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Written by Jennifer Stevenson
19th November 2018

How can I improve my credit score?

If you’re applying for a loan, a mortgage or a credit card, that invisible factor – your credit rating – suddenly becomes important.

A bad credit rating is going to cost you money, but it IS possible to improve it. Here are the answers to the 7 key questions about your credit rating, which will put you back in control:

  1. Why does my credit report matter?
  2. Who holds my credit report?
  3. Who can access my credit report?
  4. Does checking my own credit rating affect my score?
  5. What are “soft checks” and “hard checks”?
  6. What’s included on my credit report?
  7. What’s NOT included on my credit report?
  8. MOST IMPORTANT: How can I improve my credit score?

1.  Why does my credit report matter?

Your credit report will be viewed many times during your life, and usually at financially critical times: when you’re applying for some kind of loan or a credit card, if you’re renting a flat, signing up with a new phone company or utilities provider, or sometimes when you’re applying for a job.

This is not the moment to find out there’s a problem and get turned down.

People who’re concerned they’ve got a bad credit rating are often the most reluctant to check their report – after all, who wants to go looking for bad news? Three key reasons why you do need to check your rating before you need it:

You may be reassured to find out what’s not included on it

If a lender checks your rating and turns you down, that’s an additional score against you

If you take action now you can improve your rating before an important credit application

2.  Who holds my credit report?

Just as we don’t have national ID cards in the UK, there’s no central credit ratings agency. And there isn’t a “blacklist” of people with bad credit ratings. One lender might turn you down, but another might take a different view of your circumstances.

There are three agencies in the UK which compile credit ratings: Experian , Equifax and TransUnion (formerly CallCredit). They charge organisations such as credit card companies that want to run checks on applicants, but you can access the information they each hold about you for free, once every year. (You can ignore the fact that they try to make you sign up for a monthly report.)

Each agency compiles information from different sources, and an organisation that’s running a check on you may check with one agency but not another – so you should look at the records that all three hold on you.

The activities of the credit rating agencies are overseen by the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA).

3.  Who can access my credit report?

Quite a lot of the individual bits of information included in your credit report – such as whether you’re included on the electoral register – is openly available, but it’s not easily searchable. To access your collated credit information an organisation or an individual must have your permission.

Lenders

Lenders such as banks, building societies, credit card companies or car loan companies can access your credit report because it’s essential to the agreement you’re about to enter into with them, and you will have given them permission as part of the application process. (Check the small print of the application form.)

A poor credit rating may not mean that they turn you down outright, but they could charge you a higher interest rate. On a mortgage that adds up to a lot of money over the years, so it pays to do whatever you can to improve your credit rating before you apply – see below.

Utility companies

They’ll want to access your credit record because they mostly bill in arrears, meaning they’ve effectively “lent” you their services, and will want to be assured you can pay them.

If you have a poor credit rating they may bill you more frequently, or only as a pay-as-you-go customer. It’s often more expensive to pay this way: another good reason to improve your credit score.

Landlords

It’s understandable that a landlord should want to check the bona fides of a person who wants to live in their property – and their ability to pay the rent.

A prospective landlord, or letting agency, must have your consent before they access your credit record. This consent may be included in the rental application form you sign, or it may be a separate form.

Landlords will not see your complete credit record. They will see only publicly-available information:

  • Electoral roll information
  • County Court judgments (CCJs)
  • Insolvency records such as bankruptcies or Individual Voluntary arrangements (IVAs)

They won’t see information about:

  • your income
  • credit cards
  • loans
  • mobile phone contracts etc

That’s why they will separately request information about earnings from your employer etc.

Employers

Some employers will want to access your credit record: many law and finance firms are legally required to screen potential employees who will be handling money.

An employer must get your consent on a separate form (this is required by the FCRA). Obviously you can refuse, but this could harm your employment prospects.

Employers will only have access to the same more limited information as landlords, above – so it’s worth checking your credit record first: if there’s nothing you don’t mind them seeing you don’t have to jeopardise your chances by refusing permission.

Insurance companies

  • Home or car insurers will want to check your history of payments
  • Late payments or significant debt may mean you have to pay higher premiums

Government agencies

In some specific cases:

  • To decide child support payments
  • To process an application for some licences

Debt collection agencies

If your loan is passed on to a debt collection agency, your original agreement to the lender to check your credit report is passed on to the debt collection agency.

4.  Does checking my own credit rating affect my score?

This is a persistent myth, but checking your own credit rating does not affect your score.

