Bad credit is like a shackle around your ankle. It can make getting a decent loan, buying a car, and even renting an apartment more difficult. But even the worst credit scores aren’t set in stone. It’ll take some time, research, and discipline, but fixing bad credit is always possible. And you don’t need to hire a credit repair service to do it for you. Just follow our guide to free credit repair to improve your score without having to pay any third party for help.
What Is Credit Repair?
Credit repair is the process of improving a person’s creditworthiness, usually after they’ve made some mistakes that make lenders less likely to offer them loans or credit cards.
People can pursue free credit repair measures on their own or hire a third party to do it for them, but the steps are similar in either case. It generally involves activities like paying down debt, establishing a better payment history, and addressing any other weak points found in their credit reports.
Fixing bad credit can take months or even years. It depends on the extent of the damage done and the steps taken to remedy the problem. Some negative items stay on a person’s credit report for longer than others, but there is no such thing as a person with credit beyond repair.
What Is the Credit Repair Organizations Act?
The nature of financial concerns and the distress they cause provides a perfect opportunity to predatory businesses. Naturally, a wide range of scams and deceptive practices have cropped up in the industry over the years.
In the past, one of the most frequent offenders was the credit repair industry. Consumers consistently complained about companies promising miraculous credit improvements, taking their money, and then failing to deliver anything of value.
Fortunately, governmental bodies like the Consumer Federal Protection Bureau (CFPB) and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) closely regulate the financial industry. The Credit Repair Organizations Act (CROA) became law in 1996, and they enforce it to combat these issues.
The CROA protects consumers against less than honest business practices from credit repair organizations. It stops them from making any false claims about their services or charging customers in advance.
More specifically, here are some of the most important rules it creates:
- Credit repair organizations can’t lie to customers, credit bureaus, or lenders.
- Companies can’t advise consumers to lie to the credit bureaus. That includes creating a new credit identity.
- No credit repair organization can request or accept payment before rendering its services.
- Companies must provide customers with a written copy of a contract that details the terms of the transaction, including the costs, scope of services, and any guarantees.
- Consumers have three days to cancel their agreement without reason or penalty.
It’s crucial to know and understand the implications of these rules before working with a credit repair service. If a company bends or breaks any of these laws, don’t engage their services. Instead, consider reporting them to the FTC.
Is a Credit Repair Service Worth It?
In the vast majority of cases, it’s not worth working with a credit repair organization. There are too many ways for it to go wrong. People who work with credit repair services open themselves up to:
- Getting little to no results
- Paying significant fees for any minor results
- Working with scam artists or illegitimate companies
In any case, credit repair companies can’t take any action that consumers couldn’t. They have no special knowledge, connections, or leverage, and they often do a worse job of negotiating than most people would do for themselves.
6 Steps to Free Credit Repair
Credit repair might not be an easy process, but it is relatively simple. The steps are straightforward and repeatable.
Here’s the best way to go about it:
1. Get Free Credit Reports
Everyone can request a free annual credit report from each of the three main credit bureaus. They’re the same ones that lenders use to calculate credit scores, which means they can provide insight into any limiting factors. They’re a valuable reference throughout any free credit repair journey.
2. Dispute Any Errors
The quickest way to boost a credit score is to correct any credit report errors. It’s not instantaneous and still requires a bit of paperwork, but disputing and removing a negative item is typically the lowest hanging fruit. It may also represent a larger problem like identity theft, so make sure to verify everything.
3. Plan Efficiently
With credit reports in hand, it’s much easier to create an efficient strategy for fixing bad credit. There are only five general factors that affect credit scores, and people can easily find which ones are holding them back using the details in their reports. It will also help create an estimate of how long it will take to see meaningful success.
4. Pay Down Debt
The most common issue that weighs credit scores down is missing debt payments. Missing debt payments usually comes from having too much debt to handle, and the combination of the two quickly spirals out of control. Having high debt balances and utilization rates are also red flags for lenders. Try the debt avalanche or the debt snowball method to get back in control. If that doesn’t work, consider working with a credit counselor.
5. Demonstrate Responsibility
After removing the traces of a negative track record, start writing a more positive story. The best way to do that is to take out a secured credit card with a reasonable limit and use it sparingly. Try to keep the balance below 30%, and make sure to pay it off each month in full.
6. Avoid The Small Mistakes
While paying off debt and keeping up with payments should take priority, there are other (slightly less impactful) things to keep in mind. For example, even after catching up on old credit cards, try not to close any of them. That can lower utilization and the average age of credit accounts.
There are no shortcuts to fixing bad credit. Doing so with or without a credit repair company is going to take months, if not years. Don’t listen to anyone who suggests otherwise because they’re probably trying to pull a scam.
How Long Does it Take to Repair a Poor Credit Score?
While it’s impossible to accurately predict how long it takes to repair a credit score, it is safe to say that it will take most people somewhere between a few months and a few years of good behavior to turn things around.
Of course, that’s a wide window. It’s difficult to say exactly how long it takes to repair a poor credit score. Scores vary between lenders, and there is no universal definition of what constitutes bad credit. It’s hard to say how long it will take to progress away from an undefined starting point.
It also depends on what specific type of damage is affecting the scores. People with bad scores from bankruptcy can expect a different time frame from those who are currently overcome with high debt balances and missed payments, even if their scores are similar.
But it’s helpful to know that even most of the significantly negative pieces of information stay on credit reports for no more than seven years. That includes late payments, Chapter 13 bankruptcy, foreclosures, and debt collections.
Beware of Credit Repair Scams
Despite regulations, credit repair scams are still fairly common. As recently as November of 2020, the FTC had to refund victims of a credit repair scam for over $150,000.
It’s usually better to pursue free credit repair and avoid engaging a third party service. But for those of you who are uncomfortable fixing bad credit yourself, at least stay away from credit repair companies who do any of the following:
- Make grandiose promises: Don’t trust anyone who claims that they can do something that sounds too good to be true. That includes any fresh starts with new credit identities or guarantees that they can remove negative items from credit reports.
- Try to charge upfront: It is illegal for credit repair companies to ask for any money before they deliver on their promise. Don’t ever hand over any money until they do so. If they even ask, it’s probably a scam.
If it’s at all possible, just stay away from credit repair companies in general. Fixing bad credit yourself is safer, less expensive, and just as likely to be effective (if not more).
Fixing bad credit is difficult, but it’s not complicated. Pay down high debt balances, make monthly payments on time, and fix any other problems in your credit reports. With good behavior, all credit scores will eventually begin to recover.
It’s usually best to take on the problem yourself. Most credit repair companies are more trouble than they’re worth, and some are outright scams. If you don’t want to go it alone but also don’t trust credit repair companies, consider consulting with a credit counselor. They can serve as a guide in the process and are usually free.