Understanding the FHA 203k Loan

Finding your dream home is hard.

Unless you have an unlimited budget, just about any home you buy will require compromise. The house that’s move-in ready might have fewer bedrooms than you’d like. The house that’s in the perfect location might need a lot of repairs.

Sometimes it feels like you’ll never be able to afford the house you truly want.

This is where the FHA 203(k) loan can be a huge help.

The FHA 203(k) loan is a government-backed mortgage that’s specifically designed to fund a home renovation. Whether you’re buying a new house that needs work or you want to upgrade your current home, this program can help you do it affordably.

Part I: Understanding the basics of 203(k) loans

What is a 203(k) loan?

The FHA 203(k) loan is simply an extension of the regular FHA mortgage loan program. The loan is backed by the federal government, which provides two big advantages:

  1. You can qualify for a down payment as low as 3.5 percent.
  2. You can quality with a credit score as low as 500, although better credit scores allow for better loan terms.

The additional benefit of the 203(k) loan over regular FHA loans is that it allows you to take out a single loan to finance both the purchase and renovation of a property, giving you the opportunity to build your dream home with minimal money down.

How a 203(k) loan works

A 203(k) loan can be used for one of two purposes:

  1. Buying a new property that’s in need of renovations, from relatively minor improvements to a complete teardown and rebuild.
  2. Refinancing your existing home in order to fund repairs and improvements.

The maximum loan amount is determined by the general FHA mortgage limits for your area, and the minimum repair cost is $5,000. But as opposed to a conventional loan, in which your mortgage is limited to the current appraisal value of the property, a 203(k) loan bases the mortgage amount on the lesser of the following:

  • The current value of the property, plus the cost of the renovations
  • 110 percent of the appraised value of the property after the renovations are complete

In other words, it enables you to purchase a property that you otherwise might not be able to take out a mortgage on because the 203(k) loan factors in the value of the improvements to be made.

And it allows you to do so with a down payment as low as 3.5 percent, which can be especially helpful for first-time homebuyers who often don’t have as much cash to bring to the table.

All of this opens up a number of opportunities that would otherwise be off limits to many homebuyers. For Pamela Capalad, a fee-only certified financial planner and the founder of Brunch & Budget, it was the only way that she and her husband could afford a house in Brooklyn, N.Y., which is where they wanted to live.

“Finding out about the 203(k) loan opened us up to the idea of buying a house that needed to be renovated,” Capalad said. “It was by far the most budget-friendly way to do it.”

Of course, the opportunity comes with some additional costs.

According to Eamon McKeon, a New York-based renovation loan specialist, interest rates on a 203(k) loan are typically 0.25 to 0.375 percentage points higher than conventional loans.

They also require you to pay mortgage insurance. There is an upfront premium equal to 1.75 percent of the base loan amount, which is rolled into the mortgage. And there is an annual premium, paid monthly, that ranges from 0.45 to 1.05 percent, depending on the size of the loan, the size of the down payment, and the length of your mortgage.

Additionally, McKeon cautioned that unlike conventional loans, this mortgage insurance premium is applied for the entire life of the loan unless you put at least 10 percent down. The only way to get rid of it is to refinance.

What renovations can be financed through a 203(k) loan?

Source: iStock

A 203(k) loan allows you to finance a wide range of renovations, all the way from small improvements like kitchen appliance upgrades to major projects like completely tearing down and rebuilding the house.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development provides a list of eligible improvements:

The big stipulation is the work has to be done by a contractor. You are not allowed to do any of the work yourself (though there is an exception to this rule for people who have the skills to do it).

According to McKeon, this is the most challenging part of successfully executing a 203(k) loan. He said the vast majority of the projects he sees go south have contractor-related issues, from underestimating the bid, to being unresponsive, to not having the correct licenses.

On the flip side, one of the benefits is that the bank helps you manage costs. They put the money needed for the renovations into an escrow account and only release it to the contractor as improvements are made and inspected.

For Capalad and her husband, this arrangement was one of the draws of the 203(k) loan.

“I liked knowing that the contractor couldn’t suddenly gouge us,” she said. “He couldn’t quote $30,000 and then come back later and tell us we actually owed him $100,000.”

