Insurance scores aren’t the same as credit scores

Dear Liz: I have very high credit scores, but recently got a notice from my homeowners insurance company saying that my rates were rising because there had been a number of inquiries on my credit report. The inquiries were as a result of my looking for the best deal on a mortgage refinance, and we applied for a retail card to save the 5% on our purchases. Do many insurers use FICO scores as a rate determiner?

Answer: Insurance companies don’t use FICO scores to set rates, but they do use somewhat similar formulas that incorporate credit report information in a process called “insurance scoring” to set premiums. Insurers, and some independent researchers, have found a strong correlation between negative credit and a person’s likelihood of filing claims. (California and Massachusetts are among the few states that prohibit the practice.)

The formulas insurers use sometimes punish behavior that has only a minor effect on your FICO scores. Since insurers use different insurance scoring formulas, however, you may well find a better deal by shopping around.

Son-in-law badgers elderly couple for money

Dear Liz: I am 84, and my husband is 88. We have two daughters, the elder of whom is married to a very controlling man. In the past, we lent them money and were paid back. But starting in 2009 his small business began to do poorly. They borrowed nearly $100,000 from us. Then in 2010, he begged us to get a home equity loan on our home, which was paid for.

They now owe us $300,000. We make the home equity payments of $800 a month because they are not able to pay that amount. He said he planned to sell a parcel of land to pay us back. Now he wants to borrow from my individual retirement account. He is telling our daughter to go after us and what to do. So I told my daughter and her husband, no more!

We are so sad. We didn’t expect to have money problems at this age. We wanted our estate to be divided equally between our daughters. But we’re wondering if we should make a new living trust to reflect the debt owed to us. Should we consult a lawyer?

Answer: You absolutely need a lawyer. Not just to draw up a new trust but to stand between you and the financial predator you call a son-in-law.

Badgering people in their 80s for money could be considered a form of elder abuse, and the amount he’s squeezed out of you is horrific. If either of you died or became incapacitated, he could swoop in to clean you out completely.

An elder law attorney can help you protect your finances and figure out what to do about this debt. It certainly would be understandable if you wanted to deduct the money you’re owed from your elder daughter’s inheritance, but you can expect this bully to cause misery regardless of what you decide.

Not that you needed more to worry about, but what you’re calling a home equity loan may well be a home equity line of credit. Although home equity loans come with fixed rates, lines of credit do not — which means the payments that are difficult for you to make now will be more expensive when interest rates rise. In any case, you might want to ask the attorney about the feasibility of a reverse mortgage, which could allow you to pay off the loan without having to make further payments.

You can get referrals to the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys at http://www.naela.org. If your other daughter is trustworthy, please enlist her help in looking for and speaking with an attorney. She needs to know what’s going on so she can help in your efforts to protect yourselves from this man.

Hoard cash if unemployment looms

Dear Liz: My husband and I have been aggressively paying down our debts and plan to be debt free by this time next year. We’re devoting about 20% of our income to debt repayment and saving about 6% (not much, I know, but we’re young and just starting out). We were building an emergency fund and currently have enough money in it to cover only a few months of our expenses, since we had to dip into it recently for unexpected car repairs.

My husband just lost his job. I make enough that we would just barely be able to cover all of our minimum payments and our bills, but my employer lost its biggest client and I may be out of a job soon too. Should we continue to make the same debt payments, reduce the amount or make only minimum payments until we are both securely employed?

Answer: As soon as you know that unemployment is a possibility, you should begin to conserve cash. That means making only the minimum payments on your debt and cutting your expenses to the bone. Although the job picture is improving, the average duration of unemployment is still close to 40 weeks. That’s a long time to go without a paycheck.

When you’re both employed again, you should reconsider your financial priorities. Getting out of debt is a great goal, but not all debt is created equal. Paying off credit cards should typically be a high priority, but you needn’t be in as much of a rush to pay off federal student loans, car loans or mortgages, because the rates on these debts is typically fixed and relatively low. Instead, make sure you’re taking advantage of retirement savings opportunities and building up a cash cushion to tide you through the next financial setback.

Reluctant lender blocks quick foreclosure solution

Dear Liz: Is there any way to expedite the foreclosure process? My wife bought a townhome shortly before we were married. Long story short, it didn’t fit our family once we got married and had a baby. We bought a larger house and tried renting the townhome but couldn’t cover the mortgage payment. We attempted a short sale, but the bank refused a good offer, so we let it go into default. We even offered to do a deed in lieu of foreclosure, but the bank refused unless we provided financial information for me, too. Since I’m not named on the mortgage and wasn’t even around when she got the loan, I refused. We’ve mentally and financially prepared for foreclosure and now just want the process complete. The bank, though, doesn’t seem to be in any kind of hurry. The process is now entering the third year with no action on their part, and we haven’t even been to the property in well over a year. We’ve told them expressly that we aren’t fighting them on the foreclosure. At this point we just want to move on.

