A new year means new goals. If home ownership is one of them – it’s time to make sure your credit is in check.
How long does it take to improve your credit score? If you’re hoping to buy a home, having a good credit score is key, since it helps you qualify for a mortgage. So if your credit score is low, knowing how long it takes to raise it to home-buying range can help you plan.
While raising a credit score can’t happen overnight, it is possible to raise your credit score within one to two months. However, it could take longer, depending on what’s dragging down your score—and how you handle it. Here’s what you need to know.
How long does it take to raise a credit score?
First off, what’s considered a good score versus a poor one? Here are some general parameters:
- Perfect credit score: 850
- Excellent score: 760-849
- Good credit score: 700 to 759
- Fair score: 650 to 699
- Low score: 650 and below
While it varies by area and type of loan, generally lenders will look for a score of 660 or higher to grant a mortgage (here’s more on the minimum credit score you need for a home loan).
If you’re looking to boost your credit score fast, here are some actions you can take.
Correct errors on your credit report
Correcting errors on your credit report is a relatively quick way to improve your credit score. If it’s a simple identity error—like a credit card that’s not yours showing up—you can get that corrected within one to two months.
If it’s an error on one of your accounts, though, it could take longer, because you need to involve your creditor as well as the credit bureau. The entire process typically takes 30 to 90 days. If there’s a lot of back-and-forth between you, the credit bureau, and your creditor, it could take longer.
The first step to correcting errors is to get a copy of your credit reports from TransUnion, Equifax, and Experian (the three major credit bureaus), which you can do at no cost once a year at annualcreditreport.com. Next, review them for errors. If it’s an error on one of your accounts, you must refute that error with the bureau by providing documentation arguing otherwise. For example, if you paid a credit card on time and the card issuer is reporting a late payment, find a bank statement showing that you paid on time.
Credit bureaus typically have 30 days to investigate the error. If they agree that it’s an error, they will remove the item. The credit bureau may also ask for additional information or ask you to discuss the information with the creditor involved. If that’s the case, stay on top of communications with your creditor so you can get things resolved as quickly as possible.
Deal with delinquent accounts
Bringing delinquent accounts current and settling accounts that are in collections can also boost your score fairly quickly. Once the creditor or collection agency reports your account update, you should see a positive bump in your score. Keep in mind, though, that your late payment history will remain on your credit report for seven years.
If you have bad accounts that have been on your report for six years or more, you may not want to worry about settling them or bringing them up to date. This can re-age the account, and if you fall behind again, it will stay on your credit report for another seven years.
“Make sure you don’t re-age these accounts, because they’re going to drop off soon,” says Nathan Danus, CDMP and Director of Housing and Community Development at DebtHelper in West Palm Beach, FL. Negative information typically “falls off” your credit report after seven years, so if you’re close, it’s best to just wait it out.
Lower your credit utilization
Credit utilization refers to how much you owe compared with the amount of credit you have available. For example, if you have a $10,000 credit limit across all your credit cards and you have balances totaling $9,000, you’ve utilized 90% of your credit. This drags down your credit score.
“What these consumers often need to do is pay down the balances on their existing credit accounts, which can be a challenge if they’ve allowed the balances to creep up over time,” says Martin H. Lynch, compliance manager and director of education at Cambridge Credit Counseling of Agawam, MA. “The ratio of what’s owed to the amount of credit available represents 30% of the consumer’s score, so rapid improvement is possible if there’s a large amount of money available to pay down balances.”
Linda L. Jacob, a financial counselor at Consumer Credit of Des Moines, IA, recommends paying down balances to below one-third of your credit line. Any payments you make will be reflected on your credit report as soon as your creditors report your payment to the credit bureaus. Credit scores are updated on an ongoing basis, and creditors typically report once per month, so if you make a payment that lowers your credit utilization, that should be reflected on your credit score within two months.
If you’re regularly using your credit card but you want to keep your utilization low so you can apply for a mortgage, you may want to pay down your credit-card balance on a weekly or biweekly basis. This ensures that your balance is as low as possible whenever your creditor reports your payment history to the credit bureaus.
You can also decrease your card utilization by getting more credit, but this approach can backfire. Consumers sometimes assume that by getting more credit, their credit score will improve. If you have a $3,000 balance on a card with a $4,000 credit limit and you’re approved for a new credit card with a $1,000 limit, you now have $5,000 in total credit lines. Instead of using 75% of your available credit, you’re now using 60%. That’s better, right?
Not necessarily. “Just applying for credit lowers your credit score, and that effect lasts for months,” warns Mike Sullivan, personal finance consultant at Take Charge America in Phoenix, AZ. “For the first few months after you apply for credit, your credit score may actually go down.”
You can try getting around this by asking a credit limit increase on a card you already have. Be sure to ask whether they do a “soft” credit pull rather than a “hard” credit pull, though, since hard credit inquiries are the ones that impact your credit. A creditor may be willing to give you a credit line increase with a “soft” pull, which will not hurt your credit score.
Soft inquiries are for background purposes only. For example, a credit card company may do a soft pull to see if you’re eligible for certain credit card offers, or an employer may do a soft pull before offering you a job. Soft pulls can be done without your permission and do not impact your credit score. Hard pulls require your permission, and are done when lenders or credit card companies are assessing whether to grant you a loan or line of credit.
How to raise your credit score for the long haul
Once you’ve corrected errors, settled your delinquent accounts, and brought your credit utilization under control, the only other things that will improve your score are time and developing good payment habits. For example, if you tend to forget to make payments, you can set up automatic payments so you don’t forget.
And here’s some good news for people with bad credit: Generally, people with the lowest scores will see the biggest gains the fastest.
“It’s a lot like dieting,” says Sullivan.
For instance, if your score is 550, “you could probably get it up 30 points in a matter of a couple months, if you’re really dedicated and really careful,” he explains.
On the other hand: “If your credit score is already a 750 and you’re trying to get it to 780, that can take double or more the time.”
Still, it’s worth doing whatever you can to get the best interest rate possible.
For more smart financial news and advice, head over to MarketWatch.
Melinda Sineriz is a writer living in Bakersfield, CA. She writes about personal finance and real estate for several websites and businesses.
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