Q&A: Effects of closing credit card accounts

Dear Liz: I would like to know how to close credit card accounts and not get a bad credit rating for doing so. We are trying to improve our credit after filing for bankruptcy seven years ago.

Answer: If you’re trying to improve your credit, then avoid closing credit accounts. Doing so can’t help your scores and may hurt them. Credit-scoring formulas are sensitive to how much of your available credit you’re using. The formulas like to see a wide gap between your credit limits and the amount you charge, both on individual cards and in the aggregate. When you close an account, you reduce your available credit, which narrows that gap and can ding your scores.

If you want to speed up your recovery from the bankruptcy, continue using the cards lightly but regularly and paying the balances in full every month. Make sure to pay all your bills on time so that a skipped payment doesn’t undo all the progress you’ve made. Review your credit reports and dispute any errors, including accounts that were included in the bankruptcy but are still showing up as active debts.

That doesn’t mean you can never close unwanted credit accounts. You just don’t want to do so now, or when you’re in the market for a major loan. You can close an account or two once your scores are in the high 700s on the 300-to-850 FICO scale and you don’t plan to apply for credit in the near future.

Q&A: Removing a quit-claim house mortgage from your credit

Dear Liz: I recently divorced and quit-claimed my house over to my ex-wife. She has been making all the payments on time but the mortgage still shows up on my credit. Because of this, I can’t borrow as it is considered my indebtedness still. Do you know of anyway of having it expunged from my credit reports?

Answer: She will have to refinance the mortgage in her own name to get you off the loan. The contract you signed with the lender otherwise remains in force and isn’t affected by the divorce agreement.

It’s good that she’s making payments on time, since a single skipped payment could trash your credit scores.

It’s unfortunate your attorney didn’t advise you of the consequences of quit-claiming the property while remaining on the mortgage. It’s rarely a good idea to give up an asset while keeping the liability. A better approach is to separate your credit before the divorce is final. That means closing all joint accounts and transferring the debt to separate accounts in the name of the person who will be responsible for the payments. If your ex wasn’t able to get approved for a refinance, the house could have been sold so that you wouldn’t be on the hook indefinitely.

Q&A: Free credit score? Be careful

Dear Liz: As a financial planner, I am surprised you pointed someone in the direction of paying for a credit score. Your score can be accessed at several credit sites for free. Why would you want your readers to pay for something they could get free? 

Answer: As a financial planner, you should understand that “free” is a squishy concept.

Some sites do offer free credit scores in return for your private financial information, including your Social Security number. Most of these sites are committed to protecting your information — the credit bureaus they’re working with insist on that — but the sites may use your data to market financial products and services to you. As the saying goes, if something on the Internet is free, then the product being sold is you.

Many people are comfortable with that trade-off. Others aren’t. The other and perhaps more important reason to buy your credit scores from MyFico.com is that you’ll be getting numbers created from the same FICO formulas that most lenders use. The sites handing out free scores typically offer VantageScores, which is a FICO competitor. This particular reader wanted to see the auto FICO scores his lenders would use, and for that the best source is MyFico.com.

Q&A: Could new job affect credit rating?

Dear Liz: I have been employed at a small business, a sole proprietorship, for 34 years. My boss is going to just shut down the business, with no plan for succession. I have a job offer from a rival firm, so I don’t plan on being out of work for very long. How will this affect my credit rating? If I apply for a loan after being employed for, say, six months at the new firm, will the short time at that job be a negative mark against me? Should I hurry to apply for a loan before the business shuts down? Would that be illegal or unethical, since I know that I won’t be there much longer?

Answer: Few people know with any certainty how long they’ll remain in their current jobs. If only those who planned to stick with their employers indefinitely were allowed to apply for credit, lenders would go out of business.

That said, a recent job change can complicate the process for getting some loans, such as a mortgage. If you’re planning to borrow the money anyway and can complete the loan process before changing jobs, you’ll likely have an easier time getting approved.

While some lenders take job stability into account, your credit scores do not. Credit scoring formulas don’t include any information about employment or income. You get and keep good scores by using credit responsibly. But part of responsible credit management is not applying for loans you don’t need, so don’t rush out to borrow money just because you can.

Q&A: Where to find FICO scores

Dear Liz: I’m looking to buy a car and I’d like to see the FICO scores that lenders use. I already visited MyFico.com, but I want another site that shows my real FICO scores for auto lending. If you could point me in the right direction, that would be great.

Answer: You were at the right site. When you buy one credit score for $19.95 from MyFico.com, you actually get several scores from the same credit bureau. Those include FICO 8, the most commonly-used score, as well as the FICOs that bureau typically supplies to mortgage, auto and credit card lenders. If you want to see FICOs from all three bureaus, you can buy them for $59.85 and get a total of 25 different scores.

The scores lenders actually use to price your loan may be somewhat higher or lower from the ones you’ll see because credit scores change all the time. But if you apply for a loan shortly after buying your scores, they should be pretty close to the ones you see.

Q&A: How to improve your credit scores

Dear Liz: I don’t have a credit score. I have one item on my credit report that’s a court judgment. What can I do to get a score? If I pay the balance due for the judgment, would it be removed?

Answer: Paying a judgment doesn’t remove it from your credit reports, but it does limit the amount of time that the judgment can hurt you.

By federal law, an unpaid judgment can remain on your reports for seven years after it was entered against you. But creditors often have 10 to 20 years, depending on the state, to use the judgment to garnish your paycheck or put a levy on your bank account. Some states allow creditors to renew a judgment that hasn’t been paid, which means that it could pop back up on your credit reports after the initial seven-year period has expired.

