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Tips for cleaning up your credit report before applying for a new loan

Your credit report and credit score play a big role in determining whether or not you will be approved for loans like a mortgage, auto loan, or personal loan. Lenders will check your credit to assess how risky of a borrower you are before lending you money. Having errors, negative items, or a thin credit file on your report can hurt your chances of getting approved – especially for the best loan terms.

That’s why it’s so important to check your credit report for any issues and try to resolve them before applying for a new loan. Cleaning up your credit report can boost your credit score and make you look like a more attractive borrower in the eyes of lenders. 

What is a credit report, and why does it matter?

Before getting into the tips, it’s important to understand what exactly a credit report is and why lenders care so much about it. Your credit report contains a record of your borrowing and repayment history that is reported by various creditors like credit card companies, banks, and other lenders you have accounts with. It shows details like:

  • Accounts you currently have open (credit cards, loans, mortgages, etc.)
  • Your payment history on those accounts – have you paid on time?
  • How much available credit you have versus how much you’re using (your credit utilization ratio)
  • Any bankruptcies, foreclosures, tax liens, or other public records
  • Collection accounts or other derogatory items

Lenders use the information in your credit report to evaluate how risky you are as a potential borrower. Things that increase risk, like late payments, high credit utilization, bankruptcy filings, or collections, will lower your credit scores and make lenders less likely to lend to you or give you good rates. On the other hand, a credit report showing on-time payments, low balances, and no negative items demonstrates that you are a low credit risk and more likely to repay any new debts responsibly.

Additionally, your credit report is used to calculate your credit scores from the three main credit bureaus – Experian, Equifax, and TransUnion. These credit scores, ranging from 300-850, provide lenders with a numerical summary of your creditworthiness. The higher and better established your scores, the more attractive you are as a borrower. Lenders may deny or charge you a higher rate if your credit scores are too low.

For all these reasons, it is crucial to thoroughly review your credit report for any inaccuracies or issues and get them resolved before applying for a new loan. Doing so can potentially boost your credit scores and greatly improve your approval odds and interest rate.

Reviewing your credit report thoroughly

The first step is to obtain copies of your credit reports from all three credit bureaus – Experian, Equifax, and TransUnion. Under US law, you are entitled to one free report from each bureau per year. I’d recommend starting with AnnualCreditReport.com, which is the official site to get your annual reports for free from all three bureaus at once.

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You should pull your reports several months before you plan to apply for a loan so you have adequate time to address any issues. When reviewing your reports, be extremely thorough. Go line by line and investigate each account and item listed. Pay close attention to the following key areas:

Personal information

Make sure all personal details like your name, address, Social Security number, and dates are reported accurately. Identity thieves may open fake accounts using stolen info that can end up on your reports incorrectly.

Account details

Verify that all current and past credit accounts are yours and have accurate information like account numbers, open and close dates, credit limits, and payment history details. Dispute any accounts you don’t recognize.

Public records

Look out for incorrect bankruptcies, foreclosures, tax liens, judgments, or other public records that can massively hurt your scores. Dispute inaccurate items ASAP.

Collections accounts

Review and validate the accuracy of any collections or charged-off accounts listed. Dispute errors, but also make plans to pay for legit items if possible before applying (more on this later).

Inquiries

Check for inquiries from when you applied for past credit, like loans, credit cards, cellular plans, etc. Dispute “hard” inquiries that do not have an approval decision that you did not authorize.

Taking the time to thoroughly review all aspects of your reports line by line is crucial to catching errors and having the best shot at resolving anything negative before applying for a loan. Carefully checking your reports regularly helps you stay on top of your credit health over time as well.

Disputing inaccuracies on your credit reports

If during your thorough review of the reports you find any inaccurate information like errors in your personal details, accounts you don’t recognize, or incorrect payment histories – it’s time to dispute them. Disputing incorrect information is one of the best ways to potentially improve your credit standing.

To initiate a dispute, you need to contact the credit bureau directly where the inaccurate item appears in writing. In your dispute letter, you need to clearly identify the item you’re disputing and explain in detail why it is incorrect, along with any supporting documentation you have as proof.

Your options for sending a written dispute letter include:

  • Sending via certified mail to the bureau’s dispute address for a paper trail of delivery
  • Submitting disputes online via the bureau’s website dispute forms
  • Printing pre-filled dispute letters available online to mail

The credit bureau will then be required by law to investigate your dispute, contact the furnisher of the information for verification, and update or remove the item if the investigation shows it is in fact inaccurate information.

