Keeping score on a bust’s devastation

50 million Americans saw credit scores plunge between 2008 and 2009

Dec.December 02, 2011 01:13 PM

How big a whack did your credit scores take during the grim years of economic
distress following the housing bust? Was it 20 points, 50 points, 100 points
— or maybe no drop at all?

These are key questions affecting millions of potential homebuyers who
hope to qualify for mortgages and current owners looking to refinance. New
research from a major credit-risk evaluation company suggests that the drop
in huge numbers of Americans’ scores was dramatic.

FICO (formerly known as Fair Isaac Corp.), which developed and markets the
eponymous score that dominates the home mortgage field, found that during
2008 to 2009, approximately 50 million consumers in this country saw their
FICO scores plunge by more than 20 points. Nearly 21 million of these lost
more than 50 points. Many lost 100 points or more because of the most severe

During the same period, lenders and investors began ratcheting up their
standards for acceptable scores and to extend special preferences in fees
and interest rates to loan applicants who rank among the highest scorers.
Consider these developments:

— Loans originated for purchase or guarantee by the two dominant home
loan investors — government-run Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac — now carry
average FICO credit scores in the 760 range and above, record highs for both
companies. That’s good for them, but not necessarily for you if you need a
loan. (FICO scores range from 300 to 850; higher scores indicate lower risk
of default.)

— Even new mortgages being insured by the Federal Housing Administration
(FHA) — traditionally the fail-safe financing refuge for first-time buyers
with modest incomes and less-than-perfect credit histories — now have
average credit scores slightly above 700.

— During the housing boom years of 2004 to 06, by contrast, a score of 620-
640 was adequate to earn you a good mortgage rate and terms at Fannie Mae and
Freddie Mac. At FHA, the agency often approved loans where FICO scores were
in the mid-500s with barely a blink.

Earlier FICO studies found that the deepest score declines — creating the
toughest challenges for obtaining new credit on affordable terms — have been
among borrowers who ranked among the credit elite. Homeowners with scores in
the high 700s may have lost as much as 130 points when they fell three months
behind or more on loan payments. They might have lost as much as 160 points
when they negotiated a short sale with their bank and as a result had unpaid
deficiency balances left over.

Score bruises and wounds from past years are now likely affecting the ability
of consumers to get a new mortgage or to buy a house. In a survey released
before Thanksgiving, the National Association of Realtors reported that large
numbers of sales contracts are falling apart because of financing issues —
would-be buyers having difficulties meeting lenders’ increasingly stringent
requirements, including credit — among other factors.

Contract failures were reported by 33 percent of realty agents in the study,
according to the association, a big spike over the year before when just 8
percent of agents reported cancellations. Though other factors may also be
at work, credit problems stemming from 2008, 2009 and 2010, combined with
lenders’ higher FICO requirements, clearly are retarding the housing recovery
by thwarting sales. Part of the reason: Though FICO scores are dynamic and
constantly changing, they can take extended periods to recover, much like a
body that has suffered severe trauma.

In research released earlier this year, FICO estimated that a homeowner
with a 720 score who falls 30 days late on mortgage payments can take as
much as 30 months to recover the 70 to 90 points that were lost in the
process. And this assumes the owner gets current on all debts, keeps balances
relatively low on credit cards and generally becomes a model user of credit.
For homeowners with higher scores in the 780 range to start, the same 30-day
delinquency — with a loss of 90 to 110 points — can take 36 months to cure

What does this all mean to you if you’re one of the 50 million who lost
significant credit score points during the past several years? You should
be in rebuilding mode if you seriously want another mortgage. As a more
immediate alternative, though, keep FHA in mind. Though the average FICO
scores of its customers never have been higher, FHA still accepts scores
in the upper 500s and is more open than other financing sources to hearing
about “extenuating circumstances” — unexpected job loss, medical problems,
divorce and other issues — that caused your credit score to plunge in the
first place.

Kenneth Harney is a syndicated real estate columnist.

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