3 Apps That Can Help You Craft an Ironclad Business Plan

Developing a solid business plan is your first step toward launching a successful startup.

The first step on the road to creating a successful startup is developing a solid business plan. This document should map out your plan for growth over the next three to five years, according to the U.S. Small Business Administration. Your business plan is important for getting investors on board so you don’t need to fund your dream entirely on credit cards or loans from family and friends. (Your credit score helps determine how much you’ll be able to borrow. Check two of your scores with a free credit report snapshot on Credit.com.)

Documenting every aspect of your company is a daunting prospect, but there are business plan apps and software programs out there that can make the process a bit easier. Here are few to consider.

1. The Small Business Administration’s Business Plan Tool

Cost: Free

Creating a clear business plan that identifies what makes your company special is one of the most important steps for a startup company, according to the SBA. There’s a lot of ground to cover and knowing where to start is often a challenge.

Using a generic plan template helps focus your thinking by making it easier to define the important aspects of your business, including management structure, product lines, sales strategies and financial projections. SCORE, a nonprofit association established to help small businesses get started, offers free templates.

The SBA goes further, offering its free online Business Plan Tool. You start by creating an account, then the tool provides step-by-step guidance for the creation of your plan. All content is secure, and you have the option to update your plan whenever necessary, which is important as your company grows and adapts. You can save your plan as a PDF file for easy distribution.

2. Business Plan Premier

Cost: $9.99

Business Plan Premier is an app for iPad by AppIt Ventures LLC. It provides features for organizing your ideas into a logically formatted business plan. The interface breaks the plan into sections you can access from a list of tabs on the side of the screen. Selecting a tab brings up a series of questions, edit boxes and instructions for creating a detailed, coherent plan. Every edit box also has an “example” button, which displays a comprehensive example of what the content for that section should include.

When you’re finished, you have the option to export your plan as a formatted PDF or Word document to email to investors and partners. You can also upload your plan to Dropbox.

3. LivePlan

Cost: $19.95 per month; $11.66 per month if you elect to pay annually

One of the main hurdles when writing a business plan is providing all the necessary information in a structured format that investors and potential business partners can access immediately. Various apps and software applications make it easier to organize your thoughts, but don’t necessarily focus on the most important aspects of your business, making it more difficult to define what makes you stand out.

LivePlan by Palo Alto Software Inc. is a web-based subscription service with a rolling monthly charge. The service maintains the “fill-in-the-blanks” simplicity of many other programs but also provides access to more than 500 business plan templates and examples for creating a plan that accurately defines your business structure and goals.

After setting up a new business, you have the option of using LivePlan Pitch to create a one-page summary of your strategy before making your plan by working through a series of steps with the option to customize sections. LivePlan handles financial projections, generating charts based on your data without the need for spreadsheets and formulas. The tool’s Benchmarks system lets you use real data from competitors to see how your plan stacks up. Once your business is up and running, the LifePlan Scoreboard tracks your accounting information.

It’s important to read the terms and conditions of any app or software platform you’re considering to be sure you understand the costs and if it’s right for you. You can also vet services by reading online reviews or checking out a particular company on the Better Business Bureau website.

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The One Thing Job Seekers Forget Employers Look At

Brush up your resume. Update your references. Clean up social media accounts and ...

There are some steps even first-time job seekers know to take ahead of formally seeking out new employment opportunities: Brush up your resume. Update your references. Flesh out your LinkedIn profile. Clean up your other social media accounts. Network.

It’s all fairly straightforward, but there’s something else very important new graduates and beyond will want to add to do their pre-employment search to-do list: Check your credit reports.

Why Should I Check My Credit Before a Job Search?

Some employers will pull a version of your credit report as part of their application process. And patterns of money mismanagement — like a bunch of missed payments or multiple collection accounts — could wind up hurting your odds of scoring a position, particularly if that gig involves handling cash, access to sensitive financial information, company accounting or government work. That’s why it’s a good idea to review your credit reports ahead of your job search.

You can pull a copy of your credit reports from each major credit bureau — Equifax, Experian and TransUnion — for free every 12 months via AnnualCreditReport.com. You can also view your free credit report summary, along with two free credit scores, updated every month, on Credit.com.

Financial Fact: Some states, including California, Hawaii and Washington, have banned employers from screening an applicant’s credit in certain circumstances. And, in all states, employers can only look at your credit report, not your actual credit score. Plus, they can’t pull your credit reports without your permission, so if a credit check is part of their application process, you’ll at least have a heads up. (There will be a form you’ll be asked to sign.)

What Am I Checking For?

First, you’ll want to make sure there aren’t any errors on your file that could needlessly cost you a prime position. These errors are more common than you think: a Federal Trade Commission study from 2012 found that one in five Americans had an error on their credit reports. If you find one, be sure to dispute it with the creditor and the credit bureau in question. You can learn more about disputing errors on your credit reports here. Keep in mind, credit bureaus have 30 to 45 days to investigate a credit report dispute, so won’t necessarily see that error disappear right away. Hence the reason you’ll want to do check your reports before your job hunt kicks into full gear.

Second, if you discover legitimate blemishes, you’ll want to determine if anything can be done to fix them. For instance, you might want to shore up unpaid collection accounts or pay off high credit card balances. Keep in mind, many missteps will stick around for awhile as most negative information stays on your credit file for up to 7 years. (Certain bankruptcies can even take up to 13 years to age off your reports.) Still, even if you can’t undo a troublesome line item, you’ll at least know that one is there — and will be able to address any issues upfront with prospective employers.

Finally, work on improving your credit overall so you won’t have to worry so much about a dreaded credit pull the next time you’re looking for new employment opportunities. You can rebuild bad credit by using a starter credit card to establish a new and improved payment history, keeping credit card balances below at least 30% and ideally 10% of your total available credit limit(s) and adding a mix of credit accounts organically as your score and/or finances rebound.

