Your credit score can make or break the quality of your lifestyle. It affects your ability to obtain a mortgage, rent an apartment, buy a car or find a job. Even if you qualify for a loan, you will probably end up paying higher automobile or mortgage interest rates and other costs. If you do not have good credit—score of 620 or lower, this guide helps you gain a better understanding of the credit reporting system.
You can use the information to point yourself in the right direction and raise your credit score. Take the time to learn some basics on how credit reports and FICO scores work. You should also understand your rights as a consumer. Keep in mind, this information may change.
How to Understand FICO
The credit or “FICO” score refers to the credited-related information assembled by the credit bureaus on consumers. A company call Fair Isaac Company has proprietary software that calculates credit scores based on the information contained in credit bureau profile. The Fair Isaac Company sells the software to credit bureaus. Credit bureaus sell this score to mortgage lenders.
The FICO score determines how much lenders loan potential borrowers, and the terms of the loan, including interest rates, period and other costs.
When you apply for a mortgage, or other type of loan, most lenders use your credit score to establish your credit risk. Each consumer has three FICO scores issued by the three major credit bureaus – Equifax, Trans Union, and Experian. The credit reporting company must have a minimum of one consumer account in the file—opened for at least 180 days. In addition, the credit bureau must have updated the status of the account within the last 180 days.
Some lenders have their own formula for calculating credit scores. Nonetheless, FICO remains the most commonly used score when it comes to granting credit. Other credit bureaus, besides the ones mentioned also collect consumer data, which they sell to various lenders.
Get a Copy of Your Credit Report
The Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) mandates each credit-reporting agency to allow consumers one free credit report each year. Resist ordering all three at the same time. Order a report every four months to ensure you monitor your credit profile throughout the entire year—at no cost.
The top three credit bureaus are listed below:
- Trans Union
Order your free credit report immediately. Go on line, send a letter or call the firm’s toll-free number. Each credit profile contains the information the companies use to calculate your current credit score. Get your free credit report here. Annualcreditreport.com is a federal official service.
Review the information carefully.
Often, these reports contain multiple errors. Check for the accuracy of the following information:
- Amount owed
- Negative data-- late payment, collections , write-offs
- Outdated information
If the report contains inaccurate or outdated information, send a letter to the credit bureau disputing the information. The credit bureaus do not have the same information in their records. Credit scores may vary between companies.
Your credit scores change from month to month depending on the information credit bureaus receive, the removal of data and other factors.
Seven Steps to Raising Your FICO Score
Find out your credit score. Credit bureaus offer you an opportunity to obtain your credit score--for a fee of course. As you go about cleaning up your credit report, which can take several months, implement the following strategies to begin the process of raising your score.
A credit score of about 760 can get you the best low interest rate loans for a mortgage, auto or other credit. Use “720” as your immediate objective for your credit score.
Apply one or more of the seven strategies listed below to start raising your FICO score.
- Make your payments on time. Late payments affect your score up to 35 percent. Many banks have an online account management feature, which allows you to set up bill payment reminders. The system sends you an e-mail or text message. Automatic bill payment-- having your checking account debited-- ensures you meet your obligations on time. Late payments remain on your credit report for seven years.
- Take steps to reduce the amount of debt you owe. Stop using your credit cards. Pay your bills with check, cash or debit card. Develop a plan of action and budget designed to pay down the outstanding balances on your credit cards. Verify the amount owed on each bill. List accounts in descending order--starting with the card charging the highest interest rate. Make the minimum payment on the other cards.
- Apply for a credit card (revolving credit) if you do not already have one. You do not have to carry a balance on the card. However, having one or two cards, and making purchases on them, helps raise your score. Get a secured credit card if you cannot qualify for an unsecured account. The issuer typically requires a saving account deposit for the credit granted on the card. Verify that the issuer reports to the three major credit bureaus.
- To improve your FICO score in the shortest amount of time, open one or two installment credit accounts, such as automobile, student or personal loan. Approach a small community bank or credit union when applying for a personal loan.
- Bring current any missed payments. Pay the bill when due, which increases your credit score over time. The older the missed payment or any negative data, the less it figures in the FICO score. The FICO software weighs the negative credit against good information in the profile.
- Even if you pay off a collection account, it remains on your credit report for seven years. Before you make the payment, try to negotiate a “favorable” rating from the creditor in exchange for the pay off.
- Limit “hard inquiry” credit checks—from creditors investigating whether to extend credit for which you directly applied, such as a mortgage refinance. “Soft inquiries,” where a pre-approved marketing company examines your credit profile, does not count against you.
Obtain a copy of the Fair Credit Reporting Act. Familiarize yourself with the rules credit bureaus must strictly follow, including eliminating inaccurate data and responding to disputes in a timely manner. If you have problems managing your finances, consider working with a credit counseling service to get yourself on track. Exercise diligence and patience as you work your plan to improve your credit score.