There are many different loan types to choose from when you’re buying a home. The right one often depends on a number of factors, such as your location, credit score, and down payment.
But sometimes, the decision just comes down to the purchase price.
If you’re in the market for a high-value home, chances are you’re going to need a larger loan that bypasses standard loan limits.
These are typically called jumbo loans. As the name implies, they are heftier than your typical conventional or conforming mortgage.
Jumbo, conventional, and conforming loans are all “conventional loans” in a technical sense, but we’ll break down common rules and definitions for each.
As you compare jumbo vs conventional loans, keep in mind that these terms overlap a bit. But we’ll sort out the differences for you..
What's in this Article?
Conventional loans explained
Jumbo loans defined
Jumbo vs conforming
Fixed vs adjustable-rate mortgages
Conventional loans explained
Let’s start with a quick primer on what the term “conventional loan” means.
Conventional loans refer to a broad category of mortgages — essentially any home loan that is not backed by the government.
There are several different types of conventional loans, but the most common are conforming loans.
Conforming loans are regulated by the government-sponsored enterprises (GSEs) Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Fannie and Freddie set the rules and requirements that lenders use to approve borrowers for conforming conventional loans.
“Conventional mortgage loans are offered by traditional private lenders, credit unions, and mortgage banks with proprietary products,” explained Ralph DiBugnara, president of Home Qualified in New York City.
Conforming loan criteria
Credit score: 620 or higher
Debt-to-income ratio (DTI): 45%
DTI can be higher with an approved Automated Underwriting response
Minimum down payment: 3%
Repayment terms for conforming mortgage loans can be 10, 15, 20, 25, and 30 years.
Related reading: How Much Cash Do You Need for a Conventional Loan Down Payment?
Conforming loan limits
The Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA), which oversees Fannie and Freddie, sets loan limits each year for how much lenders can approve borrowers for with a conforming conventional mortgage.
Loan limits are tied to median area housing prices, so they look quite different depending where in the country you’re buying. In most areas, the conforming loan limit for a single-family home is $548,250. However, the limit is higher in markets with more expensive homes. The maximum limit for a single-family home is $822,375.
But there are areas that fall between the floor ($548,250) and ceiling ($822,375). For instance, the Denver-area loan limit is $596,850 for a single-family home. In Seattle, it’s $776,250.
Loans that are higher than the national limit of $548,250 but at or below the maximum $822,375 are called high-balance conforming loans.
2021 Conventional conforming loan limitsProperty type Contiguous States; Washington, D.C. & Puerto Rico High-cost areas, Hawaii, Alaska, Guam & the U.S. Virgin Islands Single-family home$548,250$822,375Duplex$702,000$1,053,000Triplex$848,500$1,272,750Fourplex$1,054,500$1,581,750
Curious what the loan limit is in your area? Look it up on the FHFA’s conforming loan limits map.
Loans that exceed the conforming loan limits set by the FHFA are often called jumbo loans. In plain English, these loans are bigger than Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac loan limits for a given area.
For example, a home loan for $700,000 in Denver would be a jumbo loan, where the conforming loan limit is below $600,000. Yet, in Seattle, you could get a conforming loan for $700,000 because the limit there is $776,250.
Clearly, whether you choose jumbo vs conventional/conforming depends a lot on your location.
Other non-coforming loans “break” other rules set by Fannie/Freddie. For instance, a “stated income” loan where the borrower does not verify income via documentation would be non-conforming because Fannie/Freddie requires all income to be documented.
But for our purposes here, you just have to know that a jumbo loan is non-conforming because it’s above an area’s Fannie/Freddie conforming loan limits.
Jumbo loans defined
A jumbo loan surpasses the conforming loan limits, allowing homebuyers to purchase costlier homes.
“If a loan amount exceeds $548,250 in most counties across the country, depending on where you live and what guidelines the FHFA has in place, you need a jumbo loan,” said Lyle David Solomon, principal attorney with Oak View Law Group in Auburn, California. “This is because the government guarantees a portion or the entirety. With a jumbo loan, you typically need a higher credit score, a lower DTI ratio, and, in some cases, collateral or cash reserves.”