Not sure how to fully prepare for a job hunt? No worries. Recent or soon-to-be college graduates in need of some help can find a full 50 things to do to score their first job right here

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7 Credit Card Tips for Soon-to-Be College Grads

A credit card is one of the best ways to start building credit. Here's a plastic primer for soon-to-be college grads.

We get it, soon-to-be-grad, you’re busy. Finals need to be taken; dorm rooms need to be cleared out. Jobs need to be procured — as does your very first apartment. But amid all these big changes, you’ll also want to make time for some good old fashioned financial literacy. After all, money management is critical to your success in the so-called real world. And, believe it or not, having a credit card can help your overall financial health. Of course, that’s only if you use that little piece of plastic responsibly, so, to help you come out ahead, here are 7 credit card tips for soon-to-be college grads.

1. Get One

Sure, there are plenty of reasons to be wary of plastic. But a credit card is one of the best ways to start building credit — and you’ll need a solid credit score when it comes time to get an affordable auto loan, mortgage, insurance policy or more. If you don’t have a credit card already, you’ll probably need to look into secured credit cards, which require an upfront deposit that serves as your credit limit and are designed specifically for people with thin or bad credit. If you were using plastic while in school, you may be eligible for an unsecured card with better terms and conditions. Of course, that’ll come down to what your credit looks like already. (You can see where you stand by viewing two of your credit scores for free on Credit.com.)

2. Pay Your Bills on Time …

The number one rule of credit cards? Pay your bills on-time each and every month. If you don’t, you’ll likely be hit with a late fee, face a penalty annual percentage rate (APR) and damage your credit — seriously. A first missed payment can cause a score to drop 100 points or more.

3. … & in Full Each Month

Or, at the very least, keep the total amount of debt you’re carrying on the card below at least 30% and ideally 10% of your total available credit limit. Any balance over that could hurt your credit utilization rate, which is the second most important factor among credit scores.

4. Monitor Your Statements

Do it even if you’ve signed up for auto-pay, because fraud, unfortunately, can occur at any time. Plus, you’ll want to be sure your balances aren’t burgeoning out of control. Check statements every day or at least once a week. Make small payments if those balances are starting to climb too high and be sure to report any suspicious activity your spot right away to your issuer.

5. Upgrade When You Can …

The better secured credit cards on the market (go here to check those out) usually provide cardholders with automatic reviews after 6 to 12 months of use that’ll determine whether they can get their deposit back and possibly receive a credit limit increase. Make a note of when you’ll be eligible for that type of upgrade and keep an eye on your credit as you use your card. You may be able to build a score solid enough to qualify for not just an unsecured credit card but a rewards or low-interest piece of plastic.

6.  … But Resist the Urge to Churn

Be prepared to encounter big signup bonuses as you shop around for new plastic. (Example: Earn $150 when you spend $3,000 or more in your first three months as an accountholder.) But refrain from applying for every offer you see. Yes, an extra $150 or a boatload of bonus miles are nice, but too many new credit inquiries (which are generated each time you fill out a credit card application) can damage your credit score and make it harder to qualify for important financing down the line.

7. Know When to Stop Charging

If your spending starts to get out of control, put your card on ice. Literally, if you have to. (That’s actually a better bet than formally closing the card, which can hurt your credit score, though you can do that, too, if absolutely necessary.) Next, come up with a plan to pay down those debts. Rework your budget to come up with some extra dollars you can put toward your balance and, if you’re carrying debt on multiple cards, prioritize payments. Make the minimum payment on all your cards but put the most money toward the balance with the highest APR (which can lower the total cost of your debt.) Alternately, you can pay off the smallest balance first, which could keep you motivated as you work to get back into the black. You can find more strategies for paying down credit card debt right here.

Looking to do some more financial planning pre-diploma? We’ve got 50 money moves you should make before graduation

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50 Things to Do If You Plan to Sell Your Home This Spring

Sure, it's a seller market. But getting the best price for your house involves more than just putting down For Sale sign stakes.

Have you heard? It’s a seller’s market. Well, in most zip codes at least. But a hopping homebuying season doesn’t necessarily mean your home will go well over asking price just by putting up a For Sale sign. There’s still plenty a seller must do if they want to get the best price for their soon-to-be-former digs.

Here are 50 things to do if you plan to sell your home this spring.

1. Learn the Market

The reports of a seller’s market are greatly exaggerated — which is to say every zip code is different. If you want to expedite a sale, your “property has to be marketed properly and be priced appropriately,” said Glenn S. Phillips, CEO of Lake Homes Realty. “The feeding frenzy of a few years ago has not returned, and buyers are better informed than ever.”

2. Avoid Over-Pricing

Gradual price drops signal to house hunters that more decreases are to come, Phillips says. Plus, if your home sits on the market long enough, prospective buyers will wonder what’s wrong with it. “In the end, most homes that start overpriced sell at a price lower than a home priced [appropriately] from the start,” he said. “And the deal happens much faster and without the pain of months trying to sell.”

3. Hire a Realtor

Yes, you’ll have to pay them a commission. (Side note: You’ll be expected to cover the buyer’s agent, too.) Still, a good Realtor can be instrumental when it comes to the whole “learn-the-market, price-it-right” stuff. Plus, they’ll do the heavy lifting when showing the house and negotiating offers. Of course, be sure to …

4. Vet Prospective Agents

“Find someone who is in the business full time and who can demonstrate their skill at listing a house,” Reba Haas, CEO of Team Reba at RE/MAX Metro Inc. in Seattle, said. “This will show up in their print materials, online photos, services provided marketing presentation and ability to find the right price range to help you sell in a reasonable amount of time.”

5. Get a Home Estimate …

Yes, your real estate agent can help you set the right price on your home, but it doesn’t hurt to get a general idea of the pricing in your area on your own. There are plenty of sites online that can help you get an idea of your home’s current value.