To answer your other question, you get credit scores by having and using credit. The leading FICO formula needs six months’ of credit history to generate scores. One way to get credit if you don’t have any is with a secured credit card. These cards typically give you a line of credit equal to the deposit you make at the bank that issues the card. Use the card lightly but regularly and pay the balance on time and in full each month. You don’t need to pay credit card interest or carry debt to create good scores.

Another option is a “credit builder” loan, sometimes offered by member-owned credit unions. One form of credit builder loan puts your payments, minus interest, into a certificate of deposit that’s yours to keep once you’ve made the final payment. With one loan, in other words, you build your credit and your savings.

You can build credit either way, but having both types of credit — revolving accounts such as credit cards and installment loans such as a credit-builder loan — can help you build it faster.

Q&A: Conflicting credit scores

Dear Liz: Why is there such a difference between my FICO 4 and FICO 8 scores? My FICO 4 score is 646 while my FICO 8 score is 678. I want to buy a home and I know some lenders may still use the FICO 4.

Answer: Most (not just some) mortgage lenders use outdated versions of the FICO credit scoring formula. The agencies that buy most mortgages, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, accelerated acceptance of credit scores in the mid-1990s when they made FICOs part of the underwriting required for the loans they purchased.

But the agencies haven’t authorized lenders to use the newest versions or alternative scores, such as VantageScore. So an old collection or other misstep that’s ignored by modern versions of the FICO formula could hurt your efforts to get the best rates and terms on a mortgage.

There are several ways you can boost your scores in the coming months. First, get your actual credit reports from all three credit bureaus at www.annualcreditreport.com. (You don’t need to provide a credit card. If you’re asked for one, you’re on the wrong site.) Scan the reports for errors, such as accounts that aren’t yours or late payments showing when you paid on time. Dispute those and prepare to follow up with any creditors that insist on reporting false information. (Complaints to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau can help you get the creditors to cooperate.)

Make sure you’re making all credit account payments on time and pay down any credit card balances. Your goal is to use 10% or less of your reported credit limits, and to pay your balances in full each month. (Homeownership is expensive enough without dragging costly credit card debt into the financial picture.) It may take a few months to start seeing improvements, but they should come.

When you’re closer to pulling the trigger on a home purchase, consider buying your FICOs for all three credit bureaus from MyFico.com. In addition to the FICO 8, which is the one other creditors use most often, you’ll get your FICOs for the mortgage, credit card and auto loan industries, which can give you a clearer picture of where you stand.

Q&A: Are credit checks a scam?

Dear Liz: In July last year, I accessed the website for my free credit report before applying for a car loan. I have also been in recovery from cancer treatment and haven’t been great about checking my Visa statement until now. For the past year, my credit card has been charged $19.95 each month for some kind of “credit check” service. I never authorized this, nor did I request this service. I contacted the site, and they will refund me only one month of billing. Is this some kind of scam? How do they get away with this, and what can I do?

Answer: It may not technically be a scam, but the site’s business model profits from people’s confusion about how to get free credit reports.

The site you used is not the federally mandated site for free credit reports. It’s likely one that you found by typing “free credit reports” into a search engine and then clicking on one of the first results, which was probably an ad. To find the real site, you need to type www.annualcreditreport.com into your browser. You won’t need to give your credit card number to get your reports.

You may be able to get another month’s fee refunded by contacting your credit-card issuer and disputing the charge. By federal law, you’re supposed to make such disputes within 60 days after the statement containing the disputed charge was sent to you. Write to the issuer at its address for billing inquiries (not the address where you send your payments) and send it certified mail, return receipt requested.

Q&A: Helping a friend build credit

Dear Liz: I am selling my car to an old friend with no credit history. (The used car salesman wanted to charge her 6.5% interest.) Is there a way that I can report her timely payments to the credit reporting services to help her build her credit?

Answer: It’s not really practical for individuals to report payments, since subscribing to credit bureaus is expensive.

The rate your friend was quoted actually isn’t bad given her lack of credit history. If she kept the loan term relatively short (four years or less), she might be able to build up enough equity and credit history to refinance it to a lower rate in a year or two.

If she’d prefer not to take that route, you might suggest she explore credit builder loans. These loans, offered by credit unions, banks and some online lenders, are designed to help establish credit histories at the bureaus. The lenders typically put the borrowers monthly payments, minus a small interest charge, into a certificate of deposit that is the borrowers to keep after the final payment.

Secured credit cards are another good way to build credit scores. Borrowers make a refundable deposit with the issuing bank and get a credit line that’s typical equal to that deposit.

Q&A: Taking out a loan to boost credit scores

Dear Liz: I have little to no information — good or bad — in my credit reports. I am considering obtaining a secured loan from my credit union to establish better credit. Does it make any difference to my credit score if the credit union reports the loan as “secured”?

Answer: Credit scores don’t treat installment loans differently based on whether they’re unsecured, with just your promise to repay, or secured, which means backed by an asset such as an amount on deposit with the credit union.

What matters is how you pay off the loan (every payment should be on time) and whether the account will be reported to all three credit bureaus, so that you’re building scores at all three. Call and ask, because not all credit unions report to all three bureaus.

You also might want to consider a secured credit card, because having both types of credit accounts — installment and revolving — can boost your scores. Again, it’s important that you pay on time and that the card is reported to all three bureaus. You should use the card lightly but regularly and pay the balance in full each month for best results.