1. There is no single number. The compilers of the widely accepted FICO credit score allow lenders to customize their system, so different lenders produce different scores. Plus, each of the credit bureaus—Experian, Equifax and TransUnion—has a proprietary scoring model. As if that weren’t enough, the credit bureaus together invented VantageScore a few years ago to compete with FICO.
3. Do a credit checkup. You can monitor your credit yourself by requesting a free report once a year from each of the credit bureaus through www.annualcreditreport.com. But the free report won’t include your credit score; you’ll pay about $8 to get the credit bureau’s proprietary number. All lenders (especially mortgage lenders) use your “Middle” credit score, where you ignore your highest and lowest score and utilize the resulting “Mid-Score”. At www.myfico.com, you can get your credit report and a FICO score from Equifax or TransUnion (but not Experian) for $20.
4. Free doesn’t always mean free. If you are just looking for a ballpark estimate of how you’re doing, go to www.credit.com. You’ll get free estimates of your FICO score and VantageScore along with Experian’s own PLUS score. Sites such as www.freecreditscore.com and www.creditreport.com, however, will give you a free PLUS score, but only if you sign up for a free trial subscription to a credit-monitoring service; if you don’t cancel in seven days, the service costs $15 to $20 a month. Likewise, at MyFICO.com, you can get your FICO score free, but only if you accept a trial subscription to the company’s Score Watch system.
5. Maintain credit health. All of the scores measure the same factors from the information in your credit file, and they all indicate the same thing: creditworthiness. Try to keep your credit-utilization ratio low—that is, be aware of the amount of debt you have compared with the amount of available credit you have. A history of paying your bills on time helps. Having a variety of loans—for example, a revolving line of credit (such as a credit card), a car payment and a mortgage—will boost your score, too.
6. It’s a moving target. The information in your credit files at the bureaus is continually changing—and so will your score. If you’re about to apply for a loan, check your reports for mistakes that could impact your score. Pay down balances as much as possible. And if you’re not applying for a credit card or making a big-ticket purchase anytime soon, says Jason Alderman, a senior director at Visa, “it doesn’t matter what your score is tomorrow.”
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