Since the beginning of the year, mortgage rates have risen — and that means home loans are becoming more expensive. Monitoring and maintaining a healthy credit score is more important than ever because it will help you secure a lower interest rate.
There’s just one problem. There are so many different credit scores and the ones mortgage lenders typically use aren’t as easily accessible. “Unlike any other lending environment, mortgage lenders are required to use a specific brand and generation of credit score,” says credit expert John Ulzheimer, formerly of FICO and Equifax. The free credit score you get through your bank probably isn’t the same one your mortgage lender uses to determine the interest rate you qualify for.
To get the best idea of which credit score your mortgage lender uses, you have to check your score through MyFICO.com, which is a paid service.
As you prepare to buy a home or refinance your existing mortgage, here are the credit scores that matter — and what you can do to make sure your scores are as high as possible.
What Credit Score Do Mortgage Lenders Use?
The two most common credit scores are your FICO® Score and VantageScore®, but there are different versions of credit scores for each model. Put simply, “It’s an iPhone 7 versus an iPhone 9 versus an iPhone 12,” says Ulzheimer. “They’re all iPhones made by the same company, but they’re definitely not the same thing.”
The Federal Housing Finance Agency has specific guidelines for what credit scores are used for conventional mortgage loans. So even though there are many newer scoring models (up to FICO® Score 10) these older versions are the mortgage industry standard:
- Experian – FICO® Score 2
- Equifax – FICO® Score 5
- Transunion – FICO® Score 4
Unless all three of those scores are the same, it’s hard to pinpoint which score your lender will end up using. On top of that, credit scores regularly change, so your score can shift between when you check it and when your lender does. “The only way that you get exactly what the actual mortgage [credit score] is going to be is to have that hard pull done by a lender,” says certified mortgage advisor Kyle Seagraves of homebuyer education site and YouTube channel Win The House You Love.
You can check the FICO Scores listed above at myFICO.com, but it’s a paid service (plans begin at $19.95 per month). However, the easily available free credit scores can still provide useful information, even if they aren’t the same scores mortgage lenders use. “Look at the momentum of your credit score, and not necessarily the specific number,” Seagraves says. “Is my score continuing to increase based on the decisions I’m making? Or is it having an opposite effect based on the decisions that I’m making?”
How to Improve Your Credit Score
Your FICO credit scores are broadly based on these five factors:
- Payment history – This is the biggest factor and accounts for 35% of your credit score.
- Amounts owed – How much debt you have makes up 30% of your credit score. This includes factors such as, your credit utilization ratio (amount of available revolving credit you’re using), the number of accounts with balances, and what you owe on different types of accounts.
- Age of accounts – A longer credit history results in a better credit score. The duration of your accounts is 15% of your credit score.
- Credit activity – When you open new accounts or lines of credit, your score will take a small and temporary dip. These hard credit inquiries can stay on your account for up to two years, but only account for 10% of your overall credit score.
- Credit mix – The types of credit you have make up 10% of your credit score. So having different types of loans, a credit card, and a personal line of credit can help your credit score.
The nitty gritty of how certain aspects of your credit score are calculated varies depending on the credit scoring model. “You have hundreds of [different credit] scores. There are three credit bureaus, there are multiple generations of scoring software made by different companies,” Ulzheimer says. But you don’t need to fully understand or worry about every single type of credit score to start improving your credit score. “The good news is that every single credit score is all based on the same thing — one of your three credit reports,” Ulzheimer says.
There is no magic formula to instantly improve your credit score overnight. Focus on taking care of the most important things, such as paying your bills on time, paying down debt, and only applying for credit when you need it. Then it won’t matter as much which specific credit score a lender uses, because all of your credit scores will be trending in the right direction.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that your credit utilization ratio accounts for 30% of your FICO Score. Your credit utilization ratio is one of a number of factors that are taken into consideration for the ‘amounts owed’ portion of your FICO Score, which comprises 30% of your credit score.