6. Or, Better Yet, a Pre-Listing Appraisal

That’ll help preclude any problems during the bank appraisal. “An independent appraisal performed prior to listing can determine the value that a lender would assign your home,” Bruce Elliott, president of the Orlando Regional REALTOR Association, said. “While the process is never scientific, many buyers do find an independent appraisal to be a credible source for judging a home’s value.”

7. Determine How Much the Sale Will Cost You

Because there are plenty of expenses associated with selling a home. “A lot of sellers are not aware of what their costs are, including attorney, commission to broker and any other closing costs, including potential repairs before putting the home on the market,” says Kobi Lahav, managing director, Mdrn. Residential, a real estate brokerage in New York City. Fortunately, your broker or listing agent can help you pin down a rough estimate of what you might have to shell out.

8. Hire an Attorney

They’ll be instrumental when it comes time to negotiate the purchase contract with your chosen buyer, but you’ll, of course, want to …

9. Research Their Reputations (& Fees)

Ask friends and family for recommendations, or do a search online to find an affordable real estate attorney you can trust.

10. Ask for a Mortgage Pay Off Quote

You may think you know how much you owe on your mortgage. However, “it is not always what you see on your lender’s website,” Denise Supplee, co-founder of SparkRental and Pennsylvania Realtor, says. “And it is a good idea to have that information, especially if the money from your sale is going towards another sale.”

11. Build Your Coffers

Like we said, selling your home can be very costly. Be sure you’ve got an adequate emergency fund on hand to cover the costs, moving expenses and mortgage or rent associated with your next abode.

12. Check State Tax Records

“Make sure any debts you thought you paid off, were, in fact, posted in municipality tax records [and] satisfied,” Janice B. Leis, Accredited Buyer’s Representative and associate broker with Berkshire Hathaway, says. “Otherwise, you will have an arduous task getting issues resolved if faced with either a quick closing or finding out by the title company near closing, when life is hectic.”

13. Consult an Accountant

Or a trusted financial adviser before putting down For Sale stakes. They can fill you in on any tax deductions or bills associated with the sale that you’ll be expected to pay next year, Leis says.

14. Pull Your Credit Reports

In addition to liens, look for any judgments because those can go against the title of your home. “I have seen … people who thought they were getting X amount of dollars find out that they owe back taxes from many years ago,” Supplee says. (You can pull your free annual credit reports at AnnualCreditReport.com.) If you’re also searching for a new home while you’re trying to sell yours, well, then, you’ll want to …

15. Get Your Full Credit Check On

Because the better your credit score, the more affordable your new mortgage will be. Check for credit report errors, because they may be needlessly weighing you down. If you find one, be sure to …

16. Dispute Any Errors …

You can go here to learn how to handle errors on your credit report.

17. … & Otherwise Shore Up Your Scores

Beyond that, pay down high credit card balances, limit new credit inquiries and address any other credit-score killers to improve your credit scores. You can monitor your progress using your free credit report summary, along with two free credit scores, updated every 14 days, on Credit.com.

18. Set Realistic Deadlines

“It takes a lot of time to prepare a home for sale,” Haas says. “Be realistic in what you can do, and consider where you may need help from family, friends or by hiring professionals.”

19. Map Out Your Move

“If coinciding with a closing and purchase, make sure there is a contingency in your purchase contract,” Reis says. “Otherwise you owe on two properties or will be in default on new purchase due to lack of proceeds from the sale of your existing home.”

20. Get a Pre-Home Inspection Home Inspection

Sure, it’ll cost you. Still, “spending a few hundred dollars on a thorough home inspection can help you get a better idea of what repairs need to be made, and more importantly, what your net proceeds will be from the sale of your home,” Emile L’Eplattenier, a New York City real estate agent and member of the Real Estate Board of New York, says.

21. Make Any Major Repairs …

Pay particular attention to roof and air conditioning issues, as buyers tend to shy from expensive repairs, Elliott says. “Completing as many repairs as your budget allows will pay off when potential buyers are not put off by the amount of time or money they would need to bring the home up to speed,” he adds.

22. … & Consider Some Small Upgrades

“Replacing old curtains and blinds or even appliances and fixtures will make your home look better in pictures and on showings,” L’Eplattenier says. At the very least …

23. Paint

So long as you don’t use one of these four colors, of course. By the way …

24. Carefully Consider Major Home Improvement Projects

Fix the roof, sure. Have the AC serviced, but consult with your Realtor or stager before blinging out the bathroom or wallpapering the basement. Certain home improvements that seem like a good idea may not actually bring any value to your home — or, worse, could be a turnoff to potential buyers. (We’re looking at you, outdoor bathtub.)

25. Get Your Disclosures Ready

Though there are variations by city or state, some types of seller’s disclosure are generally mandated by law. “If you know of an issue in your home, write it down on the disclosure form provided by your Realtor,” Elliott says. “Nothing is too small to disclose, and failing to disclose is a serious breach of real estate law that can undermine the sale or worse.”

26. Trim the (Furniture) Fat

“Too much furniture makes a home look smaller than it really is, so sell or move out furniture to make the home feel more spacious,” Phillips says.

27. Tap a Photographer …

And consider hiring a professional. Solid listing photos make a big difference when it comes to getting buyers over to your house.

28. … But Clean Your Windows Before Showings

“Multi-exposure photography … will make the photos really stand out, but if the windows are dirty, you don’t get the best shots,” Haas says. “Plus, cleanliness in general just makes for a better showing.”

29. Actually, Clean Everything

We’re spelling this out just in case you hadn’t taken the initiative to do so already. “Nothing turns buyers off like grime, odor and general dinginess,” Elliott says.

30. Grout & Glaze

“How does the bathroom look?” Max says. “Do you need to reglaze the tub or put new grout on the tile?”

