You’ve spent many weeks hunting for a new place to call home and you think you’ve finally found “the one.” But whether you’re renting or buying, there are still plenty of papers to be signed before you can pack up your stuff and call the mover.
Before you start any house or apartment hunt — or seek out any big loan, like a car loan — you need to know your credit score. This isn’t as difficult as you might think. Read more below to see how and for free.
How to Get a Free Credit Score
While most things in life aren’t free you can obtain a free credit score from select sources.
For instance, some credit card companies will often offer a free credit score; check your junk mail before tossing it. You also could be eligible for offers from credit card companies through their mobile apps.
Discover Credit Scorecard
A Discover Credit Scorecard includes your FICO credit score and a summary of information about the total number of accounts, length of credit, recent inquiries, revolving credit utilization and missed payments.
And you don’t need a Discover credit card for a free credit score. Visit the website and sign up for free with your name, address, and general information.
American Express Credit Cards
American Express offers cardholders access to their free FICO score, as well as 12 months of FICO score history. The FICO score given is based on the Experian® credit report and the FICO score is available through your online American Express account and updated periodically.
Citibank Credit Cards
Citibank is another credit card issuer that gives your FICO score for free (for select Citi cards). Scores are based on your Equifax credit reports and are updated monthly.
Bank of America
BofA offers eligible cardholders free access to their FICO score and the score is based on your TransUnion credit report. It is updated monthly in addition to providing a few useful charts.
The first chart shows recent scores over time, and the ability to see the month-to-month performance. This can be helpful if you’ve been working to up your credit while the other chart shows national FICO score averages.
Chase offers a free credit score through its Chase Credit Journey program. You don’t have to be a Chase customer or cardholder to sign up.
Chase Credit Journey offers your Experian score, plus data on your credit usage, total balance, the average age of your account and your credit usage, plus some quick tips to improve your score.
If you’re not into using credit cards, try getting your FICO scores for free from a credit union. Not all credit unions offer this service, but if you’re a member of one you might be able to get it — it’s worth asking. Some larger credit unions offering free FICO scores include Navy Federal Credit Union and DCU (Digital Federal) Credit Union.
If you’re hoping to buy a new vehicle, Ally Bank offers consumer’s a free FICO score if you use its Ally Auto Online Services or its Ally Auto Mobile Pay app.
At Credit Karma, you can check your free credit reports from Equifax and TransUnion as often as you wish. Its free credit-monitoring service can also alert you to important changes on your Equifax and TransUnion credit reports. Along with checking your credit scores regularly, this service sends an alert to keep track of any unusual activity. Create a username and password, and Social Security number. You must be at least 18 years old to sign up for a Credit Karma account.
Credit Sesame pulls your credit information from TransUnion which can be done in 90 seconds. You can do a free credit check once a month with a basic account or get daily free credit checks with a premium account. Once you open your new account you will get an instant credit check from TransUnion, using VantageScore 3.0, which calculates credit scores. Other credit score models include the FICO Score, which uses a different methodology to calculate credit.
Need a free credit score? Here are a few other ways to get one:
How Your Credit Score is Compiled
Many people don’t know how their credit score is compiled; here’s further information to help.
Credit payment history determines 35% of a FICO Score; this is one of the first items a lender wants to know — if you’ve paid past credit accounts on time.
This is the length of time your credit accounts have been open; the longer a credit history the better as there is more data and payment information for the financial institution or lender to see.
This is the ratio of the amount of your credit card balances compared to the credit limits available. For example, if you have a $500 credit balance while your limit is $1,000, your credit utilization is 50%.
FICO scores (the most commonly used model) count your mix of credit as 10% of the overall score. The mix is the variety of loans in your credit file; ignoring it may lower your credit score, while understanding and improving it can raise it. The mix could be mortgage loans, auto loans, credit cards, etc.
An inquiry is a request to look at your credit file and falls into one of two types: hard or soft.
When you apply for new credit, lenders check your credit score. Virtually all lenders will run what’s known as a hard inquiry. Hard inquiries will only happen when you formally submit a loan application.
If you’re seeking prequalification (or applying for a job), the lender will run what’s known as a soft inquiry. This will not affect your credit score.
Predatory lenders like title lenders and payday lenders who advertise “no credit check” will not run a hard inquiry, but they may run a soft inquiry to ensure that you have any credit history at all.
Credit Scoring Models
There are two primary credit scoring systems, FICO Score and VantageScore.
What is a FICO Score?
A FICO Score is the number used to determine someone’s creditworthiness, the credit score. Financial institutions and lenders use it when deciding how much credit they can offer a borrower and the interest rate to be assigned. Scores range from 300 to 850.
It’s better to have a FICO score higher than 670 if you’re applying for any type of financing. A score of 670 and up is considered a good credit score. If your score is lower, here’s where you fall:
- Fair credit score: 580-669
- Bad credit score: 300-579
What is VantageScore3.0?
A VantageScore 3.0 range follows FICO’s scoring range but instead of scoring consumers on the original scale of 501 to 990, the new credit scoring model uses the 300 to 850 range. Like FICO, credit scores range from 300 to 850, but the breakdown is a bit different:
- Fair credit score: 601-660
- Poor credit score: 500-600
- Very poor credit score: 300-499
VantageScore 3.0 uses six different categories when calculating a credit score such as payment history and credit utilization, among others.
VantageScore is a collaboration between the three main consumer credit bureaus: Equifax, Experian and TransUnion.
Credit Report vs. Credit Score: What’s the Difference?
