You want to buy a home soon but aren’t sure your credit score is high enough to get approved for a mortgage. Fortunately, there are ways to improve your credit rating to qualify for a home loan with competitive terms. And if your credit score is on the lower end because you’re a credit newbie or have had a series of past financial missteps, fear not: It’s possible to repair damaged credit, too.

Why you should improve your credit score

Even if you currently meet the mortgage lender’s minimum credit score requirement, you should aim for the highest credit score possible. That’s because lenders decide your creditworthiness largely based on your FICO scores, and base your loan’s terms on your creditworthiness.

The lowest interest rates are generally reserved for consumers with the strongest credit rating, and an interest rate of just one percent lower could result in substantial savings on interest over the loan term. You’ll also get a more affordable monthly payment.

To illustrate, assume you’re seeking a $350,000, 30-year fixed-rate mortgage. If your credit score is 740 and you qualify for a 6.5 percent interest rate, you’ll pay $2,212 per month (principal and interest only) and $446,583 in interest over the life of the loan. But if your credit score is 650 and the lender offers you a rate of 7.5 percent, your monthly payment increases to $2,447. Furthermore, the interest you’ll pay for the duration of the loan is $531,258.

There are general average interest rates for the different FICO scores — or strictly speaking, FICO score ranges. (Of course, it can vary by individual lender, and other factors beyond your credit score can influence their decision, too). For example, on a $216,000 30-year, fixed-rate mortgage, the interest rates loan applicants qualify for as of early October 2022, based on their FICO score, are as follows:

FICO score Average interest rate
Source: myFICO
620 to 639 7.97%
640-659 7.42%
660-679 6.99%
680-699 6.78%
700-759 6.6%
760-850 6.38%

Credit score basics

Before taking the next steps towards improving or fixing your credit health, it’s vital to understand how your credit score is calculated. Doing so helps you know which areas of your credit profile to focus on.

The FICO credit-scoring model, which is used by 90 percent of creditors to make a lending decision, consists of five components:

  • Payment history: 35 percent of your credit score
  • Amounts owed: 30 percent of your credit score
  • Length of credit history: 15 percent of your credit score
  • Credit mix: 10 percent of your credit score
  • New credit: 10 percent of your credit score

Improving your credit score

There are several ways to improve your credit score before applying for a mortgage. The first step is to get a copy of your credit report from the three major credit bureaus: Experian, TransUnion and Equifax.

Review the reports and identify negative items impacting your credit health, so you know what to focus on first. Also, dispute any errors you find with the credit bureaus and creditors to have them rectified.

Below are some additional actions you can take to get your credit score trending in the right direction.

Reduce your debt

First things first: Get out of debt.

  • Pay all your bills on time. A single missed payment could drop your credit score by several points once the account is 30 days past due. Late payments remain on your credit report for seven years, but the negative impact dwindles as time progresses.
  • Bring all your past-due accounts current. If any accounts are delinquent, bring them up to date to prevent additional adverse credit reporting. You can also reach out to the creditor or lender and request a payment arrangement to get the account(s) in good standing again.
  • Reduce your revolving debt balances. The amount of charges you have on a credit card, vis-à-vis the overall credit line, is called your credit utilization ratio or rate. For example, if you owe $15,000 on all your credit cards and the aggregate limit is $30,000, you have a credit utilization rate of 50 percent. Ideally, the balance on your credit card accounts should not exceed 30 percent of the cards’ credit limit. So, using our example, you’d want to decrease the total amount you owe to $9,000 or lower to improve your credit score.
  • Consider a debt consolidation loan. This sort of debt instrument helps improve your credit utilization by rolling your debts into a single loan, preferably with a lower interest rate. You’ll also simplify the repayment process and could save a bundle in interest.

Increase your credit

Reducing your debt is good, but you can also tackle things from the opposite end — by increasing your credit.

  • Request higher credit limits. Some credit card companies allow you to request a credit limit increase without impacting your credit score. If approved, your credit utilization rate will decrease, assuming you refrain from making additional purchases with the card. A drop in your credit utilization rate could also mean good news for your credit score.
  • Transfer balances. If you get an offer for a credit card that offers a zero percent interest rate (usually for a set period, like 20 months), consider transferring the amount you owe on another card to it — especially if the old card has a high APR. Yes, you’ll ding your credit score temporarily, but you’ll also increase your credit utilization ratio. Plus, it’ll be easier to pay off the old debt, since it won’t be generating interest. Just try to do it before the zero percent offer ends.
  • Become an authorized user. Ask a relative or friend to add you to accounts with exceptional payment history and a low utilization rate as an authorized user. The account will appear on your credit report and could strengthen your credit health.

Other moves

Other strategies can put some polish on your credit score, especially as mortgage application time draws near.

  • Don’t close old credit accounts. Even if you pay off the balances, closing credit cards you’ve had for some time causes your average age of credit accounts to drop, which could hurt your credit score. You could also negatively impact your credit utilization ratio.
  • Refrain from applying for new credit. Aside from the balance-transfer deals, avoid signing up for new credit cards or taking out new loans of any kind. Each time you apply for credit, a hard credit inquiry is generated, which could cause a slight dip in your credit score. Although the impact is temporary, mortgage lenders frown upon consumers opening new credit accounts shortly before or during the application process.

Credit score minimums by loan types

Mortgage lenders use your middle FICO score from the three major credit bureaus (Experian, TransUnion and Equifax). So, if your scores are 660, 680 and 710, 680 is the figure that will be used to determine the loan terms you qualify for.

Different types of mortgages have different minimums. Here are the credit score minimums by loan type:

  • Conventional loans: 620
  • FHA loans: 580 (with a 3.5 percent down payment) or 500 (with a 10 percent down payment)
  • USDA loans: 640
  • VA loans: 620
  • Jumbo loans: 700

Keep in mind that some lenders have overlays or specific guidelines more stringent than the lending rules set by the FHA, USDA, VA, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

Ideally, you want to aim for a credit score of 760 or higher to qualify for the best rate. But if your score is slightly lower, you could still get approved for a home loan with competitive terms.

Next steps

You should take the steps to improve your credit as far in advance of your house-hunting as you can. The longer you’ve had a strong score, the better, as far as lenders are concerned.

When you’re ready to apply for a mortgage, research lenders and get pre-approved with your top options to compare home loan offers. You may find that one offers a far more competitive deal than the other, or your credit score needs more work to qualify for better rates.

But if your credit is in good shape and the loan offers work for you, hire a reputable real estate agent to help you navigate the home-buying process.

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