Healing a Wounded Credit ScoreBy TARA SIEGEL BERNARD in The New York Times Published: February 18, 2011
Millions of consumers have fallen out of favor with the credit scoring gods. Some lost their jobs or were just overwhelmed by mounting debt. Others got caught up in the real estate bubble or had major medical bills. Whatever the reason, the rising number of foreclosures, short sales, late credit card payments and the ultimate credit sin — bankruptcies — have left black marks on credit reports most everywhere.
So what can these people do to repair their credit?
The simple answer is to focus on the information that is used to generate the all-powerful FICO score — the measure used most frequently by traditional lenders to determine creditworthiness. Its scale runs from 300 points to 850 points; the higher the score, the better your credit standing. “FICO is still the 500-pound gorilla,” said John Ulzheimer, president of consumer education at SmartCredit.com. “In 2011, the best way to get credit from the mainstream lenders is to have a good FICO score.”
Consumers can hope that the banks will eventually consider alternatives to the traditional FICO score, which was developed by Fair Isaac Corporation and has been in wide use for about two decades. After all, as banks regain their appetite for lending, they will be looking for ways to differentiate between borrowers with the same scores, some of whom are temporarily struggling and others who chronically have trouble with money.
For now, though, the FICO score reigns. The best antidote to a poor score is time. Still, there are a half dozen ways to speed the process, or, at the least, avoid even more credit trouble.
What to Do
ASSESS YOUR SITUATION Before you even start to think about rehabilitating your credit, make sure that you can pay your bills on time and not do any more harm. If keeping up with your credit card bills is still an issue, then call the issuer, explain your situation and try to negotiate payments you can afford. Ask the issuer how that will be reported to the major three credit bureaus: Not paid as agreed, which can hurt your score? Or will the new terms say that you are now paying as agreed?
“You have to get in writing that this is what they agreed to do,” said Mechel Glass, director of education at CredAbility, a nonprofit consumer credit counseling agency. Ditto for other providers, like utility companies.
Then, assess all the damage by getting a free copy of your credit report from each of the three major credit reporting bureaus through annualcreditreport.com. Each of the major credit bureaus — Equifax, Experian and TransUnion — generate their own FICO scores based on the data they collect. Two versions of your FICO score are also available for $19.95 each, through myFico.com.
How far your credit score has fallen will depend on where it started, as well as the frequency and severity of your credit mistakes. If you had almost perfect credit, but because of the loss of a job your credit card bills ended up at a collection agency, you can expect to lose anywhere from 80 to 150 points from your FICO score. A short sale or foreclosure? Both, Mr. Ulzheimer said, “would turn a FICO 790 into a FICO 590 overnight.”
CLEAN UP YOUR SCORE Start with the low-hanging fruit. Let’s say you were late paying a bill from a company that no longer exists, or a bank that has since merged with a larger institution. If the credit reporting bureaus cannot verify the accuracy of that black mark, they are required to remove it. “Not only does it have to be correct, but it has to be verifiable,” Mr. Ulzheimer said.
Next, focus on paying off the loans — namely, credit cards — that will help give your score the most lift. Paying off a mortgage, a student loan or other installment debts, like car loans, feels good but that won’t necessarily do much for your credit score.
You also want to get your so-called debt utilization rate into good shape. FICO considers how the total amount of debt on each of your credit cards compares with your total available credit. The credit score “elite” — that is, people with FICO scores above 760 — typically don’t have debts that exceed 7 percent of their available credit. But if you are at 50 percent and can get the rate down to 30 percent, that will help.
LEAVE A NOTE Because prospective employers may pull a copy of your credit report, consider adding the equivalent of a doctor’s note to each of your reports explaining your hardship, like a job loss. All three major credit bureaus allow you to add a brief statement through their Web sites. FICO doesn’t consider these statements when formulating scores, however, so don’t expect it to sway lenders.