Short sales, foreclosures have similar effect on credit scores

Dear Liz: I went through a divorce in the last year after being separated for two years. During our separation, we closed credit cards with high balances to make sure neither party would spend more on credit. We also had to short sell our home. So, as a single woman in her mid-30s, I have credit that’s somewhat shot for now. How many months should I expect the short sale to affect my credit scores? And was closing the credit card accounts good or bad for my credit?

Answer: Closing credit accounts can’t help your credit scores and may hurt them. In a divorce, however, it’s usually wise to close all joint accounts. Otherwise, your credit rating is in the hands of your ex-spouse, who could trash your scores by paying accounts late or maxing out credit lines.

In any case, the short sale probably had a much greater effect on your credit than the account closures. Short sales typically damage your credit as much as a foreclosure, according to the company that created the leading FICO credit score. Recovery times are measured in years, not months. If your scores weren’t that high to begin with — say 680 in the 300-to-850 FICO scale — it would take about three years for your numbers to return to their old levels. If your scores were high, say 780, it would take about seven years to restore them to their old peaks.

These recovery times assume you handle credit responsibly from now on. That means having and lightly using a credit card or two, making all payments on time and ensuring no account goes to collections.

Carrying a balance won’t help your scores

Dear Liz: I question your advice to the father whose son was turned down for a car loan. You told the father: “Your children don’t need to take on debt to build their credit histories. A couple of credit cards, used lightly but regularly and paid off in full every month, will do the job.”

Recently I was on the phone with a credit bureau questioning an item on my credit report. I have always paid off my credit card balance every month. The credit bureau representative told me that my credit score would be higher if I paid less than the full balance owed on my credit card every month. I asked her how it could possibly hurt my credit score by paying what I owe each month on a timely basis. She assured me that it does hurt my score. I still don’t understand it, but after I read your piece I thought I would pass on to you the advice I received from this credit bureau representative.

Answer: Just because someone works at a credit bureau’s customer service center does not mean she understands how credit scores work.

The information she gave you was dead wrong. She’s not only incorrect about how credit scoring works, but she seems unclear about how credit information is actually reported to her bureau.

The credit card balances that lenders report to the bureaus don’t reflect whether you pay your debt in full. The credit card issuers report the balance on a given day each month. Typically, but not always, it’s the balance from your last statement. You could pay the full amount the day you get your bill, or pay only the minimum. The credit bureaus would never know.

The leading credit scoring formula, the FICO, uses the balances that are reported to the bureaus to calculate your credit utilization. Since neither the bureaus nor the scoring formula “know” whether you pay that balance in full or not, there’s no advantage to carrying a balance. It doesn’t help your credit; it just costs you money. That’s also why it’s important to limit how much of your credit you use at any given time, since maxing out your cards can hurt your scores, even if you pay the balance in full.

“There is no reason to carry a balance to improve your score,” said Anthony A. Sprauve, public relations director for myFico.com, the only place where people can buy their FICO scores. “If someone is paying all of their bills on time; keeping their credit card balances low or at zero; and not opening new lines of credit, they are doing the three most important things they can to have a good credit score.”

“Authorized user” info may not be enough

Dear Liz: You recently answered a question about a young man who was turned down for a car loan because he graduated from college debt free and had no credit history. This is the same scenario my daughter encountered this past year.

Despite having a solid job for three years at a good salary, plenty of money in the bank (more than $10,000) and no expenses to speak of, she was turned down repeatedly for credit cards because of “no credit history.” She had been an “authorized user” of our cards for several years. (We have excellent credit scores.) She was told that she needed to be a responsible party on the cards for them to be counted in her application.

I would tell parents to have their child obtain a credit card through the bank or credit union that has her college checking account. That’s what we did with our youngest, who is just completing college and now has a credit history.

Answer: You bring up an excellent point. Although authorized user information can enhance someone’s credit scores, lenders usually have additional criteria they want applicants to meet, such as minimum income levels, job stability and a certain “thickness” to their credit files (which might include other types of credit accounts besides authorized-user accounts).

New credit regulations make it somewhat more difficult than it used to be to qualify for a credit card while in college, but it still can be easier to get a card while in school than afterward.

