USDA vs. FHA: Which is better for first-time home buyers?

October 28, 2022 - 11 min read

Which loan is better, USDA or FHA?

That depends on your situation. USDA loans allow no down payment and have cheap mortgage insurance — but you have to buy in a “rural” area and meet income limits. FHA loans are more flexible about income, credit, and location, but they can have higher costs.

Luckily, there’s an easy way to choose. Just ask your lender about USDA loans and FHA loans. You might be eligible for one, but not the other. If you’re eligible for both, you can compare rates and fees to see which loan option is better for you.

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USDA vs. FHA: Overview

The choice between USDA and FHA loans is often pretty easy, since they’re targeted at different types of buyers.

The USDA loan program is meant to make homeownership more accessible in lower-income, rural areas. Only certain locations qualify, and you have to be within income limits to apply.

The FHA loan program is more widely available. Buyers can apply in any part of the country and there are no income restrictions to qualify. But where the FHA program really stands out is its lenient credit score requirements. Home buyers can apply with a FICO score of just 580 and 3.5% down. For this reason, FHA loans are usually recommended for borrowers with credit scores too low to qualify for a standard conforming mortgage.

USDA vs. FHA: Eligibility

A large part of the decision between USDA vs. FHA loans will depend on which type of mortgage you qualify for. Here’s a brief overview of how USDA and FHA eligibility requirements compare:

 USDA LoanFHA Loan
Min. Down Payment0%3.5%
Min. Credit Score640580
Income Limits115% of area medianNone
Location RequirementsQualified “rural area”None
Loan LimitsNone$ in most areas

The FHA program offers 30-year and 15-year fixed-rate mortgages along with adjustable-rate mortgages (ARMs). USDA offers only a 30-year fixed-rate home loan.

In addition, both programs require you to buy a primary residence, meaning you can’t use them for a vacation home or investment property. However, FHA loans can finance multifamily homes with 2, 3, or 4 units whereas a USDA loan can be used only for a single-family home.

About USDA and FHA loans

USDA and FHA loans are both government-backed mortgages. USDA loans are guaranteed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, while FHA loans are backed by the Federal Housing Administration.

Neither of these government agencies directly underwrite home loans. Instead, they provide protection to lenders in case borrowers default on their mortgages. This guarantee allows lenders to offer flexible eligibility requirements and lower interest rates, too.

What does that mean for you? A few things:

  • Loan requirements are easier for FHA and USDA loans thanks to their government insurance
  • Both loan types charge upfront and annual mortgage insurance to fund the programs
  • Both USDA and FHA loans are available from major nationwide lenders
  • Mortgage interest rates for FHA and USDA are competitive

Both USDA and FHA are great first-time home buyer loans thanks to their flexible guidelines and low upfront costs.

However, the main downside with both programs is that you’ll pay ongoing mortgage insurance fees that cannot be canceled. To get out of USDA or FHA mortgage insurance, you’d have to refinance your mortgage later on.

Difference between USDA and FHA loans

A USDA home loan is often the best choice for borrowers who meet the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s guidelines. With no down payment requirement and low mortgage insurance rates, USDA mortgages are often cheaper than FHA loans, both upfront and in the long run.

USDA may be cheaper than conventional financing, too, if you have a credit score in the low 600s and a small down payment. However, not everyone will meet USDA’s geographic or income requirements. And the minimum credit score for USDA is typically 640, which is even higher than the minimum for conventional mortgages (620).

For those with lower credit, an FHA loan could be a great choice. The Federal Housing Administration only requires 3.5% down and a 580 FICO score. That’s about as lenient as credit requirements go for mortgages.

Another option is a conventional loan with 3% down, which has similar upfront costs and offers the potential for lower monthly mortgage payments. If you have good credit, a conventional mortgage may reward you with lower interest rates and mortgage insurance costs.

The key thing to remember is that many lenders offer all three types of mortgage loans. So you don’t have to make a final decision on your own. Your loan officer or mortgage broker can help you compare USDA, FHA, and conventional loans to find the best mortgage for you.

Pros and cons of USDA loans

The USDA loan has quickly risen in popularity with first-time and lower-income borrowers thanks to its zero-down allowance and low rates. But not everyone will qualify. Here’s what you should know.

Pros & Cons of USDA Loans

Pro: Zero down payment required

USDA loans require no down payment. You may finance up to 100% of the property value, which, sometimes, is above the home’s purchase price. In these cases, the buyer can finance closing costs.