Capalad suggested using sites like Yelp and HomeAdvisor, as well as references from friends, to find a contractor. She said you should interview at least four to five people, get bids from each, and not necessarily jump at the cheapest bid.

“We made the mistake of immediately rejecting higher estimates,” said Capalad. “We realized later that their estimates were higher because they were more aware of what needed to be done and how the process would work.”

Who can use a 203(k) loan?

A 203(k) loan is available to anyone who meets the eligibility requirements (discussed below) and is looking to renovate a home.

It’s often appealing to first-time homebuyers, who are generally younger and therefore less likely to have the cash necessary for either a conventional mortgage or to fund the renovations themselves. But there is no requirement that you have to be a first-time homebuyer.

The program can also be used to finance either the purchase of a home in need of renovation or to refinance an existing mortgage in order to update your current home.

3 reasons to use a 203(k) loan

There are a few common situations in which a 203(k) loan can make a lot of sense:

  1. Expand your opportunity: In a hot market, move-in ready homes often sell quickly and for more than asking price. A 203(k) loan can open up the market for you, allowing you to choose from a wider range of properties knowing that you can improve upon any house you buy.
  2. Upgrade your current home: If you want to add a bedroom, redo your kitchen, or make any other improvements to your current home, a 203(k) loan allows you to refinance and fold the cost of those upgrades into your new mortgage with a smaller down payment than other options.
  3. Increase your home equity: McKeon argued that anyone taking out a regular FHA loan should at least consider turning it into a 203(k) loan. With the right improvements, you could increase the value of your home to the point that you have enough equity after the renovations to refinance into a conventional mortgage and remove or reduce your monthly mortgage insurance premium.

What it takes to qualify for a 203(k) loan

Qualifying for a 203(k) loan is much like qualifying for a regular FHA mortgage loan, but with slightly stricter credit requirements.

“FHA may allow FICO scores in the 500s, [but] banks/lenders have discretion or are required to only go so low on the score,” McKeon said.

Here are the major criteria you’ll have to meet:

  • You have to work with an FHA-approved lender.
  • The minimum credit score is 500, though McKeon said a credit score of 640 is typically needed in order to secure the smallest down payment of 3.5 percent.
  • You have to have sufficient income to afford the mortgage payments, which the lender determines by evaluating two years of tax returns.
  • Your total debt-to-income ratio typically cannot exceed 43 percent.
  • You must have a clear CAIVRS report, indicating that you are not currently delinquent and have never defaulted on any loans backed by the federal government. This includes federal student loans, SBA loans and prior FHA loans.
  • The current property value plus the cost of the renovations must fall within FHA mortgage limits.

The 203(k) loan application process

McKeon said the process of applying for a 203(k) loan generally looks like this:

  1. Get preapproved for a mortgage by an FHA-approved lender.
  2. Find a property you want to buy and submit an offer.
  3. Find an approved 203(k) consultant to inspect the property and create a write-up of repairs needed and the estimated cost.
  4. Interview contractors, receive estimates, and select one to be vetted and approved by your lender.
  5. Obtain an appraisal to determine the post-renovation value of your house.
  6. Provide other information and documentation as requested by your lender in order to finalize loan approval.

Property types eligible for 203(k) loans

A 203(k) loan can be used for any single-family home that was built at least one year ago and has anywhere from one to four units. You can use the loan to increase a single-unit property into a multi-unit property, up to the four-unit limit, and you can also use it to turn a multi-unit property into a single-unit property.

These loans can be used to improve a condominium, provided it meets the following conditions:

  • It must be located in an FHA-approved condominium project.
  • Improvements are generally limited to the interior of the unit.
  • No more than 5 units, or 25 percent of all units, in a condominium association can be renovated at any time.
  • After renovation, the unit must be located in a structure that contains no more than four units total.

A 203(k) loan can also be used on a mixed residential/business property if at least 51 percent of the property is residential and the business use of the property does not affect the health or safety of the residential occupants.

It’s worth noting that the property must be owner-occupied, so a 203(k) loan is not an option for a pure investment property.

Within those limits, a wide variety of properties could qualify. McKeon noted that when he writes these loans, he doesn’t care about the current condition of the property. Everything is based on the renovations to be done and the future condition of the property.

