All About Your Credit Report
Scoring your Credit – How’s your FICO?
In today’s increasingly automated society, it should come as no surprise that when you apply for a mortgage, your ability to pay can be reduced to a single number. All the years you’ve been paying your mortgage, car payments, and credit card bills can be analyzed, sliced, diced, spindled and mutilated into a single indicator of whether you’re likely to meet your future obligations.
All three of the major credit reporting agencies (Equifax, Experian and TransUnion) use a slightly different system to arrive at a score. The best known is called the FICO score, based on a model developed by Fair Isaac and Company (hence the name) and used by Experian. Equifax’s model is called BEACON, while TransUnion uses EMPIRICA. While each of the models considers a range of data available in your credit report, the primary factors are:
- Credit History – How long have you had credit?
- Payment History – Do you pay your bills on time?
- Credit Card Balances – How much do you owe on how many accounts?
- Credit Inquiries – How many times have you had your credit checked?
Each of these, and other items, are assigned a value and a weight. The results are added up and distilled into a single number. FICO scores range from 300 to 850, with higher being better. Typical home buyers likely find their scores falling between 600 and 850.
FICO scores are used for more than just determining whether or not you qualify for a mortgage. Higher scores indicate you are a better credit risk, and thus may qualify for a better mortgage rate.
What can you do about your FICO score? Unfortunately, not much. Since the score is based on a lifetime of credit history, it is difficult to make a significant change in the number with quick fixes. The most important thing is to know your FICO score and to ensure that your credit history is correct.Conveniently, Fair Isaac has created a web site (www.myFICO.com) that let’s you do just that. For a reasonable fee, you can quickly get your FICO score from all three reporting agencies, along with your credit report. Also available is some helpful information and tools that help you analyze what actions might have the greatest impact on your FICO score. Each of the credit services offers similar services on their web sites: www.equifax.com, www.experian.com, and www.transunion.com.
How can you improve your 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.
Reasons for mistakes on your credit report
Credit report errors occur for a number of reasons but they can all have a negative impact on your eligibility for any future credit. It’s important to stay on top of your credit report to avoid any mistakes made by the creditors and credit bureaus —Equifax, Experian and TransUnion. Some common reasons for credit report errors include:
- The individual has applied for credit under several different names (i.e. John Doe and Jonathon Doe)
- Someone made a clerical error in entering or reading information (names, social security numbers, addresses, etc.) from a handwritten application.
- Mix ups with common names. For example, there is likely more than one John Smith living in New York City and often there is the chance that information intended for one John Smith might appear on another John Smith’s credit report as he applies for a mortgage.
- The individual gave an inaccurate Social Security number or the number was misread by the creditor.
- Loan or credit card payments were inadvertently applied to the wrong account.
No matter what the reason, the erroneous information could reflect poorly on your credit file, thus causing approval problems when the time comes to apply for a job or obtain a mortgage. If you find errors, no matter how small, be sure you get them fixed, and make sure that you contact all three credit bureaus with your change.
Your credit report is a record of your credit activities. It lists all of your credit card accounts and loans, the balances as well as your payment history. It also shows if any action has been taken against you because of unpaid bills such as a lawsuit or bankruptcy filing. Because businesses use this information to evaluate your applications for credit, insurance and employment, it’s important that the information in your report is complete and accurate, especially if you plan to make a big purchase like a home.
Disputing Credit Reports
The Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA), enforced by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), is designed to promote accuracy and ensure the privacy of the information used in consumer reports. Under the FCRA, both the credit reporting agency (CRA) and the organization that provided the information to the CRA (usually the credit card company) must correct any errors or incomplete information in your report.
If you do encounter a mistake on your credit report, several steps need to be taken to correct the matter:
2 In a written letter, tell the CRA what information you believe to be inaccurate. Include copies (not originals) of documents that support your position. Provide your complete name and address, identify each item in your report you dispute, and request deletion or correction. Be sure to make copies of your dispute letter and enclosures.
3. Send your letter by certified mail, return receipt requested, so you can document what the CRA received.
4. The FCRA mandates that all CRAs reinvestigate the items in question — usually within 30 days — unless they consider your dispute frivolous. They also must forward all relevant data you provide about the dispute to the credit card company. After the credit card company receives notice of a dispute from the CRA, it must investigate, review all relevant information and report the results to the CRA.
5. If the disputed information is found to be inaccurate, the credit card company must notify all nationwide CRAs so they can correct this information in your file. Disputed information that cannot be verified must be deleted from your file.
6. When the reinvestigation is complete, the CRA must give you the written results and a free copy of your report if the dispute results in a change. If an item is changed or removed, the CRA cannot put the disputed information back in your file unless the credit card company verifies its accuracy and completeness, and the CRA gives you a written notice that includes the name, address, and phone number of the credit card company.
7. In addition to the CRA, you should also write to the credit card company about the error. Again, include copies of documents that support your dispute. If you are correct — meaning the information you disputed is found inaccurate — the credit card company cannot use it again. Further, at your request, the CRA must send notices of corrections to anyone who received your report in the past six months.
Getting A Copy of Your Credit Report
The information in your credit report has a huge impact on whether or not you qualify for a mortgage loan and what interest rate a lender will offer. Therefore, it’s important your credit report reflects a positive image of the way you manage your money. If you’re getting ready to buy a home, checking your credit report is the best way to ensure you get the loan and interest rate you deserve.
The easiest way to see what’s in your credit report is to contact the three national credit reporting agencies – Equifaxwww.equifax.com,
Experian www.experian.com and TransUnion www.transunion.com – and request a copy from each. That’s because the three agencies are independent of each other and the information may differ on all three reports. In addition, you may not know which agency your lender will use to check your credit, so it’s best to verify that all three have correct information about your credit history.
If you’ve been denied credit, insurance, or employment because of information in your credit report from any of the three agencies, you can obtain a free credit report by contacting the agency within 60 days of receiving a denial notice. In addition, you’re entitled to a free copy of your report each year when you certify in writing that (1) you’re unemployed and looking for a job within 60 days, (2) you’re currently on welfare, or (3) your report contains errors due to fraud. Otherwise, the agencies charge a fee for a copy of your report.
For additional fees, each agency may offer you different report variations, such as:
- A credit report with or without your credit score.
- A three-in-one credit report that lets you see a side-by-side comparison of records, from all three agencies, with or without scores.
- Notification services when your credit history is requested.
- Routine notification changes to your file.
- Subscriptions that allow you to access your report on a regular basis.
New law promotes free access to credit reports
Soon you’ll be able to get your credit report for free regardless of your employment or financial situation. A recent amendment to the federal Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) mandates that each agency provide you with a free copy of your credit report, at your request, once every year, from www.annualcreditreport.com.
Free reports will be phased in during a nine-month period, rolling from the West Coast to the East beginning December 1, 2004. By September 1, 2005, free reports will be accessible to all consumers.
Here is a breakdown of eligibility for a free credit report:
Beginning December 1, 2004 – Consumers in Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming
Beginning March 1, 2005 – Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, South Dakota, and Wisconsin
Beginning June 1, 2005 – Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Texas
Beginning September 1, 2005 – Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, Virginia, and West Virginia – the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and all U.S. territories.
Whether you are thinking of buying a home or simply curious about what’s in your credit report, it’s important to correct any errors you discover as soon as possible. You don’t want errors in your credit report affecting your eligibility for credit in the future.
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