Although the ongoing real estate bust has created a painful environment for home sellers, plunging property values and low interest rates are handing would-be buyers plenty of opportunities. A National Association of Realtors index, which takes into account home prices, mortgage rates, and incomes, indicates that today's real estate market is the most affordable it has been since at least 1970. But as banks tighten lending standards in the face of higher delinquencies, only borrowers who meet today's stricter credit requirements will be able to nab the most attractive mortgage rates. In addition to documenting income and coming up with a down payment of at least 3.5 percent, today's borrower will need a minimum FICO score of 720 to obtain the cheapest rates, says Keith Gumbinger of HSH Associates. (But Chris Freemott, president of All American Mortgage in Naperville, Ill., says the benchmark FICO score for the best rates is 740. "FICOs are everything," he says.) In an effort to help consumers access today's lowest-cost financing, U.S. News gleaned tips from a handful of experts on boosting your credit score.
1. Get your credit report: The first step for improving your credit profile is to find out where your credit currently stands. Three main credit reporting bureaus--TransUnion, Equifax and Experian--collect and compile payment information on individuals from tens of thousands of credit grantors, such as banks, credit card issuers, and retailers. "If you are about to buy a house…then I want you to get all three credit reports," says Gail Cunningham of the National Foundation for Credit Counseling. "I never want to end up sitting across the desk from someone who knows more about me than I do." By law, consumers are entitled to one free credit report from each of these bureaus during any 12-month period. The free reports are available at annualcreditreport.com.
2. Get your FICO score: A separate company, Fair Isaac, creates the formula that credit bureaus use to generate a FICO score. A FICO score is a score between 300 and 850 that lenders use to evaluate the risk that a borrower will default. Every consumer's FICO scores are calculated from data from each of the three three main credit bureaus. The scores take into account your payment history, the amounts you owe, your length of credit history, your new credit, and the types of credit you have used, says Shon Dellinger, vice president of myFICO.com for Fair Isaac. After getting your credit reports, Cunningham recommends obtaining your credit scores. A single FICO score can be purchased at myFICO.com for about $16, while a package of all three goes for a little less than $50. (However, as of February 14th, Experian will no longer make its FICO scores available through myFICO.com, says Craig Watts of Fair Isaac.)
3. Study and check: Consumers should thoroughly examine each credit report to make sure it's accurate. "If you are a junior and your father is a senior who's got rotten credit habits, make sure that your report is distinguished from his," Cunningham says. If there's anything incorrect on your credit reports, fight it. (Credit reports will come with information about filing a dispute, Cunningham says.)
4. Pay up, then ask forgiveness: In addition to inaccuracies, it's important to take care of all unpaid bills that show up on a credit report. But if, for example, you find that you've inadvertently missed a payment on a credit card that you've paid on time for years, it's worth calling the company directly to see if you can work something out, Gumbinger says. "If it’s a hiccup in a long pattern of good payments, you might be able to have them clear that up," he says.
5. Ditch the doctors: Cunningham warns against turning to companies that offer to repair your credit for a fee. "Anybody who says that they can clean up your credit report cannot do one thing that you cannot do for yourself," she says. "We have people come to us all the time that have spent hundreds of dollars and end up very disappointed."
6. Good habits: After correcting mistakes and paying off old bills, it's time to begin developing healthy credit habits--the most important of which is to pay your bills on time, says Rod Griffin, director of public education for Experian. "Credit scoring is pretty complex, but what you need to do as an individual isn't very complicated to get the scores you need," Griffin says. "No matter what scoring system you look at, the thing that will most affect scores negatively is being late on your payments, so pay your bills on time."
7. Low balances: Credit scoring systems also look closely at consumers' so-called utilization rate, which compares outstanding balances to total available credit, Griffin says. "The lower your balances are as compared to your limits, the better…because it shows that you aren't overusing the credit you have available," he says. "It also shows that you make cautious and wise decisions with regard to how you use your credit."
8. Get credit only as needed: Opening a slew of new credit lines at once can drag down your credit score, says Dellinger: "The classic example there is opening a whole bunch of store cards...[So] only open new cards or get new loans when it's really necessary."