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So you just ordered a credit report on your new tenant or borrower. Now you’re scratching your head and wondering,

“What the heck am I looking at?!”

When you’re evaluating a new relationship that involves collecting payments, it’s never a bad idea to get the person’s credit report. At the same time, this information will only be useful to the extent that you understand how to read it.

To the untrained eye, a personal credit report can be a WILDLY confusing document. Back when I started working in the banking industry, I remember feeling utterly clueless about making sense of these things.

On my first several attempts at reading through various credit reports, I needed someone with experience standing over my shoulder, going line-by-line through each piece of information, helping me understand what every word and number meant. Only after reviewing dozens of these reports did I start to get confident in how to interpret them.

If you’re trying to analyze a credit report (whether it be your own or someone else you’re planning to work with), my goal is to shorten your learning curve and help you understand what’s going on.

Where to Order a Credit Report?

There are many different websites and services you can use to generate credit reports.

In the United States, three giant credit reporting agencies collect the financial data used in most credit reports:

Personally, I use Cozy. It has a downright idiot-proof way of requesting reports from tenants and borrowers (something I desperately need).

The best part is that the system actually requires the applicant to pay for the report, so it doesn’t cost me credit report cozyanything to do this essential piece of homework on the people I’m considering working with.

Experian provides the credit reports from Cozy. Luckily, they’re some of the most user-friendly credit reports I’ve ever seen. And I’ve seen a lot of them in my time.

That said, I think the average person could still benefit from a little bit of hand-holding. I put together this short video to walk you through one example.

Note: Some of the links throughout this blog post are affiliate links that will generate a small commission for the REtipster Blog at no additional cost to you. If you feel Cozy will help achieve your goals and you decide to use these links, your support is very much appreciated!

How Do You Interpret a Credit Score?

Here’s a quick rundown of how I assess credit scores:

  • 800 – 850 Excellent! It’s not often that credit scores come in this high. If you see anyone north of 800, it’s a good sign they’ve been doing something right.
  • 700 – 800Good! When someone’s credit score is in this range, their financial situation isn’t necessarily perfect, but it’s still in great shape.
  • 650 – 700Pretty Good. However, there may be a few “dings” against their credit that are worth investigating.
  • 600 – 650Meh… this applicant probably has some questions to answer (and some convincing to do). Keep a close eye on any red flags that come up in their credit report. Figure out what has caused their score to be less-than-stellar, and why.
  • Less than 600Poor. There are most likely some significant issues you need to be aware of. Be very careful when you score in the range.

Keep in mind, these bullet points are how I look at credit scores. If you want to see more of an “official industry standard,” these pie charts from Experian convey another perspective:

credit report experian

Source: Experian – What Is a Good Credit Score?

Remember, the credit score by itself never tells the whole story. Simply focusing on these three digits doesn’t tell you WHY the credit score is high, low, or average.

If you want to understand what’s going on with a person’s financial picture, you need to dig into the details. A credit report has several parts that can uncover a person’s past and current financial obligations.

RELATED: The Quick & Easy Guide to Tenant and Borrower Screening

Parts of a Credit Report

A typical credit report consists of several key components.

1. Credit Overview

If you get your credit reports from a service like Cozy, the first thing you’ll see is the credit overview.

It boils everything down to a three-digit number and gives a quick, high-level summary of where this person stands.

credit report example

In this example, the applicant’s credit score is 744. This means we can be reasonably confident that there won’t be any huge, ugly surprises in their credit report. Even so, it’s always worth your while to keep reading to understand what information lies behind this number.

2. Credit Used

The next thing you’ll see is the credit used.

In this example, the applicant has already leveraged 47% of their available credit. credit report credit used

Another way of looking at this percentage is,

If this person can borrow up to $100, they’ve already obtained $47 of those dollars.

The idea is to simply offer an idea for how much borrowing capacity they still have left, given how much debt they’ve already taken on.

3. Total Monthly Payments

The next section of the credit report shows the person’s total monthly payments, which is fairly self-explanatory.

It details how much this person pays out each month to cover their outstanding debts and obligations.

credit report total monthly payments

This data will offer some quick insights on two things:

  1. What types of debts are already outstanding?
  2. What are the total monthly payments assigned to each type of debt on the list?

If the applicant has any big monthly payments that weigh them down, those will probably jump out in this section.

