Q&A: Finding your real credit score

Dear Liz: I’ve been thinking of buying a house, and I want to get a good deal on the mortgage. To do this, I’ve been working on getting my credit score high. I only have one credit card and have had it for less than two years. This credit card has gotten my FICO score to 788. I’ve never had a loan. Would you recommend getting a credit builder loan, to try to increase my score and get a better mortgage deal? Or is 788 good enough?

Answer: Mortgage lenders typically use older versions of the FICO scoring formula. The resulting scores can be quite different from the free scores you can find online, or even the FICO 8 or FICO 9 scores that your bank and credit card companies may show you.

You can get your mortgage credit scores, along with FICO scores used for auto lending and credit cards, for $19.95 per credit bureau at MyFico.com. (Be sure to click on the tab that says “one time reports,” because otherwise you’re signing up for a subscription service.) Be sure to get all three bureaus’ scores, because mortgage lenders use the middle of the three numbers to determine your interest rate. If your scores are 800, 740 and 720, for example, the lender would use 740 to determine your rate and terms.

If the middle of your three mortgage scores is 740 or higher, you should get a mortgage lender’s best deal. If it’s not, the MyFico.com report should give you some clues how to get it higher.

Q&A: Credit scores and card limits

Dear Liz: I have a 780 credit score but noted that one of my cards doesn’t count in the percent of credit used. I have had this card for 44 years and I could charge a couple hundred thousand dollars on a single purchase if I chose to, yet credit scoring formulas don’t figure in the “credit I have available” from Amex. Seems unfair?

Answer: As credit cards with six-figure limits are rare, what you’re describing is probably a charge card. Unlike credit cards, charge cards don’t have preset spending limits. They also don’t allow you to carry a balance from month to month, typically.

The “percent of credit used” you mention is called credit utilization, and it’s a large factor in credit scoring formulas. Credit utilization measures how much of your available credit you’re using, and the bigger the gap between your credit limits and your balances, the better.

But the credit utilization calculation can’t be made if one of the numbers — the credit limit — is missing. The only way the formulas would be able to calculate credit utilization in that case would be to assume that whatever amount you charged is equal to your credit limit, and that would be disastrous for your scores.

Q&A: Account closure and credit scores

Dear Liz: My mother is very focused on her credit score, which is consistently excellent. I found out that she recently called her bank and asked it to lower her credit limit on one of her long-held credit cards from $32,000 to $5,000. She uses the card only to charge infrequent, small amounts and always pays it off. She believes having a large credit limit counts as “potential debt” and hurts her credit profile, whereas I believe having a high credit limit on a lightly used card is very good for your credit. I guess we’ll find out who’s right next month when my mom diligently checks her credit score. In the meantime, could you weigh in?

Answer: You are correct. Credit scoring formulas like to see a big gap between the amount of credit you’re using and the credit you have available. Lowering your credit limit on a card can have a negative effect on your scores.

Before the advent of credit scoring, lenders did worry that someone with a lot of available credit would suddenly run up big balances and default. Data scientists discovered, however, that people who had been responsible enough to be granted high limits tended to remain responsible with their credit.

If your mother has several other credit cards and uses this one lightly, the effect may not be significant. If she wants to keep her scores high, however, she probably shouldn’t repeat the experiment with any other cards.

Q&A: This guy still sends checks through the mail. How that could mess up his credit score

Dear Liz: My husband has a lower credit score than I. He gives me a check every month from his personal checking account, which I deposit in our family account so I can pay our credit cards. He thinks that he needs to pay some of the cards directly in order to improve his score. He likes to send checks by mail, the old fashioned way (which drives me crazy!). Do you think this practice will improve his score?

Answer: The short answer is no. Credit scoring formulas don’t care who pays the bills, as long as the bills get paid on time.

Perhaps explaining some credit scoring basics would help.

People don’t have one credit score. They have many, because there are many different scoring formulas in use.

The most commonly used credit score is currently the FICO 8. There are many other versions of the FICO scoring formula, including some that are tweaked for different industries such as credit cards and auto loans. In addition, there are VantageScores, a rival formula created by the three major credit bureaus: Equifax, Experian and TransUnion.

Credit scores are based on the information in your credit reports at those bureaus, which are private companies that typically don’t share information. Because information can vary from bureau to bureau, your credit scores from each bureau may differ as well.

There’s no such thing as a joint credit report or a joint credit score, so couples typically will have different scores even if they have some joint accounts. How long a person has had credit, how many credit accounts the person has and the mix of credit types can be different, resulting in different scores.

Your husband may have lower scores than yours currently, but that’s not in itself a problem that needs to be fixed. If his scores are generally above 760 on the typical 300-to-850 scale, he’ll get the best rate and terms when applying for credit.

If his scores need improving, he should start by checking his credit reports from each of the three bureaus at www.annualcreditreport.com. (These reports used to be free just once a year, but you can now get them for free every week until April 2022.) He should dispute any information that’s inaccurate such as accounts that aren’t his or accounts showing missed payments if all payments were made on time.

He may be able to improve his scores by lowering how much of his available credit he’s using or adding an account or two. Opening accounts may temporarily ding his scores, but typically the new account will add points over time if used responsibly.

And do try to persuade him to stop sending checks in the mail. A check that goes astray can result in a missed payment that can knock 100 points or more off credit scores. Electronic payments are far more secure and efficient.

Q&A: Seller financing and credit reporting

Dear Liz: I bought a home and the seller financed the sale. I have made all payments on time, but that’s not reflected on my reports at the three credit bureaus. What can I do to get my mortgage payments acknowledged on my credit reports?

