Consumers on a healthier credit footing but unsure on their scores

Anyone looking for access to a free credit score shouldn't have a hard time finding one.

Discover advertises that it offers credit scores on its monthly credit card statement -- and on top of that it also offers a free Credit Scorecard to anyone online. Credit Karma runs its quirky ads on TV to promote its free credit scores. Several websites, including Quizzle and CreditSesame, offer the VantageScore for free, as well. 

The FICO Score Open Access program enables a variety of financial institutions to provide free scores to their customers, too.  

But oddly enough, all that free access isn't necessarily driving up consumer knowledge about how to boost your credit score. About 44% of consumers surveyed didn't even try to get a free credit score in the past year, according to the seventh annual credit score survey released in late June by the Consumer Federation of America and VantageScore Solutions. 

Credit scores are used by mortgage lenders, credit card companies and others to predict the risk that the consumer will not repay the loan. Cell phone companies, electric utilities, and landlords also may use credit scores to decide whether they will require a security deposit and, if so, how large it should be.

The good news is that many people are doing far better with managing their credit. 

Ethan Dornhelm, FICO's vice president for scores and analytics, based in San Rafael, Calif., said the average credit score nationwide is 700 -- some 10 points above what it was in October 2006. At 700 or higher, many consumers have good to excellent credit. The gains in average consumer scores have shown a gradual but steady upward swing since October 2013.

Consumers overall tend to be paying their bills on time more regularly, showing less interest in opening more lines of credit that could lead to overextending themselves and doing a better job of managing their finances, Dornhelm said.

He said the only point of concern lately has been an uptick in delinquencies for auto loans and credit cards. 

For example, the delinquency rate increased in April 2017 for the second straight period after being virtually level for the past two years. Auto loan delinquency rates have steadily increased upwards over the past four years. 

At this point, the uptick in some delinquencies is considered modest and manageable but it does merit further investigation, Dornhelm said. 

Are we looking at a tipping point in the recovery in consumer credit? Or just a blip in the numbers? 

Even when credit quality is healthy, Dornhelm said, prudent lenders will look at all "four Cs" of credit -- credit behaviors, such as those reflected in credit scores; the consumer's capacity to borrow in relation to their income and assets; collateral or their down payment and conditions for the overall economy.

For consumers, checking your credit report -- and your credit score -- before you take out a loan is important because you can spot any errors that might prevent you from getting the best rates on a loan. 

It's wise to understand how to build up a score. Younger millennials may not be eager to buy a new car or a home when they just get out of college. But they still will want to make sure to pay their bills on time and not take on too much debt in order to build up a strong credit score over time. 

Then, when someone wants to take on a mortgage, their credit score will be in good shape. 

A recent survey commissioned by Discover noted that millennials have some way to go when it comes to awareness about their credit scores and history. 

About 85% of Baby Boomers are aware of their credit standing, according to the Discover survey, compared with 57% of millennials. 

Among those who checked their score within the past year, 54% of millennials say just checking the score influenced their behavior in a positive way. 

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Credit scores are generated after analyzing a consumer's history of borrowing and paying bills on time, as reflected in the credit reports compiled by the three national credit bureaus. Other factors, such as savings and income, influence repayment risk but that's not part of a credit score.

Where are people falling short when it comes to understanding the makeup of credit scores? 

Only 18% of consumers answering the annual credit score survey knew that a low score on a typical 5-year, $20,000 new car loan would increase overall borrowing costs by more than $5,000 in interest. The reason? A lower score leads to higher rates on car loans and other loans. 

About 47% of men -- and 41% of women -- wrongly indicated that one's age is a factor used to calculate a credit score. And many consumers surveyed wrongly believed that one's marital status and ethnic origin were used to calculate a credit score.

Fortunately, many consumers in the survey realized that missed loan payments, high balances on credit cards and personal bankruptcy will hurt your credit score.

"Just one late payment can lower one's credit score by dozens of points," said Stephen Brobeck, executive director for the Consumer Federation of America, an association of more than 250 non-profit consumer groups.  

Consumers can lose 100 points off a credit score if they miss their mortgage payment. In some cases, they can lose 70 points to 80 points for missing a car payment or a credit card payment. 

How long does it take to rebuild that score?

Barrett Burns, president and CEO of VantageScore Solutions, said it depends on what other blemishes are on your credit report, as well as the weight of the missed payment in relation to your overall debt. In general, it's possible to rebuild that score by making consistent on-time payments for a few months. For someone who has subprime credit, it could take six months to nine months to rebuild after a missed payment. 

Take this 12-question quiz on credit scores. 

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© 2017 Detroit Free Press


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