Your credit score can save you a lot of money … or it can cost you a lot of money. Yet, some people don’t even know their credit score, or how to make it better. That’s bad news when you’re hoping to get the best deal on a mortgage (and looking at 30 years of payments on the most expensive thing you’ll probably ever buy).
If you’re looking to improve your credit history and raise your credit score before buying your first home, you need a step-by-step plan that can boost your credit and end up saving you thousands of dollars down the road.
Understanding Your Credit Score
At a minimum, it should be understood that when you apply for a loan, financial institutions will look at your credit score from three major credit bureaus to get a better picture of your financial health.
Experian, Equifax, and Transunion will generate reports a mortgage lender will use to evaluate the likelihood that you’ll make good on your borrowing. The Fair Issac Corporation’s FICO score (a number based on all those credit reports) has become a standard used by lenders for such evaluations. All told, it allows them to glean a rough idea of your worthiness as a borrower.
What Affects Your Credit Score?
Think back to the first time you filled out an application for a credit card or student loans. Since that time, your finances have, in a sense, been monitored and inspected routinely by an untold number of companies. Mainly, they’re using a small set of questions to determine your score:
- Are you paying your bills on time? (Your payment history makes up a large part of your score)
- How long have you had credit/how many years since opening your first account?
- Of all available credit, how much are you using?
- What types of accounts do you have open?
- How much new credit have you applied for recently?
These five things will help lenders decide the amount, terms, and rate of your mortgage loan, or any other loan you might apply for.
Fixing a Poor Credit Score
Even if you’re one of those people who understand a little bit about how credit works, you might be less savvy when it comes to fixing a credit score that might be ‘fair’ (579) or even ‘good’ (669), but not ‘very good’ (739), a typical threshold to secure a home loan.
GRAPHIC: Even small changes to your credit score can have a big impact on the credit you’ll be able to secure and the rates you’ll be offered later on.
Credit Scores, From Bad to Good
It’s imperative to not only check your credit score but understand what’s shaping that number months before you plan to buy a home. Why? It takes time — in many cases, longer than months — to improve a bad score.
GRAPHIC: What makes up your FICO score? Payment history (35%), amounts owed (30%), length of credit history (15%), new credit (10%) and credit mix (10%).
With that in mind, here are five basic steps you can take to boost your score and move one step closer to homeownership:
Pay your bills on time
If you have three credit cards, student loans, a car payment, and various other open accounts, you can bet that the credit bureaus know when they were opened, how much you’ve paid on each account, and if your payments have been on time. Overall, your ability to pay your bills by the due date accounts for 35% of your FICO score.
If your payments aren’t in good standing, it sends a signal to banks and loan officers that you’re a risky investment. The MyFico website even goes on to say that payment history “tends to be the strongest predictor” of the likelihood that you’ll make future payments on time.
Pay off outstanding debt
If you’ve heard the term “amounts owed,” it’s simply the total amount of debt that you’re carrying. While it’s not as significant when it comes to impacting your credit score, it can paint a picture that you’re already overextended financially. High credit card balances should be paid down before you even think about applying for a mortgage. This will also lower your debt-to-income ratio (or the amount of debt you hold relative to your income).
Don’t apply for new credit
Policy Genius went so far as to call this “mission-critical.” That’s because applying to open up a new credit card will lead to something called a hard inquiry, which can negatively impact your credit score. A hard inquiry takes place when a lender checks your credit to decide whether to approve a loan, and each application can knock a few points off your credit score. If you need every point you can get, you should avoid all new applications in the months leading up to buying your first home.
Remember, even small changes to your credit score can have a big impact on the credit you’ll be able to secure and the rates you’ll be offered later on.
Have a variety of open accounts
At least 10% of your credit score is determined by the accounts you have open, so in this case, balance is important. You should have a mix of credit cards, retail accounts, and installment loans (think auto loans). This portfolio not only showcases your spending habits but also your budgeting priorities. Maintaining varied credit accounts demonstrates to lenders that you can handle different types of loans.
Check your credit report for errors
Your credit score touches every aspect of your life, from your job, to your home, to your finances and so much more. But when you need your credit score, you rely on the aforementioned credit bureaus to give you a fair assessment of your creditworthiness and call it a day. What you should be doing is checking your credit report for old, inaccurate, and fraudulent information.
Can You Ever Buy a Home With Poor Credit?
Everyone has debt. In fact, according to Experian’s 2019 Consumer Debt Study, the total consumer debt in the United States topped $14 trillion, with the average American carrying debt upwards of $90k.
Your amounts owed and a low credit score won’t automatically disqualify you from a mortgage, a home equity loan, or a home equity line of credit (HELOC). Applicants with less-than-perfect credit can often secure financing, but generally, low credit scores will cost you in the form of higher mortgage rates. Those higher rates mean higher monthly payments for principal and interest and higher costs over the life of the loan.
If you really want to boost your bad credit, consider enrolling in the UltraFICO or Experian Boost programs, which also track the cash in your bank account to keep an eye on your financial behaviors. You may also qualify for a first-time homebuyer program.
Finally, you may want to take advantage of the so-called Rapid Rescore, which boosts changes or updates to your credit report that are not yet reflected. This gives you a fresh version of your credit report to show potential lenders during the homebuying process.