Which Refinance Type Is Best For You? (VA, FHA, USDA, Conventional)

Tim Lucas
Military VA Loan editor

There are different types of mortgage loans available to today’s consumers, each with slightly different guidelines. Some have inherent advantages so it takes some time to consider which loan type best suits your requirements.

Let’s take a look at the different programs to see what’s right for you.

Click here to check today's VA loan rates.

VA Refinance

VA loans are available for eligible veterans, certain active-duty personnel, borrowers with six years’ service in the National Guard or Armed Forces Reserves, and other selected borrowers. VA loans offer two types of refinancing, a standard or a streamline — all backed by the Department of Veterans Affairs.

A standard VA refinance requires the borrowers to provide complete documentation of their loan file including a new appraisal, income and employment verification and fair credit. This loan is also known as a VA cash-out refinance, and is typically only used when getting cash out or paying off a non-VA loan.

Apply for a VA cash out loan here.

For those with a VA mortgage, there’s the VA streamline refinance, officially called the Interest Rate Reduction Refinance Loan (IRRRL). This refinance in essence allows eligible borrowers to drop their rate with very little documentation, time, or money. No income or asset verification and no appraisal are required.

Click here to apply for a VA streamline refinance.

The streamline program may be used to finance a property that was previously occupied and a VA loan used to finance the original purchase. Only an existing VA loan may be eligible for the streamline program. No cash out is allowed.

All VA loans require a funding fee which can be as high as 3.3 percent of the loan amount and may be included in the final loan. For the VA streamline, the funding fee is dramatically reduced to as low as 0.50 percent.

Non-VA Refinance Types

For eligible homeowners, the VA loan is usually the cheapest and easiest option. However, in some cases, those looking to refinance might choose another loan type.

Here are the main non-VA choices.

1. Conventional Refinance

Conventional mortgages are those approved using guidelines established by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and are by far the most popular program. Almost every lender offers them and guidelines are mostly consistent from lender to lender, with very few differences.

Mortgage rates on conventional loans are very competitive as lenders compete using the same programs. The best use of a conventional refinance occurs when the homeowners have at least 20 percent equity in the home. In this case, no private mortgage insurance is required.

A VA refinance requires an upfront funding fee, which ranges from 0.50% to 3.3% depending on refinance type. But conventional loans don’t require an upfront fee. This could save Veterans money, provided they have enough home equity for a conventional refinance.

Check your refinance eligibility here.

A conventional loan can also be used to finance an investment property. Other programs, VA, FHA, and USDA loans are only available to purchase an owner-occupied home while a conventional loan can be used to finance the purchase of a primary residence or a rental property.

Borrowers are also allowed to pull equity out of the home in the form of cash when refinancing, referred to as a “cash out” refinance. Most lenders allow for a cash out refinance up to 80 percent of the value of the property, although you’ll likely get a lower interest rate if you stay below 75 percent.

Conventional refinance loans are always “fully documented” meaning the borrowers must qualify in the same manner as during the purchase with paycheck stubs, appraisal, and income tax returns in addition to other standard requirements.

2. FHA Refinance

The FHA refinance also has a streamline program, very similar to the VA program.

No credit score requirement, no appraisal, and no income or employment verified. The FHA streamline is available for FHA-to-FHA transactions. In other words, you have an FHA loan currently.

It may also be used to finance a property that was previously occupied by the borrowers but is now rented out.

The new loan rate and mortgage insurance must drop. The refinance must benefit the borrower.

There can be no payments within the previous three months more than 30 days past the due date.

FHA loans require a monthly and upfront mortgage insurance premium. If the original FHA loan was opened prior to June 1, 2009, the mortgage insurance premiums receive a nice discount.

If you have a VA loan, however, your best option is the VA streamline.

3. USDA Refinance

The USDA program is for properties located in rural or semi-rural areas and the borrowers must not exceed specific income guidelines. The USDA refinance is a standard refinance requiring a fully documented loan including an appraisal, credit, and income among others.

There is a pilot streamline refinance program available in 35 states and operates in a similar fashion as VA and FHA streamline programs. The USDA streamline is for a 30 year fixed rate only and the rate must be at least one percent lower than the existing one and can only be a USDA-to-USDA transaction. No cash out is allowed.

VA, FHA, USDA or Conventional: Which Refinance is Best?

It really all depends on your home equity. VA, FHA, and USDA loans all have some form of mortgage insurance or funding fees applied, increasing the loan amount as well as the monthly payment. If there is at least a 20 percent equity position in the property refinancing out of one of these three loan types into a conventional one is the better choice.

If there are loan to value issues and there isn’t at least 20 percent equity in the transaction then the applicable streamline should be considered.

There can always be additional lender requirements on top of any issued guidelines called overlays. Some lenders may ask for an appraisal for a streamline for instance. If you’re thinking about refinancing, consider all your options. Not only could you benefit from a lower rate, but you might also be able to get rid of mortgage insurance premiums as well.

Click here to check today’s VA refinance rates.

Let’s look at a comparison of the four major loan types for a $250,000 purchase price.

Head to Head – VA Compared to other Loan Types

VA FHA Conventional USDA
APR* 3.721% APR 4.798% APR 5.192% APR 4.246% APR
Principle and Interest $1146 $1102 $1168 $1163
Monthly Mortgage Insurance or Fee $0 $269 $210 $84
Estimated Taxes and Insurance $268 $268 $268 $268
Total Monthly Payment $1414 $1639 $1646 $1515
*Based on rates available 6/4/2013 and are shown for comparison purposes only. May not represent current rates. Check with a VA-approved lender here for today's rates.

Comparison of Qualification Requirements

VA FHA Conventional USDA
Down Payment Percentage 0% 3.5% 5% 0%
Approx. Cash Needed** $0 $8750 $12,500 $0
Typical Minimum Credit Score Needed*** 620-640 620-640 680 620-640
Streamline Refinance Available? Yes Yes No Yes
**Assumes $6000 in seller-paid closing costs;
***Varies based on lender; All scenarios assume 700 credit score, property in WA
Additional Benefits of VA Home Loans
  • VA home loans have more lenient credit and debt ratio guidelines. You may qualify for a VA loan even if you can’t be approved for other loan types. Get your  free rate quote.
  • You can refinance or sell your home at any time without penalty with a VA loan.
  • The seller is allowed to pay all of your closing costs up to 4% of the purchase price.

I’m Ready to Apply for This Great Benefit

The VA home loan program is a great opportunity for active-duty service members and veterans. Take advantage of your entitlement.

Request a no-obligation eligibility check here.

More VA Loan Resources:

Source for VA loan information: VA Handbook