What is a conforming loan?

A conforming loan is one that conforms to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac guidelines. Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac are giant government-chartered mortgage companies that buy loans from lenders, allowing lenders to have more flexibility to make new housing loans.

Most everyone who gets a mortgage has a conforming loan.

How much you can borrow to conform:
Conforming loans are generally limited to $424,100, although there are higher limits in areas where housing is very expensive. The conforming loan limit can go up to $636,150 in specific housing markets, such as certain counties in California and New York, among others.

Loan-to-value ratio:
Your down payment has to be equal to 20 percent or more of the home’s value, but buyers can qualify for an FHA loan with as little as 3 percent down. With a down payment of less than 20 percent, buyers have to pay Private Mortgage Insurance, which can be expensive.

Credit score:
A conforming loan requires a FICO credit score of 620-640. However, an FHA loan requires a credit score of 580. A lower credit score than that requires a higher down payment.

Debt-to-income ratio:
Your debt-to-income ratio can be no more than 41 percent (although there may be exceptions that raise this percentage) of your gross income.

A non-conforming loan, by contrast, goes over the loan limit and the requirements are stricter. Credit scores must be 680 or higher. The down payment must be 15 percent or higher. Debt-to-income ratio must be 43 percent or less. Generally, the borrower shows high cash reserves, according to the Lenders Network.