What Is a Mortgage?

Mortgages Explained

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A mortgage is a specific type of loan that’s used to purchase a home or a piece of real property. Mortgages are offered by banks, credit unions, and other financial institutions across the country.

Definition and Example of a Mortgage

A mortgage loan is a secured loan used to buy a property. To secure the loan, you put the property up for collateral. Your lender has the right to take the property should you default and fail to repay the loan. But once the loan is completely repaid, the property belongs to you, and your lender can no longer take it away.

For instance, if you want to purchase a home but don't have the funds to purchase it in full at the time of the sale, you can ask a lender for a mortgage to buy the home. With this loan, you can buy the home, provided you make your monthly mortgage payment to the lender until the loan is paid off.

  • Alternate name: Home loan

How Does a Mortgage Work?

Your lender—the bank or institution loaning you the funds—actually pays for the property outright when you use a mortgage to purchase a home. You then pay those funds back to the lender, plus interest. Borrowers typically make a payment each month over the length of the loan.

Mortgages can have shorter or longer repayment terms. They can have interest rates that stay the same or that vary over time, and they can have different criteria for eligibility. Most of these variations have to do with your preferences for repayment terms, as well as the amount of risk assumed by the lender.

The most common mortgage is the fixed-rate. According to a 2022 report from the National Association of Realtors, 94% of homebuyers chose a fixed-rate mortgage. Approximately 1% chose adjustable-rate mortgages and 2% opted for other loan terms.

You'll pay off your mortgage faster and pay less in the way of cumulative interest over the life of the loan if you opt for a shorter-term loan, but this means higher monthly payments. Longer-term loans mean a lower monthly payment, but the longer pay-off period and typically higher interest rate usually equals more interest paid over time.


Your best option for a mortgage term generally depends on your budget and how long you plan to stay in the home.

30-Year Mortgages vs. 15-Year Mortgages

The term of your mortgage can have a significant impact on several loan factors.

30-Year Mortgage 15-Year Mortgage
Higher interest rates Lower interest rates
Lower monthly payments Higher monthly payments
Slower loan payoff Quicker loan payoff
More interest paid over time Less interest paid over time
Might be easier to buy the home you want Might be difficult to afford the home you want

Fixed vs. Adjustable Rate Mortgages

Mortgages also vary by the type of interest rate charged. As the name suggests, fixed-rate loans come with set, consistent interest rates for the entirety of the loan term. You’ll always pay the same amount of interest every month until your home is paid off.

Adjustable-rate loans (ARMs) have variable interest rates. They come with a set interest rate for a period of time, usually three, five, seven, or 10 years, after which time the rate can increase. This means an increased monthly payment.

Adjustable-rate loans typically come with much lower interest rates than fixed-rate options initially, but they carry the added risk of future rate increases. ARMs can be a good choice if you know you won’t be in the home long, or if you’re willing to refinance into a fixed-rate loan before your low-rate period expires.

Fixed-Rate Mortgage Adjustable-Rate Mortgage
Higher interest rates, at least initially Lower interest rates, initially
Predictable monthly payments Lower monthly payment, initially
Easy to budget and plan for Unpredictable payments after a certain point
No risk of an interest rate increase Risk of an interest-rate increase later on
Good for long-term homeowners Risky for long-term homeowners, better for short-term homeowners
May be harder to afford the home you want Higher debt-to-income allowed

Types of Mortgage Loans

You can choose from several types of loan products, each with their own eligibility and down-payment requirements.

FHA Mortgage Loans 

These loans are backed by the Federal Housing Administration (FHA). They require as little as 3.5% for a down payment, and they allow for credit scores as low as 500. They require that you pay a premium for mortgage insurance, both upfront and annually, over the life of the loan.

Conventional Mortgage Loans 

Conventional loans are the most popular type of mortgage product. They're increasingly popular with first-time home buyers, too, according to the National Association of Realtors (NAR). They come with fewer fees than FHA loans, but they also have more stringent credit and debt-to-income requirements. Down-payment requirements can vary widely, generally from 3% to 20%.

