What Is a VA Loan?



As you consider the various ways to finance a house, the VA loan is likely one of the best options for active duty and veteran service members. Millions have benefited from the favorable terms of the VA loan, and the program remains popular as it removes many barriers typical buyers face, especially first-time home buyers. 


The Department of Veterans Affairs confirmed in 2016 that the program is a mainstay for service members seeking a simpler path to homeownership.


“We guaranteed a record 707,000 home loans and helped a record 97,000 Veterans avoid foreclosure, maintaining one of the lowest foreclosure rates in the industry.”


You’ll want to ask your real estate agent and mortgage lender to further explain the deep details of the VA loan, but the following are the major points to become familiar with in order to have a solid understanding of what the VA loan is, and who is eligible for the benefit. 


Mortgage 101: Your Basic Questions Answered

Why Does the VA Home Loan Exist? 

In 1944, The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs created the VA loan as part of the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act to assist WWII veterans with establishing homeownership. President Roosevelt signed the act with hope that service members would come home and begin to establish new lifestyles after sacrificing so much during the war effort. 

Seven decades later, more than 22 million VA loans have been guaranteed by the government and the program remains one of the most powerful for helping veterans achieve homeownership

Who Is Eligible for a VA Loan? 

Military members and veterans are required to meet certain criteria in order to be qualified for a VA loan. In short, your time of of service, duty status, and character of service determines your eligibility for specific VA home loan benefits. Here is what the VA directs:


“You must have satisfactory credit, sufficient income, and a valid Certificate of Eligibility (COE) to be eligible for a VA-guaranteed home loan. The home must be for your own personal occupancy.”


VA home loans can be used to:

  • Buy a home or a condominium unit in a VA-approved project
  • Build a home
  • Simultaneously purchase and improve a home
  • Improve a home by installing energy-related features or making energy efficient improvements
  • Buy a manufactured home and/or lot
  • Refinance an existing VA-guaranteed or direct loan for the purpose of a lower interest rate
  • Refinance an existing mortgage loan or other indebtedness secured by a lien of record on a residence owned and occupied by the veteran as a home

Obtaining the COE is probably easier than you think. The majority of lenders have access to the VA’s Loan Guaranty System (LGY). This app quickly verifies eligibility, but the crucial information comes directly from VA. If you don’t have complete information filed with the VA, there could be a hindrance to access. Active duty members typically do not have problems accessing a quick verification of a COE.

For veterans and surviving spouses who weren’t immediately qualified, you can file for the COE online or through the mail. 

Your VA loan eligibility also relies on your length of time in service. This is a very simplistic guide of terms of service required by the VA. For further reference, the VA loan home website has the exact details. Your real estate agent and/or lender will know more as well. 

  • Wartime: 90 days active duty
  • Peacetime: 181 in service
  • The National Guard and Reserves need 6 years of service or meet the active duty requirements. 
  • Spouses of veterans who died during service are also eligible. 


What Are the Benefits of a VA Loan? 

VA Loans are Guaranteed 


It's a common misconception that the U.S. Government funds the money for the VA loan. They do not. They do however, guarantee a large portion, usually about 25% of the loan (provided by private lenders), which equates to a very safe transaction in the eyes of the lending bank. The VA also provides several options to help loan holders avoid foreclosure and stay in their homes if financial difficulties occur


Favorable Interest Rates


An added benefit of a VA loan’s guarantee is that the service member automatically becomes less of a risk, and lenders offer better interest rates to borrowers with limited liability. Even a small difference in percentage saves thousands over the life of the loan. 


For example:

  • $300,000 purchase price
  • 30 year loan at 3.0% equals $455,332 repayment
  • 30 year loan at 2.8% equals $443,766 repayment
  • This a savings of almost $12,000 with just a .2 percent difference.

Your Credit Score Doesn’t Have to be Perfect

Again, due to federal government backing, a 620 minimum credit score is a typical criteria VA borrowers must meet. Conventional loans can be more difficult to obtain, with a 670 score needed to achieve a competitive interest rate. 

