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How to fix your credit after a catastrophe

Build Better Credit » How to fix your credit after a catastrophe

It should come as no surprise that more consumers filed for bankruptcy or lost their homes in the last three years. Many are in line for a similar fate as the economy flirts with a double dip. At the end of it all, consumers are left staring at what remains of their once-great credit scores and wonder when they can get credit again.

The good news is a badly battered credit score isn't a life sentence.

"If you do nothing at all, except nothing bad, it will take seven to 10 years before your credit is better," says John Ulzheimer, president of consumer education at SmartCredit.com. Becoming delinquent again could set you back.

But why sit around for a decade? Bankrate outlines how to fix your credit, starting with steps to take before your credit crisis.

Anticipate your credit catastrophe

If default looks imminent, cushion the blow to your credit score by defaulting on just one account. "There is a component in the FICO score called prevalence," says Ulzheimer. "That means having five collections is worse than having one."

Let the account with the highest monthly payment fall behind, he says, to free up more money every month to pay your other debt obligations.

If you have to choose between debts to pay, skip the credit card bill because it's unsecured and a creditor can't repossess anything. Luckily, credit card delinquencies hurt credit scores less than bigger debts such as home or auto loans, says Sarah Davies, senior vice president of analytics, product management and research for VantageScore Solutions.

Wait for the flames to burn out

If you can't mitigate your credit crash, don't despair. Take a breather after the event, says Rod Griffin, director of public education at Experian, before mapping out your re-emergence into the world of credit.

If you have other outstanding delinquencies, catch up on those payments. If you still face looming debt out there, work on reducing it. The key, Griffin says, is time.

"You won't be able to qualify for credit for a while," he says. "Wait weeks or months so you have time to stabilize, to regain control of your current finances."

After the dust settles, restart your credit

It's also important to know how to fix your credit using new credit accounts. A secured credit card is typically the first and only type of credit available to someone with a badly blemished credit history. These cards require a security deposit, usually a minimum of $500, to activate it. The deposit is placed in a savings account, money market account or certificate of deposit.

If you consistently make on-time payments, your bank might convert the card into an unsecured card after a year, says Barry Paperno, consumer affairs manager at myFICO.com.

The card is not treated differently than a regular credit card by the FICO score, Paperno says. Just make sure the issuer reports to the credit bureaus. Otherwise, your efforts will be for naught.

Another way to build up your credit is to piggyback on someone else's credit card account. Ask a family member or your spouse to consider adding you as an authorized user on their credit card. An authorized user is not responsible for the balance, but benefits from the cardholder's payment history on that account. So, make sure you choose a financially sound credit ride. A side note: Experian only includes authorized user accounts if the payment history is good, says Griffin.

Ulzheimer also suggests checking with your bank or credit union to see if overdraft protection on your checking account is reported to the credit bureaus. Sometimes, it is considered an unused installment loan on your credit report.

"It's not a bad way to get a good thing on your credit report," says Ulzheimer, "as long as you don't have to use it."

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