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6 Unbeatable Benefits of VA Loans

big gray house

Created before the close of World War II, the VA home loan benefit has helped millions of veterans, service members and military families achieve the dream of homeownership. Today, in many ways, it's more important than ever.

VA loan volume has soared 370 percent in the wake of the Great Recession, driven in large part by historically low rates and increasingly tougher lending requirements. The VA program provides significant financial benefits that make homebuying possible for score of veterans who might not otherwise qualify.

Here's a look at six of the biggest, most unbeatable benefits of these long-cherished home loans:

No down payment

This is far and away the program's signature benefit. Qualified VA Loan borrowers can purchase up to $417,000 without a down payment in most parts of the country — and even higher in more expensive areas.

For conventional and FHA loans, buyers are typically looking at minimum down payment requirements of 5 percent and 3.5 percent, respectively. On a $200,000 mortgage, that's a $10,000 down payment for conventional and a $7,000 down payment for FHA.

It can take service members and veterans years to save that kind of cash. In fact, the average VA borrower has about $7,000 in total assets. The ability to purchase with no down payment means military homebuyers don't have to scrape and stockpile for years and years to pursue a home of their own.

No private mortgage insurance

Coming up with a down payment is tough enough for conventional and FHA buyers. But they're also on the hook for mortgage insurance unless they can put down a sizable amount — typically 20 percent of the purchase price. On that same $200,000 mortgage, you're talking a whopping $40,000 in cash.

FHA loans carry both an upfront mortgage insurance premium and annual mortgage insurance, the latter of which now lasts for the life of the loan. Conventional buyers will pay this monthly cost until they've built up suitable equity, which can take years.

There is no mortgage insurance with VA loans. This benefit saves veterans who obtained VA loans last year about $19 billion over the life of their loans.

VA loans do come with a mandatory funding fee that goes directly to the Department of Veterans Affairs. Borrowers with a service-connected disability are exempt from paying this fee, which helps keep the program going for future generations.

Looser credit requirements

Credit score requirements have started to thaw, but that hasn't made life significantly easier for many military buyers. The credit benchmarks set by both conventional and FHA lenders can still be tough to hit.

Most VA lenders are looking for a credit score of at least 620. In comparison, the average credit score for a successful conventional loan in January was 755. For FHA loans, it was 688.

The 620 benchmark is in FICO's "Fair" credit score range, which is a tier below "Good" and two below "Excellent." Contrary to misconception, VA buyers don't need anything near perfect credit to secure financing.

Forgiving DTI ratios

VA lenders generally want to see you spend no more than 41 percent of your gross monthly income on major debts, such as a mortgage payment or student loans. That's a higher allowable debt-to-income (DTI) ratio than many other loan programs.

But it's possible to have an even higher DTI ratio and still obtain a VA home loan. Some lenders may go up to 55 percent or more depending on your credit score and ability to hit additional income benchmarks.

That additional flexibility can make it easier for buyers to truly maximize their purchasing power.

Curbing closing costs

Closing costs are inescapable, regardless of the mortgage product. The VA actually limits what fees and costs veterans can pay at the time of closing. Non-allowable fees that VA buyers aren't allowed to pay include things like termite inspections, broker fees and costs for lender document processing.

Homebuyers can ask sellers to pay all of their loan-related closing costs and up to 4 percent of the purchase price for things like prepaid taxes and insurance, collections and judgments.

Foreclosure and Bankruptcy

These financial setbacks don't automatically put an end to your VA loan chances. It's possible to secure a VA home loan just two years removed from a foreclosure, short sale or bankruptcy. In some cases, veterans who file for Chapter 13 bankruptcy protection can be eligible just a year removed from the filing date.

Homebuyers seeking conventional or FHA financing can find the waiting periods significantly longer.

Even veterans who lose a VA-backed mortgage to foreclosure can still be eligible for another.

You can talk with a Veterans United loan specialist at 1-800-VA-LOANS to get a sense of your purchasing power and what might be possible using your hard-earned home loan benefits.

Chris Birk is executive editor of Veterans United Home Loans and author of The Book on VA Loans: An Essential Guide to Maximizing Your Home Loan Benefits. Nearly 330,000 people follow his VA Loans community on Facebook. You can also follow him on Google+.

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