Q&A: Get your credit score ready for the home-buying process

Dear Liz: What score do you need to be approved for a mortgage? Is 520 even close? If not, how do I get that score higher quickly?

Answer: A score of 520 on the usual 300-to-850 FICO scale is pretty bad. Theoretically, you might be able to get a mortgage if you can make a large down payment, but you’ll have more options — and pay a lot less in interest — if you can get your scores higher.

That, however, takes time. You need a consistent pattern of responsible credit behavior to start offsetting your mistakes of the past. If you don’t already have and use credit cards, consider applying for a secured credit card, which requires a cash security deposit, typically of $200 or more. You’ll get a credit limit equal to your deposit. Using the card lightly but regularly, and paying in full every month, can help your scores.

A credit builder loan, offered by credit unions and the online company Self Lender, is another way to improve your credit while building your savings at the same time. The money you borrow is put into a savings account or certificate of deposit that you can claim once you’ve made 12 monthly payments. Making your payments on time helps improve your credit history and scores.

Taking a year to build your credit also would give you more time to save for your down payment and for closing costs. Rushing into homeownership is rarely a good idea, so take the time you need to get your financial life in order first.

Q&A: How to find your way out of difficult financial circumstances

Dear Liz: I desperately need your help! My husband, who is 91, is in the early stages of dementia. I just turned 88 and for the first time am responsible for making all the financial decisions.

We are deeply in debt and I don’t know the best way to proceed. We owe more than $40,000 on credit cards, nearly $50,000 on a home equity loan, $20,000 on solar panels and $3,500 for a timeshare.

I am thinking of getting a low-interest mortgage on our home to pay off all these debts. We have no savings left. I just don’t know if this is a good idea or who to go to for answers.

Answer: If you have a younger family member or friend you trust, please consider involving this person in your search for answers. The possible solutions you need to consider are complex and would be daunting even for someone with a lot of experience in making financial decisions.

Getting a mortgage could be one solution, assuming you can get approved and afford the payments. Start by consulting a mortgage loan officer at your bank to see if this is an option.

Another possibility is a reverse mortgage, if you have sufficient home equity. The reverse mortgage could allow you to pay off some or all of your debts without having to make monthly payments. If you have substantial equity, you also may be able to supplement your income.

The reverse mortgage would have to be paid when you sold the home, died or moved out. A housing counselor, available from many National Foundation for Credit Counseling agencies, can discuss those with you. You can get referrals at www.nfcc.org.

Bankruptcy is yet another option to consider.

If your income is below the median for your area, you may be able to file for Chapter 7 bankruptcy liquidation to legally rid yourself of the credit card debt and timeshare. You also may be able to erase the solar panel loan, if it’s unsecured. If you have a lot of equity in your home, though, you could be forced to sell the house to pay your creditors, making Chapter 7 a bad option.

The other type of bankruptcy, Chapter 13, allows you to keep more property but requires a repayment plan that typically lasts for five years.

If you don’t have a lot of equity, on the other hand, and your income is protected from creditors, you may be “judgment proof.” That means if you stop paying your unsecured debts, your creditors could sue you but be unable to collect. An experienced bankruptcy attorney can assess your situation and let you know your options.

Referrals are available from the National Assn. of Consumer Bankruptcy Attorneys, www.nacba.org.

If you don’t have a trusted person to help you sort through your options, or even if you do, consider hiring a fee-only planner who charges by the hour. An experienced planner who agrees to be a fiduciary — which means he or she puts your best interests first — can help ease your mind that you’re making the right choice.

You can get referrals from the Garrett Planning Network, www.garrettplanningnetwork.com.

Q&A: Here’s how to find that annual free credit report

Dear Liz: Please tell me the website for the free credit check. At a department store checkout counter, a stranger’s name came up connected to my cellphone number. I think I should check my credit reports, but I don’t want to pay for what I understand I can get free.

Answer: It’s entirely possible a clerk simply made a mistake in entering another customer’s phone number. But you should be checking your credit reports regularly anyway, and this is as good an excuse to do so as any. The federally mandated free site can be found at www.annualcreditreport.com. Searching for “free credit reports” can turn up a number of other sites, so make sure you use the correct one.