4. Total Debt

Beneath the total monthly payments section, we’ll see the total debt.

credit report total debt

Similar to the previous section, this part of the credit report shows us the current outstanding balance(s) of each type of obligation the applicant has a duty to pay.

Remember, this doesn’t tell us anything about the person’s monthly cash flow (i.e., whether or not they can afford these monthly payments). But it does tell us how much they’d have to pay to wipe out ALL of their existing debt right now.

Of course, merely knowing a person’s total monthly payments and total debt doesn’t tell us anything conclusive about how creditworthy they are. It simply tells us what’s working against them.

REtipster does not provide tax, investment, or financial advice. Always seek the help of a licensed financial professional before taking action.

5. Payment History

Next on the credit report is payment history.

This section tells us how many times (if ever) the person has been late on their payments and how many times they’ve missed their monthly payments (on current or past debts owed).

Furthermore, if any payments have ever been completely neglected or ignored, we can see how many times their missed payments have been turned over to collections. This includes public records, such as failure to pay taxes or any amount owed to a government agency.

credit report payment history

In the best-case scenario, the credit reports you analyze will look exactly like the example above. If you see the words “All Clear” and/or “None,” you can simply move on to the next section.

On the other hand, if you see that there have been prior issues, you can gain even more insight about what might have gone wrong in the following section.

6. Account History

In the account history section, you can see much more detail about every monthly payment they’ve made for the past two years.

If they missed or late payments in that timeframe, you’ll see when they happened, how late the payments were, and how long they persisted for. You can expand the details on each loan by clicking the down arrow next to each entry.

credit report account history

In this section, you may encounter a few different types of accounts:

  • Installment accounts. These will have a fixed monthly payment, for a set period, with a loan balance that goes down steadily each month until the loan is paid in full. These types are usually for real estate loans, student loans, and other fully amortizing loans.
  • Revolving accounts. These loans feature a loan balance that can go up and down as the funds are withdrawn, repaid, and redrawn again as needed for the duration of the loan agreement. Often, these accounts will be in the form of credit cards or home equity lines of credit, with loan balances that fluctuate monthly. The principal balance on this type of account doesn’t need to be paid down to zero every month, only the interest.
  • Closed accounts. Whether you’re looking at a revolving or an installment account, you may see the word “Closed” in parentheses, whenever the loan has been paid off and closed within the timeframe covered in the credit report.

Again, ideally, you’ll see every payment listed as a green circle with a “C” (current) in this section. But if you see anything else, you may put together a list of questions for the person you’re reviewing. Or, if you’re looking at your own credit report, take note of any surprises you see here so you can resolve them with the appropriate creditors.

Are There Justified Late Payments?

When you see indications of late or missed payments, it doesn’t necessarily mean the person isn’t creditworthy, but it should at least tip you off that something unusual is going on.

Remember —sometimes there are legitimately good reasons for late or missed payments.

In my days in the banking world, I saw some good, creditworthy people with horrible credit scores. Why? Because sometimes, people will withhold payments because of incomplete work, defective products, or various payment disputes. Sometimes they aren’t even aware of money owed in the first place! This happens a lot with small medical bills that get lost, which are then sent to their collections agency when they unpaid. Reporting errors can happen, too, so don’t assume every credit report tells you the gospel truth. Look at this as one of many research tools.

When you see issues in this section of the report, ask some questions. Dig deeper to find the whole story.

7. Inquiries

In the inquiries section of the credit report, you’ll see a list of any other financial institutions, lenders, landlords, screening companies (among others) who have run credit checks on this individual. It will also say what date the credit report was pulled and what type of application it was pulled for (e.g., auto loan, credit card application, rental agreement, etc.).

credit report inquiries

When a person has several credit inquiries listed in a short period, it can have a negative impact on their overall credit score. These types of inquiries are referred to as a “hard inquiry” or a “hard pull,” which typically occur when a mortgage lender or credit card issuer runs a credit check during their underwriting and decision-making process. If someone is applying for a loan with more than one lender at the same time, this can obviously hurt their credit score.

Hard inquiries will typically be listed like this on a credit report for about two years after the fact.

One nice thing about Cozy is that when a credit report is requested, the applicant has to authorize AND pay for it, which counts as a soft credit inquiry. Soft credit inquiries don’t have a negative impact on a person’s credit score (which is one compelling reason to use a service like Cozy, rather than some other alternative that counts as a hard inquiry).