31. Set the Stage

Your Realtor can provide some valuable insights into how to organize your (leftover) furniture. “Stagers can also help you organize your furniture, and they can bring in just a few pieces that accentuate the positives of your home,” Kathryn Bishop, Realtor with Keller Williams Realty in Studio City, California, says.

32. Change the Light Bulbs

Lighting can be just as important as furniture feng shui when it comes to attracting homebuyers.

33. Up Your Curb Appeal

“Neatly trimmed bushes, fresh mulch and a colorful pot of flowers work wonders on that all-important first impression,” Elliott says. “Repainting (or washing) the front door and pressure cleaning the driveway and sidewalks are also simple tasks that provide eye-catching results.”

34. Find a Place for Fido

Sure, Sparky is cute and all, but you’ll want your pets out of the house during any showings. Plus, “it will always bring questions about any pet damage or difficult-to-remove smells,” Phillips says. Speaking of smells …

35. Deodorize …

Homeowners become smell blind and don’t realize how powerful smell is to homebuyers,” he says. “The home should smell fresh and clean, not perfumed and not like cats, dogs, cigarette smoke, old furniture, mothballs, mold, old food, gym locker or just plain stale.”

36. … De-Personalize …

Pack away those personal pictures and mementos. “Removing these items helps buyers imagine themselves in the home,” Phillips says.

37. … De-Clutter …

That goes beyond offloading some excess furniture and your picture words. Bottom line: It’s time to put all those books, toys, video games and figurines away. “The more crowded the apartment is, the smaller it appears,” Stacey Max, the sales manager of BOND New York, a residential brokerage, says.

38. … & Detach

“Sellers are usually emotionally attached to their homes, which is natural,” Lahav says. “However, they have to remember that any potential buyer is looking at it without the emotional aspect that the owner has for his own property.”

39. Clean Out Your Closets …

“They should look roomy,” Max says.

40. … & Your Drawers

“We all say that one day we will go into all the rooms and drawers and throw out a lot of old items,” Lahav says. “Selling your home is the best time to do it.” In fact, while you’re at it, go ahead and …

41. Start Packing

You’ll have to do it sooner or later. Might as well get a head start.

42. Store

You don’t have to junk all your belongings — or avoid decluttering just because you don’t want to part with your old Buffy the Vampire Slayer box sets. Consider renting out a storage space or keeping some stuff over at a friend’s or family member’s place while you’re trying to sell.

43. Talk to Your Neighbors

Consider this part of your curb appeal project — especially if you’re selling an apartment, co-op or condo. “You want your neighbors to be aware that there will be open houses,” Lahav says. “Buyers coming to view your home and see unhappy neighbors who look mad that the elevator [doesn’t] work or the driveway is blocked will assume that the neighbors are nasty, and that can affect their decision.”

44. Do a Final Walk-Through

Just to be sure there’s nothing you missed with regard to repairs, curb appeal or staging your home.

45. Advertise Amply

“Some sellers believe that it is OK to not put the home on the local MLS, that the agents in the area will just bring the perfect buyer,” Phillips says. “While this could happen, it rarely does. Doing this is like trying to sell a secret. The price does not matter because few buyers know the house is even for sale.”

46. Host an Open House

“Recently, my listings have all sold to buyers who came to the open houses,” Bishop says. Beyond that …

47. Be Available

“Appointments often come with only an hour’s notice,” she adds. “Work as smoothly as possible with your Realtor to accommodate showings.”

48. Adjust …

If you find you did list your home for more than it’s worth, go ahead and change your listing. (Again, consulting with your Realtor can come in handy here.)

49. … & Stay Flexible

“We’ve seen purchases fall apart over very small amounts of money, over a single appliance and over attitudes,” Phillips says. “Remember the big picture and how much it will cost to start over finding another willing and capable buyer. [Getting] the deal closed is often the best financial (and emotional) choice, even if you have to give up a little more than you wanted.”

50. Brush Up on Your Homebuying Skills

Chances are, you’ll be buying a new abode before or after you sell your current one, so you’ll want to go refamiliarize yourself with that process as well. Fortunately, we’ve got 50 things you should do as a house hunter right here.

Got more questions about the homebuying process? Ask away in the comments section, and one of our experts will try to help!

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3 Home Improvements That Can Ultimately Save You Some Money

There are a few money-saving home improvements you might want to put on your spring to-do list.

Spring has officially sprung, which means plenty of house hunters and home sellers are ’tis-ing the season. But if you’re settled in your humble abode, the warm weather can serve as a different inspiration. Yup, it’s the home improvement season, too.

Of course, major renovations aren’t in everyone’s budget and it’s best not to go into debt if your home doesn’t actually need repairs. (That’ll just hurt your bank account and your credit — you can see how your scores are doing for free on Credit.com.)

Still, homeowners hankering to get handy will be happy to hear there are a few simple projects that can actually save them some money — at least in the long run. Here are three projects you might want to put on your to-do list.

1. Go Green

Going green and becoming more eco-friendly is great for those interested in reducing their carbon footprint, sure, but, you can also benefit financially from making your home more energy-efficient.

Yes, you’ll have to have to make an initial investment, but green upgrades tend to pay for themselves by lowering your monthly utility bills. Plus, by incorporating eco-friendly solutions into your home improvement plans, you may also be eligible for tax rebates on the local, state or federal level next year. You can check with an accountant to determine if you can save on your taxes by going green with renovations. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, the top suggestions for making your home more energy-efficient are:

  • Insulated windows using low-emissivity coatings
  • Energy efficient refrigerators using advanced compressor technology or magnetic refrigeration
  • Water heaters using electric heat pumps
  • Loose-fill fiberglass insulation

2. Spring Clean

Sure, it’s cliche, but checking some tasks off your annual homeowner to-do list (get yours right here) can prevent a major repair and save you money down the line. As part of a deep spring clean, be sure to check your drains and gutters, service your A/C (which can keep it from breaking on the hottest day of the year), replace any window screens you removed during the winter and repair any shingles or bricks that came loose due to bad weather.