Q&A: Debt settlement vs. filing for bankruptcy: Pros and cons

Dear Liz: I owe a credit card company about $16,900. I have not been able to make payments for almost two years and have no money. They recently sent me a proposal to pay off the entire amount at 30 cents on the dollar by making 24 payments of a little over $200 per month. I’m concerned they can then resell the unpaid amount to a debt collector and that it really isn’t a solution for the entire debt to be extinguished, even if I agree to their proposal. Am I right?

Answer: In the past, poor record-keeping and unethical behavior meant some debt buyers routinely re-sold debts that were supposed to be settled. While that can still happen, it’s less likely, especially if you’re dealing with the original creditor or a company that’s collecting on the creditor’s behalf, rather than a company that purchased an older debt.

You’ve been offered a pretty good deal, says Michael Bovee, president of debt settlement company Consumer Recovery Network. Typically debts are settled for 40 to 50 cents on the dollar.

That doesn’t mean you should take it, necessarily. You have to be able to make the payments to get the debt settled, for one thing. Also, any debt that’s forgiven can be treated as income to you. The creditor will send you (and the IRS) a Form 1099-C showing the forgiven amount and you’ll typically owe income taxes on that amount unless you’re insolvent. If you’re in the 25% tax bracket, that would add roughly $3,000 to the cost of settling this debt.

Many people who can’t pay what they owe are better off skipping debt settlement and filing for Chapter 7 bankruptcy, which erases credit card balances, medical bills, personal loans and many other unsecured debts in three to four months. Chapter 7 typically has a bigger impact on your credit scores than debt settlement, but it legally erases the debts and prevents creditors from filing lawsuits against you. If you try to repay this debt and fail, or if you continue simply ignoring it, you could get sued.

You can get a referral to an experienced attorney from the National Assn. of Consumer Bankruptcy Attorneys at www.nacba.org. Discuss your situation and your options before you decide how to proceed.

Q&A: Your debt lives even after you die

Dear Liz: I live in a senior building and we had a discussion about our debt after we pass away. I said, “If we have any money in our estate, that will pay it off.” One woman who lives here claims that all you have to do is send in a copy of a death certificate and that will get rid of any debt. Hope you can settle this for us.

Answer: Debt doesn’t just disappear when someone dies. Whether and what creditors get paid, though, depends on a lot of factors.

After someone dies, the executor of the estate (or the personal representative, if the deceased had a living trust) is supposed to notify creditors of the death. The first bills to be paid usually are the costs of administering the estate, followed by secured debt such as mortgages, liens and so on, then the funeral and burial expenses, says Los Angeles estate planning attorney Andrew Steenbock. Next in line typically are medical bills from the final illness and the dead person’s last tax bill. Then other creditors are paid from what’s left, if anything. Only after creditors are paid can any remaining assets be distributed according to the will, trust or state law if there are no estate planning documents. If the estate is insolvent — with more debt than assets to pay those debts — then heirs typically get nothing and the creditors are paid a portionate amount of whatever assets are available.

Things can get more complicated if there is a surviving spouse or co-signer, since debt that’s jointly owed would become the survivor’s problem.

Ignoring these rules can have serious repercussions for the executor, who can become personally liable for mistakes made in settling an estate. If your neighbor’s executor ignores state law and distributes assets to heirs before paying off creditors, for example, the creditors could sue the executor. That’s a pretty powerful incentive for learning and obeying those rules.

Q&A: Debt has a habit of hanging around

Dear Liz: Last year my dad had an account he couldn’t pay and it is showing up on his credit report as a closed, charged-off account. As expected, the lender sold it to another company. The new company now also has it listed as an open account in collection on his credit report. How can the same account be listed twice? I thought the second company couldn’t report it.

Answer: That’s not correct. Once the debt was charged off and turned over to collections, it could be reported again as a collection account. If the original account still shows a balance owed or more than one collection shows up for the same debt, however, your dad should definitely dispute it and file a complaint with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

Q&A: How long will a tax lien linger on a credit report?

Dear Liz: You wrote an article about how the credit bureaus are removing civil judgments and tax liens from people’s credit reports. I’ve been denied credit due to a few tax liens. Creditors won’t negotiate, even though the IRS has already deemed me unable to pay due to my disability. (I’m receiving Social Security disability income.) My question now is, how can I be sure it is being removed? Do I need to call the bureaus? Order another credit report?

Answer: Your unpaid tax liens may disappear, or they may not.

