What You Need to Know About Credit Repair

Know These 9 Critical Facts About Mending Your Credit

Woman reviewing her credit report
© Georgijevic / Creative RF / Getty

It's difficult to navigate today's society with a bad credit considering the number of companies that use your credit to decide whether to do business with you and to set your rates. Consumers with a troubled credit history often seek credit repair to improve their credit to have an easier time financially. Hiring a credit repair company often seems like the best option, but is typically the least viable choice.

As you navigate credit repair and evaluate the best option for your credit, here are the most critical things to know about credit repair.

1. You can do it yourself.

Many people think that only credit repair companies can help repair credit, but the truth is that a credit repair company can do nothing for you that you can't do for yourself. There's plenty of information available in books and on the internet that you can use to educate yourself on how credit works and what you can do to repair your own credit.

Removing negative information, for example, can be done with techniques like credit report disputes, debt validation, pay for delete, and goodwill letters. Many of these are the same strategies credit repair companies use to get negative information removed from your credit report. Doing it yourself not only saves you money but also gives you power and control over your own credit history.

There may be other times in your future that you need to improve your credit and once you can do it on your own, you never have to get help from a company.

2. Credit repair is about your credit report, not your credit score.

When you're repairing your credit, you're actually working to improve the information on your credit report.

This is what ultimately influences whether you have good credit or bad credit and is the basis of your credit score.

Checking your credit report is the first thing you should do when you're ready to start working on your credit. You can get a free copy of your credit report once a year from each of the major credit bureaus — Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion — by visiting www.annualcreditreport.com.

3. Your credit score helps you see where your credit stands.

Whether you have good or bad credit is based on the information in your credit report. However, it's difficult to look at your credit report and tell whether your credit is good or bad. That's why watching your credit score is useful in credit repair. A low credit score indicates a poor credit history that needs work. As your credit score improves, it's an indication that your credit history is improving.

Your credit score is based on five categories of information: payment history, amount of debt, the age of credit history, types of credit accounts, and recent applications for credit. Improving your credit in each of these areas will boost your credit score.

If you were to purchase your credit score every time you wanted to check your credit health, it would get quite expensive.

Using a free credit score service like Credit Karma or Credit Sesame will allow you to monitor your credit progress at no cost. When you're signing up for a credit monitoring service, look for one that doesn't ask for a credit card. Otherwise, there's a chance you may be actually signing up for a free trial subscription that will start charging you each month until you cancel the services.

4. Removing accurate negative information is tough.

Emphasis on accurate. Credit bureaus are only legally obligated to remove inaccurately reported information from your credit report. Whether those inaccuracies are positive or negative is of no consequence. It's the fact the information is inaccurate that allows you to remove it from your credit report, not that it's negative.

When accurately reported negative information hurts your credit, it's tougher to remove this information because the credit bureaus are within their rights to report this information.

In fact, the integrity of the credit system depends on credit bureaus reporting all accurate information, even information that's negative.

There are some strategies to remove accurate negative information — like a collection account for a debt you legitimately owe. These strategies may take more time and effort than a simple credit report dispute. For these types of accounts debt validation (for collection agencies), pay for delete, and goodwill deletion requests are the best options.

5. Doing nothing might be a strategy.

Negative information won't stay on your credit report forever. Most negative information will only stay on your credit report for seven years. There are a few exceptions. Chapter 7 bankruptcy and unpaid tax liens can stay on your credit report for up to 10 years. Unpaid judgments can remain on your credit report through the state's statute of limitations for that type of debt if the statute is more than seven years.

If an account is nearing the credit reporting time limit, waiting for it to fall off may be less stressful and time-consuming than trying to remove the account with dispute letters or similar strategies.

Contrary to popular belief, taking action on a negative account does not extend the credit reporting time limit. So, if you pay off a six-year-old debt collection, for example, it will still drop off your credit report after year seven.

6. Closing accounts won't help.

There's a widespread belief that only open accounts are included in a person's credit report, that closing an account will remove it from their credit report. Sorry to disappoint you if you were hoping that you can save your credit by closing an account that's giving you problems. In some cases, closing an account can actually hurt your credit score.

Closing an account won't remove it from your credit report. All the details about the closed account will continue to be listed on your credit report as reported by your creditors.

"Before [closing accounts], consumers should take into consideration other factors that comprise credit scores, such as the length of time the account has been opened," says Nancy Bistritz, Director Public Relations and Communications of Global Consumer Solutions at Equifax, one of the three major credit bureaus. "If you've exhibited the right kinds of behavior for an established period of time with an account (i.e., paying on time every time), then closing that account may not make sense."

If the account is in good standing or can be brought back into good standing by catching up on the past due balance, leaving the account open can actually help you repair your credit. You'll need open, active accounts with a positive payment history to improve your credit score. Opening new accounts with a bad credit score can be difficult so rehabilitating the accounts you already have open can be much easier.

7. Credit repair companies are often untrustworthy.

Credit repair companies do a great job of promoting their services to vulnerable consumers who want better credit but also do not completely understand how credit works or how much influence they have over their own credit scores.

Many credit repair companies make lofty promises — often promises they can't fulfill — charge upfront fees and fail to deliver on their services. All these are prohibited by Federal law, but consumers who are unfamiliar with the law wouldn't realize they were being taken advantage of until it's too late.

Over the past several years, the Federal Trade Commission has pursued dozens of credit repair companies who have broken the law. These companies are often required to pay hefty fines and in some cases are banned from doing business in the credit repair industry.

A few signs you're dealing with a shady credit repair company: they ask you pay upfront before any services begin, cite an affiliation with the government or special relationship with the credit bureaus, promise a specific credit score, promise to delete accurate information from your credit report, fail to inform you of your right to dispute information directly with the credit bureaus, or ask you to waive your rights under the Credit Repair Organizations Act.

8. You can't expect overnight results.

It takes time to rebuild a bad credit history. Your credit score considers your most recent credit history more significantly than older items. A good credit history typically has a minimal number of negative entries and lots of recent positive credit information. A few months of on-time payments is a step in the right direction, but it won't give you excellent credit right away. As time passes and the negative information falls off or gets older, and you replace it with positive information, you'll see your credit gradually improve.

Repairing bad credit takes time, so it's important to be patient with the process. The amount of time it takes can vary from person to person depending on the information on your credit report and how you're going about credit repair. You might see immediate boosts when something is deleted from your credit report.

Furthermore, your credit score may fluctuate during the credit repair process as the information in your credit report changes. Don't be alarmed by drops in your credit score. Focus on the general trend of your credit score over a period of time rather than the daily fluctuations.

9. Your improved credit won't last if you don't change your habits.

Many people go through credit repair — whether doing it themselves or hiring a company — so they can borrow money, for a mortgage or auto loan, for example. There's nothing wrong with this. Many people, unfortunately, find themselves back in the same situation because they don't borrow responsibly, ending up with more debt than they can handle and slip back into habits of missing payments.

If you want your good credit to last, you have to adopt habits that will maintain good credit. This means borrowing only what you can realistically afford to pay back (and maybe even a little less). Paying your bills on time is perhaps one of the best things you can do for your credit.

Nancy Bistritz says, "When it comes to creditworthiness, a great rule of thumb to remember is to pay your bills on time every time. Lenders and creditors want to know that you've been able to satisfy your financial commitments on time every time. Therefore, paying bills on time is an important, fundamental behavior to establish early on."