Q&A: How to boost your credit score before you buy a house

Dear Liz: I am trying to purchase my first home. I have a 20% down payment for the price range that I am looking for. The issue I am running into is that I have relatively new credit and my credit score is not great at all. I had to go to the emergency room two years back with no insurance and have medical expenses that went into collections. I am now in a financial spot to pay them off. These are the only negatives on my credit report that are unresolved. Will paying these off get my credit to the point that I can buy a home? I am lost as to how to get my score where it needs to be.

Answer: Unfortunately, paying collection accounts typically doesn’t help your credit scores, especially the scores used by most mortgage lenders.

Since you’re new to credit, you may not realize that you don’t have just one credit score. You have many. The two major types are FICO and VantageScore. The latest versions of each (FICO 9 and VantageScore 3.0 and 4.0), ignore paid collections. In addition, FICO 9 and VantageScore 4.0 count unpaid medical collections less heavily against you than other unpaid debts.

But mortgage lenders typically use much older versions of the FICO score, which count all collections against you even if they’re paid.

That said, it would be tough to get a mortgage with unpaid collections on your credit report. Since you have the cash, you may be able to negotiate discounts so that you can resolve these debts at a somewhat lower cost. (Collectors typically would much rather get a lump-sum settlement than wait to be paid over time.)

You’ll also want to get some positive information reported to the credit bureaus to help offset the negative information. The fastest way to do that would be to persuade someone you know who has good credit to add you as an authorized user to one of his or her credit cards. This person doesn’t have to give you the card or any access to the account. Typically, the account history will be “imported” to your credit reports, which can help your scores as long as the person continues to use the card responsibly.

Another way to add positive information is with a credit-builder loan, offered by many credit unions and Self Lender, an online loan site. Usually, credit-builder loans put the money you borrow into a savings account or certificate of deposit that you can claim after you’ve made 12 on-time payments. This helps you build savings at the same time you’re building your credit.

Secured credit cards also can help. With a secured card, you make a deposit with the issuing bank of $200 or more. You get a credit limit that’s typically equal to that deposit. Making small charges on the account and paying it off in full every month can help you build credit without paying interest. You’ll want a card that reports to all three credit bureaus, because mortgage lenders typically pull FICO scores from all three bureaus and use the middle of the three scores to determine your rate and terms.

Q&A: Here’s a case where taking retirement funds early might make sense

Dear Liz: My wife and I are both retired and receiving annuity payments. In addition, we have about $1.3 million in traditional IRAs and $350,000 in another annuity that will pay us each about $1,000 per month. We are moving from Texas to Arkansas sometime in the next year. Texas has no state income tax and pretty high property taxes, while Arkansas has lower property taxes but about 6% income tax. We plan to put down about $200,000 on a new home and obtain a mortgage for about $350,000 at about 4% interest.

Does it make sense to withdraw money from the IRA to pay down the amount we need to borrow for the mortgage? I can withdraw about $90,000 without putting us into the next higher federal tax bracket, if that makes any difference, and end up saving $5,400 in Arkansas income tax at the same time.

By my calculations, the return on the $90,000 would be almost $8,000 every year in reduced mortgage payments if we took out a 15-year mortgage. If we did the 30-year loan, that savings would be over $5,000. I don’t think we’ll achieve the same returns on $90,000 leaving those funds invested as they are in bonds or cash.

Answer: It usually doesn’t make sense to tap retirement funds to pay down a mortgage, but your case may be one of the exceptions. You have enough saved that the withdrawal won’t claim a big chunk of your available funds and leave you cash-poor.

We’ll assume you’re over 59½ and won’t face penalties for early withdrawal. If that’s the case, then you’ll also be facing required minimum distributions within a few years. These mandatory withdrawals, which must start after you turn 70½, would subject at least some of this money to taxation. The question is whether you want to pay those taxes now or later, and you’re making a pretty good case for now.

Before you withdraw any money from a retirement fund, however, you should consult with a tax pro or a fee-only financial planner, or both. Mistakes made in early retirement often have irreversible consequences, so you want an objective second opinion before you proceed.

Tuesday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: Should you pay off your mortgage before you retire? Also in the news: New UltraFICO score could boost credit access for consumers, a cheapskate’s guide to shopping for credit cards, and 7 year-end tax planning strategies for small business owners.

Should You Pay Off Your Mortgage Before You Retire?
Or is it better to wait?

New UltraFICO Score Could Boost Credit Access for Consumers
Big changes are coming.

A Cheapskate’s Guide to Shopping for Credit Cards
Finding a card to match your careful spending.

7 year-end tax planning strategies for small business owners
Tax season is right around the corner.

Should you pay off mortgage before you retire?

Most people would be better off not having mortgages in retirement. Relatively few will get any tax benefit from this debt, and the payments can get more difficult to manage on fixed incomes.

But retiring a mortgage before you retire isn’t always possible. Financial planners recommend creating a Plan B to ensure you don’t wind up house rich and cash poor.

In my latest for the Associated Press, why a mortgage-free retirement is usually best.

Q&A: When to keep a mortgage into retirement years and reasons you might want to pay it off

Dear Liz: My husband and I have no debt other than the mortgage on our home. My husband will retire in three years while I will continue to work. (I will have to pay for healthcare at that time, as I currently receive my benefits through his employer.) My husband insists that we pay our mortgage off before he retires. The mortgage balance is $59,000 now. We are able to do this, however, I am concerned that we will have no tax deduction whatsoever if we do. Who is correct?