They sound very similar, but there are a few key differences between your credit report and credit score. While your credit report contains very detailed information about your accounts, your credit score is more generalized. If you check your credit score and it is lower than you expected, checking your credit report is the next step. Sometimes you will find mistakes on your credit reports that are driving your score down. Fixing those mistakes is an easy — and free — way to give your credit score a boost.
A credit report summarizes all your credit history and gives a full and accurate picture of how you have paid your debts, when and if you missed any payments, etc.
What Does a Credit Report Show?
- Your name
- Your address(es)
- Social Security number
- Your credit information
- Types of credit you often use
- Dates of new credit lines
- Balances and available credit
- Accounts that are currently in or have been in collections
- Any recent credit activity
- Information related to bankruptcy, tax liens, and/or court judgments
How to Get a Free Credit Report
You may obtain a copy of your credit report from any of the three major credit bureaus – Experian, Equifax and Transunion – at annualcreditreport.com or via any of the bureaus. Federal law states that all three credit bureaus must provide a free credit report to each consumer every 12 months if requested.
A credit score is a number determined by a formula utilized by the three bureaus to determine your creditworthiness.
What Does It Show?
- It should show how much debt you currently are owing on your cards, etc.
- The length of your credit history.
- Your current credit mix of what credit cards and other loans, debts you have.
- New credit like recent purchases, etc.
Why is My Credit Score Important?
A credit score is widely and often utilized by lenders to make lending decisions when you’re applying for a new loan, different credit accounts, etc. Credit card issuers use the report and the score to determine if you qualify for a new account, and what form of credit limit to offer you. Credit health will also determine what type of interest rate you will pay for home loans and other personal loans.
Do I Need a Credit Monitoring Service?
Sometimes people opt for credit monitoring services to keep track of their credit. Credit monitoring services as such tracks credit reports for changes and depending on the service it may also track adjustments to your credit score.
There are several free credit monitoring services such as CreditWise from Capital One and Experian, which you may want to check out.
In addition to alerting you if there is a hard inquiry on your account, a qualified credit monitoring service will also notify you when:
- Your credit score’s three-digit number goes up or down.
- A new account is opened be it a department store, bank, loan, etc.
- There is an adjustment to a credit card balance or credit utilization rate.
- There’s a late payment which could help if you forgot.
- Derogatory credit information is added and lets you know fast.
- There’s an update to your personal information (name, address, etc.), which could help if you move, change your marital status, etc.
Credit monitoring will not protect you from any form of identity theft, but it could help you catch it early by triggering an alert that you don’t recognize. If you’re worried, are some (free) steps you can take to protect yourself:
Freeze Your Credit
A security freeze by credit bureaus protects you from the cost and disruption that may occur when identity thieves attempt to open new accounts in your name. If you choose to freeze your credit, you have three options: do it online, via phone or via U.S. Postal Service.
The first step is to fill out a form with:
- Your name
- Social Security number (or last four digits), and
- Email address
Equifax asks for a mobile number and will accept an individual taxpayer identification number (ITIN) if you don’t have a Social Security number.
All three bureaus need to know how long you’ve lived at your current address.
TransUnion and Equifax will want you to establish accounts, but Experian freezes and unfreezes credit based on personal information and PIN.
- Equifax: 1-800-349-9960
- Experian: 1-888-397-3742
- TransUnion: 1-888-909-8872
- Equifax: P.O. Box 105788, Atlanta, GA
- Experian: P.O. Box 9554, Allen, TX 75013
- TransUnion: P.O. Box 160, Woodlyn, PA 19094
Add Fraud Alerts to Your Credit Report
A fraud alert won’t freeze your credit, but it will encourage lenders and creditors to take extra steps to verify your identity before they issue any new credit. This can help to protect you from identity thieves and scammers.
Contact only one of the bureaus and request it place a fraud alert on your reports. The credit bureau that you contact will alert the remaining bureaus. It will remain in effect for one year, though you can request that it be lifted sooner. If you’ve already been a victim of identity theft, you may qualify for an extended fraud alert, which lasts seven years. Whenever your alert expires, you’ll need to decide whether to renew or enroll in further credit protection.
Hire an Identity Theft Protection Company
A credible identity theft monitoring protection company should monitor your information daily, alert you as soon as things appear unusual, and will be willing to assist in helping you resolve any issues if you’re a victim. The drawback is that these services can cost anywhere from $10 to $40 per month.
The Bottom Line
Before you even start thinking about any big purchase or move, it’s important that you learn your credit score and know where you stand with your credit. If your score is less than ideal, there are several steps you can take to build it back up before you need to submit your loan application.
Typically, credit scores will fall between the range of 300 to 850; higher credit scores can show lenders that you have a strong history of responsibly managing your credit and debt. Lower credit scores indicate that you may pose more of a borrowing risk, so they’ll probably charge you a higher interest rate. The minimum credit score to get a loan generally ranges from 610 to 640. If you’re close to that range, review your credit reports and see if there are any steps you can take to bump your score up quickly. If not, you can still qualify for a loan through some lenders, but it will be considered a bad credit loan and you’ll pay a significantly higher interest rate.
According to Consumer Reports, more than one-third of Americans have found an error on their credit reports, so it’s important to check. To dispute an error, you’ll need to contact the credit reporting agency and the company that provided the information as soon as possible. Then follow these steps to get it fixed.
There are many different ways to improve your credit score. For example, you can try signing up for a program like Experian Boost, which earns you points when you pay routine bills that aren’t normally reported to the credit bureaus. But the most important way is to make sure you make all of your payments on time and catch up on any past-due accounts.