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Nontraditional data may help mortgage applicants

Rent, utility and other monthly payments aren't reported to the national credit bureaus, but borrowers have the right to ask lenders to consider those records along with credit scores.

May 15, 2011|By Kenneth R. Harney

Reporting from Washington — Some credit experts call it the best-kept secret in home mortgage finance. Others say, so what?

Millions of Americans whose credit scores have declined in recent years because of economic stresses could start rebuilding their scores if their rent, utility, cellphone, insurance and other monthly payments were reported to the national credit bureaus.

But typically they are not, and as a consequence fail to show up as positive factors on credit scoring systems such as FICO or VantageScore. These on-time payments essentially go to waste for consumers, even though monthly rents often can be as large as mortgage bills, and years of utility and other payments are widely recognized as strong indicators of creditworthiness.

Now for the secret: Under federal law, these unreported accounts need not go unused. You as a mortgage applicant are guaranteed the right to bring evidence of your unreported on-time payments to lenders, and they in turn are required to consider those records in making a decision on granting you a home loan — provided that you request it. If a loan officer refuses, he or she could be open to legal penalties.

Although federal financial regulators generally acknowledge the right to present supplementary data that consumers enjoy under the Equal Credit Opportunity Act, only one — the National Credit Union Administration — has published guidance informing lenders that they are required to comply.

Factoring in so-called nontraditional credit accounts not only could provide important help to buyers and owners with recession-scarred scores but could also aid the estimated 35 million to 54 million consumers who don't — or barely — show up in the files of Equifax, Experian and TransUnion, the three national credit bureaus. Many of these are young people with thin files with just a couple of credit accounts, and many are minorities.

So why aren't more consumers documenting their otherwise unreported monthly payments? And why are loan officers likely to stare at account records and say: Are you kidding? We only look at credit files.

The problem is complex. Almost no one in the consumer finance field has paid much attention to the Federal Reserve's Regulation B that interprets the rules on treatment of alternative credit. Lenders who know about it don't want the hassles of sorting through "shoe box" records that may not be accurate. Major players in the mortgage market such as the Federal Housing Administration, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac all say they will accept alternative credit data but have restrictions on what they will consider. The FHA, for example, does not permit applicants with low credit scores to boost them by adding positive, nontraditional data.

The credit industry is eager to incorporate accurate, nontraditional information but is ill-equipped to deal with sources that cannot provide large and regular amounts of verified reports.

"The [national] bureaus know that alternative data is highly predictive," says Barrett Burns, chief executive of VantageScore, a joint venture created by Equifax, Experian and TransUnion. "We think millions of people could benefit" if it were collected and loaded into scoreable files. Experian already collects positive rent-payment data on about 8 million units in large apartment complexes and incorporates the information into its scores, he said.

But Burns noted that the industry has had difficulty accessing information on utility payments in some states, and collection of cellphone account records has raised privacy issues. Without accurate information being available in large quantities, he said, it is difficult to assist large numbers of consumers.

Nonetheless, efforts are underway to mine unreported credit data and transform it into something useful. A private firm, Trycera Credit Services, has announced an agreement with the National Credit Reporting Assn. — a trade group representing companies that provide the merged credit bureau reports and scores used by mortgage originators — to independently verify the accuracy of consumer-supplied payment records. Those records can then be provided to lenders as part of the standard credit reporting and scoring information used in mortgage underwriting.

Michael G. Nathans, president of Trycera Credit Services, says that the project is just getting off the ground but that preliminary information is available at the company's website at http://www.trycera.com. The service will cost $20 to verify rental and mortgage payments, $15 for other verifications. Trycera also offers Visa debit cards that can help consumers document their nontraditional credit payments in a scoreable format.

Of course, there are no guarantees that lenders will accept your alternative credit data. But federal law requires them to at least consider it — if you ask.

kenharney@earthlink.net

Distributed by Washington Post Writers Group.

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