For example, say you make an offer on a home for $200,000. The lender’s official appraisal report states the home is worth $205,000. The buyer can open a USDA loan for the full value, as long as the excess funds are applied to closing costs, such as the title report, loan origination fees, homeowner’s insurance, and prepaying property taxes and homeowner’s insurance.

So, in the end, USDA borrowers could get into a home with close to nothing out of pocket.

With FHA, the home buyer must come up with a 3.5% down payment plus closing costs. FHA has no guideline stating that the loan amount can exceed the purchase price. The only way to get a zero out-of-pocket loan with FHA is to get a substantial down payment gift, down payment assistance, or seller contributions for closing costs.

USDA is more flexible, and buyers with little cash on-hand should look into this option first.

Con: You must buy in a rural location

USDA eligibility depends on the location of the home. You must purchase a property in a rural area as defined by the USDA. But the definition of “rural” is quite liberal, and it’s based on U.S. census information from more than 15 years ago. So many suburban areas are still eligible.

USDA publishes online maps buyers can use to check the eligibility of a certain address or geographical area. Buyers will find that some entire states are USDA-eligible. Even highly populated states contain surprisingly vast qualifying areas. An estimated 97% of the American landscape is geographically eligible for a USDA loan.

Still, some buyers might find that eligible areas are too far outside employment centers, and for that reason choose an FHA loan, which comes with no geographical restrictions.

Con: Income limits apply

The Rural Development loan was created to spur homeownership in rural areas, especially among low-income and moderate-income home buyers who might not otherwise qualify. As such, USDA publishes income limits. Maximums are set at 115% of the median income for your county or area. But, these limits aren’t overly restrictive. The following are examples of maximum household incomes in various locales around the country.

  • Denver, Colorado: $112,850
  • Portland, Oregon: $105,950
  • Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: $111,100
  • Albany County, Wyoming: $92,450

You can find current USDA income limits for your area here.

Not everyone will fall within USDA income limits. That’s where FHA comes in. FHA loans come with absolutely no income limits for its standard program.

Pros and cons of FHA loans

While USDA loans stand out for being ultra-affordable, many borrowers prefer an FHA mortgage for its looser underwriting requirements. There are no income limits for an FHA loan and you might be able to get away with a lower credit score and higher debts than USDA or conventional lenders would allow. Here’s what you should know.

The Pros & Cons of FHA Loans

Pro: Flexible credit requirements

One of the biggest benefits of the FHA loan program is its low credit score threshold. Most FHA lenders will accept credit scores as low as 580 with just 3.5% down. That’s a far cry from USDA’s 640 credit minimum. The Federal Housing Administration will even allow FICO scores of 500-579. However, you’ll need to make a 10% down payment — and few lenders will actually approve scores this low.

FHA tends to be flexible when it comes to credit history, too. For example, FHA guidelines specifically state that lack of credit history is not a reason to deny someone’s loan. If you have very little information on your credit report — or none at all — because you haven’t borrowed much in the past, an FHA loan is still an option. You’ll just have to prove your financial responsibility in another way, for example, with a 12-month history of on-time rent payments.

USDA has similar rules, but it might be harder to find a USDA lender to approve you. With the FHA program, lenient credit requirements are the norm.

Pro: Flexible debt-to-income ratios

FHA is also more flexible than USDA when it comes to debt-to-income ratios (DTI). Your debt-to-income ratio compares your monthly debt payments and gross monthly income. Lenders use this number to determine how much of your income is taken up by existing debts, and how much room is left over in your budget for monthly mortgage payments.

Although the U.S. Department of Agriculture doesn’t set loan limits, its income limits effectively cap the amount you can borrow. For instance, if your monthly pre-tax income is $4,000 and you pay $600 per month toward student loans and credit cards, your existing DTI is 15%.

USDA’s maximum DTI — including housing payments — is typically 41%. So the most you can spend on your mortgage each month is $1,040.

  • $600 + $1,040 = $1,640
  • $1,640 / $4,000 = 0.41
  • DTI = 41%

The USDA typically limits debt-to-income ratios to 41%, except when the borrower has a credit score over 660, stable employment, or can show a demonstrated ability to save. These mortgage application strengths are often referred to as “compensating factors” and can play a big role in getting approved for any mortgage — not just USDA.