Of course, this also a good time to clean our your closets, cabinets and crawl spaces. Fewer things means less stuff to worry about. Plus, you may be able to make a buck or two selling your wares online.

3. Smarten Up Your Home

The idea of programming your home and all of its appliances to answer your every verbal command is certainly not one the average homeowner is going to entertain. However, there are some simple ways to smarten up your home that won’t break the bank — and, in fact, can save you in the long run.

For instance, you could look into installing smart thermostats, which can be programmed or learn to change the temperature in your house throughout the day. They’re designed to ensure you don’t heat or cool your house unnecessarily and, thus, can wind up saving you on utilities. Similarly, consider changing out all your incandescent light bulbs for Smart (and energy-efficient!) LEDs. You’ll have to put out some cash to do this, as LEDs bulbs cost much more than your regular old light bulb, but the swap should pay off in the long run because they also last longer and use less energy.  

Looking to lower more monthly bills? We’ve got 7 easy ways to lower your cable bill right here.

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These 39 Housing Markets Are Flush With Flipped Homes

A Home-Flipping Frenzy

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9 Signs You’re on Your Way to a Perfect Credit Score

Because we get it: Sometimes you just have to have that A-plus.

Hey, there, overachiever. Are you really trying to attain a perfect credit score? Here’s the thing: You don’t need to. Any score over 760 will pretty much net you a lender’s best rates and terms. Plus, even if you do score that elusive 850, you probably won’t keep it for long. Credit scores are mercurial: They change as new information hits your credit report or, most notably, as your loan balances go up and down. (Translation: Perfection is fleeting.)

But we get it. Sometimes you need that A-plus. So, in the interest of indulging your financial dreams, here are nine signs you could one day see a perfect credit score.

1. You’ve Never Missed a Loan or Credit Card Payment …

Payment history is the most important factor of credit scores, accounting for 35% of most popular scoring models. Plus, one little slip can do big damage once it hits your credit report — and it can stay on record for up to seven years. In other words: Don’t expect to see the highest score ever if you’ve missed a payment (or two) in that time frame.

2. … Or Any Other Bill’s Due Date for That Matter

Sure, utility companies, doctors, gyms and other service providers don’t routinely report missed payments to the credit bureaus, but collection agencies do. And, if you leave any old bill unattended long enough, that’s where the debt might end up, with a credit score fall to follow.

3. Your Debt Levels Are Virtually Non-Existent

The rule you commonly hear involves keeping the amount of debt you owe below at least 30% and ideally 10% of your total credit limit(s), particularly when we’re talking credit cards. If you’re trying to achieve credit perfection, you’ll want to focus on the ideal part.

Expert Intel: It’s a bit of a misnomer that you need to carry debt to build credit — you simply need to have credit accounts on the books that are being managed responsibly. So, for instance, someone could conceivably build a good credit score with a single credit card they pay off in full each month. People with 850s tend to have more than one loan on the books (more on this in a minute), but you’ll be best served in the long run by adding financing as you truly need (and can afford) it.

4. You’ve Had Good Credit for a While …

There’s a reason older demographics tend to have higher credit scores: Credit history, or the length of time you’ve been responsibly using credit, accounts for 15% of most scores. Technically, though, this category doesn’t have anything to do with your age. Instead, your credit history “starts” when you open your first credit account.

5. … But Haven’t Applied for Any New Loans Recently

That’ll boost your credit history, which also factors in the average age of your credit accounts. Plus, loan applications generate credit inquiries, which can ding your score for up to one year and hang out on your credit report for up to two. (More on how long stuff stays on your credit report here.)

6. You’ve Got a Mix of Credit Accounts on the Books

Credit scores give you maximum points for responsibly managing different types of credit. That’s why having, say, a mortgage, an auto loan and a credit card (or two) — all in good standing — tends to be a common characteristic of people in the 850 club. In technical terms, this means you have revolving lines of credit, like a credit card, and an installment loan, like that mortgage, on the books.

7. Your Public Record Is Clean

Judgments and liens can wind up on your credit file, though there are indications that will soon be changing. For now, though, a matter of public record could wind up hurting your credit score.

8. Your Credit Report Is Error-Free

Credit report errors can happen for a number of reasons and most misinformation will needlessly harm your credit. To achieve perfection, your file needs to be pristine — which you can help to ensure by diligently pulling your free annual credit reports from each major credit reporting agency and disputing any error you see.

9. You Keep a Compulsive Eye on Your Standing

You know the old adage “if a tree falls in a forest and no one’s around to hear it, does it make a sound?” Well, the same can be said about an 850 credit score. You’ve got to play all your credit cards right, and then you’ve got to be lucky enough to check your score at the precise moment perfection strikes. (Like we said earlier, that 850 probably isn’t going to stick around for long.) Fortunately, you can view two of your free credit scores, updated every 14 days, on Credit.com.

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7 Simple Hacks for Building Better Credit

Believe it or not, there are a few things you can do to quickly boost your credit.

Sure, credit-scoring models are complicated (all that algorithm-ing and such). But, when you get right down to it, the secret sauce to building good credit is actually pretty straightforward: Take a whole bunch of on-time loan payments, keep a pinch of debt, stir in some new accounts, and let the thing bake. Seriously — building and rebuilding credit takes some time.

Still, there are a few seriously simple ways to hack your credit. And while they’re no substitute for the good old traditional recipe, these maneuvers could give a so-so credit score a quick boost. (Not sure if you need one? You can see where you stand by viewing two of your free credit scores, updated every 14 days, on Credit.com.)

Here are a few ways to hack your credit score.

