“My credit record is terrible. I have been advised that if I just wait long enough and don’t run up any more debts in the meantime, my terrible record will cure itself. Is this true?”

It is only partly true. You have to assist father time or he can’t help you.

It is true that the force of negative information on your credit score declines as it ages, but this won’t do you any good unless you now generate positive information. Old bad stuff plus recent good stuff generates a rising credit score. Old bad stuff followed by no credit activity results in a continued low score. This is a feature of all credit scoring systems.

The Federal Fair Credit Reporting Act also puts father time on your side by setting limits on how long negative information can appear in consumer credit records. Once a piece of information has been on a consumer’s record for the prescribed period, it is supposed to drop off. Once off, it will no longer affect your credit score.

The prescribed periods are as follows: inquiries about you from credit grantors, two years; late payments, mortgage foreclosure, collection accounts and chapter 13 bankruptcy, seven years; chapter 7 bankruptcy, 10 years; unpaid tax liens, forever.

The three major credit-reporting agencies (Equifax, Experian and TransUnion) have built purge routines into their data systems, but I have no idea how reliable the systems are. I am not even sure that all three follow exactly the same purge rules.

I found that on collection accounts, two of the companies purge seven years after the date of the original missed payment, but the third purges seven years from the date of the last activity! This means that the collection account of a borrower who pays it off after six years stays on the books of the third company for 13 years instead of seven!

It is a good idea for consumers who have adverse information on their credit records not to rely wholly on the purge policies of the three companies. Monitor them by periodically requesting your credit report. And if you happen to have a collection account, pay it as soon as possible, because the clock may not start ticking until you do.

But I repeat, getting rid of all the bad stuff, by itself, does not give you a good credit score. To get a good score, your record must include evidence of payments made on time. If you don’t take on any new debt, you are not generating such evidence.

Years ago I had terrible credit habits and was chronically late on my credit cards, but for the last five years I have been out of debt. Will I be able to get a mortgage?

It will be difficult. Lenders are not interested in lending to debt-aholics who have stopped all borrowing. A debt-aholic who has not borrowed for a long period following a credit binge, during which time all the bad stuff fell off his credit report, is viewed as a bad credit risk. Lenders view a loan to such a consumer as akin to offering a drink to an alcoholic who has been on the wagon.

Is debt-aholicism an incurable disease, like alcoholism, where complete abstinence is the only satisfactory way to cope? Or can debt-aholics learn to use credit responsibly? I am inclined to believe that some of them can, but lenders will put the burden of proof on the borrower to demonstrate it.

To do that, you must establish new relationships with credit grantors who are prepared to deal with people who have bad credit histories. They are a tough lot: you will pay a high rate, you will be kept on a short leash, and when you fall behind in your payments, you will be badgered in every legal way, and sometimes beyond. This is the only way for them to make money lending to a population that includes a sizeable number of incurable debt-aholics.

While these firms catch a lot of flak from community organizations who object to the way they treat borrowers, the firms perform an important public service: they give ex-debtaholics a second chance when no one else will. If you pay them on time every month, they won’t badger you at all, and your credit score will gradually rise. In time, you can graduate from the class of deadbeats and enjoy the better terms available to borrowers who have demonstrated that they can handle credit wisely.

The writer is Professor of Finance Emeritus at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. Comments and questions can be left at www.mtgprofessor.com.

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