Answer: Offering a deed in lieu of foreclosure — in which your wife hands over the keys in return for being released from the loan — was probably your best bet to speed things along. If you don’t want to provide the financial information the mortgage company is requesting, you’re stuck with waiting this out.

It’s unfortunate, because many lenders prefer deeds in lieu as a cheaper, faster way to get control of properties they’re going to wind up with anyway. The idea is that the homes probably will be in better condition than if an angry borrower or squatter trashes them, plus the costs of formal foreclosures are avoided. As foreclosure times have lengthened, some lenders have even sent out letters to underwater homeowners in default urging them to consider a deed in lieu transfer.

One thing you should investigate is whether the lender can come after your wife for a “deficiency judgment.” If it is allowed in your state, your wife could be liable for any leftover debt that isn’t paid off with a foreclosure sale. Talk to an attorney familiar with credit and foreclosure laws in your state.

Weak bank? Maybe it’s time to move your money

Dear Liz: I have all my money (less than $150,000) in one small bank. I love my bank, but Bankrate.com’s Safe and Sound report shows the bank having only a single star. I asked someone at the bank about it, and this person said the rating wasn’t important. Is it?

Answer: Of course it is. Your deposits are under the $250,000 limit protected by the FDIC, but a weak bank can fail, which can be disruptive to depositors. The bank that takes over typically doesn’t have to abide by the policies or interest rates promised by the failed bank. If regulators can’t find another bank willing to take over, you may have limited access to your money for a few days until your deposits are refunded to you.

A bank with “very questionable asset quality, well below standard capitalization and lower than normal liquidity” — phrases Bankrate.com uses to describe your institution — probably isn’t the best place to have your money.

Finding an apartment after foreclosure

Dear Liz: My wife and I went through a foreclosure last year and need to rent an apartment. We have no credit card debt and over $30,000 in savings on an income of $75,000. We know that our credit will be an issue on apartment applications because of the foreclosure. What can we do to improve our chances of getting a decent apartment in a safe neighborhood?

Answer: Although foreclosures may not carry the same stigma they did before the real estate bubble burst, they still wreak havoc on your credit scores. Your scores will need three to seven years to completely recover, and that’s if you inflict no further damage. Paying your bills on time and using credit responsibly will help you rehabilitate those numbers.

In the meantime, you can increase your odds of finding a good place by looking for mom-and-pop landlords, rather than applying at apartments managed by huge corporations. The big companies usually rely on credit scores to screen out applicants, while a smaller landlord may be more flexible. Offering to make a bigger deposit or to pay several months’ rent in advance might help persuade them, said Stephen Elizas, author of “The Foreclosure Survival Guide.”

Is a money manager worth the cost?

Dear Liz: My husband and I are nearing 60. The company where we both have worked for over 30 years recently merged with another firm. The money in our retirement accounts, which totals several hundred thousand dollars, will be distributed to us, and we need to figure out how to manage it.

We took your advice to interview several fee-only financial planners, and all of them are pushing for wealth management. They would manage the money in exchange for a percentage of the assets. How do we find an unbiased opinion of whether it is worth it to spend over $10,000 a year for this service rather than putting that money toward our retirement?

I find it doubtful that any of the planners can earn a return that would be worth at least $10,000 a year. We’re with Vanguard’s Target Fund 2020, which we currently use for retirement funds we have gathered outside of work.

Answer: You’re right that a financial planner — or any money manager, for that matter — is unlikely to offer returns substantially above what you would get in passive investments that seek to match the market, rather than beat it. Study after study shows that few investors, professional or amateur, can consistently outperform the stock market averages.

What wealth management should provide is a suite of services to help you in all areas of your financial life. You should get a comprehensive financial plan as well as assistance with your taxes, insurance needs and estate planning.

Your investments should be targeted to your specific needs, time horizon and risk tolerance. Your planner should advise you about sustainable withdrawal rates once you retire, so that you minimize the risk of running out of money.

Your planner should be willing to act as your fiduciary, meaning your needs come first, so you don’t have to worry about the conflicts of interest that may arise when an advisor is recommending products that pay him or her commissions. The best wealth managers, in short, provide a one-stop shop that alleviates the need for you to try to coordinate all these services yourself.

If you don’t feel you need this level of service, however, seek out a fee-only planner who works by the hour. You can find referrals to this type of fee-only planner from the Garrett Planning Network at http://www.garrettplanningnetwork.com.