How young ‘uns can build credit scores

Dear Liz: Our son was recently turned down for a car loan even though my wife and I were willing to co-sign and we have excellent credit scores. The reason for the denial was “no credit history.” Because we had paid some college expenses and he had basketball athletic scholarships, our son graduated from college debt free.

My wife and I have always tried to live within our means. Other than a mortgage and the occasional car loan that we almost always paid off early, we have had no other debt. We encouraged our children to live the same way.

Did we give them bad advice? What advice can we give our daughter so she does not wind up in the same circumstances? Through a combination of work, academic merit scholarships and our savings, she is on track to graduate in 2013 without any student loans. Should she take one out in her name just so she can pay it back and have a credit history?

Answer: Your children don’t need to take on debt to build their credit histories. A couple of credit cards, used lightly but regularly and paid off in full every month, will do the job.

You may be able to give their credit histories a jump-start by adding them as authorized users to your credit cards, if you have any. Find out first whether the credit card issuer is willing to export your good history with the card to the children’s credit reports, because not all issuers will do this transfer. You may have heard that some credit-scoring formulas ignore authorized user information, but the formula used by most lenders, the FICO, still would incorporate this data in calculating your children’s scores.

Another option is for your kids to apply for secured credit cards. They would make a deposit to the issuing bank and get a credit line in the same amount. A secured card that reports to all three credit bureaus can help build credit scores over time. A number of websites highlight secured-card offers, including CreditCards.com, CardRatings.com and NerdWallet.

Tell the kids to charge no more than 30% of their credit limits (10% or less is even better), and certainly no more than they can afford to pay off in full each month.

If your daughter wants to build up her scores faster, she might want to consider a small installment loan. Having both installment and revolving accounts can lead to higher scores. Installment loans include auto loans, mortgages, personal loans and, yes, student loans. If she does decide to apply for a small student loan, make sure she fills out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid and takes out federal student loans only. Federal student loans have fixed interest rates, flexible repayment terms and plenty of consumer protections. Private student loans have none of those attributes.

Restoring credit scores after bankruptcy

Dear Liz: I had credit scores over 800 with no late payments ever. Unfortunately, a medical issue required me to charge $24,500 to a credit card. That led to a bankruptcy, which was discharged in July 2011. My scores dropped to 672, and they’re currently around 680. I’m paying two unsecured credit cards in full each month plus an auto loan that was reaffirmed in bankruptcy. I would like to continue rehabilitating my scores by applying for another loan. When a company requests my credit scores, does it also see my bankruptcy, and would that prevent me from getting credit?

Answer: Some lenders look just at credit scores, while others request credit reports along with your scores. Your bankruptcy or your scores could cause lenders to charge a higher interest rate or refuse to give you credit.

It’s not clear that the scores you’re seeing are FICO scores, however. A bankruptcy would have dropped your FICOs into the 500s, and it’s unlikely they would return to the high 600s in less than a year. What you may be seeing are VantageScores, which have a different score range: 500 to 990, compared with FICO’s 300 to 850.

If you want to see your FICO scores, which are the ones most lenders use, you can buy them for about $20 each at MyFico.com. Scores offered at other sites typically aren’t FICO scores but may be VantageScores or “consumer education scores” that aren’t widely used by lenders.

You’re doing the right things by using a mix of credit (credit cards and an installment loan) and paying your bills on time. You should know, though, that there’s no way to quickly restore your scores to their old levels. It typically takes seven to 10 years for FICOs to recover from a bankruptcy.

But let’s back up a minute. You almost certainly made a mistake by charging your medical care to a credit card. You may have been able to qualify for a discount on your care if you hadn’t. Many medical providers offer charity programs that cut or eliminate the bill for people making up to 400% of the federal poverty line. A single person could make up to $44,680 and still qualify for a break under many providers’ programs.

If you make too much to qualify for financial aid, you could still have negotiated a discount by asking the provider to charge you the same rate that its largest insurer pays. The uninsured are often charged a much higher “sticker price” for medical care than what insurers pay, but if asked, many providers are willing to provide the same discounts.

If nothing else, you probably could have qualified for an interest-free payment program. Once you charged the bill to your card, however, you lost all your leverage to get a discount.

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.

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.”

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.