Answer: One of the advantages of seller financing — where the person selling the home is your lender — is that getting a mortgage can be easier than if you were to apply to a bank or business. Individuals, however, typically can’t report payments to the credit bureaus, so your payments won’t show up on credit reports.

If you’re trying to improve troubled credit, you can use other methods such as being added as an authorized user to someone’s credit card, getting a secured credit card or applying for a credit-builder loan from a credit bureau or online lender. If you were a renter, you also could subscribe to a rent-reporting service that would transmit your rent payment history to the bureaus for inclusion in your credit reports.

Q&A: Boosting Credit Scores

Dear Liz: I’m frustrated with my FICO scores. At one point they were well into the 800s and now they languish in the 720 to 730 range. I have no debt — no mortgage or car loan — and fully pay off two credit cards monthly. I have millions (fact, not bragging) in assets with no liabilities. I don’t anticipate taking any loans but it is so odd to me. Why is this?

Answer: You likely had at least one installment loan, such as a mortgage or car loan, when your scores were near the top of FICO’s typical 300-to-850 scale. You can still have good scores without an installment loan — and you do — but the highest scores require you to have a mix of credit types.

You might be able to add a few points to your scores by paying attention to your credit utilization — the less of your credit limit you use, the better. Adding another card or two may ding your scores in the short run but also could add points long term.

Or you can just be happy as you are. As long as you continue to use your cards responsibly, you’ll continue to have scores that are “pretty enough for all normal purposes” — in other words, that will get you good rates and terms should you decide to apply for additional credit.

Q&A: When credit scores are fine

Dear Liz: I was once told that the reason my credit score wasn’t higher was an insufficient credit history. Now I am doing what you have recommended by charging a monthly security alarm service to one credit card, a weekly church donation to another and satellite TV to a third. All are paid off each month. I checked my credit score recently and read that the reason my score isn’t higher is that I now have too many cards with balances. My score is around 860 but the comment concerns me. Should it?

Answer: Most credit scores are on a 300 to 850 scale. If your score is at or near the top of that range, you’re doing fine. Scores over 760 or so generally get the best rates and terms from lenders (the cutoff is often 740 for mortgage lenders). Higher scores just get you bragging rights.

The services that provide you with credit scores often give you automated reasons why your scores aren’t higher. Those messages can be helpful when you’re trying to build or rebuild credit. The higher your scores, though, the less helpful those messages seem to be. Even if you could fix the “problem” they’re pointing out, there’s no guarantee your scores would increase.

Q&A: A bill shows up twice in a credit report. Now what?

Dear Liz: I have been doing everything to raise my credit scores, which were horrible. I see some medical bills on my credit reports that seem identical. Should I try to dispute them or just let them go? I heard that if you try to dispute them, it allows the creditor to restart the clock on paying them, potentially keeping them on your report for seven more years.

Answer: You heard wrong, fortunately. Disputes don’t extend the limit on how long negative information can be reported.

You may be confusing the seven-year credit reporting time limit, which is part of the federal Fair Credit Reporting Act and restricts how long negative information stays on a credit report, with state statutes of limitation.

Statutes of limitation are supposed to limit how long a creditor may sue you over a debt. (The key phrase is “supposed to.” Collectors do file lawsuits on debts that are too old, hoping that the debtor won’t show up in court to point that out.)

Statutes of limitation can range from two to 15 years, depending on the state and the type of debt. In some states, it’s possible to restart the statute of limitations by making a payment on a debt, or even acknowledging that the debt is yours. (In California, the statute of limitations is four years for most debts.)

You’ll want to avoid either until you’re sure the bills are correct. You can start by disputing the bills with the credit bureaus.

If that doesn’t remove the duplicates, you can contact each collection agency in writing. Ask them to validate that the unpaid bill actually belongs to you and that they have the right to collect. Mention that if they cannot validate the debt, you want the bill removed from your credit reports. Also ask the collector to respond to your letter within 30 days.

Removing any duplicates may help your scores. Actually paying the collections typically won’t. It’s up to you whether you want to try settling the debts and risk reviving the statute of limitations, or simply wait until the debts fall off your credit reports after the seven-year mark.

Q&A: When paying debt hurts credit score

Dear Liz: You recently answered someone whose credit scores dropped more than 30 points after they paid off a mortgage. You mentioned that the big drop was probably because the mortgage was the person’s only installment loan. Credit scores like to see active use of both types of credit, installment loans and credit cards. Because this person’s scores were so high, they almost certainly were still actively using credit cards. But you should remind people that if they stop using credit, eventually they won’t have any credit scores at all.

Answer: Consider them reminded. There’s no need to carry balances; just using credit cards regularly is enough.

A few other readers wrote in suggesting the letter writer get a personal loan as a way of increasing their scores. Although personal loans can be a great help to people building credit, there’s really no point in increasing scores once they’re above about 760 on a 300-to-850 scale. Higher scores only get you bragging rights, and it would be a little silly to pay a lender unnecessary interest to get those.

Q&A: Weekly free credit reports

Dear Liz: In a recent column, you wrote that credit reports are now available weekly from AnnualCreditReport.com. Most people understand that they are entitled to a free credit report once a year via that site. Please explain what is meant by “now available weekly?” By signing up for a paid service from one or more of the credit reporting agencies, or for free, or what?

Answer: AnnualCreditReport.com was created to provide free annual reports, but now you can get your free reports every week.

If you navigate to AnnualCreditReport.com, you’ll see an announcement from the three credit bureaus that the site will provide free credit reports weekly until April 2021.

Free means free. You don’t have to pay or provide credit card information, although the bureaus may try to sell you credit monitoring or other services.