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How to maintain a healthy credit score

Published: Oct 14, 2009

When you're in the market to buy a home, your credit score is very important. Most lenders use this three-digit number (which is created by evaluating factors like how much debt you have, your payment history for things like credit cards and car loans, and the length of your credit history) to determine your credit risk. This number helps lenders predict whether you'll pay back your loans and if you'll pay them on time.

Mortgage borrowers with the best credit ratings generally get lower interest rates. Their monthly mortgage payments are also lower, according to myfico.com, the website for the Fair Issac Corp., which created the most-used credit rating, the FICO score. (Your FICO score can range from 300 to 850; the higher your score, the better. Credit scores tend to be better for people who have credit -- e.g., have credit card accounts -- and pay off their credit on time.)

Generally, consumers with ratings in the mid 700s or higher get the best interest rates. (But this depends on the economic climate -- 680 was once considered a good score.)

For example, when we last checked data made available on myfico.com, a person with a better FICO score (760-850) was able to get a monthly mortgage payment for a 30-year fixed mortgage that was about $41 lower than someone who had a credit score of 700-759, according to the website's calculations. That person with the better FICO score would spend $492 less on mortgage payments over a year's period than the person with a lower score.

So, if you can increase your credit rating, you could save money over the length of your mortgage. (We all like to save money!) But raising your credit score isn't easy and takes time. (Like getting into shape, or sticking to a diet.) But if you keep to it and are diligent about it, you can increase your credit rating. Here's how:

  • Check your credit report

    Keep tabs on your credit report by getting a free report once a year with freecreditreport.com (be careful of other scam sites). Go over it carefully, and make sure there aren't any errors, such as a payment that was reported late that wasn't, and mentions of accounts that don't belong to you. Report any errors on the provided form.

  • Pay bills on time

    Lenders don't like to see late payments -- even paying bills just a few days after the due date can negatively impact your score. Not paying your bills on time will lower your credit rating. Also, the longer you keep paying your bills on time, the better your credit score will be.

  • Reduce credit card debt

    Work to keep the balances low on your credit cards -- try to keep them well below your credit limits. Pay off as much credit card debt as you can, paying off the cards that are closest to their credit limits first. (Lenders like to see credit activity, but it doesn't look good if it appears that you are stretched to your credit limits.)

  • Don't open/close accounts

    Also, don't open new cards while trying to increase your rating, but don't close old accounts, either. (Both could negatively affect your score.) If you are new to credit, rapidly opening new credit accounts could make you look risky and will also lower your credit age. (Lenders prefer people with stable and lengthy credit histories.)

  • Use your old cards

    If you have any credit cards you haven't used in a while, try using them again. By making charges on the cards that you took out a long time ago, you're improving the age of your credit history and will look like a more reliable borrower.

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