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Debt Management 2006

Mixed credit

  A credit rating that's not very good or bad often results from reporting mistakes.
It's 'buyer beware' on subprime loans

Remember when you're shopping for a subprime loan, it doesn't mean lenders don't want your business. Just the opposite, actually, but it does mean you'll pay more for the money you borrow -- all the more reason to shop carefully.

"Often buyers aren't doing the shopping," says Allen Fishbein, director of housing and credit policy for the Consumer Federation of America. "A borrower needs to step back at this point and say, 'I've gotten this offer. Let me get some independent advice and maybe get a few more offers before I decide.'"

The need to shop and compare "is even more important for the subprime borrower," he says.

The gray area
First, are you certain you're subprime? The credit score used to separate prime from subprime varies with the lender and loan.

"Typically, usually below 600, it's safe to say is always subprime," says Barry Paperno, manager of customer service for Fair Isaac Corp., which designed the FICO score. "From 600 to 650 is kind of a gray area, depending on the lender."

A good rule of thumb is that the cutoff will be a FICO score around 620, says Fishbein.

"It's not standard," he says.

Two lenders looking at the same customer could rank him differently. "It's just not as uniform a standard as many borrowers think," says Fishbein. "This has created some confusion in the marketplace."

That means you don't take the first loan you're offered, especially if the rates are subprime. "Anybody in the mid-600 range, credit score-wise, should be very, very careful," says Robert Manning, finance professor at the Rochester Institute of Technology and author of "Credit Card Nation," "particularly if it's an unsolicited loan."

Instead, recognize that you're a commodity.

"Often people feel like they're not desirable as a customer and are happy if anybody wants to work with them," says Fritz Elmendorf, vice president of communications for the Consumer Bankers Association, a financial services trade group.

If you're on the edge, you can do a couple of things. First, be careful where you shop.

Try credit unions and banks that make both prime and subprime loans, says Ira Rheingold, executive director of the National Association of Consumer Advocates. If you're mortgage shopping, try some of the Internet sites that let you shop a variety of lenders simultaneously.

Some lenders are subprime, says Rheingold. "If you walk in and are eligible for prime, they may not be able to provide it to you."

Second, do all those things that will boost your scores a few points. Pay off balances (as much as you can). Keep making on-time payments. If you know you need a home or car loan, don't apply for other forms of credit, such as credit cards, even those preapproved offers or store cards. Inquiries can reduce your score as much as 10 percent, which is a lot if you're on the line between subprime and prime. When you do start shopping for your big loan, keep all your applications within a 14-day period so that the entire process is certain to be counted as one inquiry by the credit bureaus.

 
 
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