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It’s best to dispute directly with the bureau rather than trying to contact the furnisher yourself, as the bureaus have procedures to force removal if the investigation concludes in your favor. Be very detailed and remember – you have the legal right for them to validate inaccurate information.

Disputing takes some time and follow-through. Keep copies of everything and follow up if a dispute is denied at first since multiple disputes may help get changes made. Fixing errors is a great way to potentially improve your credit factors quickly before a loan application.

Paying down credit card balances

High credit utilization, which is the ratio of your balances owed compared to your credit limits, hurts your credit scores. Making a plan to lower your credit balances over time leading up to your loan application can help elevate your creditworthiness.

Some tips for paying down credit card balances intelligently before applying:

  • Prioritize paying extra towards the cards with the highest balances first
  • Aim to get balances below 30% of your credit limits if possible (ideally lower)
  • Widen the availability of unused credit by requesting credit line increases
  • Use balance transfer offers strategically to consolidate debt interest-free
  • Ensure you keep all accounts current by at least making minimum payments
  • Avoid taking on new credit until existing balances are closer to zero

Bringing your credit utilization down responsibly shows lenders you are making progress controlling outstanding debts responsibly. It may be worth a small score bump that aids your application.

Resolving past-due payments and collections

Collecting payment on past-due accounts is a major part of any lender’s business. If they see unpaid collections or late payments in your credit report, they’ll view you as a higher risk since you didn’t keep previous obligations current.

Before applying for a loan, make every effort to get past dues paid off or resolved if possible. Note that getting settled collections paid or removed from reports takes time. Here are some strategies:

  • Contact collectors about pay-for-delete deals to settle and have items removed
  • Verify dates of last activity – disputes items past the 7-year legal reporting limit
  • Get proof of payment and request goodwill removal of paid collections
  • Consider debt validation if an old collection lacks paperwork proving you owe it
  • Create a payment plan for collections you can’t immediately pay in full

Paying off even one collection may return points to a credit score. Resolving delinquencies is definitely worth the effort before applying to demonstrate improved payment behavior to lenders.

Make sure your credit file has enough account tradelines

If your credit reports show few open accounts and a “thin” credit file, you may have a harder time qualifying for the best loan rates. Lenders want a documented credit history showing responsible handling of credit limits over time.

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Ways to potentially “beef up” your credit tradelines before applying:

  • Apply for a secured credit card and use responsibly over 6-12 months
  • Add an authorized user to the account of someone with excellent credit
  • Check if you can piggyback on the phone bills or energies in your parents name
  • Consider opening a small credit builder loan to report monthly on-time payments

Adding positive tradelines takes time to help but can work to provide a fuller financial picture especially for those just starting to build their creditworthiness. Aim for at least 3-5 open accounts and a mix of credit types to optimize your profile for lenders.

Frequently Asked Questions

How long before applying for a loan should I start cleaning up my credit?

It’s generally recommended to begin reviewing and cleaning up your credit reports at least 3-6 months before applying for a loan. This gives inaccuracies and negative items sufficient time to be investigated and resolved. Some disputes and deletions of derogatory items can take 30+ days per bureau. Payment histories also need 90-180 of on-time payments to show lenders. Starting early is key.

What if my credit scores still seem low after cleaning up?

If your scores still aren’t high enough even after resolving errors and negatives, there are some additional steps you could take, like asking for goodwill increases from issuers, becoming an authorized user on a family member’s accounts, or applying for a credit builder loan. However, low scores will still impact approval odds, so have frank conversations with lenders about alternatives if denial is possible.

Should I apply for new credit to increase my available credit?

Only apply for new credit if you feel you can be approved and handle additional balances responsibly without going over 30% utilization. New inquiries also carry risks of temporary score dings. It’s generally safer to focus on building positive payment histories with existing accounts over 6-12 months before any new application.

What if I have medical debt in collections?

Medical collections carry less risk than other types but still influence scores negatively. Contact collectors about pay-for-delete options to settle and remove from reports. You can also dispute any inaccurate dates or if insurance should have covered costs. Resolving major medical debts is wise before applying.

Can credit counseling programs or debt management plans help?

Credit counseling and legitimate debt management plans can help stabilize your finances and show effort to repay. However, these do still report on your credit and may raise red flags to some automated underwriting systems. Speaking with lenders directly about special programs is recommended if alternate options are needed.

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