What is a VA certificate of eligibility?

member of the military saluting the U.S. flag

If you want to purchase a home using a VA loan, you must prove that you have the military service to qualify for this benefit. That proof of qualification is called a certificate of eligibility.

You’ll also need a certificate to refinance from a conventional to a VA loan (but not for a streamline refinance).

The easiest way to obtain your certificate of eligibility is to have a lender do it for you. Lenders use an online system to get your certificate in minutes.

If this system doesn’t contain enough data to establish your eligibility, you’ll apply manually, which you can do online, by phone or by mail.

Service members, veterans and National Guard and reserves members can register and apply through the VA’s eBenefits portal (http://www.ebenefits.va.gov/). Or, use VA form 26-1880 to request your certificate. Your lender can submit this form online to save time.

Form 26-1880 is a single page and should take 15 minutes to complete. It asks for basic information like your address, date of birth and Social Security number. It also asks about your service history and whether you have any previous or current VA loans.

If you are a surviving spouse who hasn’t remarried, fill out VA form 26-1817 and mail it to the VA Loan Eligibility Center in Decatur, Ga. Applications submitted by mail might take several months to be approved.

But you probably won’t need to take these steps, says mortgage broker Michael Metz of V.I.P. Mortgage in Scottsdale, Ariz.

"Most of the time, getting the certificate of eligibility is a pretty automated process," he says.

"Sometimes, particularly if there was a problem with restoring the entitlement after a previous home sale, we may have to go through an extra step or two," such as supplying documentation from the sale.

Who is getting a loan?

Source: U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, 2012 data

Period of service Number of loans
World War II 684
Post-World War II 191
Korean conflict 1,084
Post-Korean conflict 5,263
Vietnam era 27,425
Post-Vietnam era 32,690
Gulf War 153,930
Active duty 103,756

This problem is more likely to crop up if you’ve had a foreclosure or short sale.

But your lender can typically submit paperwork directly to the VA for you. "Only very rarely will we require them to actually talk to the VA or go through the online system themselves," Metz says.

Besides a certificate, you also need enough income and good enough credit to qualify for the loan, and you must occupy the home as your primary residence.

And each status (veteran, active duty, National Guard, reserve member, surviving spouse) has its own qualifying wartime and peacetime periods, qualifying active-duty dates and minimum active-duty service requirements.

Typically, you must meet these requirements and have been discharged under conditions other than dishonorable to qualify for the VA loan entitlement and receive your certificate of eligibility. Some service members and veterans can qualify without having met the minimum service requirements if they were discharged for reasons such as hardship, reduction in force, health condition or service-related disability.

If the VA database doesn’t have enough information about your service, you’ll need a signed statement of service on military letterhead from your adjutant, personnel officer or commander identifying you and stating your term of service and, if applicable, reason for discharge. You can also use your discharge certificate, DD Form 214.

National Guard and reserve members have equivalent forms they can submit to prove their service.