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.

Wednesday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: Buying home insurance after a wildfire starts. Also in the news: Why good credit might not be good enough for a mortgage, a quick quiz to test how you’re doing financially, and why Americans are more afraid of student debt than they are of Kim Jong Un.

Can You Buy Home Insurance After a Wildfire Starts?
It could be too late.

Want a Mortgage? Good Credit Might Not Be Good Enough
What else you might need.

How Are You Doing Financially? Take This Quick Quiz
How’d you do?

Americans are more terrified of student debt than North Korea’s Kim Jong Un
When your debt is scarier than a nuclear weapon.

Wednesday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: The death of the 20% mortgage down payment. Also in the news: What you need to know about P2P payment apps, working beyond 65, and 5 cars that cost the lowest to insure.

The 20% Mortgage Down Payment Is Dead
R.I.P

Ditching Cash for P2P Payment Apps? 3 Things to Know
The world of digital currency.

Working Beyond 65 — Will You Want To Or Need To?
What the future holds.

5 cars that cost the least to insure
You don’t have to break the bank.

Monday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: VA Loans vs Conventional Mortgages. Also in the news: How much you can spend each month, how investors can sabotage their own portfolios, and what the AHCA ‘s preexisting condition rules could cost you.

VA Loans vs. Conventional Mortgages
The important differences.

How Much Can I Spend Each Month?
Creating a monthly budget.

How Investors Can Sabotage Their Own Portfolio Returns
Overconfidence can become a problem.

What the AHCA’s preexisting condition rules could cost you
Be prepared.

Q&A: Deploying a windfall wisely

Dear Liz: I recently received a $38,000 windfall. I have a student loan balance of $37,000. I want to buy a home, but I can’t decide if I should have a large down payment and continue paying down student loans slowly, or make a balloon payment on my student loans and put down a smaller amount on the home. The mortgage rate would be around 4% while the student loans are at 6.55%. The price of homes in my area is at least $250,000 for a two-bedroom house (which my income supports). I want to make a smart decision.

Answer: At first glance, the answer may seem obvious: Pay down the higher-rate debt. But a deeper look reveals that the second option may be the better course.

Student loan interest is deductible, so your effective interest rate on those loans may be less than 5%. If they’re federal student loans, they have all kinds of consumer protections as well. If you lose your job, for example, you have access to deferral and forbearance as well as income-sensitive repayment plans. In most cases, you don’t need to be in a rush to pay off this tax-advantaged, relatively low-rate debt.

A home purchase may be more time sensitive. Interest rates are already up from their recent lows and may go higher. If you can afford to buy a home and plan to stay put for several years, then you probably shouldn’t delay.

A 10% down payment should be sufficient to get a good loan. You’ll have to pay private mortgage insurance, since you can’t put 20% down, but PMI typically drops off after you’ve built enough equity. You usually can request that PMI be dropped once you’ve paid the mortgage down to 80% of the home’s original value. At 78%, the lender may be required to remove PMI. (Note that these rules apply to conventional mortgages and don’t apply to the mortgage insurance that comes with FHA loans.)

You can use the remaining cash to pay down your student loans, but do so only if you already have a healthy emergency fund. It’s smart to set aside at least 1% of the value of your home each year to cover repairs and maintenance, plus you’ll want at least three months’ worth of mortgage payments in the bank. Even better would be enough cash to cover all your expenses for three months.

Thursday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: 7 ways to lower your cable bill. Also in the news: The rate of mortgage approvals in each state, 5 steps for tracking your monthly expenses, and a beginner’s guide to filling out a W-4.

7 Ways to Lower Your Cable Bill
Cutting the cord.

The Rate of Mortgage Approvals in Each State
Where does your state rank?

5 Steps for Tracking Your Monthly Expenses
Keeping a detailed record.

A Beginner’s Guide to Filling out Your W-4
Taking it one step at a time.

Q&A: 30-year versus 15-year mortgage

Dear Liz: Regarding the 57-year-old woman who wanted to refinance to a 15-year mortgage, why didn’t you present the benefits of keeping the low interest and low payments available on a 30-year loan and investing the difference? In 30 years the house would be paid off, but there would also be a pot of cash available if the difference were invested in a diverse portfolio. Too many people make the emotional decision that a paid-off house is necessary in retirement, then they end up having no cash when they might need it.

Answer: You’re right that when cash is tight, keeping a mortgage can make sense. Given her teacher’s pension, other savings and desire to pay off the home faster, the 15-year loan is a reasonable option. The faster payoff schedule also means that she can turn around and tap more of the equity in the unlikely event she needs a reverse mortgage later in life.

Monday’s need-to-know money news

crop380w_istock_000009258023xsmall-dbet-ball-and-chainToday’s top story: Mortgage application forms will look different next year. Also in the news: 5 times you shouldn’t use a credit card, why you should say no to 72-84 month auto loans, and why you need to stop being delusional about debt.

It’s Coming: The First Change to Mortgage Application Forms in 20 Years
An easier to understand application is on the way.

5 Times You Shouldn’t Use a Credit Card
High interest rates could leave you in a debt spiral.

5 Reasons to Say No to 72- and 84-Month Auto Loans
Long term loans set you up for years of negative equity.

Don’t be debt delusional: Quit buying stuff you can’t afford!
Time for a reality check.