Oftentimes, mortgage lenders will require borrowers to have at least a 680 credit score and they may require you to put down 10% or more.
Katsiaryna Bardos, chair of the Finance Department at Fairfield University, Fairfield, Connecticut, notes that jumbo mortgage loan borrowers are typically more affluent and financially stable, with many of these loans originating on the West Coast and in the Northeast, in some of the country’s most expensive housing markets.
That distribution makes sense, given the steeper requirements. Ten percent down on a $3 million home is $300,000 — more than what the average home in the U.S. is worth, according to Zillow.
So you’d expect to see jumbo loans in areas where incomes and housing prices are high.
“If a loan amount exceeds $548,250 in most counties across the country, depending on where you live and what guidelines the FHFA has in place, you need a jumbo loan.” Lyle David Solomon, principal attorney with Oak View Law Group
Where to find a jumbo loan
Many private lenders, traditional banks, and online lenders offer jumbo loans.
“Banks often like jumbo loans because of their high credit quality, short duration, and wider spread than other loans and securities,” Bardos said. In other words, they tend to be lucrative and lower-risk.
Additionally, don’t be surprised if you see jumbo loan rates lower than standard conforming loan rates. That’s because banks like to lure high-net-worth individuals with attractive jumbo loan terms in order to gain their business for other financial products.
But that’s not always the case. Many lenders will require higher rates and down payments. If you’re interested in a jumbo loan but are wary of putting down 10%, shop around. Lenders can set their own criteria for jumbo loans, and they may have programs that allow you to put down less — particularly if you’re in a medical profession.
Some physician loan programs allow recent medical school graduates, residents, surgeons, and a number of other physician types to buy high-value homes with less than 10% down.
Jumbo loans vs conforming loans: Which is better?
Deciding between a conforming loan or a jumbo loan really comes down to your homebuying needs and your financial qualifications.
“If you don’t need a big, expensive home with unconventional terms attached to the loan, a conventional loan with rules set by the federal government is likely to be far more in your favor as a homebuyer,” Solomon said.
Opting for a conforming loan gives you access to loans with as little as 3% down that allow you to use gift funds toward your down payment, reducing the amount of money you need upfront.
It may also be harder to qualify for a jumbo loan than a conforming loan.
Common criteriaConforming loanJumbo loanMinimum credit score620680*Minimum down payment3% (for loans up to $548,250)10%Maximum debt-to-income (DTI) ratio45% (may be higher in some cases)45% (may be higher in some cases)
*Can be lower, such as a 661 FICO score.
Again, lenders can set their own criteria. While one company might allow a jumbo loan down payment of less than 10%, another might not approve jumbo borrowers unless their credit scores are above 700 and they can show substantial cash reserves to cover the mortgage payment.
If you have significant savings, high income, and good credit, a jumbo loan can certainly expand your homebuying possibilities. You’ll have access to a greater number of properties, likely in very desirable areas, and a better shot at getting a home with all of your desired amenities.
But just because you can qualify for a jumbo loan doesn’t mean you should take the maximum amount offered.
“Just be careful when planning your home purchase,” Solomon cautioned. “While you want to have a house that’s big enough to last through your plans, you don’t want one so big and fancy that you are wasting money.”
As a bankruptcy attorney, he said he often observes clients getting in over their heads.
“Be responsible with your home loan decision-making and explore different options,” he added.
Jumbo vs conventional loans (conforming) down payments
If you want a very low down payment on a higher loan balance, it might be tough to find.
Some lenders set their down payments as low as 5% for jumbo loans. Some require much more. But if you want to put less down, things get more complicated.
Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac only allow a 3% down payment on loans at or below $548,250 as of 2021. Loans bigger than that, but below the local limit are considered “conforming high-balance” loans and are not eligible for 3% down.
The minimum down payment for a conforming high-balance loan is 5%.
For example, the high-balance loan limit in Orange County, New York is $726,525. If you needed a loan for $700,000, you would need 5% down if you chose a conventional conforming loan. Your loan amount would have to be $548,250 or less to put 3% down, even in this high-cost area.
Because there’s a lot on the line, jumbo lenders as well as Fannie Mae/Freddie Mac lean toward larger down payments for big loan amounts.
