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,"
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.