Answer: You may have received some tax benefit in the past for your mortgage. After last year’s tax reform, it’s unlikely you’ll get any tax break going forward.

You have to be able to itemize your deductions to write off your mortgage interest. Now that Congress has nearly doubled the standard deduction, few taxpayers will have enough deductions to make itemizing worthwhile.

Even before tax reform, though, many homeowners got little or no tax benefit from their mortgages. They didn’t pay enough mortgage interest to make itemizing worthwhile, or their itemized deductions barely exceeded the standard deduction. The homeowners who got the biggest benefit were the ones with the largest mortgages. Even people with big mortgages tend to pay less interest over time as they pay down their loans.

Keeping a mortgage just for the tax break is kind of shortsighted, in any case, since you’re only getting back a fraction of what you pay out. For example, if you were in the 25% tax bracket, each dollar you paid in interest reduced your taxes by just 25 cents.

The best arguments for keeping a mortgage have to do with liquidity and investment returns. You shouldn’t pay off a mortgage if it means most of your money is tied up in your home, and if you don’t have enough other assets to cover emergencies and to generate future income. Also, some wealthier people opt to keep a mortgage because the loan is cheap, and they can make better returns on their money elsewhere.

Most people are better off without debts in retirement, though, so if you can pay off your home loan without compromising the rest of your financial life, you probably should.

Q&A: How to get results when you complain to your mortgage company

Dear Liz: Last year my mortgage was sold to another company. I didn’t know that I had a new loan number, so my automatic payments weren’t posted properly. With the help of my bank, I was able to sort this out but not before the new company reported me as delinquent to the credit bureaus. I have never been late with a payment in 15 years.

I pleaded with the company to remove the delinquency from my credit report, but they declined, saying their records show that they fulfilled their obligation by notifying me that they are my new lender. Do I have any recourse and what are my options in getting this delinquency removed from my credit report?

Answer: You can try disputing the delinquency with the credit bureaus, but that is a highly automated process. The company may check its records and respond to the bureaus as it did to you, refusing to remove the black mark. It’s worth a shot, but far from guaranteed.

You most likely will need to get to the right human being to help you. Sometimes when you run into a brick wall with customer service, you can turn things around by appealing to someone’s expertise. Asking the customer service rep, “If this happened to you, what would you do to fix it?” may get you pointed in the right direction.

Of course, you may have been talking to a call center worker with little training and even less authority. If that’s the case, ask to speak to the manager. You might also write a letter to the company’s chief executive, asking directly for help.

Another option is to involve regulators. Filing a complaint with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau or your state attorney general may get results.

A single missed payment can knock more than 100 points off good credit scores, plunging you into the “average” category and causing you to pay more for such things as credit card interest, insurance and cellphone coverage. It may take considerable effort, but it’s worth fighting back.

Q&A: Should a soon-to-be retiree use savings to pay off the mortgage?

Dear Liz: I am 64, single and planning to retire in two years. I have saved enough to pay off my $100,000 mortgage. It will take the bulk of my savings but I have no other debts. I will have a pension and Social Security. I also have a credit score over 800. Should I do this?

Answer: Being debt free in retirement is wonderful, but being stuck short of cash is not. It’s a particularly bad idea to use pretax money from retirement accounts to pay off a mortgage. Not only can the withdrawal trigger a big tax bill, but it may push you into a higher tax bracket for that year and cause other unexpected tax consequences.

Even if your pension and Social Security cover your expenses now, that probably won’t be the case for the rest of your life. For example, Medicare covers about half of the typical retiree’s medical costs, and doesn’t pay at all for most long-term care expenses if you should need those.

You could pay off the mortgage and then arrange a home equity line of credit you could tap for such expenses or for emergencies. Just be aware that lenders can freeze or close lines of credit at their discretion, so it won’t be the same as having cash on hand.

Decisions made about retirement are complex and often irreversible. Consider consulting with a fee-only financial planner about your retirement plans so you better understand your options and the consequences of the choices you’re making.

Q&A: The reasons behind falling credit score

Dear Liz: Please explain to me how one’s credit depreciates. After paying off my home, my credit score went from mid-700 to mid-600. There were no changes or inquiries. I built it back up to 734, got into a tight spot and took a loan from my bank. I just checked the score again and now it’s 687. I have not been late or missed a payment. I thought keeping current on all payments and in some cases paying more would help, but it’s not. I need some help and direction.

Answer: We’ll assume that you’ve been monitoring the same type of score from the same credit bureau. (You don’t have just one credit score, you have many, and they can vary quite a bit depending on the credit bureau report on which they’re based and the formula used.)

Paying off a mortgage could have a minor negative impact on your credit scores if that was your only installment loan. Credit score formulas typically reward you for having a mix of installment loans and revolving accounts, such as credit cards.

But the drop shouldn’t have been that big. Something else probably triggered the decline, such as an unusually large balance on one of your credit cards.

Scoring formulas are sensitive to how much of your available credit you’re using, so you may be able to restore points by paying down your debt if you carry a balance or charging less if you pay in full each month. There’s no advantage to carrying a balance, by the way, so it’s better to pay off your cards every month.

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.