Starting in July, Equifax, Experian and TransUnion began removing liens and judgments when those records lack enough personally identifying information to ensure that the negative marks wind up on the right people’s reports. Another new requirement is that the records be properly updated, so that accounts that have been paid or resolved aren’t still showing as unpaid.

The error rate for these records was high, leading to many complaints, disputes and lawsuits. The bureaus expect to purge virtually all civil judgments but only about half of the tax liens.

If your liens aren’t purged and you can’t pay them, you may have to wait a while for them to fall off your credit reports. Paid liens are subject to the seven-year limit on how long most negative items can appear on credit reports. Unpaid liens can technically remain indefinitely, although the bureaus typically remove them after 10 years.

Q&A: An Internet search isn’t the best way to find a credit counselor

Dear Liz: You’ve mentioned finding a nonprofit credit counselor and I was wondering the best way to go about that without feeling like I’ve been scammed. I’m wise enough (in my later years) to know that “nonprofit” does not mean free or even cheap services, so I didn’t want to just search for “nonprofit credit counseling, McKinney Texas.” Suggestions? Or should I do just that?

Answer: You can find a nonprofit credit counseling organization in your area using the National Foundation for Credit Counseling site at www.nfcc.org. NFCC is the oldest and largest credit counseling organization. Member organizations provide a variety of free and low-cost services. Those include financial education, credit report reviews and counseling about credit and debt, bankruptcy, foreclosure prevention, housing and reverse mortgages. If you’re struggling with credit card debt, these agencies provide debt management plans that can allow you to pay off your accounts at lower interest rates.

If you think you may need a debt management plan, you may also want to consult with a bankruptcy attorney. You can get referrals from the National Assn. of Consumer Bankruptcy Attorneys at www.nacba.org. Credit counselors — and their clients — are sometimes too optimistic about people’s ability to pay off debt, so you should understand the advantages and disadvantages of bankruptcy before you commit.

Q&A: You don’t need to carry debt in order to have good credit

Dear Liz: You should tell people that they can help their credit score more by not paying their credit card bills in full each month. By not paying in full, but paying the minimum or more each month, it shows the card issuer that you can handle credit wisely and encourages them to raise the limit. This pushes the utilization down.

Answer: There’s nothing wise about carrying credit card debt. The idea that you need to carry a balance to have good scores is a stupid, expensive myth that needs to die.

People who spread this myth don’t understand how balances are reported to the credit bureaus and subsequently used in credit scores. Credit card issuers typically don’t report your balance on the day after you pay your bill. They may report your last statement balance, or the balance on a certain day each month. That’s the balance that credit score formulas have long used to calculate your scores. The scoring formulas traditionally couldn’t see whether or not you carried a balance from month to month, so there was no reason to do so and incur expensive interest.

Recent credit reporting changes will make carrying a balance an even worse idea. Some card issuers have started reporting payment patterns — essentially telling the bureaus which people consistently pay their balances in full and which don’t. That’s because research has shown that people who pay off their credit card bills are significantly less likely to default than those who carry a balance. Mortgage lenders already are considering this information when making loans, even though it’s not something that factors into the credit scores most of them currently use.

Although there’s no advantage to carrying a balance, there is a huge advantage to lightly but regularly using the credit cards you have. That’s what actually shows scoring formulas and lenders that you can responsibly manage credit.

Q&A: What to do about heavy credit card debt

Dear Liz: I have a lot of credit card debt and am just able to make minimum payments. I feel like after doing this for four years now that I am not getting ahead. I will be 61 this summer and don’t have much saved for retirement. My rent keeps going up along with other expenses. I have an 11-year-old car that is in need of maintenance but don’t have the funds to do it. My question is, what would happen if I walk away from the credit card debt? Will I be facing garnishment?

Answer: Yes, you could be sued and face wage garnishment if you simply stopped paying your debts.

You could consider a debt management plan offered through a credit counselor, which could lower the interest rates you pay. You can get referrals from the National Foundation for Credit Counseling at www.nfcc.org. But you’d be making payments for the next five years or so, when you could be putting that cash toward your retirement.

A Chapter 7 bankruptcy, by contrast, would take a few months and legally erase your credit card debt to give you a fresh start. Bankruptcy is often the best of bad options when you can’t make progress on your debts. Consider meeting with both a credit counselor and a bankruptcy attorney so you understand all your options.