Zero Down Payment 

The VA loan has many benefits, but the zero down payment feature continues to be one of the strongest selling points for choosing the VA loan. For many years, the baseline loan guarantee limit was $424,100 for much of the country, although for expensive areas, such as Washington, D.C., it was guaranteed up to $679,650. Home buyers wishing to purchase beyond these prices had to come up with a 25% down payment. 

However, as of January 2020, this down payment requirement changes. Service members no longer have to make a down payment on any Ioan size, helping to increase their chances for acquiring homes with large price tags. 

Private Mortgage Insurance is not Required

In order to qualify for many loan products, civilian borrowers typically have to pay for private mortgage insurance (PMI) if they do not have a substantial down payment. PMI protects the lender’s investment in your ability to make mortgage payments and helps to pay their loan back if the home goes into foreclosure. 

A VA loan does not require borrowers to pay for PMI, which is a substantial savings. Remember, the government secures a portion of the loan.

Reduced Closing Costs 

In keeping with the original concept of affordable homeownership for service members, the VA restricts the amount of money spent on fees during a VA loan transaction. Disabled and active duty service members normally pay the lowest amount of funding fees. These savings can be extended by asking the seller to pay for loan related closing costs and concessions.

Even with these reductions, borrowers should ensure they have 5-10% of the home’s purchase price to pay for remaining closing costs and earnest money. This money may also pay for the VA funding fee if you prefer not to put into the loan amount. The funding fee is a way for the VA to maintain the home loan program, so future military members have the financing available when they need it.  

The VA loan funding fee is waived for classes of veterans who have disabilities related to their service, such as: 

  • If the veteran receives VA compensation for a service-connected disability. 
  • If the veteran who is entitled to receive compensation for a service-connected disability did not receive retirement or active duty pay.
  • A surviving spouse of a veteran who died in service or from a service-connected disability.

No Pre-payment or Early Payoff Fees

Sometimes, it makes financial sense to pay off a home loan early, but not if early payment fees or penalties suck up any potential savings. The VA loan allows borrowers to pay their loans faster than the original expected life of the mortgage without incurring costly fees. 

The VA Loan Is a Benefit That Lasts a Lifetime


Yes, you can reuse your loan benefit--multiple times, actually. Yes, you can apply for a VA loan before another VA loan is paid in full, in certain circumstances. Even service members who have faced foreclosure or bankruptcy could be eligible for a VA loan. Do note that the VA loan is designed to purchase a primary residence. Borrowers cannot use funds for investment property vacation homes or to purchase property internationally. 


Our article, Have a VA Loan? Take a Second!, explains further details and examines the circumstances when it makes financial sense to look into another VA Loan. 

How Do I Start the VA Loan Process? 

Military past and present have a powerful benefit in the VA loan. You’ll be hard pressed to find other loan products that have the savings options and extended capabilities to buy homes as the VA loan. But, not every lender is proficient in the VA loan process. 

It is necessary to interview multiple lenders to ensure they have the knowledge to accurately deal with the government. This is especially true for those who want to apply for a second VA loan; this is a special skill set that many lenders do not have. Start with referrals from family and friends, and add in suggestions from your real estate agent before interviewing potential lenders. 

Your lender will ask for stacks of documents. Here are Most Common Documents Needed for Home Financing.

Home buyers have many questions, and if VA loan financing is an option, your real estate agent should be very versed with the details of a loan, simply to guide you through the general home buying process and how a VA loan affects housing hunting. An agent with the Military Relocation Professional (MRP) Certification will have a wealth of knowledge.  

MilitaryByOwner is packed with information about buying and financing a home. Not only are VA loans discussed in articles and blogs, but so are conventional loans and other federal programs such as the FHA loan. Plus, don’t miss our free ebooks dedicated to educating military members and families about the home buying process. Click below to find out more!