What's Your Credit Score? (and what does it mean?)

Feb 23


Carole Talley

Carole Talley

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Anyone applying for a mortgage will probably hear the term "credit score" ... at least once, and you'll ask "What's my credit score?" ... on where you live, you may or may not get a straig


Anyone applying for a mortgage will probably hear the term "credit score" mentioned at least once,What's Your Credit Score? (and what does it mean?) Articles and you'll ask "What's my credit score?" Depending on where you live, you may or may not get a straight answer. Some lenders or credit companies may tell you that they cannot legally release it to you, which is not true. The law does not prohibit the release of this information. However, in most states, lenders and mortgage professionals are not required to tell you even though many times that is the primary consideration being used when extending or refusing you credit.

A "credit score" can carry a lot of weight. It can be used to determine the size of your loan, the terms on which the money is lent to you (i.e. interest rate, length of time to repay, and whether or not you're offered a long-term fixed or short-term variable rate), the amount of related fees, and your ability to purchase mortgage insurance. In the long run, your credit score can cost you quite a bit of money.

For example, inability to purchase mortgage insurance could mean that you'll have to bring a larger downpayment to the closing table when purchasing a home. Or, an individual with low credit scores can expect lenders to charge him higher interest rates because the lenders feel they are taking a greater risk with him.

Lenders are concerned with only one question: "will you repay me as agreed or will you default?" Credit scores are considered good predictors of a consumer's ability and willingness to repay. A lower score predicts that you're more likely to default, so they charge a higher fee (interest rate) to loan you the money. That higher interest rate could make a big difference in the amount of money you pay out each month for housing and that translates into thousands of additional dollars paid over the life of your loan.

If your credit score is really low (520 or less), it can even be the single determinant used to deny your loan application without considering anything else about you or your credit situation. So, as you see, your credit score can be very important.

The state of California recently passed a law mandating that credit score information be given to prospective borrowers if they ask for it. Other states, as well as the federal government, are considering passing similar legislation. So, if you're in California and applying for financing, ask for your credit score and an explanation of how it's being applied to your application. For the rest of us, here's more information about credit scores and ways to improve yours as much as possible.

A credit score (also called a FICO score) is a computer-generated numerical grade given to each consumer based on a wide range of criteria. This grade is used by lenders to predict their risk in doing business with you by analyzing your past behavior. FICO scores are generated and released through the big three credit reporting bureaus. Each bureau has a name for its credit/FICO score. They are as follows: Equifax calls it a Beacon score, TransUnion calls it an Empirica score, and Experian (formerly TRW) calls it a Fair Isaac score. FICO scores can change day to day depending on what information is reported to the credit bureau(s).

The information used to calculate your credit score is widely varied, but each factor is given a numeric equivalent and added into the equation. Some of the thirty or so factors used to figure a FICO score are: time on the job; how long you've lived at your current address; how many and what types of accounts you have; how high your account balances are; how much unused credit you maintain each month; the age or newness of your accounts; and of course, the negative factors such as too little or too much credit, too many inquiries in the last 90 days, late payments, collections, consumer credit counseling, judgments, bankruptcies and foreclosures.

Credit scores range from 300 to 900, and scores from 640 to 700 are considered excellent. Most lenders flatly refuse to even consider scores of less than 500, but still others will approve loans to new borrowers who have no credit scores at all. Needless to say, the borrowers with the "excellent" scores qualify for the most favorable rates and terms.

To find out what your credit score is you'll have to contact a lender or mortgage professional because the report you request from any of the credit reporting bureaus will not show your score. However, requesting your credit report (even from one of the bureaus) can be a great first step to repairing and/or improving your credit score. So, at least once a year, get a copy of your report and READ ALL OF IT. The report will come with instructions on how to read it and how to correct misinformation. Once you have your report, do the following:

1. Look for anything that may indicate someone else is using your credit such as reports that you have changed your address or newly opened accounts that you are not familiar with, etc. This is a good way to make sure you are not the victim of an identity thief.

2. Correct errors on your report without delay by following the instructions that came with it.

3. Pay your bills on time every time, ESPECIALLY YOUR MORTGAGE. Also remember that some bills that wouldn't ordinarily report to the credit bureaus (such as your rent, utilities, phone bills and medical bills) will show up on your credit report as delinquencies if you don't pay them, and these "little, unimportant" bills can pull your credit score down just as quickly as other larger accounts.

4. Close any unnecessary accounts. Most lenders prefer that borrowers have a minimum of four open (active) accounts over the last 24 months but once you've reached four, the fewer additional accounts the better.

5. Pay down your credit card accounts. Keeping your balances under 50% of the approved limits is a definite plus for credit scoring.

6. Pay off collections and judgements. Full payoff is always preferable but if necessary, contact the creditor and arrange a settlement for less than the full amount owed. Afterward, make sure that you get written confirmation that the debt has been paid and make sure that the credit bureau reflects this on your credit report.

7. Think twice before authorizing new inquiries on your credit report. Too many in a short period of time really makes lenders nervous.

The three credit report bureaus are listed below. You can contact each of them by phone, mail or online. Credit reports cost about $9 each, unless you've been turned down for credit in the last 60 days, in which case, the report is free. Your credit report request should include your full name, social security number, current address, date of birth, and previous address if you've moved in the last 2 years.

P. O. Box 105496
Atlanta, GA 30348-5496

P. O. Box 1000
Chester, PA 19022

Experian (formerly TRW)
P. O. Box 9595
Allen, TX 75013-0036