3. Decrease the percentage of available credit used. This can be done by paying down balances or increasing credit limits, says Guthrie. Ideally, this means keeping balances as close to zero as possible, and definitely below 30 percent of the available credit limit, experts say.
"We've seen people increase their scores by as much as 90 points or more, simply by paying off the right cards," Anderson says.
4. Move things around. If one income can be used to qualify for the loan, transfer accounts to "park" the debt in the other party's name, Guthrie says.
5. Get a rapid rescore. It's the only way to find out fast if an attempt to improve a score was successful. It's done through your lender and a rescoring company. The process takes about a week, but it can get the loan process back on track. The downside is it costs a few hundred dollars. The credit bureau Experian has seen an increase in rapid rescoring requests, says spokeswoman Cynthia Baker. "While we haven't done a direct cause-and-effect analysis, anecdotally, the volume does appear to have increased as interest rates have dropped in March," she says.
Aside from working toward a better score, there are two additional options. One is paying points to buy down the interest rate. "This is only a good idea if the borrower will then live in the house beyond the break-even point, meaning the time where the money they've paid in points is made up for by way of less expensive monthly payments," says Findlay.
The other option: shopping around. Some lenders, such as Palo Alto, Calif.-based Addison Avenue Federal Credit Union, have loans, known as "portfolio" loans, that aren't subject to blanket rules on credit scores because the lender intends to keep them rather than sell the loans in the secondary market.
Michelle Edwards, national mortgage sales director, reports that for these loans, her company increases the cost of a mortgage only for consumers whose credit scores are below 680. One customer looking to refinance avoided a pricing adjustment because of compensating factors such as loan-to-value ratio, assets and length of employment.
In a perfect world, anyone contemplating a refinance or a new mortgage anytime within the next year or so would start working on getting the ideal credit score now.
But what if that didn't happen? Try not to let your emotions drive how you feel about your interest rate. A mortgage is a financial decision that should be driven by economics, "not the pursuit of the world's lowest rate because having it would make you feel good," Heidelberg says.
He also says some consumers wait six months for a slightly better rate when a refinance could save $500 a month means missing $3,000 in savings.
As Heidelberg says, "This is foolish."
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