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How to boost your credit scores in the next year

This photo illustration shows a computer tablet reading "fix your credit."
(Olesia Kononenko / iStockphoto via Getty Images)

Dear Liz: I am 36 with a 535 credit score and about to move back to the U.S. from Colombia with my future wife. I’d like to increase my score by 100 or 200 points within eight to 12 months. Is it possible?

Answer: Increasing your credit scores to the mid-600s within a year or so is probably a reasonable goal.

Most consumer credit scores are on a 300-to-850 range. The higher your scores, the easier it will be to get approved for loans and credit cards, plus you’ll be offered better rates and terms.

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What’s considered a good or bad score depends on the lender and the scoring formula. In general, scores below 630 or so are considered bad while scores in the mid-600s are usually considered “fair.” Good scores typically begin around 690.

Consider a credit builder loan from a credit union or online lender. The money you borrow is placed in a certificate of deposit or a savings account for you to claim after you’ve made 12 on-time payments. You’ll pay interest to the lender but be building your savings at the same time.

Secured credit cards are another way to build credit. You deposit a certain amount with the issuing bank, often $200 to $2,000, and get a credit line in the same amount. If you use the charge lightly and pay it off in full each month, you can build credit without paying interest.

There are many different scoring formulas, resulting in different credit scores. Also, the tax implications of giving away your money.

House gift needs a lawyer’s help

Dear Liz: I have a rental house that I would like to give to my sister as an outright gift. (She is the current tenant but cannot afford to buy the house.) How can I do this legally? Do I need a lawyer? If so, what kind? I have already asked a real estate agent, and I’ve been told that I don’t really need her services. She suggested asking an escrow company. The house is in the name of my revocable trust and I own it free and clear. For various reasons, I would like to give her the house now rather than leave it to her in my will. I realize she will be stuck with my cost basis, but she has no plans to ever sell it because she has lived there for 10 years and wants to live in it for the rest of her life.

Answer: Talk to a real estate attorney, who can help you through the multi-step process of transferring a house deed and getting it recorded. You could try to do it yourself, but the attorney can ensure the transfer is done properly and answer any questions you may have.

Because the house probably is worth more than the annual gift exemption limit — which is currently $15,000 and rising to $16,000 next year — you also will have to file a gift tax return. Actual gift taxes aren’t owed until you’ve given away millions of dollars in your lifetime. If you’re wealthy enough to be concerned about that, please also consult an estate planning attorney.

Wells Fargo had found a way to charge some of its customers $30 to transfer funds from one division of the bank to another when paying off a mortgage.

Lump sum or annuity?

Dear Liz: You recently answered a question about whether to take a lump sum or an annuity payout from a pension. I think you need to be more cautious about making a blanket statement about the payout being the only viable option. There are other reasons for taking the lump sum, such as the pension fund’s stability. My mother’s friend lost her entire pension when Bethlehem Steel went bankrupt. Also, I like the idea of being able to access the lump sum in the case of a catastrophic need (call me a control freak!).

Answer: You certainly can access more of your money with a lump sum, but that’s a double-edged sword. You could withdraw too much too fast and run out of money. You could lose money to bad markets, bad investments, bad decisions and fraud. Even if you’re making good financial decisions now, that may not always be the case as our cognitive abilities tend to decline with age.

The column you’re referencing didn’t say that an annuity is the only viable option, however. In that particular case, the annuity option came with retiree health insurance while the lump sum option did not. It would be pretty hard to top guaranteed income for life plus medical benefits, but that doesn’t mean it’s impossible.

A lump sum could be a better option if the pension is particularly generous and the pension fund isn’t solvent. Your mother’s friend’s pension, for example, was covered by the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp., so she didn’t lose the whole thing when Bethlehem Steel went under. Workers there lost part of what was promised them because their pensions were larger than the amount covered by the PBGC.

Liz Weston, Certified Financial Planner, is a personal finance columnist for NerdWallet. Questions may be sent to her at 3940 Laurel Canyon, No. 238, Studio City, CA 91604, or by using the “Contact” form at asklizweston.com.


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