1. Pay Off Big Credit Card Balances

Because if you’ve got ’em, there’s a good chance they’re messing with your credit utilization ratio. That’s how much debt you’re carrying versus your total credit. It’s recommended you keep that ratio below at least 30%, and ideally 10%, of your limits. So paying off purchases putting you over that threshold — in total and on individual cards — can help.

2. Ask for a Credit Limit Increase

If you can’t address those balances right away or you’re saddled with a seriously low credit limit, you can ask your issuer to up your limit. Some notes before you do: They’ll likely pull your credit to see if you can handle the increase. If your credit is bad, you might be met with a resounding “no.” Whether approved or denied, that credit pull will leave a hard inquiry, which will cost your score a few points. That ding is worthwhile if you get what you’re asking for but less so if you don’t. You can find more on asking for a higher credit limit here.

3. Become an Authorized User

Consider this a credit card with training wheels. Authorized users, who are added to an existing credit cardholder’s account, get credit for using that card, even though they’re not responsible for making payments. In other words: You can capitalize on a loved one’s good credit and, if things take a turn for the worse, you can ask to be removed from the account and have it scrubbed from your credit report.

4. Look for Errors

The hack here, sadly, is that you might have a mistake needlessly bringing down your score. According to the Federal Trade Commission, one in five people do. If you’re among them, be sure to dispute the misinformation with the credit bureau in question (here’s how). Your credit score will likely thank you for it. (FYI: You can do a complete credit check by pulling your free annual credit report from each of the major consumer credit reporting agencies at AnnualCreditReport.com.)

5. Open a New Account

OK, bear with us here for a second, because we’re not suggesting you take on financing you can’t afford. That’s a terrible idea. We are trying to draw attention to a very important nuance of credit scores: They reward you for responsibly managing different types of credit. So, if all you’ve got is a student loan, getting a credit card could ultimately improve your score. And if all you’ve got is a credit card, taking out an installment loan, like an auto loan or mortgage, could do the same — though in that scenario, you’d definitely be upping your debt load, so it’s best to only add that financing as you actually need (and can afford) it.

6. Group Your Credit Applications

Most credit scoring models group credit inquiries for like financing as one hit to allow you to comparison shop. (It’s technically called de-duplication.) So, if it is time to add a mortgage or auto loan, make sure you keep all applications within a 30- to 45-day window. Credit cards are a different story — each one of those can generally be held against you, though VantageScore does group all inquiries made in a 14-day window.

7. Keep Old Credit Cards Open

It can be tempting to formally close those old credit cards that got you into trouble in the first place. But don’t make that call quite so fast. Closing a credit card can hurt your credit utilization rate and, you guessed it, your credit score. Leaving that card open, on the other hand, could help your score out, especially if you’ve sworn off using its limit. There may be times when closing a credit card is, in fact, the right call, but carefully consider your options (can you simply put the thing on ice?) before officially cutting ties.

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50 Ways House Hunters Can Get Ready for Homebuying Season

The time has come to prepare for a competitive housing market.

Spring will very soon have sprung — which means “For Sale” signs will be in full bloom — and if you’re hoping to buy a home this year, get ready for a competitive market. Thanks to the Federal Reserve’s continuing rate hike teases and some economic improvements, you can expect to run into plenty of other people while looking at prospective properties.  

Fortunately, there are steps you can take now to help make sure your offer on a new home is as competitive as this year’s hot market. Here are 50 ways soon-to-be house hunters can get ready for the homebuying season.

1. Make a Wish List

“You’ll waste a lot of time if you don’t know what you want,” Brian Davis, director of education for Spark Rental, says. “Know how many bedrooms you need, which amenities are must-have, and which are desired but not mandatory. Most of all, know your price range and stick to it.”

2. Consult Your Co-Buyer

If you’re purchasing the home with a loved one “make sure you both are on the same page,” Patrick Gobin, associate broker with District Realty Team at New York Living Solutions, says. “Conflicting opinions makes the process very difficult. Example: One person wants a ranch and one person wants a two-story house.”

3. Determine Your Debt-to-Income Ratio (DTI)

Here’s how. Remember, a DTI (how much you make vs. how much debt you’re already paying off each month) over 50% or more will severely limit your ability to borrow.

4. Check Your Credit Score

Because it’s going to play a major role in whether you can actually get a mortgage and what rate you’ll pay. You can view two of your credit scores, updated every 14 days, for free on Credit.com. (P.S. If you have a co-buyer who’ll be on the mortgage, they’ll want to check their credit, too.)

5. Pull Your Credit Reports

There may be a few things you can do to clean up your credit before you apply for a mortgage. Plus, you’ll want to make sure there aren’t any errors weighing your scores down. Speaking of which …  

6. Dispute Any Errors

Credit bureaus have 30 to 45 days to resolve disputes and remove inaccurate information, so if something’s amiss, now’s the time to address any errors that you may find.

7. Pay Down Credit Card Debt

Getting rid of big balances can improve your DTI and creditworthiness — and relatively soon, because issuers generally update the credit bureaus on your charges each month.

8. Continue to Tidy Your Credit

You can find 11 solid ways to soup up your credit here.

9. Decide on a Down Payment

A 20% down payment is considered ideal, since any amount below that will have you paying for private mortgage insurance (PMI). There are programs out there that help homeowners get a mortgage with much less down, which brings us to …

10. Know Your Loan Programs

Most homebuyers have two options: a conventional home loan bought and sold by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac or an FHA loan insured by the Federal Housing Administration. Veterans can also consider VA loans, which notably feature a 0% down payment.

11. Research Rates

Your interest rate is going to play a big role in determining your monthly payment, so be sure you know what current rate ranges are being offered — and what you’re likely to qualify for, based on your credit.