Other Government-Backed Loans

Other special loan programs for certain types of buyers include Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) mortgage loans and U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) mortgage loans.

VA loans are insured by the Department of Veterans Affairs and are available only to military members, veterans, and the surviving spouses of these individuals. They require no down payment and no mortgage insurance, and they allow you to roll your closing costs into the balance of the loan.

USDA loans are mortgage loans guaranteed by the USDA. They’re only available to purchase properties located in designated rural areas of the country. They require no down payment, but you’ll have to pay mortgage insurance premiums, both upfront and annually.


You can find out if your property is eligible with the USDA tool.

Requirements for a Mortgage

Every loan program has its own unique eligibility requirements.

FHA Loans

  • Credit score: At least 500
  • Down payment: 3.5% (with 580 credit score) or 10% (with 500 credit score)
  • Debt-to-income ratio: 43% or less (45% allowed in some cases)

Conventional Loans

  • Credit score: 620
  • Down payment: 3% (on certain loan programs) or higher, especially for large loans
  • Debt-to-income ratio: 43%

VA Loans

  • Credit score: No minimum
  • Down payment: None (though a funding fee is required and can be rolled into the loan balance)
  • Debt-to-income ratio: No maximum

USDA Loans

  • Credit score: It can depend, but generally above 640
  • Down payment: None
  • Debt-to-income ratio: 41%


Individual mortgage lenders might have additional or more stringent requirements for these programs, so talk with your potential lender about the standards you must meet to qualify.

How To Get a Mortgage

Mortgage lenders often differ in fees, closing costs, and even the interest rate they’re able to give you, so it’s important to shop around and get several quotes before deciding who will originate your loan. You should also ask about the down payment and any private mortgage insurance you’d be required to pay, because this will impact your upfront and long-term costs as well.

Key Takeaways

  • A mortgage is a loan taken out to purchase a home or other real property.
  • A mortgage loan is secured by the property acting as collateral. A lender can seize the property and sell it in the event the borrower defaults on the mortgage’s terms.
  • Mortgages can have varying terms, including the number of years it will take to pay them off and interest rates.
  • Government-backed mortgage programs can make it easier for some would-be homeowners to borrow.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

How many names can be on a mortgage?

Technically, there's no legal limit to the number of names you can put on a mortgage. However, it can get complicated with more than two or three names, and you may even have trouble finding a lender who will approve such mortgages. If you're shopping for a home with your spouse or significant other, you can weigh whether you want one or both names on the mortgage. Keep in mind it could affect how much you're approved for and what your rates might be, not to mention it can make things tough down the road if the two of you separate.

What is a second mortgage?

A second mortgage is another way of borrowing against the value of your home, in addition to your regular home loan. One example of a second mortgage is a home equity line of credit (HELOC).

What is a mortgage broker?

A mortgage broker is an agent who helps you find a mortgage. They are experienced in finding the right loan for your financial situation. Once you've found a mortgage, your mortgage broker can take charge in getting the loan arranged for you, such as collecting your paperwork and documentation and speaking to the lender to get your loan processed quickly.

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The Balance uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. National Association of REALTORS® Research Group. "2022 Home Buyers and Sellers Generational Trends Report."

  2. Department of Housing and Urban Development. "Minimum Credit Scores and Loan-to-Value Ratios." Page 2.

  3. National Association of Realtors. "More First-time Buyers are Obtaining Conventional Instead of FHA Financing."

  4. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. "Determine Your Down Payment."

  5. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. "Special Loan Programs."

  6. Fannie Mae. "General Requirements for Credit Scores."

  7. Department of Veteran Affairs. "VA Guaranteed Loan."

  8. USALoans.com. "USDA Loan Eligibility."

  9. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. "Making the Move to Homeownership on Your Own or with Someone Else."

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