5. What are soft checks and hard checks?

Soft checks (“soft searches” / “quotation searches”) are preliminary searches by lenders:

  • for an identity check
  • or when a lender wants to show you your eligibility for a new financial product
  • only you can see them on your record – for 12 months
  • they’re not visible to prospective lenders
  • your own searches of your report are soft searches
  • “eligibility checks”
  • you can have unlimited soft searches without it affecting your credit score

Hard searches (“hard checks” / “credit application checks”) are when a lender accesses your full credit record, and your score:

  • they’re recorded on your credit report for 12 months
  • other lenders can see them: they know that you applied for credit (and whether you were accepted)
  • debt collections are visible for 2 years

Is an application for a mortgage Decision in Principle (DIP) a soft search or a hard search?

If you don’t satisfy some of the lender’s initial criteria your application will be rejected before they do a credit check.

If you do meet the criteria, most lenders will then do a soft search – but check whether your prospective lender will do a hard search.

6.  What’s included on my credit report?

Your name, address and date of birth

Whether you’re on the electoral roll at your current address

Payment history for the past 6 years:

  • Any kind of loan, mortgage, credit card or other form of finance you’ve had
  • Whether you’ve made payments on time, had any late payment or serious arrears (including mobile phone bills!)
  • Any account that remains open will be reported on your credit file
  • Though adverse information is generally removed automatically after 6 years

Financial associations:

  • With any individual you’ve applied for a joint credit agreement with – such as a joint bank account or a mortgage
  • With anyone you’ve agreed to be a guarantor for
  • You are not automatically financially associated with a partner you live with, your civil partner or a spouse unless you share credit
  • You’re not legally responsible for a partner’s debt, unless you are a co-signatory, but a financial associate can affect your credit score

Any  Country Court Judgements (CCJs) against you, and whether you’ve been declared bankrupt or have entered into an Individual Voluntary Arrangement (IVA)

Other credit applications (“footprints”)

  • Recent credit applications show up when lenders perform a credit check
  • This is tricky if you’re shopping around for the best credit card deal: you don’t want to have lots of recent credit applications on your record – it makes you look hard-up and desperate. But many lenders only show the product you will be offered (and its interest rate) after completing a credit check. Most prospective lenders should understand this.

Watch out for mobile phone and broadband default records on your credit report

  • Broadband providers appear to among the quickest companies to register default payments
  • Many prospective borrowers are shocked to find they have a poor credit rating from a mobile phone service they believed they cancelled years ago

7  What’s NOT included on my credit report?

  • How much is in your current account and basic debit accounts
  • Savings accounts
  • Student loans
  • Council tax arrears
  • Medical history
  • Criminal record
  • Details from individuals or organisations that don’t share information about credit-worthiness, eg private landlords. (Because the data sharing is based on “principles of reciprocity”.)
  • Details of your earnings and monthly outgoings (which is why you’re asked for these separately)

What’s the most important thing on my credit report? Payment history. Along with public records it accounts for approximately 35% of your score.

8  MOST IMPORTANT: How can I improve my credit score?

What you can do right now to boost your credit rating:

Check that you’re on the electoral register at your current address (quick and easy: creditors need to know where to track you down).

Challenge any adverse ratings on your credit report that you know are incorrect (an account you had cancelled / an address that a company had recorded incorrectly…).

Always repay at least the minimum on credit cards, and try to clear the whole balance each month.

Pay off your credit card twice a month if you use your card close to the limit (because card companies only report balances to the agencies once a month).

Avoid hard searches on your credit record: use an eligibility checker before you apply for any credit.

If you get turned down on a credit card application don’t apply for a different one straight away (it can look as though you’re desperate for cash).

Get a notice of disassociation from anyone you’re no longer connected with who may have a poor credit rating.

If someone with a good credit rating really trusts you, “share” their credit score by becoming an authorised user on their credit card.

If you’re a renter, you can opt in to have your reliable rent payment record added to your credit score: via Credit Ladder and the Rental Exchange

  • It can take months to successfully challenge an incorrect default on your credit rating, and up to 28 days for your record to be updated. So start work on improving on your credit score well in advance of applying for a big loan.
  • In the meantime, your can record on your credit rating what you understand to be the correct circumstances and why you were not at fault.

Find out more about credit products which may suit you if you’ve got a poor credit rating:

Loans for borrowers with bad credit

A credit card to rebuild your credit card rating

Interest-only mortgages