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Advice

This is the credit score lenders use when you apply for a mortgage

Mortgage lenders use a unique version of your FICO score to evaluate creditworthiness. Here's what you need to know.

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Your credit score is a three-digit number that indicates your creditworthiness in a nutshell. It's not a complete snapshot of your overall financial picture, but lenders look at it when evaluating you for credit cards, loans and mortgages.

But like all things in the financial world, credit scores are nuanced. There are actually multiple versions of your credit score, and they all mean different things to lenders. 

For the majority of general lending decisions, such as personal loans and credit cards, lenders use your FICO Score. Your FICO Score is calculated by the data analytics company Fair Isaac Corporation, and it's based on data from your credit reportsVantageScore, another scoring model, is a well-known alternative.

If you're planning to apply for a mortgage, be aware that the credit score you see on your application might differ slightly from the one you're used to. It might even be different than what comes up when you monitor your credit, or even when you apply for a car loan.

Banks use a slightly different credit score model when evaluating mortgage applicants. Below, we go over what you need to know about credit scores you're looking to buy a home.

The scoring model used in mortgage applications

While the FICO® 8 model is the most widely used scoring model for general lending decisions, banks use the following FICO scores when you apply for a mortgage:

  • FICO® Score 2 (Experian)
  • FICO® Score 5 (Equifax)
  • FICO® Score 4 (TransUnion)

As you can see, each of the three main credit bureaus (Equifax, Experian and TransUnion) use a slightly different version of the industry-specific FICO Score. That's because FICO tweaks and tailors its scoring model to best predict the creditworthiness for different industries and bureaus. You're still evaluated on the same core factors (payment history, credit use, credit mix and age of your accounts), but the categories are weighed a little bit differently.

It makes sense: Borrowing and paying off a mortgage arguably requires a different mindset than keeping track of credit card balances and using a credit card responsibly.

The FICO 8 model is known for being more critical of high balances on revolving credit lines. Since revolving credit is less of a factor when it comes to mortgages, the FICO 2, 4 and 5 models, which put less emphasis on credit utilization, have proven to be reliable when evaluating good candidates for a mortgage.

Mortgage lenders pull all three reports, but only use this one

According to Darrin Q. English, a senior community development loan officer at Quontic Bank, mortgage lenders pull your FICO score from all three bureaus, but they only use one when making their final decision.

"A bank will use all three bureaus," tells CNBC Select. "It's called a tri-merge."

If all three of your scores are the same, then their choice is simple. But what if your scores are different?

"We'll use that median score as the qualifying credit score," says English. "Not the highest or lowest."

If two of the three scores are the same, lenders use that one, regardless of whether it's higher or lower than the other one.

And if you are applying for a mortgage with another person, such as your spouse or partner, each applicant's FICO 2, 4 and 5 scores are pulled. The bank identifies the median score for both parties, then uses the lowest of the final two.

How your credit score affects your interest rates

Knowing your credit score is the first step in getting the best rates on your mortgage. While mortgage interest rates are currently at an all-time low, they drop even lower when your credit score is above 760.

According to FICO, the current interest rate for a 30-year fixed mortgage is 2.377% APR for a 760+ borrower, and 3.966% for a borrower with a score between 620 and 639 (which is considered subprime).

This 1.589% savings in APR may seem negligible. But it means saving about $260 per month on your mortgage, or $3,120 per year and roughly $93,600 over the lifetime of the loan.

If you currently have a mortgage and are interested in seeing if you can switch to a better rate, look into the pros and cons of refinancing your home.

How to monitor your credit reports

Since the mortgage industry looks at all three credit reports and scores, you may want to consider a paid credit monitoring service that pulls more comprehensive data than a free version would.

The best credit monitoring services offer triple-bureau protection, looking at your information across all three credit bureaus.

Experian IdentityWorks℠ Premium monitors all three of your reports to make you aware of activity including score changes, new inquiries and accounts opened in your name, changes to your personal information and suspicious activity detected. Plus, you’ll regularly receive updates to your FICO Score.

Experian IdentityWorks℠

Experian IdentityWorks℠
On Experian's secure site
  • Cost

    $9.99 to $29.99 per month

  • Credit bureaus monitored

    Experian for Plus plan or Experian, Equifax and TransUnion for Premium plan

  • Credit scoring model used

    FICO

  • Dark web scan

    Yes

  • Identity insurance

    Yes, up to $500,000 for Plus plan and up to $1 million for Premium plan

Terms apply.

The best and most accurate way to keep tabs on your industry-specific FICO score is with FICO® Basic, Advanced and Premier credit monitoring services. 

All plans offer access to 28 versions of your FICO score, including scores for credit cards, mortgages and auto loans. Plus you'll receive $1 million identity theft insurance and 24/7 access to U.S.-based identity theft experts who can help restore your identity if your information is compromised.

FICO® Basic, Advanced and Premier

FICO® Basic, Advanced and Premier
Information about FICO® Basic, Advanced and Premier plans have been collected independently by CNBC and has not been reviewed or provided by the company prior to publication.
  • Cost

    $19.95 to $39.95 per month

  • Credit bureaus monitored

    Experian for Basic plan or Experian, Equifax and TransUnion for Advanced and Premier plans

  • Credit scoring model used

    FICO

  • Dark web scan

    Yes, for Advanced and Premier plans

  • Identity insurance

    Yes, up to $1 million

See our methodology, terms apply.

Editorial Note: Opinions, analyses, reviews or recommendations expressed in this article are those of the CNBC Select editorial staff’s alone, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any third party.