The FICO® Score isn’t the only credit-scoring method, but it is certainly the most common.
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While you’ve probably heard of the FICO® Score, it may surprise you to learn that you have more than one FICO® Score. You have FICO® Scores from each of the major credit bureaus, and there are also old and new versions of the base FICO® Score, as well as several industry-specific versions. In all, you have more than two dozen FICO® Scores based on the data in your credit reports.
What is the FICO® Score and why is it important?
There are several companies that produce credit-scoring models, but the FICO scoring method is by far the most commonly-used. In fact, over 90% of lenders use some version of the FICO® Score in their lending decisions.
To be fair, other credit scoring models, such as the Vantage Score, do use information from your actual credit reports and can give you a good ballpark estimate of where you stand (good credit, great credit, bad credit, etc.). However, if you want to see the score that your next lender is likely to use when making a decision on your application, it’s tough to make the case against the FICO® Score as the one you should be looking at.
Three credit bureaus, three separate credit reports
First of all, here’s the part that many Americans already know. There are three major credit bureaus that compile credit reports on U.S. consumers -- Experian, Equifax, and TransUnion. Because these are three separate credit reports, a FICO® Score can be derived from each one.
Theoretically, all of the data on your three credit reports should be the same. After all, if you borrow money and make your payments on time, it should appear in exactly the same way on all three credit reports.
In practice, however, this isn’t generally the case. There are often small differences between credit reports that produce slightly different scores. For example, when you apply for new credit, it creates something known as an “inquiry,” which is a contributing factor to your score. And, a lender may only choose to look at one of your three credit reports. In this case, the inquiry will only show up (and affect your score) on that bureau’s credit reports.
So, your FICO® Scores should be similar amongst the three credit bureaus, but not necessarily the same. In fact, there’s a 14-point gap between my lowest and highest FICO® Score as I write this.
Old and new FICO® Scores
In addition to having FICO® Scores from each of the three credit bureaus, it’s also important to realize that the FICO methodology has been updated several times throughout the years in an effort to do the best possible job of predicting consumer credit behavior. And not all lenders have upgraded to the latest version.
The most recent version of the FICO® Score is known as FICO® Score 9. This version made some pretty significant changes to the FICO® Score -- specifically, paid-off collections no longer have a negative impact, medical collections are treated more favorably than other types, and rental history can be a factor in the score if it’s reported.
However, the most commonly-used version in practice is FICO® Score 8. Lenders have historically been slow to upgrade to the latest FICO® Score versions, and as FICO® Score 9 has been in existence for several years now, that’s definitely still the case.
So, in addition to the three credit bureaus, there are two rather different versions of the FICO® Score that could potentially be used when assessing your credit risk.
So far, we’ve covered the FICO® Scores that are designed to assess consumers’ general risk level. In addition to these, there are also industry-specific FICO® Scores, used in mortgage lending, auto lending, and credit card approvals.
Mortgage lenders tend to use older versions of the base FICO scoring formula, as they find these to be more predictive of mortgage-related credit behavior.
For auto and credit card lending, there are specially-designed FICO® Scores. For example, the FICO® Auto Score is designed to assess risk as related specifically to auto lending. And, just like the base FICO® Scores, these are updated from time-to-time. For example, FICO® Auto Score 8 is widely used, but many lenders have started to upgrade to FICO® Auto Score 9.
Unlike the base FICO® Scores, however, these industry-specific scores have slightly wider score ranges. They range from 250 to 900, as opposed to 300 to 850 for base FICO® Scores.
As if we haven’t covered enough credit scores yet, some lenders use older versions of these industry-specific FICO® Scores. For example, many credit card issuers will use a consumer’s Equifax credit report to generate a FICO® Bankcard Score 5.
As a personal example, my TransUnion FICO® Score 8 is 28 points higher than my FICO® Score 4 from the same bureau, which is commonly used in mortgage lending. My best guess would be that I obtained a mortgage loan fairly recently, and therefore still have a relatively high balance on the loan. However, my TransUnion FICO® Auto Score 8 is a full 40 points higher than my base FICO® score, possibly because I’m almost finished paying off my current auto loan.
Putting it all together
Here’s the point. In all, there are 28 different versions of your FICO® Score that lenders could potentially use. Here’s a quick reference guide:
Data source: www.myFICO.com
Which one will your next lender check?
There’s no real way to know which version of your FICO® Score a lender will check. Obviously, if you’re applying for an auto loan, the lender is unlikely to check your FICO® Bankcard Score. However, including the newest versions and all three credit reports, there are a total of nine auto-specific FICO® Scores they could choose to look at. For credit cards, there are 10 -- and there’s no reason lenders can’t choose to use your base FICO® Scores in their decisions instead.
The point is that instead of obsessing over a single FICO® Score, the best course of action is to try and pursue generally responsible credit behaviors. If you make all of your debt payments on time, keep your revolving account balances relatively low, and only apply for credit when you really need it, all 28 of your FICO® Scores should be in pretty good shape.
How to check all of your FICO® Scores
Having said that, it can be a smart idea to learn where you stand with all of your FICO® Scores, especially if you’re planning on making a specific type of big purchase, such as a car. As I mentioned, while all of my FICO® Scores are strong, there’s quite a discrepancy between some of my industry-specific and base versions. If I were to apply for an auto loan right now, there’s no doubt in my mind that my TransUnion FICO® Auto Score 8 would qualify me for the top-tier loan terms at virtually any lender. My FICO® Score 4, which a mortgage lender would likely pull, may land me in the second tier.
While you may be able to get one of your base FICO® Scores for free as part of your credit card perks, if you want to see all of your FICO® Scores, including the latest versions and industry-specific scores, you’ll have to pay for them.
I use myFICO.com for mine, as it’s the service that’s run by the same people who design the FICO scoring model. There are others as well -- for example, Experian’s service may offer industry-specific scores. As of this writing, if you want total access to your scores, you should expect to pay in the neighborhood of $25 per month, an expense that can be well worth it if you’re planning a big purchase and want to know where you stand.