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Cancel a card, hurt your credit score

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HELOC effect
Of course, it's not simply a matter of having diverse sources of credit. They also want to see responsible credit usage on your part, including credit card balances in the healthy 30-percent-to-35-percent range. "That's a sign of an active and responsible credit person," Burns says. "On the other hand, if somebody consolidates their credit cards or revolving credit down to just a handful of credit sources and has high utilization rate, that will be detrimental to their score."

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And this is where credit-score math gets fuzzy. Many consumers have consolidated outstanding credit card balances into a HELOC, both for the lower rate and because they thought doing so might help their credit scores. (For what it's worth, Fair Isaac's Watts wonders whether mortgage brokers, in an effort to generate more loans, first pitched the myth that canceling a credit card would help your score.) Once again, the answer is "it depends."

"Home equity lines of credit are really interesting creatures when it comes to credit scores," Watts says. 

What's interesting is that it may make sense to consolidate credit card balances into a HELOC because Fair Isaac may treat the new HELOC as an installment loan rather than a revolving loan. However, Watts points out, that with Fair Isaac that only happens if the HELOC is a large line of credit. Small HELOCs are regarded as revolving lines of credit, much like your credit cards. Thus, as with credit cards, it might help your credit score in some cases to close out a HELOC.

"But in all cases, paying down a real estate-based loan like a mortgage or a HELOC is going to help your score," says Watts.

And that seems to be the key to the kingdom when it comes to credit cards and credit scores: Don't cancel your cards. Pay them off. And after you've done that, don't send them back. Cut them up.

Do that, and you have a zero balance enhancing your credit utilization rate. Do that, and you maintain your credit history on open accounts. Do that, and your credit mix looks good. Do that, and you still have the available credit on the card you cut up. All you have to do is ask for a new card when you need it.

Nevertheless, if you have a compulsion to cancel credit cards, do it the right way. First, cancel your department store cards; then cancel the newest MasterCard or Visa with the lowest credit limit, making sure to close the card from the company that doesn't report credit limits.

"And make sure to keep your credit-utilization ratio in line as you cancel, paying down balances on your other cards, if necessary, to keep it in line," says Hendricks. Score one for the consumer.

Gregory Taggart is a freelance business writer in Orem, Utah.

Bankrate.com's corrections policy -- Posted: Nov. 14, 2006
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