What is a Credit Score?
Before deciding on what terms lenders will offer you on a loan (which they base on the “risk” to them), they want to know two things about you: your ability to pay back the loan, and your willingness to pay back the loan. For the first, they look at your income-to-debt obligation ratio. For your willingness to pay back the loan, they consult your credit score.
The most widely used credit scores are FICO scores, which were developed by Fair Isaac & Company, Inc. (and they’re named after their inventor!). Your FICO score is between 350 (high risk) and 850 (low risk).
Credit scores only consider the information contained in your credit profile. They do not consider your income, savings, down payment amount, or demographic factors like gender, race, nationality or marital status. In fact, the fact they don’t consider demographic factors is why they were invented in the first place. “Profiling” was as dirty a word when FICO scores were invented as it is now. Credit scoring was developed as a way to consider only what was relevant to somebody’s willingness to repay a loan.
Past delinquencies, derogatory payment behavior, current debt level, length of credit history, types of credit and number of inquiries are all considered in credit scores. Your score considers both positive and negative information in your credit report. Late payments will lower your score, but establishing or reestablishing a good track record of making payments on time will raise your score.
Different portions of your credit history are given different weights. Thirty-five percent of your FICO score is based on your specific payment history. Thirty percent is your current level of indebtedness. Fifteen percent each is the time your open credit has been in use (ten year old accounts are good, six month old ones aren’t as good) and types of credit available to you (installment loans such as student loans, car loans, etc. versus revolving and debit accounts like credit cards). Finally, five percent is pursuit of new credit — credit scores requested.
Your credit report must contain at least one account which has been open for six months or more, and at least one account that has been updated in the past six months for you to get a credit score. This ensures that there is enough information in your report to generate an accurate score. If you do not meet the minimum criteria for getting a score, you may need to establish a credit history prior to applying for a mortgage.
How Can I Improve My Credit Score?
It’s virtually impossible to change your score in the time between when most people decide to buy a home or refinance their mortgage and when they apply. So the short answer is, you really can’t “on the spot.” But there are strategies you can live with to make sure when you apply for a loan your score is as high as possible.
Make sure that the information each of the three credit reporting bureaus has on you is consistent and up to date. Order a copy of your credit report about once a year, and dispute any inaccuracies.
Note: Theoretically, if a series of credit reports is requested on your behalf during a limited amount of time, your score goes down until time passes without any inquiries. Changes in the law though have made “consumer-originating” credit report requests not count so much. Also, a series of requests in relation to getting a mortgage or car loan is not treated the same as a number of credit card requests in a limited time. This is because the credit bureaus, and lenders, realize that people request their own credit reports to keep up with what’s on them, and smart consumers shop around for the best mortgage and car loans.
Unsolicited credit card solicitations in the mail don’t count against your credit report, so don’t worry.
The two main components of your credit score are your payment history and the amounts you owe. Bankruptcy filings and foreclosures, which can stay on your credit report for as long as 10 years, can significantly lower your score. It’s never a good idea to take on more credit than you can handle.
Late payments work against you. It’s extremely important to pay bills on time, even if it’s only the monthly payment.
Don’t “max out” your credit lines. Since the size of the balance on your open accounts is a factor, lower balances are better. It’s said that by carefully managing your credit, it’s possible to add as much as 50 points per year to your score.