E-books, video books, blogs, Web videos and infographics now all contribute to the knowledge we need to help make smart decisions, especially in the realm of real estate and personal finances.

Because so much about our own personal real estate and mortgage decision-making is dependent on personal and local market data, like our income and home prices in our area, interactive maps and other highly visual, interactive online tools are particularly useful in surfacing insights that allow for a deep understanding of a real estate or financial issue, at a glance.

So, for a few weeks, we’re going to spend some time exploring not books, but interactive online infographics and tools, starting with the Annual State of Credit Map recently published by Experian. The credit bureau and financial data company ranked more than 100 metropolitan areas in all 50 states in the order of their average resident’s credit scores.

From a sweep of the eye over the top and bottom 10 cities, one pattern instantly emerges: Eight of the 10 American cities with the highest credit scores are in the Midwest (the outliers were San Francisco and Sioux Falls, S.D.). A parallel pattern emerges on the other end of the credit score rankings: Eight of the 10 cities with the lowest credit scores are located in the South (rounding out the list: Bakersfield, Calif., and Las Vegas).

Experian points out on its graphic of the list that there seem to be strong correlations between a metro area’s average debt (that nine of the 10 cities on the high-credit-score list have unemployment scores below the national average. This makes sense, as it would seem difficult to pay your bills on time every month with no job and no income.

The report also found some regional patterns in debt levels consistent with the credit score rankings; six of the 10 American cities with the lowest levels of debt were in the Midwest, and eight of the 10 with the highest debt levels were in the South.

I was most intrigued, however, by the real estate and mortgage insights layered within the study. If you go to the interactive map, here, you’ll see that it allows you to mouse over individual metro areas and see a set of data points for each locale, including its average credit score, average number of open credit card accounts, average debt, population, unemployment rate, and the area’s foreclosure activity over a one-month time frame.

The conclusion is almost inescapable that cities like Bakersfield and Las Vegas, the two non-Southern cities on the lowest credit score list, made it onto the list as a result of the unfortunate one-two punch: sky-high unemployment and chart-topping foreclosure rates.

At the top of the credit score list, the reverse also seems to be true — Midwestern cities have been notoriously resistant to the real estate recession compared to the rest of the country, as have San Francisco and Sioux Falls, the only two non-Midwestern areas on the list. And this is backed up by the low foreclosure rates reflected in the data on the infographic for these areas.

I’ve long believed that negative home equity, unemployment and resulting foreclosure epidemics would take down credit scores far below what the credit bureaus even project, because my experience has been that the actual credit impact of a short sale or foreclosure event virtually never occurs in isolation.

Working and corresponding with thousands of homeowners in mortgage distress throughout the course of this four-plus-year real estate recession, I’ve seen a number of hidden credit harms of housing market distress:

  • People who hope to keep their homes will generally max out their credit cards and fall behind on them before they begin missing mortgage payments (especially if they’re trying to get a new job after becoming unemployed), which impairs their credit scores;
  • Homeowners who know they are going to lose their homes to foreclosure might miss the equivalent of two or more years of payments before the lender actually repossesses the home, damaging their credit scores every month before the final credit nail in the coffin; and
  • Even those who seek to work things out with their mortgage lenders via loan modifications and short sales often are counseled to stop making payments to bolster their claims of financial hardship and boost the chances they’ll be granted the mortgage relief they need — again, dinging their credit scores every month until they either get a modification or finally lose the property.

There’s at least one other major hidden harm to credit scores that the housing market meltdown has had: People simply care less about their credit scores than they used to.

When you’re out of work and your credit is going to take hits no matter what you do, your home is a couple of hundred thousand dollars upside down or your mortgage payments double, you are forced to make your financial decisions based on considerations beyond credit score, like how you’ll feed your family and choosing between sending your kids to college and holding on to an upside-down home.

And all these factors, I suspect, might also be impacting credit scores in a way that even the most insightful infographic will never be able to surface.

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