Since the beginning of the year, mortgage rates have increased, which means that mortgages are becoming more expensive. It’s more important than ever to monitor and maintain a healthy credit score, as it will help you earn a lower interest rate.
There is only one problem. There are so many different credit scores and the ones that mortgage lenders typically use are not as readily available. “Unlike any other lending environment, mortgage lenders are required to use a specific credit score brand and generation,” says credit expert John Ulzheimer, formerly of FICO and Equifax. The free credit score you get through your bank is probably not the same as the one your mortgage lender uses to determine the interest rate you qualify for.
To get the best idea of the credit score used by your mortgage lender, you should check your score on MyFICO.com, which is a paid service.
As you prepare to buy a home or refinance your existing mortgage, here’s what credit scores matter and what you can do to make sure your scores are as high as possible.
What credit score do mortgage lenders use?
The two most common credit scores are your FICO® score and VantageScore®, but there are different versions of credit scores for each model. Simply put, “it’s an iPhone 7 versus an iPhone 9 versus an iPhone 12,” Ulzheimer says. “They’re all iPhones made by the same company, but they’re definitely not the same thing.”
The Federal Housing Finance Agency has specific guidelines on credit scores used for conventional mortgages. So while there are many newer scoring models (up to FICO® Score 10), these older versions are the mortgage industry standard:
- Experian – FICO® Score 2
- Equifax – FICO® Score 5
- Transunion – FICO® Score 4
Unless these three scores are identical, it’s difficult to determine which score your lender will end up using. On top of that, credit scores change regularly, so your score may fluctuate between when you check it and when your lender does. “The only way to get exactly what the real mortgage [credit score] is going to be is to have a lender make that effort,” says Kyle Seagraves, Certified Mortgage Advisor, of homebuyer education site and YouTube channel Win The House You Love.
You can check the FICO scores listed above on myFICO.com, but it’s a paid service (plans start at $19.95 per month). However, readily available free credit scores can still provide useful information, even if they are not the same scores that mortgage lenders use. “Look at the momentum of your credit score, not necessarily the specific number,” Seagraves says. “Does my score keep going up based on the decisions I make? Or does it have the opposite effect depending on the decisions I make? »
How to improve your credit score
Your FICO credit scores are largely based on these five factors:
- Payment history – This is the most important factor and accounts for 35% of your credit score.
- Amounts due – The amount of your debts represents 30% of your credit score. This includes factors such as your credit utilization rate (amount of available revolving credit you are using), the number of accounts with balances, and what you owe on different types of accounts.
- Age of accounts – A longer credit history translates into a better credit score. The term of your accounts is 15% of your credit score.
- Credit activity – When you open new accounts or lines of credit, your score will drop slightly and temporarily. These hard credit applications can stay on your account for up to two years, but only represent 10% of your overall credit score.
- Composition of credit – The types of credit you have represent 10% of your credit score. So, having different types of loans, a credit card, and a personal line of credit can improve your credit score.
The detail of how certain aspects of your credit score are calculated varies by credit score model. “You have hundreds of [different credit] scores. There are three credit bureaus, there are several generations of scoring software created by different companies,” says Ulzheimer. But you don’t need to fully understand or care about every type of credit score to start improving your credit score. “The good news is that every credit score is based on the same thing — one of your three credit reports,” says Ulzheimer.
There is no magic formula to instantly improve your credit score overnight. Focus on the things that matter most, such as paying your bills on time, paying off your debts, and applying for credit only when you need it. Then it doesn’t matter what specific credit score a lender uses, because all of your credit scores will tend to point in the right direction.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that your credit utilization rate was 30% of your FICO score. Your credit utilization ratio is one of many factors considered for the “amounts owed” portion of your FICO score, which comprises 30% of your credit score.