The Basics of Construction Loans: Buy Land and Build

Custom illustration with young family standing in front of home diagram with text explaining some basic points about construction loans

The Balance / Nusha Ashjaee

Traditional mortgages are easy to find, but there’s usually a catch: You can only borrow money to buy a home that already exists. Construction loans differ because they fund everything needed to build a new home, garage, or business structure. They can also work when renovating or buying land (if you don't already own the property you need).

Key Takeaways

  • Construction loans are short-term loans for buying land and building on it.
  • Construction loans are similar to lines of credit and close once the project is finished.
  • Payments to the contractors doing the work are distributed once milestones are met, or the work is completed.

How Construction Loans Work

A construction loan is a short-term loan for real estate. You can use the loan to buy land, build on property that you already own, or renovate existing structures if your program allows. A construction loans is similar to a line of credit because you only receive the amount you need (in the form of advances) to complete each portion of a project.

As a result, you only pay interest on the amount you borrow rather than a lump sum loan, where you take 100% of the money available upfront and pay interest on the entire balance immediately.


During the construction phase, you typically make interest-only payments (or no payments at all, in some cases) based on your outstanding loan balance. Often, payments begin six to 24 months after getting the loan.


Construction loans are less popular than standard home loans, but they are available from numerous lenders. If you’re thinking of building, learn about the basics, and find out how each lender handles the specifics.

Disbursements to Contractors

As you progress and reach milestones for your project, you or the builder can request draw payments for completed work. An inspector must verify that the work has been done, but inspectors don’t necessarily evaluate the quality of work. A disbursement goes to the builder if all is satisfactory.

Temporary Funding

Construction loans are typically short-term loans and you usually pay them off with another "permanent" loan. The construction loan often ends once construction is complete. To retire the loan, you obtain an appraisal and inspection on the completed property and refinance into a more suitable loan.

There are two ways to handle the temporary nature of these loans:

  • Apply for a new loan after completion of the building process. You will need to qualify as if you’re applying for a new mortgage. As a result, you need income and creditworthiness to get approved.
  • Arrange both loans at the beginning of the process (also known as single closing). Another term given by the FHA is the construction-to-permanent mortgage. This approach may minimize closing costs because you bundle the loans together. After construction, you would end up with a standard home loan (such as a 15-year or 30-year fixed-rate mortgage). This may also be preferable if you aren’t confident about getting approved after construction.


Construction loans have higher (often variable) interest rates than traditional home loans.


You can use funds from a construction loan for almost any stage of your project, including purchasing land, excavation, pouring a foundation, framing, and finishing. You can also build garages, basic sheds, and other structures, depending on your lender’s policies.

Down Payment

As with most loans, don’t count on borrowing 100% of what you need. Most lenders require that you put some equity into the deal, and they may require at least 20% down. You can, of course, bring money to the table. But if you already own land, you can potentially use the property as collateral instead of cash.

A Solid Plan

To receive a construction loan, you’ll need to qualify, just like with any other loan. That means you need good credit and favorable ratios (debt-to-income and loan-to-value). A down payment of 20% is preferable as well, although there are exceptions to this. Proof of consistent income is also important.

Lender Approval

Construction loans are unique because the bank must approve your construction plans. If you’re buying from a builder that regularly works with a particular lender, approvals might be easier. However, "custom" projects can be challenging.


Don’t budget for spending every penny the bank is willing to lend, and don’t plan on moving out of your existing home the day after "projected" completion.

Expect your lender to ask for complete details about the project, including:

  • Who is doing the work?
  • How exactly will it be done? (architectural drawings should convey details)
  • What’s the schedule for each phase?
  • How much does everything cost?
  • Will the structure meet local codes and requirements?

Can You Do the Work? 

What if you want to do all of the building yourself? Unfortunately, that makes things even more difficult. Banks are hesitant to work with owner-builders. Banks fear that non-professionals have a better chance for delays and problems. Unless you’re a full-time professional contractor with years of experience, you’ll probably have to hire someone else.

Plan for the Unexpected

Having a plan is excellent, and having flexibility is even better. Construction projects are notorious for delays and surprises, so be sure to leave some wiggle room in your budget as well as your timeline.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

How much would it cost to build a house on my land?

According to the Census Bureau, the median contract price for home construction in 2020 was $298,500.

What are the requirements for getting a construction loan?

As with most types of loans, the requirements are up to the lender and will largely depend on your credit score and down payment. Higher credit scores and larger down payments are more likely to secure construction loans. In general, you can expect the requirements for both of these factors to be more strict with construction loans than they are with traditional mortgages.

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  1. United States Census Bureau. "Highlights of Annual 2020 Characteristics of New Housing."

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