Editor’s note: This is the last of a three-part series.
Your credit score, calculated from information in your credit report, is a measure of how good a risk you are to a credit grantor. A large proportion of borrowers who can’t qualify for a mortgage would qualify if their credit score was higher.
The theme of this set of articles, that many borrowers can repair their own qualification credentials, applies as much or more to credit score than to down payment or income.
Any lender to whom you apply will obtain your score and provide it to you. As noted below, however, inquiries by lenders may have a negative effect on your score, whereas inquiries by you do not. Hence, it is a good idea to find your score before you apply, so you can make an informed decision on whether you want to apply at that time.
At some point, I expect to have a program on my website that indicates how particular applicants can improve their credit score using data from their credit reports. The suggestions below, however, are necessarily general in nature.
Pay on time: The core rule is to meet your debt obligations on-time, every time. If you have had payment lapses in the past but your habits have improved, time is on your side. The credit scoring rules weight recent experience more heavily than older experience.
Correct mistakes in your credit report: Your score should not be reduced by reporting mistakes, which are all too common. I have an article on my website on How to Correct Mistakes in Your Credit Report.
Detach yourself from the "wrong vendors": Because finance companies lend to relatively poor risks, the credit score of any borrower owing money to a finance company is lower than it would be if the creditor was a bank. By the same logic, borrowers who have credit cards of department stores are penalized, relative to what their score would be if they had cards issued by banks.
Reduce balances on revolving credits to less than 50 percent of the maximums: A high utilization ratio is read as a sign of weakness and potential trouble, reducing your score. Credit cards are the most important type of revolving credits, but HELOCs belong in this category as well. A HELOC used to purchase a house or to refinance a mortgage, where the initial utilization ratio is 100 percent, will jolt your credit score.
Note that utilization ratios can be reduced by getting the maximums raised, as well as by paying down the balances. In many cases, credit card issuers are willing to raise the maximum at the borrower’s request.
Minimize the number of "hard inquiries": Hard inquiries are requests to a credit agency for your credit score from a credit grantor, insurance company or other entity to which you have applied and to which you have entrusted your Social Security number. "Soft inquiries" made by you or by firms looking to sell you something for which you have not applied don’t require your permission and don’t impact your credit score.
The credit-scoring systems may or may not penalize borrowers who shop multiple credit grantors within a short period — unfortunately, you can’t be sure.
The credit agencies tell you that multiple inquiries within a 15-day period count only as a single inquiry, but in fact inquiries for mortgage, auto and student loans would probably count as three inquiries, and even three mortgage inquiries could count as three inquiries, depending on how the credit grantors are identified to the credit scorer. I will have an article abut this in the near future.
The bottom line is that in applying for credit, find your own score that you can deliver to the vendors you are shopping who need the score to set the price. The vendor you select will verify the score through his own inquiry, but it will be only a single inquiry.
Pay off collection accounts: This may actually reduce your score in the short-run by converting the account from an older entry with a low weight to a new one with a higher weight. However, you can’t get a loan with a collection account on your record, so you must pay it off — the sooner the better.
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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