8. Addresses and Employment

In the addresses and employment sections, we can see some other basic details about where this person has lived and where they’ve been employed.

credit report employment

It’s worth noting that this section of the credit report isn’t necessarily an all-encompassing “employment history.” Rather, it’s a list of information provided by the applicant’s other lenders.

When a person completes a new loan application (such as for a mortgage or line of credit), part of the application typically requires them to fill out their home address and the name and address of their current employer.

These lenders will then report this information from these loan applications to the credit agencies, and that’s how this information ends up on credit reports.

This list of employers is only refreshed when a person applies for new credit. Even then, it’s not always provided to the credit reporting agencies, so it’s not exactly a definitive list of the applicant’s current and previous employers.

Keep in mind that while this information is somewhat useful for verifying a person’s addresses and employment situation, this section of the credit report has no impact on a person’s credit score.

9. Score Factors

The last thing you’ll see in this type of credit report is the score factors. This is a quick rundown list of reasons indicating why the credit score is what it is.

credit report score factors

This section may help decipher why a person’s credit score seems lower than it should be. For example, if they have an excellent payment history, but they’ve had 20+ hard inquiries against them over the past 30 days. You can use your best judgment to decide whether or not the person is a legitimate credit risk.

Credit Report Income Verification (Don’t Forget This!)

A credit report can be extremely helpful as you’re doing your homework on a potential tenant, borrower, employee, or otherwise. But it’s also important to recognize that the credit report isn’t everything.

What this data tells you is their personal debts and obligations (i.e., the total loan balances and their monthly payments) and what they looked like historically.

What it does NOT tell you, however, is how much income they generate. If you’re trying to determine their personal debt to income (i.e., how much they pay out for their monthly debts vs. how much income they generate each month), you’ll need more than just the credit report to see the full story.

Most lenders and landlords will request some additional information (recent pay stubs and W-2s) on top of the credit report to verify their applicant’s income because they simply cannot make an educated decision without it.

In the absence of a W-2 from the applicant’s employer, a copy of their most recent tax return will also show their annual income in the previous year. The W-2 is usually easier to produce, though, which is why most lenders and landlords start with it.

With this information, you should have reasonable assurance of two things. First is how much the applicant earns; the W-2 will show what the applicant was paid in the most recent fiscal year. Second, how much they currently make per month; pay stubs will show what the applicant makes each pay period.

Does This Cover the Whole Income Angle?

It’s worth noting that while these documents by themselves can offer some pretty solid assurance of an applicant’s employment situation, they still won’t guarantee that the applicant is currently employed. For example, in the unlikely event that they just got fired in the past few days, or if they fabricated their W-2 and pay stubs, you would have no way of knowing this by referring only to these documents.

This is why it’s also a good idea to contact the person’s current employer to request employment verification. If you’re relying on the applicant’s tax returns, you may even go so far as to verify these documents with the IRS by using Form 4506-T, which will provide you with a transcript of the person’s tax return.

Does a Credit Report Show the Full Picture?

Critical thinking is important when looking at a credit report.

Whether a person’s credit score is exceptionally high or low, you need to figure out the “why.” For instance, let’s consider the credit scores of Applicant A and B.

Applicant A

This person has a credit score of 580.

They lost their job last year and couldn’t pay their student loans, which sabotaged their credit history. However, during their loss of income, they chose to continue paying their rent. In other words, they prioritized their payments to their landlord over their other obligations, even to the detriment of their credit score.

They recently got a new job and are current on their payments again, but it will take time to fix their credit score.

Applicant B

This person has a credit score of 780.

Their credit score appears to be very good because they owe money on several loans, and they’ve always paid on time. However, they also have $20,000 in credit card debt (yikes!) and no history of making rent payments. Their borrowing capacity is already highly leveraged, and we aren’t sure which payments they would prioritize if they lost their job tomorrow.

When you compare both applicants and understand the FULL picture of why their credit scores are high or low (along with other factors like their income, employment situation, and the results of their background check), you may start to see how a low credit score doesn’t necessarily mean someone will be a bad tenant. Conversely, a high credit score doesn’t necessarily mean their payments will come with a stronger guarantee.

For some more helpful reading on how credit reports work, be sure to check out these articles as well:

About the author

Seth Williams is the Founder of REtipster.com - an online community that offers real-world guidance for real estate investors.

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