News Column

Many Improving Their Bad Credit as Economy Improves

March 4, 2013

Donna Gehrke-White, Sun Sentinel

credit card

Melvin Montesino endured the full brunt of the Great Recession: A lost job, then foreclosure and even bankruptcy.

Since then Montesino has been on the rebound, working two jobs while improving his damaged credit. "It wasn't easy. Some banks even turned me down for a prepaid credit card," he said.

But his efforts have paid off. Despite the foreclosure and bankruptcy, he will close on a three-bedroom, two-bath home in Coral Springs later this month. "It's pretty spacious," he said.

The South Florida housing market is filled with thousands of others trying to start over after the recession left them with severe dings to their credit. Many are making good progress. In fact, South Florida is second only to the Los Angeles metro area in the number of people who have improved their once sub-prime credit scores in the year that ended Sept. 30, according to Equifax, the national credit reporting agency.

Some 40,000 people in Broward, Palm Beach and Miami-Dade counties raised their credit scores to 620 or above in a year, removing them from the Subprime/Risky category that meant they had to pay the highest interest rates -- if they could get credit, Equifax found. That netted a 3.6 percent decline in the number of South Floridians with bad credit, a substantial improvement.

"People are getting back on their feet and improving their credit," said Howard Dvorkin who founded the Fort Lauderdale-based nonprofit, Consolidated Credit Counseling Services. More people are optimistic about starting over -- calls for help in improving low credit scores are up about 25 percent from just a year ago, he said.

In January, consumers in the three counties had an average credit score of 645, just three points below the national average, the consumer website CreditKarma.com reported.

Many South Florida lenders are trying to help out. Deerfield Beach senior mortgage specialist Adam Cohn said his company, The Mortgage Firm, provides free counseling to help people improve their credit scores so they can better qualify for a home loan.

Cohn, who helped Montesino get a loan for his Coral Springs house, said some South Floridians just need a little nudge, such as encouraging them to pay off credit cards with balances less than $500 to boost their credit score.

One woman took his advice and recently raised her score 30 points to 650. That got her a conventional loan for a home in Davie, Cohn said, a loan she otherwise would not have been eligible for.

Cohn said he also was able to help a man qualify for a loan on a Boynton Beach house after improving his credit score despite filing for bankruptcy five years ago.

"He'll be closing in the next couple of weeks," Cohn said.

Some who were forced into bankruptcy or a short sale of their home because of extenuating circumstances beyond their control -- and not because of overspending -- can qualify for a mortgage in as little time as 24 months, said secondary lender Freddie Mac spokesman Brad German. Those who are foreclosed on have to wait longer -- at least three years -- to get a Freddie Mac loan, German said.

In Parkland, contractor Ken Viviano sees his recent truck loan from Miramar-based Tropical Financial Credit Union as the start toward rebuilding his damaged credit and eventually buying a new home. He now is trying to short sale his Parkland home that he can't afford.

"Life was good for many years. Then someone flipped the switch," Viviano said. Large construction companies could not even able to pay his company for assignments already finished, Viviano said. "That wiped out my savings and caused me to go into bankruptcy," he said.

But now the economy is better, he said. Viviano said he and his workers are concentrating on individual homeowners' kitchen and bathroom remodeling projects.

He is grateful Tropical Financial gave him a chance.

Credit union staffers are aware of the financial trauma that South Florida went through and are willing to take a risk on members who are working again and have the money to pay on debts, said

"We'll look at their alternate payments, such as utility bills, to see if they have been paying," said Tropical Financial's chief lending officer, Helen McGiffin.

To get a mortgage on the Coral Springs house, Montesino said he was able to improve his credit score to above 700. His break: A bank agreed to give him a prepaid credit card. He said he paid that and other bills faithfully and in the last two years was able to get other credit.

"It was pretty rough in 2008," said Montesino who has since gone on to work in air conditioning and as a courier. "But you keep working hard."

Staff writer Richard Burnett contributed to this report.

INFOBOX:

A credit score reflects your creditworthiness to lenders. Increase your score by paying bills on time; using no more than 30 percent of your available credit; obtaining your credit report and disputing errors. Here's what the scores mean:

720-850 (Excellent) -- Earns the best financing terms.

700-719 (Very Good) -- Favorable financing.

620-699--(Average) -- Qualifies for most loans at higher interest rates

500-619 (Subprime/Risky) -- Highest interest rates, credit uncertain.

--Equifax sets 620 as subprime cutoff point, though some still consider it subprime score

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