By Erik Gunther

Feb 8, 2023


Whether you’re buying a fixer-upper or just want to modernize the kitchen of a dated home before you move in, a FHA 203(k) loan insured by the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) could be the solution to purchasing a home that will require some work.

But before you start drawing up the blueprints for a fancy new open kitchen, you might be wondering: What is an FHA 203(k) loan?

In general, an FHA 203(k) loan allows a home buyer to wrap any renovation costs needed for a home purchase into their mortgage—with just one loan and one closing.

s the Housing and Urban Development website puts it, these loans fill a “unique and important need for homebuyers.”

The amount you borrow is a combination of the price of the home and the estimated price of the repairs, including any labor and materials. Your down payment will be based on the full loan amount, and your monthly loan payments will be higher because the additional money provided for repairs is wrapped into your mortgage.

Why you might seek out a 203(k) loan

In challenging times for homebuyers, it’s harder for a buyer to find the perfect home. These loans can help buyers bridge the gap and buy a home that has plenty of potential to be a long-term solution. Buyers who can see past a home’s flaws and pinpoint areas where a loan would help improve a residence are prime candidates to take out a 203(k) loan.

“With limited inventory, many of the homes that have not sold are the result of price or condition. If the home’s condition is the issue, this is when a renovation loan like the 203K loan, can save the day,” says Megan Marsh, CEO of Co/LAB Lending.

Marsh refers to these loans as “secret weapons” that can help a buyer clinch a deal on an otherwise overlooked home. “A home that’s perfect for a 203K loan is usually located in a buyer’s desired location, but it is lacking updates or missing a key feature to make it appealing enough to purchase.”

Who is 203(k) eligible?

You’ll need to qualify according to the standards of your lender, typically with a credit score of 640 or higher and with a maximum debt-to-income ratio of 43%, including your new monthly house payment.

The full loan amount must be at or below the maximum limit for FHA loans in your area, which in many housing markets is $472,030 and caps out at over $1 million in certain expensive markets. Special exemptions for higher loan amounts are often seen in Alaska, Hawaii, Guam, and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

This map gives you sense of the parts of the country where loan limits are higher:

FHFA map
Loan limits map from FHFA(FHFA)

As with any FHA loan, you’ll be required to provide complete documentation of your income and assets and your credit profile; but you’ll also need a detailed proposal for your home, including a cost estimate to prove you’re 203(k) eligible. An appraiser will estimate the value of the home in its current state and estimate the home’s future value based on the cost of the renovation.

Understanding FHA 203(k) Loans

There are two types of 203(k) loans: a limited version and a regular version.

  • The Limited 203(k) program is designed for homes that don’t require structural repairs. These loans are capped at a maximum of $35,000 in repairs. No minimum amount of repairs must be made. A limited loan is ideal for a buyer who needs to paint walls, replace carpets, or do a minor remodel.
  • Regular 203(k) loans are given for homes requiring more complicated construction projects like structural changes, room additions, or renovations that would prohibit you from living in the house while work is done. This will also include architectural drawings and inspections. A HUD consultant will be assigned to ensure the schedule for renovations is met.

Both loan programs require the repairs to start within 30 days of the loan closing and to be completed within six months.

The FHA has specific guidelines about types of projects you can finance with a 203(k) loan, but generally the only home improvements that you can’t finance are luxury items like a swimming pool.

A 203(k) loan step-by-step from pre-approval to closing

Financial coach Michael Ryan helped outline the process of obtaining a 203(k) loan.

  1. Determine your eligibility. Make sure you meet credit score and income requirements. Also ensure you can make a minimum down payment of 3.5%.
  2. Find a lender. Seek out a lender with experience in 203(k) loans. Ask your agent if you’re working with a real estate agent.
  3. Get pre-approved. Obtain a letter from a lender stating that you are pre-approved for a loan.
  4. Pinpoint a home. Look for a place that meets your needs and budget. It’s helpful if you work with an agent with experience in 203(k) loans.
  5. Complete the loan application. You’ll need to provide additional documentation to the lender. This step may also include a property appraisal, an estimate of the repairs needed to the home, and proof of insurance.
  6. Close the loan. Upon approval, the loan will close and you can begin renovations. Funds for the renovation will be held in an escrow account and disbursed as work is completed.

How is a 203(k) loan different from a HELOC?

Homeowners and many buyers are aware of home equity lines of credit or HELOCs. A HELOC is often used to make home improvements, but they’re a different beast from a 203(k) loan.

One main difference? A 203(k) loan isn’t considered a second mortgage, but a HELOC is considered a second mortgage. A 203(k) is a part of your mortgage. One payment.

“It is an insured loan that allows homebuyers to purchase and renovate a property with one single loan,” says Jennifer Spinelli, CEO of Niche Home Buyer.

Spinelli added dealing with just one loan makes it easier for buyers to track and manage their renovation costs. “All of the repair costs are bundled into one loan.”

And a HELOC only comes into play if a homeowner has spent time in a home and built significant enough equity to borrow against. For a buyer just wading into the market, taking out a 203(k) at the time of purchase is the right option.

“If a buyer purchases a home with less than 20% down, they are not going to have much equity to pull out and use for a few years.” says Marsh.

The caveats of FHA 203(k) loans

All FHA loans, including 203(k)s, require you to pay mortgage insurance for a minimum of 11 years, and usually for the entire length of the loan. This could raise your monthly payments higher than anticipated. Interest rates are slightly higher on 203(k) loans compared with other FHA loans, and they also require an extra fee of $350 or 1.5% of the loan amount.

Because of the extra paperwork involved, 203(k) loans take a little longer to process than other loans, so you’ll need to be patient.

Is this type of loan right for you?

Homebuyers end up applying for FHA 203(k) loans because they have realistic plans to renovate their home. When deciding whether or not to apply for this type of loan, you’ll want to first consider the neighboring homes in your community. If you’ll be improving your home far beyond the level of comparable homes, it can be difficult to recoup your investment when you eventually decide to sell.

If you would like to use an FHA 203(k) loan and you’re 203(k) eligible, it’s best to work with a lender who has experience with them. Lenders with significant 203(k) loan experience can also recommend contractors and other home improvement experts.

Ryan told us about a client of his that purchased a fixer-upper and was able to transform the place into their dream home thanks to a 203(k) loan. He says these loans “can be a great way for homeowners to finance their home improvements and make their homes more comfortable, valuable, and enjoyable to live in.”

Michele Lerner contributed to this article, which has been updated from a previous version.