It is a three-digit score that can shape your financial future, whether you plan to buy a new car or qualify for a reasonable mortgage loan to buy the home of your dreams. Your credit score is a determining factor in whether you obtain financing and at what cost, and there’s never been a better time to clean up your credit history and boost your score.
“With today’s tightened credit market and lenders becoming more selective about issuing loans, a good credit score has become more important than ever,” says David Hanna, president of the Chicago Association of REALTORS®. “Lenders consider credit scores when determining the risk associated with a loan application, especially for people looking to buy a home. REALTORS® know well that credit can be the difference between simply finding the home of your dreams and actually buying the home of your dreams.”
The first step in improving your credit score is to know where you stand. Your credit records have been reduced to a three-digit score commonly known as a FICO, or Fair Isaac & Co., score. Each of the three major credit bureaus (TransUnion, Experian and Equifax) have assigned a score that shows how likely you are to pay back a loan on time - the higher the score, the lower your presumed risk of default. By law, you may obtain one free report annually from each bureau online at www.AnnualCreditReport.com. By accessing your credit information one agency at a time, you can get a free credit report three times a year.
The average U.S. credit score is 694, according to Experian’s National Score Index. FICO credit scores can range from 300 to 850 and are based on the length of your credit history, the mix of credit you already have, and your number of recent credit applications.
Once you know your FICO score, you can work toward improving it. But improving your credit score can require time and commitment.
Here are some valuable tips to get you started:
- Pay your bills on time. Your payment history, including late payments and foreclosures, can count for one-third of your credit score. Accounts more than 60 days past due will be indicated on your credit report. As the length of your on-time payments increase, so too will your score.
- Check your credit report for errors. Removing errors, especially those negatively reflecting late payments or unpaid credit, is one of the easiest ways to improve a credit score. Look for expired negative records and file a dispute if necessary.
- Reduce your balances. One-third of your FICO score depends on the total amount of balances you owe versus your total credit limit. Try to keep your balances less than 80% of your credit limit to maximize your score benefit. Start with those credit cards that are closest to their limits.
- Keep older credit lines open. Having a long history of active accounts indicated to lenders that you are a good credit risk. It also accounts for 10% of your credit score. Try to use your oldest cards regularly for small purchases and pay balances each month.
- Use credit - but use it responsibly. This includes having credit cards and installment loans with timely payments. Accounting for 15% of your score, a balanced account including a mortgage payment can help homeowners boost their score.
- Avoid new credit. Opening new credit will lower your average account age. In addition, the number of new applications counts for 10% of your score. Under the Fair Credit Reporting Act, you may limit “prescreened” offers by removing your name from nationwide lists. Apply in moderation and take on new credit only when you need it.
- Check regularly for identity theft. Agencies may only provide your information to those with a valid need, such as a creditor or insurer. In addition, you must give consent for this information to be seen by an employer.
For most, credit is a way of life. Installment payments and credit cards can be useful financial tools if they are kept under control, but many let credit control them.
“A good credit score is a consumer’s financial calling card, and it is important that they do everything they can to boost their score and put themselves on the best financial footing possible,” says Hanna. (9/16/08)