The FHA is very well known for its mortgage insurance programs. Homebuyers can buy homes with far more lenient terms than other banks would dare offer. But the FHA's programs don't stop there.

For starters, a savvy real estate investor can use the FHA's programs to buy rental property for as little as 3.5% down.

One for you, three for rent

All FHA loans are required to be used for the purchase of owner-occupied housing. There's a nuance to that requirement though -- the rules do not preclude a potential buyer from using an FHA loan to purchase a duplex, triplex, or fourplex. The buyer only needs to live in one of the units. The other units are fair game to be rented.

For the entrepreneuring real estate investor, this option is four birds with one stone. One loan nets a place to live and three rental units. The devil is, of course, in the details, and that's particularly true with a government-backed mortgage loan.

The details

As mentioned previously, one of the units must be owner occupied. Further, the borrower must qualify for the loan under the FHA's established criteria. That means the borrower must demonstrate adequate cash flow, credit history, and net worth to be approved. That said, the rental income from the proposed rental units counts toward the borrower's income.

The FHA doesn't limit the maximum sales price of the property, but there is a maximum loan amount. The FHA distinguishes between a "basic" mortgage limit and a "high-cost area"; this accounts for certain areas around the country with demonstrably higher housing costs than the nationwide average. These limits are outlined in the table below.

Property Type Basic Limit High Cost Area Limit
Duplex $347,000 $800,775
Triplex $419,425 $645,300
Fourplex $521,250 $1,202,925

To find the exact loan limit in your area, you can use the FHA's calculator here.

More resources to help

Buying rental real estate can be a very lucrative investment class if done correctly. Investment real estate is considerably different than simply purchasing your own home; owning and operating rental property is a business, plain and simple.

For example, when considering your monthly cash flow, a rental property must also consider vacancy, maintenance, and a whole host of other expenses. It is, for better or worse, a lot of work to actively manage a successful rental property.

For some help on learning just what it takes to start building your own rental property empire, check out these short reads: