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.

How to settle old debts

Dear Liz: I defaulted on my credit cards starting in 2003 because my business was failing. The last account was charged off in 2007. My business is now back and doing well, and I am expecting a nice little windfall in a couple of months. Should I pay these amounts I owe to the collection agencies that have been calling me, or should I contact and pay the creditors from which I obtained the credit cards?

Answer: You can try contacting the original creditors, but most likely they will refer you to the collection agencies. The original creditors have long since taken a tax deduction for their losses and sold the debts to those collectors, so they typically can’t accept payment for these accounts.

The collectors probably paid pennies on the dollar to buy your debts. The older the debt, the less they probably paid. Keep that in mind as you’re negotiating settlements of these debts, because you don’t have to pay 100 cents on the dollar for the collection agencies to realize a considerable profit.

As part of your negotiations, you’ll want to make sure to get the collector’s promise — in advance of any payment from you, and in writing — that it will not resell any unpaid portion of the debt. You may still face a tax liability on this unpaid debt, however, because debt forgiveness is typically considered taxable income.

You also should try to get the collector’s assurance — again, in advance and in writing — that it will stop reporting the collection accounts to the credit bureaus. This won’t eliminate the damage the unpaid debts are having on your credit scores, because the missed payments and charge-offs will remain on your credit reports for seven years and 180 days from when the accounts first went delinquent. But eliminating the collection accounts could boost your scores a bit.

Be aware that in many states, your debts are too old for creditors to sue you in court over them–unless you do something like make a partial payment that can restart the so-called statute of limitations. You can read up on how statutes of limitations work at sites such as DebtCollectionAnswers.com, and learn how to conduct such negotiations without inadvertently restarting the statute.

There’s more than one way out of credit card debt

Dear Liz: In your book “Your Credit Score,” you note that one of the best ways to improve your credit score and lighten your credit card load is to get a personal loan with a credit union and pay it off in installments.

I have two high-interest credit card balances that are hovering right near my credit limits (a little over $15,000 total) that comprise the vast majority of my debt. I’d love to get an installment loan to pay them off, but I’ve applied several times and several places for personal loans — including my credit union — and have either been denied or not given a sufficient loan to cover the total amount. I also don’t have $15,000 in cash sitting around in a savings account to secure a loan of that size.

In this situation, what would you recommend? The minimum payments on these two cards are roughly $190 and $160 each, and I’d love to be able to combine them and maybe even save a few bucks too.

Answer: What you seem to be talking about is a secured personal loan, rather than one that’s unsecured. Secured personal loans typically require that you have an equivalent amount in a bank account or certificate of deposit as collateral for the loan. If you have the cash, though, you wouldn’t need the loan — you could use the money to pay off your debt.

Unsecured personal loans don’t have collateral. The bank or credit union is relying on your word that you’ll repay the loan. Not surprisingly, lenders can be pretty picky about whose word they will trust. Few will take a risk on borrowers with poor credit scores — and those maxed-out cards, accompanied by all those loan applications, aren’t helping yours.

For now, give up the idea of getting a loan. Instead, take whatever cash you have to pay down the cards as far as you can. Retain $500 or so as an emergency fund, but put the rest to use in eliminating this high-rate debt.

Next, start cutting expenses so you can free up more money to repay your debt. Do you eat out? Cut back. Pay for TV? Ditch the cable. Take vacations? Stay home for a while. None of these sacrifices has to be more than temporary, as long as you’re willing to stop adding to your debt.

Paying credit card debt is a lot like losing weight. If you don’t make much effort, you won’t get much result. But sending in big payments each month will help you see progress pretty quickly, which can inspire you to keep going.

Once you’ve got the debt paid off, don’t charge more on the cards than you can afford to pay off each month.

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.

Don’t count on plastic to cover big expenses

Dear Liz: I’m 27 and have no consumer debt, a decent salary and a boatload of student loans. I use my credit cards for most of my expenses to earn rewards points and generally pay off my cards each month. I also take advantage of the 0% introductory rate offered by many credit card companies. This grace period gives me a security blanket so that I can spread large expenses such as insurance or car repairs over several months without derailing my saving plans. Can I apply for these offers without wrecking my excellent scores?

Answer: Occasionally applying for a new card won’t affect your scores much. Typically such applications ding your scores by five points or less.

You should be budgeting and saving for large expenses, however, rather than leaning on your cards. (Car repairs, in particular, aren’t really “emergency” costs — if you have a car, you know they’re coming, and calculators like Edmunds.com’s “True Cost to Own” feature can give you a good idea of what they’re likely to be.) Those 0% offers often come with balance transfer fees or other charges that make the deals a lot less attractive than they seem at first glance.

Also, you should be in the habit of always paying your cards in full — always. “Generally” isn’t good enough, since you could easily be enticed into spending beyond your means, especially as you chase rewards points. Rewards cards are a good deal only if you don’t carry a balance. Otherwise, you can pay frighteningly high interest rates that offset any benefit you may earn.

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.

Our credit cards worked in Europe. Mostly.

We just returned from 10 days in Italy, with a plane change in Zurich. After writing about the troubles some U.S. travelers faced using their credit cards overseas, I’m happy to report that we were able to use ours in most places with no problem at all.

Of course, we visited tourist-centric locales (Venice and Florence) where the merchants are used to seeing our old-fashioned magnetic stripe credit cards. Our U.S.-style cards are less secure than the “chip and PIN” model embraced by other countries, but restaurant staffs and shop clerks accepted them without a fuss.

There were a few exceptions:

  • We were out of luck when it came to the automated kiosks at most vaporetto (water bus) stops. As I wrote in my column, such kiosks require the more secure cards. We brought our British Airways card, which is a “chip and signature card,” but that proved useless. Without a PIN, the card wouldn’t work at automated kiosks. (U.S. debit cards wouldn’t work, either.)
  • A few merchants insisted on cash. I ended up withdrawing more money than I expected from ATMs, and ran into a glitch there—turns out the 250 euros I kept trying to withdraw equaled more than my daily limit. Once I got the currency math right, I was able to get cash when I needed it at a decent exchange rate—which was somewhat offset by the $5-a-pop transaction fee.
  • The bad guys in Europe were quick to exploit our less-secure technology. Two days after we returned, somebody used our Capital One card to make three fraudulent charges of $442.58 each in the Netherlands. Fortunately, users aren’t responsible for fraud on their credit cards. For exactly that reason, I wouldn’t use our less-secure debit cards anywhere but an ATM attached to a bank branch. I don’t want to give the scamsters access to my bank account.

For our next trip, I might arrange to get a true chip-and-PIN card, like the one Diners Club now offers its members. Another option is the prepaid Cash Passport card. Or maybe, by then, U.S. issuers will get with the program and make true chip-and-PIN cards available here. I can dream, can’t I?

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.