12. Prepare for Property Taxes

Yup, you’ll have to pay the government each year for your land — and you’ll want to get an estimate of how much money you’re likely to owe, since it will seriously affect your housing budget. You can find a full explainer on property taxes here.

13. Account for Closing Costs

They generally run between 3% and 5% of your purchase price, depending on location and other factors.

14. Feed Your Emergency Fund

Because buying a home is going to put a serious drain on your bank accounts and you don’t want to be down to your last dollar. Experts generally recommend you have at least six to 12 months of income as backup reserves.

15. Figure Out How Much Home You Can Afford

This will be affected by your DTI, credit scores, prospective interest rate, down payment, property taxes and whether you’ll be paying for private mortgage insurance, among other things. (More tips here for how to get a rough estimate on how much home you can comfortably buy.)

16. File Your Taxes

Your mortgage lender is going to ask for at least two years’ worth of tax returns, so it’s a good idea to shore up with Uncle Sam — and print out or download your returns from two prior years.

17. Pick a Neighborhood

“Location is one of the most important factors when finding a home,”  David Lewis, owner of full-service real estate agency The Lewis Group, says. “It’s also the only one that you can’t change. Knowing what areas you’d like to live in prepares you to make the jump when it is time to move forward with an offer.”

18. Study the Market …

You’ll want to know what you’re in for: What’s the median home price in the area you’re looking to live? Are you in a buyer’s or seller’s market? Are solid homes going for more or less than list price?

19. … & the Process

Oh, if only the homebuying process were so simple. Unfortunately, there are a whole lot of steps between finding a home and closing on it. Get familiar with all the major steps: pre-approval, home inspection, home appraisal, title search, closing, etc.

20. Hit the Open Houses

A little window-shopping can do a house hunter good. Visit some open houses ahead of your formal search to get an idea of list prices in your preferred area(s) — and whether your list of “wants” is realistic with your budget.

21. Get a Pair of Flip-Flops… 

…or some other kind of easily removed shoes, because most homeowners or listing agents are going to ask you to leave your kicks at the front door.

22. Search for Schools

“If you have kids, carefully examine the school choices and districts available to you,” William Mayben, CEO of consulting firm Wm Mayben and Associates and former division president for National Public Builders, says. There are sites online that can help you pinpoint school ratings, crime rates, etc.

23. Calculate Your Potential Commute

The length of your commute can seriously impact the enjoyment of your home. How much time are you realistically willing to spend in the car, on the bus or on a train?

24. Find a Realtor

You don’t have to use one, but there are certainly benefits to enlisting the services of a reputable Realtor or agent. Case in point: They can give you insights into the current market and walk you through the homebuying process. Bonus: The seller pays their commission.

25. Consider a Specialist

“If buyers are looking for ranches in the Stoney Gardens neighborhood, they should find a realtor who specializes in (drum roll please…) ranches in the Stoney Gardens neighborhood,” Davis says. “The best Realtors know a specific segment of the market inside and out, and can help borrowers who want that specific market segment.”

26. Vet Mortgage Lenders

Similarly, you’ll want to research reputable mortgage lenders or brokers in your area to determine who you’re comfortable doing business with.

27. Request Recommendations

For Realtors, mortgage lenders and other members of the homebuying team you’ll need to onboard.

28. Get Pre-Approved

Once your credit is as good as it’s going to get and you’re ready to start your search, be sure to get pre-approved for a mortgage. That’ll signal to a seller and/or Realtor you’re a serious buyer worthy of their consideration.   

29. Rate-Shop

Just be sure to do so in a 30- to 45-day window, since that’s how long most credit scoring models will group applications for like-financing (in this case, mortgages) as one inquiry.

30. Ready Your Bank Statements

Because your lender is going to ask for them. Note: You’ll probably be expected to turn over brokerage or retirement account statements for at least the last two or three months as well.

31. Request Your Pay Stubs

Most of us direct deposit, but your lender is going to ask for at least two months worth of pay stubs. So, if you’ve been setting and forgetting, now’s the time to track down where to access your paycheck details.

32. Think About What Other Paperwork You’ll Need

Getting some gift money? You’ll have to document it. Just got a new job? Be prepared to turn over more employment verification. Ask your mortgage lender for a full list of all the major paperwork needed to get your loan fully approved.

33. Find an Attorney …

Some states mandate a real estate attorney prepare your purchase contract — and, even if yours doesn’t, it can be a good idea to bring one on board. Be sure to research reputable real estate attorneys in your area and get an idea of what they’ll charge you.

34. … & an Inspector

Yes, the bank is going to do the appraisal, but the buyer is responsible for the home inspection. You’ll need to find a certified, licensed professional and cover their bill.

35. Learn What to Look for …

It’s not just about your wants and needs. When viewing a potential home, you’ll want to, among other things, check out the furnace, hot water heater, roof, plumbing, windows, insulation, HVAC systems, basement, closets and that old shed all the way at the other end of the yard.

36. … & What to Ask

Per our partner Realtor.com, you’ll want to ask about the home’s sales history, any renovations the seller has done, monthly maintenance and utility costs and other things.

37. Brush Up on Your (Offer) Letter Writing Skills …

Because in some markets you’ll want to write one to the seller when you make your bid. And, yes, while price is most important, a solid offer letter can be the difference between getting or losing out on your dream home. Good offer letters are generally personal, specific and positive.

38 … & Your Negotiation Tactics

They’ll certainly come in handy.

39. Keep Those Credit Cards on Ice …

Big changes to your debt levels can damage your DTI and your credit score — and your lender will check up on those items before closing. That’s why you’ll want to be extra careful about what you’re putting on your plastic.

40. … & Cool the Credit Inquiries

Those can also ding your score and jeopardize your mortgage. So, sure, that Home Depot credit card could come in handy — but it’s a good idea to wait at least until after you close to take the retailer up on their offer (and then be sure your finances can handle it).