Part II: Types of 203(k) loans

Standard vs. streamline 203(k) loans

A streamline 203(k) loan, or limited 203(k) loan, is a version of the 203(k) loan that can be used for smaller renovations. While there is no limit to the renovation costs associated with a standard 203(k) loan — other than the general FHA mortgage limits — a streamline 203(k) can only be used for up to $35,000 in repairs. There is no minimum repair cost.

In return, you get an easier application process. While a standard 203(k) loan requires you to hire a HUD-approved 203(k) consultant to help manage the renovation process, a streamline 203(k) does not.

However, there are limits to the kind of work you can have done with a streamline 203(k) loan. You can review the list of allowed improvements here and the list of ineligible improvements here, but here’s a quick overview of what isn’t allowed with a streamline 203(k):

  • The improvements can’t be expected to take more than six months to complete.
  • The improvements can’t prevent you from occupying the property for more than 15 days during the renovation.
  • You cannot convert a single-unit home into a multi-unit home, or vice versa.
  • You cannot do a complete teardown.

So when does a streamline 203(k) loan make sense over a standard 203(k) loan? Here is when it’s worth considering:

  • The property requires less than $35,000 in repairs and otherwise falls within the requirements for an eligible renovation.
  • You are comfortable scoping the work, gathering contractor estimates, and supervising the renovations without the help of a consultant.
  • You don’t expect the renovations to require an extensive amount of time.
  • You like the idea of minimizing paperwork and otherwise shortening the entire process.

Part III: Is a 203(k) loan the best option for you?

Alternatives to a 203(k) loan

Of course, a 203(k) loan isn’t the only way to finance a renovation. Here are some of the alternatives.

Fannie Mae HomeStyle Renovation Mortgage

The Fannie Mae HomeStyle Renovation Mortgage is a conventional conforming mortgage that, like the 203(k) loan, is specifically designed to finance renovations.

The biggest drawback is that it requires a 5 percent down payment as opposed to 3.5 percent. That can potentially require you to bring a few thousand dollars more in cash to the table.

But McKeon says that if you can afford it, it’s usually a better option. The biggest reason is that your monthly private mortgage insurance (PMI) is typically less, and it automatically drops off once your loan-to-value ratio reaches 78 percent, as opposed to a 203(k) loan where the PMI generally lasts for the life of the loan.

Home equity loan

If you’re looking to renovate your current home, one option would simply be to take out a home equity loan that allows you to borrow against the equity you’ve already built up in your house.

The advantages over a 203(k) loan would generally be a potentially lower interest rate and fewer restrictions around what improvements are made and who makes them.

The big downside is that your loan is limited to your current equity. If you purchased your home relatively recently, or if your home has decreased in value, you may not have enough equity to finance a sizable improvement. And if you are looking to purchase and renovate a new home, the 203(k) loan is likely the better option.

Title I property improvement loan

Like 203(k) loans, Title I property improvement loans are backed by the federal government. They allow you to borrow up to $25,000 for single-family homes, and up to $12,000 per unit for multi-unit properties, to improve a home you currently own.

This loan could be preferable to a 203(k) loan if the improvements you want to make are relatively small, you don’t want to refinance or don’t have the money for a down payment, and/or you’d like to avoid some of the requirements and inspections surrounding a 203(k) loan.

Personal savings

If you have the savings to afford the renovations yourself, or if you can wait until you do have the savings, you could save yourself a lot of money by avoiding financing altogether.

Of course, this may or may not be realistic, depending on the type of project you’re considering. For smaller projects that aren’t urgent, this is a worthy candidate. For larger projects or those that need to be addressed immediately, financing may be the only way to make it happen.

203(k) loans open up new opportunities

The FHA 203(k) loan isn’t for everybody. As Capalad found out the hard way, the money you save is often more than made up in sweat equity.

“I was making calls during my lunch break, and my husband was regularly stopping at the house to check in on things,” she said. “It really felt like our lives stopped for those 10 months.”

But McKeon said that if you have a creative eye and you’re willing to put in the work, you can end up with a much better home than you would have been able to purchase if you limited yourself to move-in ready properties, especially if you have a limited amount of cash to bring to the table.

In the end, it’s all about understanding the trade-offs and doing what’s right for you and your family. At the very least, the 203(k) loan expands the realm of possibility.

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