Mortgage Q&A: “What credit score do I need to get a mortgage?”
If you’re thinking about purchasing a new home or refinancing your existing mortgage, you should know that your credit score is hugely important. In fact, it can make or break your approval and carries the most weight when it comes to determining your mortgage rate.
Why are credit scores so important, you ask? Well, banks and mortgage lenders use your credit score(s) to evaluate your creditworthiness, which is essentially the best measure of default risk, coupled with things like down payment, income, assets, and property type.
Which Credit Score Do Mortgage Lenders Use?
|FICO score version||FICO Score 5||FICO Score 2||FICO Score 4|
|Also known as||Equifax Beacon 5.0||Experian/Fair Isaac Risk Model v2||TransUnion FICO Risk Score 04 (Classic 04)|
First and foremost, you might be wondering which credit score mortgage lenders use, seeing that there’s no sense focusing on something they won’t actually look at to determine your creditworthiness.
I’ll save you the suspense. The short answer is FICO scores, which are the industry standard and relied upon by just about everyone. I think something like 9 out of 10 lenders use FICO, and it’s pretty much 100% in the mortgage world.
Other providers are trying to get involved, such as VantageScore, but we’ll see if that actually materializes. In the meantime, focus on your FICO scores before you begin the mortgage loan process.
And notice I wrote scores, not score. There are three FICO scores you need to be concerned with, including one from Equifax, one from Experian, and one from TransUnion, which are the three main credit bureaus, as seen in the table above.
The models in that table tend to be the most commonly used, though there are mortgage industry-specific versions of FICO scores as well that may come into play.
Know Your Credit Scores Long Before Applying for a Mortgage
Before you actually head out to get a mortgage, it’s good practice to view your credit scores long before you apply. I’m talking several months in advance because any necessary credit score changes/improvements take time. Potentially a lot of time.
For example, any mistakes (or legitimate issues) holding your credit score down may take months to get cleared up. And you won’t want to leave anything to chance. Yes, the credit bureaus are bureaucratic, so nothing happens all that quickly.
Also, be sure to go with a service that allows you to see all 3 credit scores, as mortgage lenders typically pull a tri-merge credit report, which includes credit scores from all three bureaus.
The bureaus each report information a little differently, so knowing just one score won’t do you (or your lender) much good.
As far as lenders are concerned, it basically allows them to triple-check your credit before making the decision to hand over a large sum of money. They use the mid-score for pricing/qualification, so it’s imperative that all 3 credit scores are in tip-top shape.
Borrower credit scores: 650,680,720
For example, if your credit scores are 650, 680, and 720, a mortgage lender would use the 680 score, which is a decent but below-average credit score. You basically don’t get credit for the 720 score, though they throw out the 650 score as well.
Alternatively, if you had scores of 710, 720, and 730, they’d use the 720 score and you’d be in much better shape.
*If you only have two credit scores, lenders will use the lower of the two for qualifying purposes. If you only have one, they will use that one, though not all lenders approve borrowers with a single credit score, aka limited credit history.
Tip: It might be possible to get approved for a mortgage without a credit score, though not all lenders are willing to extend such financing. Additionally, stricter requirements will accompany such approvals, including higher minimum down payments and lower maximum loan amounts.
Co-borrower credit scores: 610,640,655
If there is a co-borrower involved, the lender will typically take the lowest mid-score of both borrowers. So using our example from above, if the co-borrower has credit scores of 610, 640, and 655, the 640 credit score would be used, seeing that it’s lower than the main borrower’s mid-score.
Assuming a co-borrower has poor credit, and isn’t absolutely necessary for qualification purposes, it might be in your best interest (literally) to keep them off the loan (you can still add them to title). That way you’ll get better pricing.
Lower Credit Score = Higher Mortgage Rate
Put simply, a lower credit score will lead to a higher mortgage rate, and vice versa. This all has to do with risk. The lower your credit score, the higher the chance you’ll default on your mortgage, at least that’s what the statistics say.
So if your credit score is too low, you probably won’t even get approved for a mortgage (how to get a mortgage with a low credit score). Lenders simply won’t want your business. It’s just too risky.
But assuming you are approved with sub-par credit, why accept an inflated interest rate and a much higher monthly mortgage payment? You’d be throwing money out the window. Might as well work on your credit beforehand so save yourself money each and every month you hold your mortgage.
Lately, banks and lenders have become even more stringent, requiring higher credit scores than they have in the past, meaning credit has just gotten that much more important and should not be taken for granted.
FHA Minimum Credit Score
Now, a 500 credit score is pretty dismal, but many individual banks require higher-than-minimum credit scores for FHA financing that better suit their own risk appetite, such as a 600 credit score. So the minimum score is a bit deceiving, and your odds of getting approved with a 500 credit score are pretty slim.
However, Wells Fargo, now the nation’s top mortgage lender, recently lowered its credit score requirement on FHA loans after some public pressure.
But keep in mind that if you want to qualify for the FHA’s flagship 3.5% down loan program, you need at least a 580 credit score, otherwise you’ll be stuck putting at least 10 percent down.
Credit Scores Below 620 Considered Subprime
As far as conventional mortgage loans go, a credit score below 620 is typically considered subprime, meaning you’ll have a difficult time qualifying for a mortgage, and if you do, you’ll receive a subprime mortgage rate. By subprime, I mean higher.
For loans backed by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, a 620 FICO score is the minimum score allowed unless there is some kind of exception or nontraditional credit is used. So make sure you have at least a 620 score to keep your loan options open.
In general, you want a credit score above 720 to avoid any negative pricing adjustments, but a 760 credit score might be the new rule if you want the best possible terms and lowest rates.
If you’ve got excellent credit, you can even get a reduced mortgage rate, so it’s always recommended to aim for the sky.
And though credit scoring is just one of the many criteria used to judge your borrowing capacity, it impacts how much you can borrow, your max loan-to-value ratio, and what you can do (cash-out refinance vs rate and term refinance).
In summary, your credit score is probably the one thing you have complete control of, whereas things like occupation, income, and assets can be at the mercy of external forces. So do your best to strive for perfection in order to get the best deal on your mortgage.
Some Useful Credit Tips for Those Shopping for a Mortgage
- Credit scores are the single most important factor in determining your mortgage rate
- Aim for a 760+ credit score to get the best pricing and to avoid scrutiny
- Credit scores aren’t everything, what’s on your credit report matters as well!
- Know the contents of your credit report and what your scores are long before your lender does
- Any mistakes or missteps can be corrected, but take time, often several months!
- The FHA now requires a minimum credit score of 500, or 580 if you put less than 10% down
- Conventional loans generally require a minimum credit score of 620
- Credit scores below 620 are considered subprime and will be priced much higher
- Lenders pull all three of your credit scores and use the median score for qualification
- Low credit scores can also disqualify you for certain loan programs and/or limit your options
- Don’t mess with your credit before or during the loan application process!