41. Determine Your DIY IQ

“Assess your abilities as a handyman or handywoman,” Gobin says. “Buying a fixer-upper can be very expensive if you can’t even change a light bulb.”

42. Get a Work Estimate

If you are looking at a fixer-upper or find a home that has all your major needs, minus one (say it’s missing hardwood floors), research what a particular project is likely to cost you. That’ll help you establish the true cost of the prospective home.

43. Think About Resale Value

Even if you’re looking for your forever home, because, well, life happens. That’s why it’s good to at least consider what you’d have to sell the home for in order to recoup what you’re offering to pay. (Remember, too, when you go to sell, you’ll be the one paying a Realtor’s commission.)

44. Scout it All Out

“Visit your target house during different times of day,” Mayben says. “Pay attention to neighbors’ dogs, traffic, parking, the neighborhood feel and culture. Where are parks, shopping, bike or hike trails, coffee shops, etc.?” Asking neighbors about noise and other possible pain points can also pay off.

45. Map Out Your Move …

Research moving companies — and the costs associated with them — to assess whether your cash reserves are adequate.

46. … But Hold Off on the Home Furnishings

Especially if you’re planning to put those on a credit card. The last thing you want is those big balances throwing a monkey wrench into your credit — and your closing date.

47. Start Staging Your Current Home

“If you have to sell in order to buy, start working on that end of the deal,” Mayben says. “Maximizing the sell price maximizes the replacement price. Declutter your home for sale. Sell, donate, or otherwise get rid of things you don’t need. Develop a clear sense of your house value.”

48. Get Ready to Compromise …

“Keep in mind the perfect home doesn’t exist unless you build it yourself,” Gobin says.

49. … & Be Disappointed

Because you may not get the first, second or even third home you bid on. “Multiple offers are very common these days,” Dorothy Mazeau, sales representative at Royal LePage RCR Realty, says. “You may be competing with one, two, or even twenty other buyers. Houses frequently sell for thousands over their list price.”   

50. Stay the Course

Still, don’t get discouraged and/or recklessly ramp up your budget. “Know what you can afford and stick to it,” Mazeau says.

Buying a home is a huge financial commitment. If you’re looking for ways to reduce the red ink post-purchase, check out our roundup of 50 ways to stay out of debt.

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6 Solid Tips for Veterans in Need of a Loan

Veterans are faced with some unique money challenges. Fortunately, there are ways for them to get an affordable loan.

U.S. military members transitioning out of service can find themselves facing many unique money challenges. After all, duty to one’s country can understandably push personal money management to the back burner. Fortunately, there are steps veterans can take to secure the funding they need to achieve their financial goals.

Here are some tips for veterans looking to secure a mortgage, small business loan or other types of financing.

1. Know What Federal Benefits Are Available …

There are programs out there designed to help veterans and their families overcome the various money challenges that can arise when a family member is on active duty. For instance, veterans are eligible for VA home loans, which often feature no down payment, no mortgage insurance and flexible underwriting requirements. And there are various grants, loans and business development programs backed by the U.S. Small Business Administration that can help former military members and budding entrepreneurs.

Veterans can get acquainted with the general benefits available to them on the Veterans Benefits Administration website. Prospective entrepreneurs can begin looking into business financing by checking out the Small Business Administration’s Office of Veterans Business Development online.

2. Research All of Your Options

That’s not to say veterans should limit themselves to federal loan programs. For instance, when it comes to mortgages, “to be sure, VA loans aren’t the right fit for every veteran,” Chris Birk, a Credit.com contributor and director of education for Veterans United, a VA loan lender, said. “Understanding all of your mortgage options is also key to getting the best deal possible. Even veterans with sterling credit and a 20% down payment would benefit from comparison shopping between conventional and VA loans.”

3. Consider Financial Institutions That Cater to Vets …

If you do decide to go for a VA loan to buy a home, consider finding a mortgage lender who knows the ins and outs of that type of financing.

“VA loan market share has soared over the last decade, but it’s still a niche product for many lenders and real estate professionals,” Birk said. “Working with companies and professionals who know the ins and outs of VA loans can help ensure veterans get the most from this benefit.”

Similarly, you can look into finding a credit card issuer or bank that caters to former and current military members. (We’ve got a list of some of the better military credit cards here to help you get you started on your search.)

And there are several startups, venture capitalist funds and, even, angel investors out there that offer small business financing exclusively to veterans and military members that may prove worthwhile, depending on your financial situation.

4. … But Be Sure to Assess Your Finances Holistically

We say “depending on your financial situation” because it’s important to consider factors beyond your status as a veteran when making money decisions. Take credit cards as an example. Ultimately, the right one for you will be influenced by your current financial situation or goals. For instance, if you’re trying to pay a lot of debt, you might want to look into a balance-transfer credit card. 

The same thing applies when exploring other financing opportunities — just because you’re a veteran doesn’t mean products designed for veterans are going to be the ones that best need your financing needs.

5. Watch Out for Scams

Due to the money challenges some veterans face (often related to spending extended periods of time out of the country or relocating frequently), they often find themselves on a scammer’s radar. That’s why it’s a good idea to vet any business you’re thinking of getting a loan from before filling out applications. You can start by conducting a thorough search online or checking a company’s status with the Better Business Bureau.

6. Brush Up Your Credit

A good credit score can make all types of financing more affordable, so it’s a good idea to see where you stand before applying for a loan. You can get a free credit report snapshot, along with two free credit scores, updated every 14 days, on Credit.com. You can also pull your free credit reports from each of the major consumer credit reporting agencies each year at AnnualCreditReport.com.  

If you need to build credit, you can look into credit-builder loans or secured credit cards, which help people with thin files establish a history of using credit wisely. If you need to improve your credit, you can focus on paying down high credit card balances, disputing credit report errors and limiting applications for new credit, all of which can hurt your credit score.

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