FHA, on the other hand, often allows a DTI of up to 45% without any compensating factors. In the example above, a 45% DTI allowance raises your maximum mortgage payment to $1,300. A bigger monthly payment increases the amount you can borrow. That means you can potentially buy a better, more expensive home.

If existing debts are an issue for you, you may want to choose an FHA loan over a USDA loan for its flexibility in this area.

Con: Higher mortgage insurance rates

The main downside to FHA financing is that you pay mortgage insurance premiums (MIP). Both FHA and USDA loans charge borrowers mortgage insurance. So do conventional loans when buyers put less than 20% down. This is known as private mortgage insurance or “PMI.”

All three kinds of mortgage insurance protect the lender in case of foreclosure. USDA’s mortgage insurance rates are typically the cheapest of the three.

On the other hand, FHA loans are known for having more expensive mortgage insurance premiums. Although, conventional PMI rates might actually be higher if you have a lower credit score and small down payment.

Take a look at how mortgage insurance costs might compare for a $250,000 home with 3.5% down. The borrower in this scenario has a 640 credit score.

 USDA Mortgage Insurance (MI)FHA Mortgage Insurance Premium (MIP)Conventional Private Mortgage Insurance (PMI)
Upfront Fee (% of loan amount)1.0%1.75%None
Upfront Fee ($)$2,400$4,200$0
Annual Rate (% of loan amount)0.35%0.85%1.65%
Monthly Payment (annual rate / 12)$70 / month$170 / month$330 / month

A few things to note here:

  • Upfront mortgage insurance premiums for USDA and FHA can be rolled into the loan amount
  • The annual FHA MIP rate drops to 0.80% if you put at least 5% down
  • Conventional PMI rates can drop steeply when you have a higher credit score

The other big difference when it comes to mortgage insurance is that conventional PMI can be canceled once a homeowner has at least 20% equity.

By contrast, USDA mortgage insurance lasts the life of the loan. So does FHA mortgage insurance, unless you put at least 10% down. In that case, MIP lasts 11 years. While this might seem like a deal-breaker, even homeowners with “permanent” mortgage insurance aren’t stuck with it forever.

Those with FHA and USDA loans may be able to refinance into a conventional loan with no PMI once they reach 20% equity in the home. So, if you have a credit score in the low 600s and PMI rates would be super high, don’t let the fact that PMI is cancelable sway you. An FHA or USDA loan could still be cheaper in the long run.

FAQ: USDA vs FHA loans

Is it easier to get an FHA or USDA loan?

Many home buyers may find FHA loans more accessible than USDA loans. FHA loans are generally considered to have flexible eligibility requirements. Unlike USDA loans, they allow for lower credit scores and have no rules about purchasing in rural areas or meeting household income limits.

Is a USDA loan cheaper than an FHA loan?

USDA loans are typically regarded as being cheaper than FHA loans. USDA loans have no down payment requirements and lower mortgage insurance premiums.

What is the downside to a USDA loan?

Perhaps the biggest downside to a USDA loan is that it’s only available to buyers who are purchasing a primary residence in a designated rural area. Even though an estimated 97% of the U.S. is eligible, buyers who need to live near employment centers or larger metro areas will likely need to consider an FHA or conventional loan.

What do USDA and FHA loans have in common?

Both USDA and FHA loans are backed by government agencies that protect lenders in case of default. Additionally, both are fixed-rate loans that are available to home buyers who may have difficulty qualifying for a conventional loan.

Is an FHA or USDA loan better?

Whether an FHA or USDA loan is better will depend on your financial situation. Buyers with lower credit scores will likely find FHA loans suit their needs best. However, home buyers may find the USDA loan attractive if they’re looking for a cheaper loan without any down payment requirement. It really comes down to a buyer’s priorities and personal finances.

Compare USDA vs FHA mortgage rates

There’s one more big benefit of using either a USDA or FHA loan. Both have below-market mortgage rates, meaning you’re likely to get a lower interest rate than you would with a conventional loan.

Today’s rates are at historic lows, so it’s a great time to lock an affordable fixed rate via the FHA or USDA program. Check your mortgage options to see which one works best for you.

Shashank Shekhar
Authored By: Shashank Shekhar
The Mortgage Reports contributor
Shashank Shekhar is a mortgage broker/lender with 10+ years experience, licensed in the states of CA, WA and TX. NMLS ID 8176.