Buying or refinancing a home requires you to compare the costs and terms of various loan programs to ensure the best fit for your financial situation. Fannie Mae and the Federal Housing Administration provide a majority of the loans offered by banks and mortgage brokers. Several key differences between their programs affect loan cost and availability.
The federal government helped revitalize the housing market after the Great Depression. Congress created the FHA, the first government housing authority, in 1934. It is the predecessor to the Department of Housing and Urban Development, which now oversees the agency. Fannie Mae was created in 1938 to boost liquidity in the mortgage market. It started as a government agency and became a publicly traded company in 1968. The sub-prime mortgage fallout of 2007 increased demand for FHA-backed loans as Fannie Mae loans became harder to qualify for.
Fannie Mae and the FHA increase the availability of mortgages in distinct ways. Fannie buys mortgages from lenders that follow its loan guidelines, freeing up their capital so they can continue making new loans. Fannie earns the money to buy loans by holding mortgages and selling them. The FHA insures mortgages for participant lenders and reimburses their losses if borrowers default. The FHA builds its reserves to pay lender claims by collecting an up-front and an annual mortgage insurance premium from borrowers. This insurance guarantee allows lenders to make loans to riskier borrowers.
Fannie sets qualifying guidelines for most conventional, or non government-backed loans. Mortgages that conform to Fannie's standards have a maximum loan limit of $417,000. Conventional loans that exceed this conforming loan limit cannot be purchased by Fannie Mae. The FHA sets minimum guidelines that lenders comply with to gain insurance endorsement. The FHA has maximum loan limits based on the median home prices in an area. Most areas have a limit of $271,050, and the most expensive areas have a limit of $729,750.
FHA-insured loans are generally more accessible than Fannie loans in terms of cost and qualifying standards. The typical FHA loan requires a 3.5 percent down payment. Its relatively liberal guidelines allow borrowers to carry a higher percentage of debt relative to their income. It also allows borrowers with poor credit -- down to a 500 score -- to purchase with 10 percent down. Fannie Mae loans require at least 5 percent down on select programs geared toward moderate-income borrowers; whereas a majority of its loans require 20 percent down. It also has more conservative debt-to-income ratios and credit score requirements than the FHA. Some of its programs allow as low as a 620 score.
Karina C. Hernandez is a real estate agent in San Diego. She has covered housing and personal finance topics for multiple internet channels over the past 10 years. Karina has a B.A. in English from UCLA and has written for eHow, sfGate, the nest, Quicken, TurboTax, RE/Max, Zacks and Opposing Views.