There’s a vast — and constantly growing — amount of information about how consumers use credit. And you can be sure that when you apply for credit, whether it’s as routine as asking for a new credit card or as significant as applying for a mortgage, potential creditors will check out your credit history.
The three major national credit bureaus — Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion — collect two types of information about you. The first is how you use credit, from how much you owe on car loans, mortgages, and credit cards to the timeliness of your monthly payments. There’s an incredible amount of data that falls into this category — about two billion items a month, which breaks down to an average of 11 items per credit user.
Credit bureaus also store public information about you that might influence the way lenders evaluate your creditworthiness. This can include anything from records of bankruptcies and foreclosures to court judgments and divorce proceedings. But credit bureaus don’t gather any personal information that isn’t directly credit-related, such as what you spend on rent or utilities, or anything you pay for in cash.
Credit bureaus make the information they’ve collected available — at a price — to creditors, banks, potential employers, landlords, and others who have a legal right to evaluate you based on your use of credit. Most information remains on your report for a number of years, and damaging details can continue to appear for up to seven years even if the account is closed or inactive. Bankruptcies can stay on your report for up to ten years unless the state where you live imposes a shorter limit.
GOOD NEWS AND BAD
Building a good credit history means developing good credit habits:
- Get a credit card and use it regularly
- Make purchases every billing period, and pay them off in full and on time
- Apply gradually for additional credit
At the same time your potential creditors are looking for evidence that you’ve used credit wisely, they’re also alert to danger signs. Those red flags can include:
- A large number of open credit accounts, especially if they have large credit limits
- Three or more payments more than 30 days late
- Loans in default
WHO’S KEEPING SCORE?
Did you ever wonder why it takes a retail store or an online credit card company just a minute or two to approve your application for credit? Did you know that you may be quoted one interest rate on a car loan while the next person to apply is offered a higher — or lower — rate? These kinds of things happen because credit decisions often come down to the credit score you’re assigned by the credit bureau that your potential creditor contacts or to your FICO credit score, which is calculated by the Fair Isaac Corporation.
The credit bureaus and other organizations use a process called credit scoring, or credit modeling, to evaluate the risk you pose to a potential creditor. The score depends on five main criteria, though they may be weighted somewhat differently in different calculations:
- Your payment history, and specifically whether you pay on time
- The total amount you owe in relation to your available credit
- The length of your credit history
- The amount of new credit you have
- The types of credit you use
Creditworthy behavior in these categories works in your favor, while risky behavior works against you. And while there are general standards for the way the criteria are applied, there are no fixed rules. Credit bureaus aren’t required to explain the way they arrived at your particular score. All they are required to provide are up to four reasons for the score, which the lender must tell you if you ask why your application was denied.
WHAT’S THE SCORE?
When you’re assigned a credit score, a high number is better.
Each lender chooses the credit scorer it uses and sets its own standard for what qualifies as an acceptable score. The lender also determines the interest rate for which you qualify based on your score. The best rates — in this case, the lowest rates — go to applicants with the highest scores. Applicants with low scores, sometimes called subprime borrowers, may be offered credit at higher rates if they are not turned down.
Credit scoring has its advocates and its detractors. Those in favor say that, in addition to the advantage of speed, lenders get a fairer picture of your creditworthiness with this statistical snapshot. Critics argue that reducing all the information about you to a single score can provide a distorted picture. They also say that a lender can find it easier to say no on the basis of what appears to be a value-neutral system.
WHAT THE LENDER KNOWS
Lenders may go beyond your credit score in evaluating your application. For example, they may want to know the amount you earn, whether you’ve been at the same job for two years or more, and if you’ve lived at the same address for a period of time. In addition, a lender may be more willing to grant you credit if you already have banking or investment accounts with them.
WHAT YOU CAN FIND OUT
Because of the Fair and Accurate Credit Transaction (FACT) Act, you’re entitled to a free copy of your credit report each year from each of the three major credit bureaus. You access those reports by going to www.annualcreditreport.com, not directly to the bureaus. Or you can call 877-322-8228.
Because each of the reports covers essentially the same information, it makes sense to request them one at a time — say one in January, one in May, and one in September. That way, you’ll catch any problem early. If there are mistakes, you should contact the bureau where you discover it to report the error, and be sure to follow up to see that the change is made.
Credit scores aren’t free from the major bureaus, although they may offer them as part of a credit monitoring package. But some independent websites do offer free scores if you want to get a sense of where you stand. No two scores will ever be exactly alike, but they tend to be in the same range. If you know you’ll be applying to a specific lender to make a major purchase, it may be a good idea to ask which scorer will be used and buy that one. It’s often, though not always, a FICO score.