A credit score (also called a FICO Score, so named for the company that provides the score used by most lenders) helps lenders determine their risk in lending you money. Your history of paying bills on time and your monthly debts determine your credit score, which can range from 300 (lowest) to 850 (highest). A score of 740 or above is generally considered "very good."
There are three national credit bureaus (Equifax, Experian and TransUnion) that maintain credit reports. FICO summarizes the results into three FICO scores, one for each bureau. Usually, the three scores are similar, but they may differ based on the different information collected by each credit bureau.
Finding out your credit score
For a fee, FICO will provide you with your credit score(s) upon request. You can also get one free copy of your credit reports from each credit bureau every 12 months via annualcreditreport.com. You're allowed to dispute information in the reports if it was recorded incorrectly, so it's a good idea to check your credit reports regularly for errors — especially if you're planning a major purchase like a house.
What's in my credit report?
Debts such as credit cards, auto loans, student and personal loans automatically show up in your credit reports. Creditors decide whether or not to report late payment. If you're late, you can call the organization to ask about their policies and whether your payment was reported. Your credit score is important when purchasing your first home.
Maintaining good credit
Paying your bills on time as a matter of habit is the best way to ensure your credit remains healthy. Many creditors report after 30 days past due, while others wait as long as 90 days. Healthcare providers usually don't report until much later, if at all.
A word of caution
Each time you apply for a loan or credit card, it gets reported to the credit bureaus. When lenders see multiple applications reported in a short period of time, it can discourage them from giving you a loan.
How important is my credit score?
Your credit score is very important but it is only one factor in a mortgage application. Lenders also consider your income, employment history, your current monthly debts, the size of the loan and your down payment. If your credit score isn't where you want it to be, you can improve it over time.
What credit score do I need to get a mortgage?
Although there isn't a specific minimum credit score required for a first time mortgage loan, it's important to maximize your score before starting the home-buying process in order to qualify and secure the best mortgage rate. Government-backed mortgages like FHA loans typically have lower credit requirements than conventional fixed-rate loans and ARMs.