Fixed-rate vs adjustable-rate mortgages (ARMs)
Both conforming and jumbo loans offer the option of either a fixed interest rate or an adjustable interest rate.
But that wasn’t always the case. After the late-2000s housing downturn, no lenders offered jumbo fixed-rate loans. You had to choose an ARM. Fortunately, fixed jumbo loans are plentiful today. But if the market returns to an ARM-only atmosphere for jumbo loans, they would still be worth considering.
Fixed-rate mortgages have their advantages, though. They have the same interest rate for the life of the loan. Your mortgage rate will never change, even if rates increase in the broader market.
An adjustable-rate mortgage (ARM) has a fixed rate for between three and 15 years, after which the rate adjusts up or down based on market rates. That means your monthly rate could go down — but it can also increase substantially.
“When interest rates are really low, as they are today, it’s best to aim for a fixed-rate mortgage,” Solomon said. “When rates are higher, it can be advantageous to choose an ARM that will go down when rates reduce.”
Or you can aim for the best of both: “One strategy is to opt for an adjustable-rate mortgage and then refinance to a fixed-rate mortgage loan when interest rates go down,” he said.
Non-conventional, a.k.a. government loans
Non-conventional loans refer to government-backed mortgage programs including VA, USDA, and FHA loans.
“Non-conventional loans often provide special benefits for borrowers, such as requiring a lower credit score and lower down payment and allowing a higher DTI ratio,” said Solomon. “This is because the government guarantees a portion or the entirety of the loan, making the risk on the lending institution much lower.”
Government-backed loans are great programs, but for the most part, they’re not going to help you buy a high-value home. FHA loans also have loan limits, and they’re lower in some cases than conforming loan limits.
USDA loans don’t have loan limits, but borrowers must earn 115% of the area median or income or less to qualify, placing a natural constraint on how much home they can purchase. Additionally, USDA loans may only be used in qualifying rural and suburban areas.
The exception is VA loans. These mortgages are available to qualifying veterans, active-duty servicemembers, and eligible surviving spouses. VA borrowers who have full entitlement benefit available can buy homes with 0% down and no loan limits.
Their homebuying power is capped only by their finances, as lenders will use their income, savings, credit score, and DTI to determine how much they can borrow.
Generally speaking, though, you’re not going to use a government-backed mortgage to buy a high-end home. You’ll most likely use a non-conforming mortgage known as a jumbo loan.
Jumbo vs conventional loans FAQs
What is the difference between jumbo and conforming loans?
A conforming conventional loan adheres to the loan limits and underwriting guidelines established by the Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA) and by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. The conforming loan limits for 2021 for a single-family home range between $548,250 and $822,375, depending where you live. Jumbo loans exceed the conforming loan limits and can be used to purchase high-value and luxury homes. Lenders typically have higher credit score and down payment requirements for jumbo loans, and the interest rates are higher as well.
Is a conforming loan a jumbo loan?
No, a jumbo loan is not a conforming loan. Conforming loans “conform” to rules set by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and are typically easier to qualify for than jumbo loans. There are conforming loan limits that constrain the amount a lender can approve a borrower for — in 2021, the limits for a single-family home are between $548,250 and $822,375. Jumbo mortgages are options for borrowers who want to buy homes above the conforming loan limits. They usually have higher credit score and down payment minimums and higher interest rates.
Is a jumbo loan better than a conforming loan?
If you’re buying a home in a high-cost area or want a luxury property, you may need a jumbo loan. However, if you’re looking for a relatively modest home, a conforming loan can be easier to qualify for and require less money upfront.
Know your own limits
Choosing a mortgage is about choosing the right tool for the job.
The conforming loan limit range starts above half a million dollars, and it scales up based on local housing prices. If your goal is to simply purchase a comfortable home, conforming loans can help you do exactly that.
But if you have the means and the goal to buy a much larger or more custom home, then a jumbo loan may be your best option.
Fairway is not affiliated with any government agencies. These materials are not from the VA, HUD, FHA, USDA, or RD, and were not approved by a government agency.
Some references sourced within this article have not been prepared by Fairway and are distributed for educational purposes only. The information is not guaranteed to be accurate and may not entirely represent the opinions of Fairway.