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Credit Scores Poised to Get More Personal

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By Mary Ellen Podmolik

(MCT)—Many consumers applying for a mortgage are going to start sharing more personal information with lenders next year, like it or not.

FICO scores, the industry standard for determining credit risk in mortgages backed by Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac and the Federal Housing Administration, largely have been based on a person’s credit history. But in an attempt to develop a more well-rounded picture of a person’s finances beyond credit, tools are being developed to help the lending industry dig deeper.

Fair Isaac Corp., or FICO, the company behind the widely used scoring formula, and data provider CoreLogic last week announced a collaboration that will result in a separate score that will be available to mortgage lenders and incorporates information that will include payday loans, evictions and child support payments. In the future, information on the status of utility, rent and cellphone payments may also be included.

Separately, last month, the big three credit reporting agencies, Experian, Equifax and TransUnion, began providing estimates of consumer income as a credit report option. And earlier this year, Experian began including data on on-time rental payments in its reports.

The new information could prove to be a double-edged sword for consumers: It may open the door to homeownership to some consumers who have, according to industryspeak, a “thin file” or worse, a “no-file,” meaning they lack sufficient credit histories.

On the other hand, the extra information may make a borderline borrower look even worse on paper. And it’s unlikely to quiet critics who complain that too much emphasis is put on a single number.

Still, there is thought among researchers that consumer transparency, if it demonstrates both good and bad behavior, has its place.

“You’re trying to convince someone to loan you an awful lot of money at a low interest rate,” said Michael Turner, president of the Policy and Economic Research Council. “Only you know whether you’re going to pay it back. There is a harmony in this data exchange.”

The FICO-CoreLogic partnership won’t result in a credit score that will rule out a borrower for a mortgage backed by Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac or the FHA, which together own or guarantee at least 90 percent of the mortgages being written. That’s because the “tri-merge” report required for such a loan does not rely on CoreLogic data. But it could mean either more or fewer mortgage fees or a higher or lower interest rate charged by lenders that in today’s cautionary lending environment have heartily adopted risk-based pricing.

“We’re fascinated to see, as we get into the data, whether that may expand the universe of people who can get a mortgage,” said Joanne Gaskin, director of product management global scoring for FICO. “Banks are saying, ‘How do I find ways to safely increase loan volume, to find the gems out there?’ ”

As a result, there’s a rush by credit reporting agencies to provide financial companies, whether it’s a mortgage bank or a credit card provider, with a wealth of information on individual customers.

“Before the (housing) bubble burst, there was a huge amount of interest in targeting the unbanked,” said Brannan Johnston, an Experian vice president. “It was a desperate dash to try and grow and go after more and more consumers. When the bubble burst, that certainly dialed back some. They want to grow their business responsibly by taking good credit risks.”

FICO scores have been around since the 1950s, but they didn’t become a major factor in mortgage lending until 1995, when Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac began recommending their use to help determine a mortgage borrower’s creditworthiness. The score, which ranges from 300 to 850, factors in how long borrowers have had credit, how they’re using it and repaying it, and if they have any judgments or delinquencies logged against them.

The change comes at a time when the average FICO scores of homebuyers who qualify for loans continue to rise, as mortgage lenders reward the most creditworthy borrowers with low rates and tack extra fees onto loans for those with lower credit scores.

In a report last year, the Woodstock Institute, a Chicago-based research and advocacy group, found that residents in Illinois’ “communities of color” were far more likely to have lower, “non-prime” credit scores compared with people in predominantly white communities. Statewide, 20 percent of people had a credit score of less than 620, which meant they had a hard time qualifying for a mortgage as well as other forms of credit.

Among other ideas, Woodstock recommended that businesses report on-time and delinquent payment histories for items such as rent, health care, utility and cellphone bills, to truly determine a person’s default history.

“Any time you can get a fuller picture of a customer’s risk profile, it makes it more likely that they can get the product they are most suited to,” said Tom Feltner, Woodstock vice president. “The concern, of course, is what is that information and does it reflect the rate of default?”

There also are concerns about whether inquiries and charge-offs from payday and online lenders should be included. “Payday loans are extremely onerous,” said Chi Chi Wu, a staff attorney at the National Consumer Law Center. “They trap people in a cycle of debt. To report on them is to cite that person as financially distressed. We certainly don’t think that’s going to help people with a credit score.”

The extra information may also help more affluent homeowners who aren’t on the credit grid.

Two years ago, David Pendley, president of Avenue Mortgage Corp., worked with a client, a college professor, who didn’t believe in using credit. “He was putting down 40 percent and he had the hardest time getting a loan, even though he had $120,000 in the bank and he was 22 years on the job.”

Eventually, Pendley secured a loan for the customer through a private bank, but he paid for it. “He didn’t get the lowest rate possible,” Pendley recalled.

©2011 the Chicago Tribune

Distributed by MCT Information Services

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