United States military members do so much for our country. As such, the United States Department of Veterans Affairs provides them with a host of benefits.

Chief among these are favorable terms for homeownership through the VA loan program. Whether someone is on active duty or a veteran, learning how to take maximum advantage of a VA loan can help U.S. service members make the most of a home-buying experience.

John L. Scott Real Estate Realtors A.J. and Cherisa Hoekema know a lot about VA loans, because they’ve used them multiple times. The couple met in the Navy in 2008 and will celebrate their 13th wedding anniversary in August 2022.

Cherisa and A.J. Hoekema can guide you through the VA loan process. Photo courtesy of John L. Scott

A.J., born and raised in Whatcom County, graduated from Lynden Christian High School in 2003. After nine years of active-duty Navy, A.J. joined the National Guard and continues to serve. He’s had postings in Greece, Cuba, South Korea, and multiple U.S. locales. Cherisa, originally from Utah, spent four years in the Navy.

The couple first dealt with a VA loan when obtaining property in Utah in 2012, buying their home with no money down. Fresh off active duty, it was a great thing for the couple, who had little money to put down in the first place.

In 2015, the couple re-located to North Carolina for A.J.’s next military assignment. The Utah home’s value had appreciated when they sold it, allowing them to walk away with a profit.

Returning to Whatcom County in 2017, the couple again used a VA loan, this time as disabled veterans who’d been honorably discharged. As a result, they were able to forego the loan’s funding fee — the equivalent of private mortgage insurance ±— and save several thousand dollars.

“When you apply for disability, anything over 10% qualifies you as a disabled veteran when it comes to the VA loan, which means no funding fee whatsoever,” Cherisa says.

The couple used the VA loan again more recently, moving from their Lynden home to purchase a million-dollar Ferndale fourplex — again with no money down. Using the fourplex as both an investment property and primary residence (the latter is required for one year to qualify for the loan), the Hoekemas conventionally refinanced their previous home as a rental property.

After a year in the fourplex, A.J., Cherisa, and their children moved back to their previous home and continue to use the fourplex as an income-producing property that completely covers their mortgage.

Lending a Hand

The Hoekemas know first-hand the difficulties associated with leaving active duty, returning to civilian life, and figuring out the benefits they’d earned. That’s why they’re happy to offer advice to other military members.

With regards to obtaining a disability rating, both VFW locations and several other veteran-associated non-profits can help get the ball rolling. Starting a disability rating application online, says A.J., is fairly straightforward if you have hard copies of all necessary medical paperwork.

Just mentally accepting you should get disability, however, is something many veterans struggle with.

“If you were at any regular job and you got hurt, you would get L&I,” says Cherisa. “Some veterans don’t necessarily think of it that way. A lot of veterans have this sense of justice that says, ‘Somebody else needs it more than me. Why would I qualify for this?’ Well, you qualified because the military and government deemed that you qualify. So, you should apply for it.”

When it comes to VA loans, the Hoekemas recommend staying current on the latest rules.

“It’s kind of one of those ever-evolving government loans,” Cherisa says. “If you don’t keep on it, you’re going to miss things.”

One recent change was the removal of a loan cap on single-family and multi-family dwellings, which previously limited VA members to homes costing certain amounts. It’s also important to remember that VA loans must be used for primary residences that must be occupied within six months of purchase.

In general, doing your research is critical, especially if your lender isn’t as well-versed in VA loans — and associated benefits — as they could be.

“Know what you qualify for,” Cherisa says. “Know your benefits. The VA loan is one of the best things the military gives you. You have to advocate for yourself, because not everybody knows all of the things that you are entitled to.”

Being fully able to take advantage of the benefits you’ve earned by serving your country can set you on a path to solid financial footing, paving the way for success after your military career ends.

“There are lots of options with the VA to leverage when you’re thinking longevity and investment,” says AJ.

Whether it’s help with a disability claim or finding some VA-savvy lenders, the Hoekemas are happy to point you in the right direction.

“It’s not that arduous, and it’s not that scary,” Cherisa says of the process. “Give us a call, because we would love to help you.”

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