- The Washington Times - Friday, December 7, 2001

Most home buyers must pursue a mortgage before purchasing a house. With a national average price of a house standing at $154,000, it's next to impossible for the average worker to buy the average house with cash. That means a mortgage is in order. Therefore, the purchasing of a house with a mortgage actually begins years in advance when the consumer begins establishing credit.

Uncontrolled spending has nearly destroyed the buying power of many Americans. With the recent change in bankruptcy laws, requiring bankruptcy filers to take more responsibility for their debt, the financial courts saw a rush of filed bankruptcies in the first half of the year from consumers who wanted to get out from underneath their load of debt before the more stringent rules came into effect.

Fewer Americans are saving their money than ever before in the face of a recession and a flatlining of income growth, according to Commerce Department figures. October saw wage drops of 1.7 percent, following a 1.2 percent drop in September, the federal agency reported earlier this month.

With that in mind, good credit practices are even more important for consumers who want to buy a house in the future. All the credit counseling services I visited online tout the same advice on building good credit.

•Get a checking account in your own name. Keep it balanced and don't bounce checks.

• Apply for a credit card account or other installment loan, such as a car loan, to establish credit.

• Make payments on time.

Let me explain what this means, or maybe more importantly, what it doesn't mean.

Paying on time, means the payment has been received by the credit agency on the date that it's due. If the due date is the 15th of the month, the borrower doesn't have until the 15th to mail the check. The payment must have been received at the credit agency by the 15th.

Many of my own credit cards, accounts, etc., disclose (albeit in small type) that I should count on seven days for my check to make it to their office and be processed. Using that advice, that means I should be mailing my payment in by the eighth of the month for it to be credited on time.

Another mistake consumers make with their mortgage, in particular, involves the wording on the payment coupon (which is due the first of the month) that goes something like this: "If paid after the 15th, the amount due is $XXX…" The erroneous assumption by some consumers is that the bank really doesn't count it late until after their penalty date stipulated on the payment stub. Not true. If the due date is the first of the month, then by gum, it's the first.

•To get credit, many times, you have to already have some in your possession. Two to four credit cards is a good thing in the world of credit management. More or less is not so good.

•Keep your debt ratios between 20 percent and 30 percent. This means you want to keep your consumer debt less than 30 percent of your monthly income. (MSN.com has a great Debt Evaluation Calculator at https://moneycentral.msn.com/investor/calcs/n_debtratio/main.asp). Try it out and see how you fare.

•If you cannot establish credit because you haven't had credit before (I know, the old financial Catch-22), be sure to pay your household bills on time (i.e., phone, electric, gas, etc.), which can be used in a credit application to show you are trustworthy.

•Take a look at your credit report annually.

Here are the three primary credit reporting agencies where you can request a copy of your personal credit report:

Equifax Information Service Center: www.equifax.com; 800/685-1111; P.O. Box 740241, Atlanta, Ga. 30374-0241.

Experian Information Solutions Inc.: www.experian.com; 888/397-3742; P.O. Box 2002, Allen, Texas, 75013.

Trans Union Corp.: www.tuc.com; 800/888-4213, P.O. Box 1000, Chester, Pa. 19022.

Credittalk.com says you should think of your credit report as a resume of how well you have paid your bills and used financial tools such as credit cards and checks. That's pretty good advice.

M. Anthony Carr has written about real estate for more than 12 years. Send questions or comments by e-mail ([email protected]).

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