Credit

Credit Inquiries: Everything You’ve Ever Wanted to Know

What is a credit inquiry and do they hurt my credit scores?  And what’s this rumor I keep hearing about how FICO (FICO) scores are protected from multiple inquiries in a short period of time?

All this and much more on this week’s episode of Credit Blab with John Ulzheimer.

First things first, let’s define “credit inquiry.”  A credit inquiry is simply a record of someone gaining access to your credit reports.  The inquiry record has two meaningful components, the date of the access and the name of the party doing the accessing.  The credit reporting agencies maintain a record of inquiries from anywhere between six months and 24 months, depending on the inquiry type.

All inquiries fall neatly into two categories, hard and soft.  Hard inquiries are usually generated when you apply for something (there are exceptions though).  Soft inquiries are generated when access to your credit report is granted for a reason other than the underwriting of an application.  Below are just a few examples of each type.

Hard Inquiries

Soft Inquiries

Mortgage applications

Auto loan applications

Credit card applications

Personal loan applications

Collection agency skip-tracing

Consumers pulling their own credit files

Lenders sending you a pre-approved credit offer in the mail

Lenders with whom you have an existing relationship viewing your credit periodically

Hard inquiries are what we in the credit-scoring world refer to as “fair game,” meaning they are viewed and considered by credit scoring models, lenders and anyone else who has access to your credit reports.  These are the types of inquiries that CAN lower your scores.  Notice the obnoxious bolding of the word “CAN.”  Hard inquiries don’t always lower your scores but they certainly can.

Soft inquires are off limits.  They’re off limits to credit scoring models and off limits to lenders.  In fact, they aren’t shown to anyone other than you when you ask for a copy of your own credit reports.  Most credit reports are polluted with soft inquiries so thankfully they have no impact to your scores, at all.

Just like everything else on your credit reports, there is no fixed value per inquiry.  So, when you read things like “My score went down 12 points because of an inquiry” or “Inquiries are worth 6 points each” you can ignore what you’ve read because it’s incorrect.  The number of points you earn in the “Inquiry” category is based on how many hard ones you have on your file over the previous 12 months.  That’s right, hard inquiries over 12 months old don’t have any impact on your FICO scores despite the fact that they’ll be on your files for another 12 months.

Now, let’s address the method which FICO uses to count inquiries.  This is complicated, which is why there’s so much incorrect information on the subject floating around in the web world.  Remember, we’re just talking about hard inquires at this point and only those that have occurred in the previous 12 months.

30-day “Safe Harbor” period

Mortgage, Auto and Student loan related inquiries that are less than 30 days old have no impact, at all, on your FICO scores.  That’s why the date of the inquiry and the party accessing your reports is so important, because that’s how the inquiry is dated and categorized.  So, if you want to split hairs, these types of inquiries only count for a maximum of 11 months because they’re ignored for their first 30 days on file and then only counted while they’re up to one year old.

45-day “Rate Shopping Allowance”

Over a decade ago FICO changed how they treated multiple inquiries caused by lenders in the mortgage and auto lending industries.  And more recently, they’ve changed how they treated student loan inquires.  The issue was how to not penalize consumers who were interest-rate shopping and, thus, filling their credit reports with multiple inquires in a very short period of time.  The 45-day logic considers inquiries from mortgage, auto and student loan lenders, which occur within 45 days of each other as 1 inquiry.  So, you can apply for 15 auto loans in as long as the lenders pull your reports within a 45-day period the 15 inquiries will be counted by the FICO score as only one search for credit.  The idea, which makes perfect sense, is that the shopper is really only looking for one loan, not 15.  There was a time when the 45 day period was only 14 days, but that was in much older versions of the scoring software.

You’ve probably noticed that credit cards, retail store cards and gasoline cards are not protected.  That’s because people don’t generally shop for plastic like they’d shop for an auto loan.  You don’t apply for credit cards with Capital One (COF), Discover (DFS), American Express (AXP), Bank of America (BAC) and Wells Fargo (WFC) and then choose whichever issuer gave you the best deal.  What you’ve actually done is to open new cards with Capital One, Discover, American Express, Bank of America and Wells Fargo and opening so many accounts in a such a small period of time is indicative of elevated credit risk, so no dice my friends.

The same is true for retail store cards.  You don’t rate shop at Macy’s stores at every mall in your city.  The rate you get is going to be the same regardless of which store you apply at.  This is very troubling news for the people who use their credit reports as “15% off” coupons at the mall and apply for instant credit at the register just to save a few bucks.  Each of those is really an application for a new store credit card, and those inquiries can sting.

There are also some notable exceptions to the hard inquiry rule (that they are always seen and considered).  For example, employment inquires do not count in your credit scores.  Neither are insurance or utility inquiries counted in your scores.  As you can imagine, it’s hard to argue that applying for a job, insurance (which is generally a legal or lender requirement) or utilities leads to a debt obligation and you certainly don’t want to penalize people for applying for these basic needs.

There you have it.  Everything you ever wanted to know about inquiries but were too afraid to ask.

John Ulzheimer is the President of Consumer Education at SmartCredit.com, the credit blogger for Mint.com, and the author of the “credit history” definition on Wikipedia.  He is an expert on credit reporting, credit scoring and identity theft. Formerly of FICO, Equifax and Credit.com, John is the only recognized credit expert who actually comes from the credit industry.  He has served as a credit expert witness in more than 70 cases and has been qualified to testify in both Federal and State court on the topic of consumer credit.