through Air Force Tech. Sgt. Rhonda Stockstill's house in Moore, Oklahoma, in May 2013, she and her husband began the hunt for a new home, thinking they would go through their previous lender to get another VA home loan.
That lender told them they would be better off going with a conventional loan that would saddle them with a $160,000 down payment and closing costs. The mortgage company "was making us jump through hoops. We were really discouraged," Stockstill said.
After about four months of trying to work with the previous lender, Stockstill found another, Veterans United, which helped the couple secure a Veterans Affairs-backed loan within about 30 days, with a far lower down payment and a lower interest rate than what their previous lender had quoted.
The VA home loan program has guaranteed more than 20 million VA loans in the 70 years since its creation. Numbers fell during the middle of the last decade, coinciding with the rise in conventional loans to people who would not be approved now.
But since the subprime mortgage bubble burst and credit rules have tightened across the industry, VA loans are back on the rise. In 2013, VA guaranteed the highest number of loans in the program's history — 629,312.
Yet it's clear that there are misperceptions about the program. Son Nguyen, who heads the nonprofit Veterans Association of Real Estate Professionals, notes that there are 1.9 million active VA-guaranteed loans, but more than 1 million troops and 22 million veterans are eligible.
Conventional loans may make more sense in certain circumstances, says Chris Birk, Veterans United's director of VA loan education — like if you have excellent credit, sizable assets and plenty of cash for a 20 percent down payment.
But the reality is, for many service members, the VA home loan program is the most advantageous, Birk said — a benefit that can save money for military and veteran homeowners.
And its features were designed not only to put veterans in a home, but to make sure they can repay the mortgage and stay in it, said Mike Frueh, director of VA's Loan Guaranty Service. What's more, VA has improved the program to make its part of the loan process faster, easier and more transparent.
Like the Stockstills, some veterans encounter lenders and real estate agents who try to steer them away from their VA home loan benefit, for a variety of reasons, many of which are misperceptions.
Some reminders, little-known facts and tips:
■ Active-duty troops as well as veterans who have left the service qualify, regardless of whether they served in combat. About 17 percent of VA loans went to active-duty troops in 2013.
■ The benefit never expires and can be used multiple times.
■ The VA home loan is the only major type of loan that does not require a down payment as long as the sale price doesn't exceed the appraised value; 89 percent of VA loans are made without a down payment. In essence, the VA's guarantee takes the place of a down payment.
■ The program doesn't require private mortgage insurance, an extra monthly expense when a borrower is not making a down payment of at least 20 percent. A down payment of 20 percent on a $200,000 loan would be $40,000. "By not spending that $40,000, veterans have money in their pockets to take care of unforeseen circumstances," Frueh said.
■ Veterans usually can get their VA Home Loan Certificate of Eligibility within seconds at www.ebenefits.va.gov. But the lender often can do that for you. In 2013, 463,303 electronic certificates of eligibility were issued.
■ VA does not require a minimum credit score. Instead, the requirements are based on whether a borrower can repay the loan. However, lenders do impose additional requirements for credit scores. "Our minimum credit score is typically 620," said Veterans United's Birk. "Generally speaking, 620 is a pretty good barometer. That falls into the 'fair' [category], which is a step below 'good.' And it's about 100 points lower than credit scores needed for a conventional loan."
"There's great misperception that you need sterling credit to use this program. But it was created to level the playing field," Birk said – to help veterans who may not otherwise qualify for mortgages.
■ Veterans generally pay a funding fee of 2.15 percent of the purchase price for a VA loan. For example, with no down payment for a $200,000 loan, a funding fee of 2.15 percent equals $4,300. For those who were or are in the National Guard or reserves, the funding fee is 2.4 percent. The fee is reduced for those who make down payments of 5 percent or more.
■ Some VA borrowers don't pay the funding fee at all. They include veterans receiving VA compensation for a service-connected disability or those eligible to receive it if they weren't receiving retirement or active-duty pay, and surviving spouses of veterans who died in service or from a service-connected disability.
The VA also has limitations on what lenders can charge borrowers for a loan, to make sure the veterans don't pay unnecessary fees, Frueh said. Conversely, the VA allows a seller to pay up to 4 percent of certain closing costs, including the paying the VA funding fee.
■ VA doesn't lend money; it guarantees the loans made by about 1,500 commercial entities such as banks, credit unions and mortgage companies, although the top 11 lenders account for about half of all VA loans. Lenders, not VA, set interest rates, discount points and closing costs, and the rates likely vary among lenders. It's best to shop around. But overall, average interest rates on VA loans trend even a little lower than those on conventional loans, Birk said.
■ VA home loans can be used to buy a home or a condominium unit in a VA-approved project; to build a home; to simultaneously purchase and improve a home; to buy a manufactured home and/or lot; and to make energy-efficient improvements.
■Veterans can use their VA home loan benefit multiple times.
■ The guarantee limits vary depending on the geographic area, based on the median home price. Generally, the limit is $417,000, but can range up to $1,094,625 in higher cost areas. This is not a loan limit — you can buy a more expensive house, as long as you can handle a down payment of 25 percent of the difference. For example, if the guarantee limit in your area is $417,000 and the house you want costs $500,000, it's yours if you can pay $20,750 — which is 25 percent of the $83,000 diference – as a down payment.
■ The key is to work with real estate agents and lenders who have worked with VA loans. Tell them upfront that you're a veteran. Ask questions about how many VA loans they've worked with.
If the agent isn't experienced and informed, it could cost you money and time, said Lorraine Santirosa, a real estate agent with Keller Williams SD Metro in San Diego. It could cost you time especially in finding a condominium, because condos must be VA-approved, she said, in order for the buyer to qualify for a VA loan. And if a lender doesn't understand the rules and details of VA loans, "it could cause the deal to fall apart, or put the veteran in a loan at a higher interest rate."
■ Do your own research at www.benefits.va.gov/homeloans, or call toll free 877-827-3702. For example, one veteran said he was told he had to have $2,000 or less in debt to qualify, but that is not a VA requirement for a home loan. Armed with knowledge, you can shop around for another lender.
■ VA allows veterans to lower their interest rate by refinancing their existing VA home loan, either through their current lender, if that lender agrees, or through any VA lender.
■ VA's requirements help ensure that veterans have the financial ability to make their payments and stay in their homes — a major reason why VA loans have the lowest foreclosure rate among loan types, including FHA and conventional.
Another reason, Frueh said, is that VA has about 150 staff members nationwide "whose sole job is to help veterans who are behind on their mortgage find a way to become current." Last year, he noted, VA helped almost 74,000 veterans resolve their delinquencies and in most cases, keep their homes.
Financial institutions that did the most VA loans in 2013:
Source: Veterans Affairs Department