NEW YORK (AP) -- A simple three-digit number can make the difference in whether you qualify for a mortgage loan or get the best interest rate on a personal loan.
It's called a ''credit score'' or ''risk score'', and it's essentially a measure of your creditworthiness that's determined by comparing your borrowing record with millions of others.
For years, the number was available to lenders but kept secret from consumers unless they were turned down for a loan. Now credit bureaus and lenders are starting to make them available to consumers -- along with guidance on how they can be improved.
''It's absolutely a good thing for consumers,'' said Daniel Fenton, director for housing at the National Foundation for Credit Counseling in Silver Spring, Md. ''Seeing their credit score gives them a snapshot of their credit standing. If this helps them focus on the benefits of having good credit, then everyone wins.''
The scores -- which range from 300 to 850 -- are calculated off data that credit card issuers, banks and loan companies supply to credit bureaus. The higher your score, the better the statistical odds that you'll repay a debt, and the better the odds that you'll get a loan you want at the best rate.
The most commonly used score is called a ''FICO'' after Fair, Isaac and Co., the San Rafael, Calif., firm that developed the mathematical formula.
FICO scores have been available to consumers since late March at www.myfico.com and www.equifax.com for $12.95. For that price, the consumer also gets a look at his or her credit report maintained by Atlanta-based Equifax Inc., the nation's largest credit reporting agency.
In April, E-Loan, the online mortgage site at www.eloan.com, began giving away an alternative score, prepared by CreditXpert Inc. of Hunt Valley, Md. And under a new law, California lenders must give would-be borrowers their credit scores starting July 1.
While getting a credit score can help consumers determine if they'll qualify for a loan or new credit card, they need to keep in mind that it's just one of the things a lender looks at. Income and job stability, the size of the loan, the value of collateral and, perhaps, the lender's own internal scoring system also are factors.
''You can have a great score, but if you want a $1 million mortgage, have no savings and make $50,000 a year, you won't get the mortgage,'' said Rich Crutchfield, an executive vice president at Equifax.
Still, Crutchfield says that knowing your score in advance can give you an edge in the borrowing process. ''Knowledge is power, and if you know where you stand, that you have a good score, you can probably negotiate the best rate on a loan,'' he said.
The main determinants of a FICO credit score are your payment history, amount owed, length of your credit history, the number of new credit applications and the types of credit in use.
Cheri St. John, corporate vice president at Fair, Isaac, said ''different scores mean different things to different lenders.'' Scores in the 700s and above are considered very good, she said. But one of 630 is more problematic.
''You're probably OK to qualify for a mortgage, but you might have to put more down or pay a slightly higher rate'' of interest, she said. ''If you're trying to get a gold card, unsecured, 630 might not be high enough.''
Why? Because according to Fair, Isaac calculations, the delinquency rate for people with scores of 750 is about 2 percent; for those with scores of 630, it's 31 percent.
To help consumers figure out what their scores mean, Equifax and Fair, Isaac are releasing them along with a personalized report telling how the number is computed and the four main reasons it's as high or low as it is. The reports also contain steps consumers can take to improve their scores.
''In general, consumers need to pay bills on time every time, keep balances low and only apply for and use credit when they need to,'' St. John said.
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