NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) — As banks shy away from making risky consumer loans, a mediocre credit history just won’t cut it anymore. To get the best rates on mortgages, credit cards and auto loans, you need a killer score.
Your FICO score is a numerical measure of your creditworthiness that ranges from 300 to 850. While there are a few different credit scoring systems available, it’s the FICO score, created by the Fair Isaac Corporation, that most lenders look at when they check your credit.
Lenders have already raised their standards by about 20 to 40 points this year, according to Barry Paperno, consumer operations manager at FICO. So while a score in the 720 to 740 range would have gotten you the best rates on a mortgage in the past, you now need a score of at least 760 to snag the best loans.
“Requirements are higher than in the past so you’re going to have to be more diligent this year,” said Paperno.
FICO focuses on five categories when calculating your score: How much debt you have, your payment history, your debt utilization ratio (how much you owe in relation to your credit limits), how far back your credit history goes and your mix of various types of credit.
1. Making late payments
A single late payment on a credit card or other loan could ding your score by as much as 110 points if you already had a great score and 80 points for someone with an average score. So the best thing you can do to improve your score is make payments on time.
“This continues to be the number one reason scores are lower,” said Paperno. “In addition to being a heavily weighted part of your score, if you’re late on a payment, it’s going to continue to appear on your credit report for about seven years.”
If you’ve made mistakes in the past, you can’t change them, but you can outlive them. The longer it’s been since you were late on a payment, the less of an impact it will have on your score, but “your history does follow you,” said Paperno.
Since payment history accounts for about 35% of your total score, it’s really important to start paying on time.