What It Takes to Get a Loan

Kiplinger

Home Equity: Lower Limits

Several years ago, home values were rising so rapidly that you could build a pile of equity practically before the ink was dry on your settlement papers -- and then borrow against it to pay for everything from home repairs to college tuition. But as prices have tumbled, lenders have tightened their criteria for approving fixed-rate home-equity loans and variable-rate lines of credit.

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Now in most cities you'll be able to borrow no more than 80% of the appraised value, less the mortgage. In some cities you may get away with 90%, says Keith Gumbinger, of HSH Associates. But in areas where prices have plummeted, such as parts of Florida, Nevada and California, the loan-to-value ratio goes as low as 60%.

You'll need a credit score of at least 720, as opposed to the 650 to 680 you could get away with a few years ago. And as with first mortgages, you'll have to document income and assets. Interest rates depend on the amount you borrow and your location. Recent rates averaged about 5.3% on home-equity lines of credit and 7.4% on loans, according to HSH.

Car Loans: Better Rates

When you need to borrow money to buy a new set of wheels, credit isn't the major stumbling block anymore. Loan approvals are up from last year in every credit category, according to CNW Research. "Most people have good enough credit to qualify," says Greg McBride, of Bankrate.com. "The down payment is what's problematic for people without a lot of savings." Lenders are looking for 10% down on a new car and 20% for used cars.

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The average rate from the manufacturers' finance companies was 4.5% in August, versus 6.9% in January 2009. Automakers and their finance companies, desperate to prop up sales, are aggressively promoting low-rate loans on new cars for top-tier borrowers. Expect to see 0% offers on 2010 models as dealers clear their lots for the 2011s. And even though the new model year is still fresh, rates as low as 1.9% and 2.9% for 60 months recently made up a sizable number of offers.

Low rates aren't limited to new-car buyers. After welcoming their first child, Andrea Hewitt and her husband, Josh, decided "it was time to grow up." They traded in the 2004 Honda Accord coupe Andrea had bought when she was single for a more family-friendly 2008 Nissan Altima sedan. The dealer offered a loan at 5% for five years, which the Hewitts bargained down to 4.29%. If they had purchased the extended warranty, the dealer would have knocked the rate down to 0.9%. The trade-in took care of a chunk of the loan balance, and the Hewitts put down another $1,500 to keep their payments low. While the best financing deal is often at the dealer, make sure you have a backup plan in case you don't qualify for the lowest rates. At big banks, good credit will get you rates below 4% for five years on new cars and about 4% to 5% for used cars. Some credit unions are beating even those rates. If you don't belong to a credit union, you can probably find one for which you're eligible at www.creditunion.coop.

Credit Cards: High Scores

Despite fewer credit-card delinquencies, most large issuers have not relaxed their standards; they continue to require higher credit scores and offer lower credit limits than before the recession. If you have fair or poor credit, you'll have a tough time qualifying. Even if you have a credit score of 740 or 750, you would be approved for a credit card but might not qualify for the lowest rate, says Bill Hardekopf, of LowCards.com.

If you have excellent credit, whether or not you qualify for the lowest rate, your mailbox has probably been peppered with credit-card solicitations. Mintel, a market-research firm, expects issuers to send out three to four billion offers this year, compared with two billion a year ago, most of which will be for rewards cards. A lot of rewards cards have attractive perks, but now you're more likely to be charged an annual fee (often waived for the first year). Teaser rates as low as 0% are also making a comeback, although balance-transfer fees at many banks have risen to 5%.

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To qualify for the best offers, pay on time, even if it's just the minimum. You could receive a reminder -- and a spike in your interest rate -- if your payment arrives even one day after the due date. If your card issuer lowers your credit limit, you may receive a separate notice or see it announced in your monthly statement. Many issuers no longer charge over-limit fees, but with others, exceeding your limit can cost up to $29 in fees and will probably mean an increase in your interest rate.

Hold your balances below 30% of your total credit limit. If your charges creep above that ratio, it's a red flag that lowers your credit score and could prompt the issuer to raise your rate (you must receive 45 days' notice). It's better not to close accounts because you increase the ratio of your outstanding balance to your available credit, which can hurt your credit score. Issuers can no longer charge inactivity fees, but if you are being charged an annual fee for a card you no longer use, it's worth it to close the account and take a small hit on your credit score.

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