WASHINGTON - When you do a short sale of a house, or modify the mortgage, is there much of an impact on your credit score? What if you walk away from the mortgage?
A scoring company created by the three national credit bureaus - Equifax, Experian and TransUnion - has some eye-opening numbers. VantageScore Solutions LLC, whose risk-prediction scores are now being used by some of the largest mortgage companies and banks, has found that the way consumers handle their mortgage problems can have profound effects on their credit scores.
For example, some alternatives - such as loan modifications that roll late payments and penalties into the principal debt owed on the house - can increase borrowers' scores modestly. Refinancings of underwater, negative equity mortgages - such as the Obama administration's "home affordable" refis through Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac - may have little or no negative impact on scores, even though the homeowners might have been tottering on the edge of serious delinquency before refinancing.
The Vantage score, the primary competitor to the long-dominant FICO score, rates borrowers on a scale ranging from 501 - subprime, highest risk - to 990, super-prime, the lowest risk. Unlike FICO, where scores can vary by 50 to 100 points based on which bureau supplied the underlying credit data, Vantage scores are about the same for each consumer.
When homeowners negotiate a short sale with lenders, they sometimes assume there will be relatively little impact on their scores. After all, the loan was successfully paid off, there was no foreclosure and the lender voluntarily agreed to accept a lower balance than was owed.
But in fact, according to VantageScore researchers, short sales can trigger big drops in scores. Sarah Davies, senior vice president of analytics, said a homeowner who previously had an excellent score of 862 might plummet 120 to 130 points immediately as the result of a short sale.
While it's true the lender may lose less money through a short sale compared with a foreclosure, Davies said "it's still a derogatory event." The full debt was not repaid, and the lender lost money.
What happens when borrowers walk away from their mortgage debts altogether - the so-called "strategic defaults" that have become commonplace in some large markets? They can count on 140- to 150-point immediate hits to their scores, plus negative marks on their credit bureau files for up to seven years.
People who file for bankruptcy protection covering all their debts - the mortgage, credit cards, auto loans, etc. - get hit with declines that are the scoring equivalent of a nuclear bomb: an average 355- to 365-point decline. Bankruptcies remain on borrowers' credit bureau files for 10 years.
With all the mortgage delinquencies, short sales and foreclosures experienced by American consumers in the past couple of years, there has been a deterioration of average scores across the board.
For example, roughly 36.6 million of the 213 million consumers tracked by the three national credit bureaus in the first quarter of 2008 had Vantage scores above 900 - the super-prime credit rung. That select group represented 17.2 percent of the country's consumers. But by the end of the second quarter of this year, just 15.4 percent - 33.3 million out of 216.9 million individuals' files - were left among the elite. By credit industry standards, that's huge.
More Americans' scores are slipping into the worst credit category as well. In the third quarter of 2006, 34.4 million consumers were in the lowest segment - 16.6 percent of 206.9 million individuals.But by the second quarter of this year, 18.3 percent of all files were in that category - 39.8 million consumers out of 216.9 million.
Most of these changes - fewer people with excellent credit, more people in the lowest brackets - have been caused by late payments on home mortgages, serious delinquencies, short sales and foreclosures, according to VantageScore researchers.
But the bottom-line good news about scores is that homeowners facing financial stress can experience minimal dings to their credit if they contact their loan servicer or lender early in the game, when they first discover they may have trouble making their monthly payments and take steps toward a loan modification or refinancing.
"Start that conversation early," said Barrett Burns, a former lender and now CEO of VantageScore. If you wait and fall several payments behind before seeking a modification, "you can lose 240 points on your score" and damage your ability to obtain credit - on anything - for years.
Ken Harney can be reached at email@example.com.