Q&A: Using a car loan to establish credit

Dear Liz: Our son is graduating from college and needs a car for his new job. Is this an opportunity to help him establish a good credit rating? His credit union offers loans to first-time auto buyers who don’t have a credit history, but the interest rate is 8.4% (6 percentage points more than standard auto loans). We parents intend to help pay for the car, so we could provide a larger down payment or help with larger payments to pay off the loan sooner as a way to reduce the higher interest costs. Would doing either of these, however, lower the credit rating he might earn? He has no other debt and has two credit cards (co-owned by us) on which he pays monthly in full. Are there better ways to help him establish his own credit rating?

Answer: If your son is a joint account holder on two credit cards, he might not have to bother with a “credit builder” loan. He should already have credit histories and credit scores that would qualify him for better rates.
He should first check his credit reports at http://www.annualcreditreport.com, the federally mandated site where people can check their credit histories annually for free.

If he has credit histories, he can take the additional step of buying at least one of his FICO scores from MyFico.com. (He can buy a total of three, one for each credit bureau.) There are other sources for free scores, but they’re usually not the scores used by most lenders. He then can ask the credit union for a quote on the interest rate he’d be charged, given his score or scores. It probably will be lower than 8.4% if he has a good history with these cards.

If he doesn’t have credit reports in his own name, he probably is an authorized user rather than a joint account holder on your cards. (Some issuers don’t export the primary cardholder’s history with a card into an authorized user’s credit files, although many do.) In that case, the credit-building loan could be a good idea, particularly if you were willing to help him pay off the loan quickly. Although there’s some advantage to paying off a loan according to schedule, your son will get most of the credit-scoring benefit just by having the loan, and he’ll save by paying it off fast.

Another way you could help is by co-signing the loan, but then you’re putting your credit at risk. If he makes a single late payment, your credit scores could suffer. If the credit union is willing to make the loan, that’s usually a better way to go.

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Q&A: How long do unpaid accounts and judgments remain on credit reports?

Dear Liz: My credit reports don’t show any of my old unpaid collection accounts. I also have one judgment that is not showing from 2005. My wife (who has perfect credit) and I are looking to apply for a mortgage. What will the lender find? I recently applied for a credit card to start rebuilding my credit. The issuer approved me for a card with a $1,000 limit and told me my score was in the high 700s. I am so confused.

Answer: If your collection accounts are older than seven years, your lender shouldn’t see them when it reviews your credit reports. Most negative marks have to be dropped from reports seven years and six months after the date the account first went delinquent. Civil judgments also have to be dropped after seven years unless your state has a longer statute of limitations; in that case, the judgment can be reported until the statute expires. California’s statute of limitations for judgments is 10 years.

If none of those negative marks shows on your reports and you’ve handled credit responsibly since then, your credit scores (you have more than one) may well be excellent.

Since you’ll be in the market for a major loan, you and your wife should get your FICO scores from MyFico.com. Mortgage lenders will look at all six scores (one from each of the three credit bureaus for you and your wife), basing your rate and terms on the lower of the two middle scores. If that score is 740 or above, you should get the best rate and terms the lender offers.

Your FICO scores will cost $20 each, which is a bit of an investment. You can get free scores from various online sites, but those aren’t the FICO scores that mortgage lenders use and are of limited help in understanding what rate and terms you’re likely to get.

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Q&A: Helping retired parents refinance

Dear Liz: I am trying to help my retired parents refinance their home. Currently they are paying over 8% interest. (This loan should be illegal.) The problem is their credit score, which is around 536. They had a tax lien in 2004 (it has been paid off for over four years) and some minor credit card issues. The total card debt is less than $1,000. I see several bad footnotes on these cards. Some of the cards have a balance of less than $100. What is the best and fastest way to help them get the mortgage they deserve?

Answer: Your parents don’t have a single credit score. They each have their own scores. Mortgage lenders typically get FICO scores for each borrower from all three credit bureaus, for a total of six scores. Lenders look at the middle score for each person and typically base rates and terms on the lower of those two middle scores.

If that number is indeed 536, your parents have serious, recent credit problems. You may not think an unpaid credit card is a big deal, but it is to credit scoring formulas, which are designed to help lenders gauge a borrower’s risk of default. People with unpaid bills are far more likely to default on a new loan than people who pay their bills on time, and their respective credit scores reflect that reality. What people “deserve” isn’t a factor. How they handle their credit accounts is.

What you’re calling “bad footnotes” are likely records of late payments and perhaps charge-offs and collections activity. Those typically can’t be erased, but your parents can stop the ongoing damage to their credit by paying their bills on time and paying off any overdue bills to their credit card companies.

If the accounts have been sold to collectors, the process gets trickier. Paying off collections typically won’t help credit scores, but lenders usually want these accounts paid off before they will make a new loan. Your parents can try negotiating to have the collection accounts deleted in return for payment, but they won’t be able to erase the late payments and other negative marks reported by the original creditor.

Once they start handling their credit accounts responsibly, their credit scores will start to improve. The improvements will happen slowly, though, and they may well miss the opportunity to refinance at today’s low levels.

Can a small credit card improve your credit score?

Dear Liz: I am trying to increase my credit scores so I can buy a house in a couple of years. My scores are pretty bad, but I do have a car loan that I have never been delinquent on. I have recently obtained a secured credit card with a $300 limit. Will a credit card with such a small limit help improve my credit score?

Answer: Yes, but you may need longer than two years to get your scores up to snuff, depending on how bad they are.

Regaining points always takes much longer than losing them, so you should make sure to pay all your bills on time and use your new credit card lightly but regularly. Charge less than $100 a month and pay the balance in full, because there’s no advantage to carrying a balance.

After six months or so of regular payments, consider adding another card to the mix. In a year or two, you may qualify for a regular credit card that will continue to enhance your scores.
Also, make sure you’re looking at your FICO scores, because those are the credit scores most mortgage lenders use. Other scores may be offered for free or sold by the credit bureaus, but they typically aren’t FICOs.