Credit scores not perfect? Don’t sweat it

Dear Liz: I just bought a home and my FICO credit scores are excellent: 842, 813 and 809. I requested copies of my files from all three credit bureaus, and one of them — which showed me with the lowest score — said the reason my score wasn’t higher is that I had “too many inquiries in the last two months” (I had two, one of which was for my mortgage) and an “insufficient length of credit history” (my first credit account was opened in 1980). I called the bureau, but the representative wouldn’t give me any more information and just wanted to sell me my credit score for $7.95. The person I talked to was in India, which upset me even more. If companies want to outsource to foreign lands, that’s up to them, but they are making money of off every American’s personal history. We should have a right to keep our personal information here in the U.S. I have emailed my lawmakers about this, but what more can I do?

Answer: One of the things you can do is stop worrying about why your credit scores aren’t higher. Once you get above 760 or so on the 300-to-850 FICO scale, you’ll get the best rates and terms from virtually any lender. The software that provides the scores is set up to spit out “reason codes” for why your numbers are the way they are, but the higher your scores, the less relevant those reasons may be. The software has to tell you something, even if “fixing” the “problem” wouldn’t really affect your numbers.

You also need to stop turning to the credit bureaus for information about your scores. Although they sell FICO scores to lenders, the bureaus use a proprietary formula purchased from another company (also called FICO). The bureaus can’t really tell you much more about how the formula works than you could find out for yourself at MyFico.com, which is a site FICO co-founded. Plus, the credit scores the bureaus want to sell to you typically aren’t the FICO scores used by most lenders.

As for your right to decide where your credit information is kept, in effect you have none. The credit reporting system was set up to benefit lenders, not consumers. If you want to change that, continue contacting your lawmakers.

How to find the right rewards card

Dear Liz: Should we get a rewards card? We have excellent credit scores. I’m a stay-at-home mom and my husband has a good, steady job. We spend about $6,000 a month with our debit card or automatic drafts from our checking account. I think our family should have a rewards card. My husband disagrees and says that for the amount we spend each month, we wouldn’t rack up any points. Is he right? If we should get a card, how do we pick the right one?

Answer: If you’re positive you’ll pay your credit card bill in full every month, you would be great candidates for a rewards card.

Right now, you’re passing up at least $720 in rewards annually. That assumes you’d be getting a card that rebates 1% of your purchases. With excellent credit scores, you could qualify for even richer rewards cards, since those are reserved for people with the best credit.

The simplest rewards cards are the cash-back cards, which rebate a portion of the purchases you make. Card comparison site NerdWallet recently named the Chase Freedom card as the best cash-back card with no annual fee. The card gives you a $200 sign-up bonus if you spend $500 in the first three months. All your purchases earn 1%, and you can earn a 5% rebate on certain categories of spending that change every three months.

NerdWallet also recommends American Express Blue Cash Preferred, which offers a $100 bonus if you spend $500 in the first two months. Supermarket purchases earn 6% cash back, and spending at gas stations and department stores earn 3%. Everything else earns 1%. “There is an annual fee of $75,” NerdWallet.com notes, “but your rewards easily offset the cost. In fact, $25 in groceries every week is enough to make up the difference.”

There are other types of rewards cards that earn points or miles for travel, or discounts on gas. You can learn more about these cards and shop for offers at NerdWallet or one of the other card comparison sites, including CardRatings.com, CreditCards.com and LowCards.com.

It’s important, once you get the card, to keep track of your spending so you never accumulate a balance you can’t pay in full. Always pay your account on time, since a single skipped payment can knock up to 110 points off those excellent scores.

Windfall in your 50s? Don’t blow it

Dear Liz: I am 56 and will be receiving $175,000 from the sale of a home I inherited. I do not know what to do with this money. I have been underemployed or unemployed for six years, have no retirement savings and am terrified this money will get chipped away for day-to-day expenses so that I’ll have nothing to show for it. Should I invest? If so, what is relatively safe? Should I try to buy another house as an investment?

Answer: You’re right to worry about wasting this windfall, because that’s what often happens. A few thousand dollars here, a few thousand dollars there, and suddenly what once seemed like a vast amount of money is gone.

First, you need to talk to a tax pro to make sure there won’t be a tax bill from your home sale. Then you need to use a small portion of your inheritance to hire a fee-only financial planner who can review your situation and suggest some options. You can get referrals for fee-only planners who charge by the hour from the Garrett Planning Network at http://www.garrettplanningnetwork.com.

You’re closing in quickly on retirement age, and you should know that typically Social Security doesn’t pay much. The average check is around $1,000 a month. This windfall can’t make up for all the years you didn’t save, but it could help you live a little better in retirement if properly invested.

You should read a good book on investing, such as Kathy Kristof’s “Investing 101,” so you can better understand the relationship between risk and reward. It’s understandable that you want to keep your money safe, but investments that promise no loss of principal don’t yield very much. In other words, keeping your money safe means it won’t be able to grow, which in turn means your buying power will be eroded over time.