Borrowers getting ready to buy their first home are often surprised…for different reasons. I find that some are surprised to learn that they do qualify for a home in their price range and some are disappointed to learn that they have a little work to do before they can buy a home. Getting preapproved with a mortgage professional helps take some of the “surprise” out of the process.
Part of what I do as a mortgage originator is review credit reports. I’m often surprised how many consumers think that a debt that has been charged off means that it has been removed from their credit history or “forgiven”. Basically, a charge off is when the creditor is writing the debt off their books for tax purposes, it is not terminating the debt owed by the borrower. Often times, the charge off may turn into a collection or be sold or assigned to a collection agency and therefore, mortgage lenders will view a charge off on a credit report as a collection.
I while ago, “Betty Bellevue” called me to see if she could help her mom obtain a mortgage. A couple years prior, her mom had a car that she “gave back” to the bank. She thought she would only have a “repo” reflected on her credit report and that enough time had passed to where she might qualify for a mortgage. What she didn’t realize is that even though the bank had the car back, she had a “charge off” for the balance of the car loan on her credit and that for purposes of a mortgage, we would treat it as a collection (it would need to be paid off and removed from the credit report).
Distressed home owners with second mortgages may be surprised to find charge offs on their credit report following a short sale. Borrowers are often caught completely off guard by this remaining damaging debt being reflected on their credit report. Depending on how the lender reports the short sale to the credit bureaus, it may be just as detrimental as a foreclosure. If you are considering a short sale or foreclosure, I strongly recommend you find an attorney who specializes in dealing with this type of situation. Linda Ferrarri has great information on her credit blog about foreclosures and short sales which I highly recommend if you find yourself facing this situation.
A charge off also dramatically impacts credit scores. Once a charge off, or collection is paid, credit scores will initially drop as the credit scoring modules view it as a “new activity” on the borrowers credit. Eventually scores should recover and improve. If you are considering a mortgage and have charge offs or collections, it’s important to discuss how and when you’re going to pay them off (some can be paid at closing which will prevent your scores from tanking during the mortgage process).
You can obtain a free copy of your credit report at www.annualcreditreport.com.
A “soft” credit check is just prior to closing on your mortgage. This is to ensure that no new debt was obtained during the mortgage process and that the information on your final application that you sign at closing still represents your financial scenario.
A soft credit check does not impact your credit scores. It will disclose any new debts and credit inquiries. If there are changes to your credit revealed from the soft credit check, be prepared to explain and document whether or not new credit was obtained. Even if the credit card you decided to open during the transaction has not been used, you will still need to provide documentation regarding this new potential debt.
A “hard” credit check may take place if your existing credit report is set to expire before closing. Different than a soft credit check, the mortgage company will order a new credit report and the terms of your mortgage will be impacted by what the new report discloses, including any changes to your credit scores. This includes your current pricing of the loan and qualifying.
It’s really best to not obtain any new credit during the mortgage process and avoid applying or inquiring for any credit. Even when the creditor states “six months same as cash” or “this won’t impact your credit” – don’t buy it! If you do feel you need to make a purchase just prior or during the mortgage process, please discuss it with your mortgage professional first. A new car or big screen tv for your home may delay the purchase of your new home.
When in comes to qualifying for a mortgage, lenders are generally looking for borrowers who have established a history of paying their obligations on time. Ideally this would consist of four accounts that have been open and used for the last one to two years. When someone does not have active accounts, or when their accounts are all new, their credit history appears “shallow” to some lenders.
You don’t have to be a first time home buyer to have “shallow credit”.
Recently I helped a couple in Bellevue who were buying a “move-up” home using a jumbo loan for financing. They had excellent credit, plenty of savings and liked to pay cash instead using credit. When they did use credit, they would payoff and close the account immediately. You could see they had a credit history, they even had stellar credit scores, but they lacked having active trade-lines. One lender that we worked with actually declined the loan. Luckily we have several resources for non-conforming mortgages and we closed on the transaction after we switched to a different lender with less rigid guidelines.
Credit scores are impacted more dramatically for borrowers with “shallow credit” over those with established credit.
Because the borrower has less of a credit history to illustrate their borrowing and repayment patterns, their credit scores tend to be more sensitive to situations than a person with a long established good credit history. Don’t get me wrong, an established credit user with great scores will suffer a ding if they make a late payment or open a new debt, however it tends not to be as damaging as it is for someone with a lighter history.
What can you do to improve your credit history? Here are some tips for if you are considering getting a mortgage:
- Pay your debts on time. NOTE: paying off and closing an account where you have made a late payment will not erase the damage from the late payment…in fact, it might hurt your score more if that account was established…
- Do not close established credit accounts. Credit bureaus LOVE established credit history. If you have an older account, you may want to consider using it to buy a tank of gas or groceries and pay it off each month. If the account is not kept active, it will eventually be treated as a closed account and you will no longer receive points for that positive history.
- Do not obtain new debt. New cars and credit cards will drop your score. Not only is it a new debt “ding”, you’re also getting dinged for having a debt at 100% of it’s credit line.
- Keep your debts below 50% of the credit limit (30% is even better). For example, if you have a credit card that has a credit line of $1,000; try to keep your balance below $500 or 50% of that credit line.
- WAIT to pay off collections. Sadly the scoring system factors this as new activity (kind of like getting a new collection) against your score. Often times it may be best to pay off the collection at closing if needed. Your Licensed Mortgage Professional can help you determine this.
Other tidbits about credit scoring…
- Size doesn’t matter with credit scoring. Paying down a smaller credit card has the same impact as paying down a larger one. (I recommend starting with the accounts that will take the least amount of funds to pay down). And a $70 collection hurts your score just as much as a $700 or $7000 collection.
- Charge-offs hurt. Many borrowers believe that because the creditor has written off a debt, they’re in the clear when they actually still owe on the debt. When a charge-off is reported to the credit bureau, they are viewed (and scored) as a collection.
If you are planning on buying a home in the next year or refinancing, it doesn’t hurt to start very early with a mortgage professional who can help you review your credit and provide advice to help you be in the best position possible. It’s more important than ever with tighter underwriting guidelines and mortgage rates that are based on credit scores. I often meet people who have tried to fix their own credit, believing they’re doing what any normal person would believe are the right things (like paying off debt and closing accounts) only to discover they’re scores have tanked. It takes time to repair or establish good credit.
If you, or someone you know, is considering buying or refinancing a home anywhere in Washington, I’m happy to help!