What Is a Conforming Loan?

A conforming loan is a mortgage that meets the dollar limits set by the Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA) and the funding criteria of Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae. For borrowers with excellent credit, conforming loans are advantageous due to their low interest rates.

Key Takeaways

  • A conforming loan is a mortgage with terms and conditions that meet the funding criteria of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.
  • Conforming loans cannot exceed a certain dollar limit, which changes from year to year. In 2021, the limit is $548,250 for most parts of the U.S. but is higher in some more expensive areas.
  • Conforming loans typically offer lower interest rates than other types of mortgages.
  • Lenders prefer to issue conforming loans because they can be packaged and sold in the secondary mortgage market.

How a Conforming Loan Works

The Federal National Mortgage Association (FNMA, or Fannie Mae) and the Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corporation (FHLMC, or Freddie Mac) are government-sponsored entities that drive the market for home loans. These quasi-governmental agencies have created standardized rules and guidelines to which mortgages for one-unit properties (single-family dwellings) must conform if they are to be eligible for the agencies’ backing.

Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac do not issue mortgages themselves. Instead, they insure mortgages issued by lenders, such as banks, and act as secondary market makers if lenders wish to sell those mortgages.

Conforming Loan Limits 2021

The term “conforming” is most often used when speaking specifically about the mortgage amount, which must fall under a certain dollar figure, known as the conforming loan limit, which is set each year by the FHFA.

For 2021, this baseline limit is $548,250 for most of the United States. In some high-cost markets, such as San Francisco and New York City, the limit is higher. The 2021 ceiling for these areas is $822,375, or 150% of $548,250.

Special statutory provisions establish different loan limits for Alaska, Hawaii, Guam, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. In these areas, the baseline loan limit is $822,375 for one-unit properties in 2021.

Other Conforming Loan Rules

Besides the size of the loan, other guidelines to which conforming loans must adhere include the borrower’s loan-to-value (LTV) ratio (which takes into account the size of the down payment), debt-to-income ratio, credit score and history, and certain documentation requirements.

Advantages of Conforming Loans

For consumers, conforming loans are advantageous due to their low interest rates. For first-time homebuyers taking out Federal Housing Administration (FHA) loans, for example, the down payment can be as low as 3.5%.

However, the buyer who makes a low down payment may be required to purchase mortgage insurance, the cost of which varies according to their loan’s terms. For example, for 30-year loans of $625,000 or less, with an LTV ratio of 95% or more, the cost is about 0.85% of the loan amount per year.

Lenders also prefer to work with conforming loans, as they can be packaged easily into investment bundles and sold in the secondary mortgage market. This process frees up a financial institution’s capacity to issue more loans, which is how it makes its money.

Conforming Loans vs. Nonconforming Loans

Mortgages that exceed the conforming loan limit are classified as nonconforming or jumbo mortgages. Because Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac only buy conforming loans to repackage for the secondary market, the demand for nonconforming loans is much less.

The terms and conditions on nonconforming mortgages can vary widely from lender to lender, but the interest rate and minimum down payment are typically higher because these loans carry greater risk for a lender. Not only is more money involved, but the loan cannot be guaranteed by the government-sponsored entities.

Homebuyers who need a mortgage that exceeds the conforming loan limits can sometimes get around the problem by taking out two smaller mortgages instead of a single jumbo loan.

Conforming Loans vs. Conventional Loans

Conforming loans are sometimes confused with conventional loans/mortgages. Although the two types overlap, they are not the same thing. A conventional mortgage is a much broader category. It is any loan offered through a private lender, as opposed to a government agency like the FHA or the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), or backed by Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac, which is where any overlap—and confusion—arises.

The size of the loan doesn’t affect whether a mortgage is conventional. In effect, all conforming loans are conventional, but not all conventional loans qualify as conforming.

How Conforming Loan Limits Are Set

The FHFA, which sets the conforming loan limit on an annual basis, has regulatory oversight to ensure that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac fulfill their charters and missions of promoting homeownership for lower-income and middle-class Americans. The FHFA uses the October-to-October percentage increase/decrease in average housing prices in the Monthly Interest Rate Survey (MIRS) to adjust conforming loan limits for the following year.

To conduct this survey, the FHFA asks a sample of mortgage lenders to report the terms and conditions on all single-family, fully amortizing, purchase-money, non-farm loans that they closed during the last five business days of the month. The survey provides monthly information on interest rates, loan terms, and house prices by property type, loan type (fixed rate or adjustable rate), and lender type, as well as on 15- and 30-year fixed-rate loans.