Soft vs. Hard Credit Checks: What You Should Know
Understanding if and how a credit check may impact your credit score can help you make better decisions to maintain your financial health.
Your credit report is a detailed summary of your credit history. Credit reports include personal information, reported credit accounts, credit checks, and your public records. They do not include your credit score. While a credit report can’t capture every detail of your financial history, it provides a reasonable summary of your fiscal responsibility and money management skills over time. When you or someone else accesses one or more of your credit reports, it’s called a credit check – also known as a credit pull or credit inquiry. There are two types, soft and hard, and only one has implications for your credit standing.
What Is a Credit Check?
Credit checks happen when you or someone else wants to gauge your creditworthiness, which is done for a variety of reasons. For example, you may check it when developing a plan to boost your credit score (a three-digit number that provides a quick snapshot of your financial habits). A lender will check it when you apply for financing, such as a credit card, auto loan, or mortgage. Some employers, landlords, or insurers may want to check your credit, too.
Credit checks are done in a two-step process. You have a credit report at each of the three main credit bureaus: Experian®, TransUnion®, and Equifax®. The first step involves an entity (such as yourself or a lender) submitting a request for information to one or more of the three credit bureaus. Next, the bureau(s) will share your credit report with that entity, if they have a legal right to ask for it.
Before giving permission for someone to run a credit check, find out if it will be a soft or hard inquiry. With an understanding of the implications of each type and when they may occur, you’ll be empowered to make smart credit decisions, giving you better control over your credit standing.
What Is a Soft Credit Check?
Have you ever received a credit card or loan offer in the mail that says you’ve been “pre-qualified” or “preapproved”? These offers are often the result of the lender running a soft credit check on you. Your permission isn’t required for someone to perform a soft credit check, and soft credit checks have no impact on your credit score.
Soft inquiries aren’t visible to anyone checking your credit report besides you. When you access your credit report, soft credit inquiries often appear under their own section, and they’ll stay visible to you (and only you) for up to two years. Other entities, like lenders or landlords, won’t see them when they check your credit.
Soft credit checks aren’t connected with an official lending decision. They occur when:
- You access your own credit report.
- An employer, landlord, or other entity runs a credit check as part of a background check.
- Lenders, insurance agencies, or other entities perform a check to pre-qualify or preapprove you for offers.
These pre-qualifications and preapprovals are not actual lending decisions or financial determinations. They’re just estimations of what terms and rates you might be eligible for based on preliminary information gathered about you. If you decide to pursue one of those offers, the lender, insurance agency, or other entity will need more information to make an official determination and may request a hard credit check.
What Is a Hard Credit Check?
When a lender or other entity needs to make an official financial decision, they’ll perform a hard credit check. Hard inquiries provide more details about your financial past than soft inquiries do, and they do impact your credit score. Entities must obtain your consent before running a hard credit pull.
Since hard credit pulls are involved with applications for credit or other financial decisions, they show up on your credit report. Lenders and other entities can see hard inquiries when performing a soft or hard credit check. You can see hard pulls when checking your credit yourself, too. Hard inquiries typically stay on your report for two years.
One hard inquiry can drop your FICO® Score – the most common credit scoring models used – by up to five points. Though hard pulls stay on your report for two years, they stop affecting your FICO Score after one year. Hard inquiries may occur when:
- You apply for a loan, such as an auto loan, student loan, or mortgage.
- You apply for a new line of credit, such as a new credit card (including many store-specific credit cards).
- You apply to rent an apartment or house. Some landlords may perform hard credit inquiries instead of soft inquiries to verify that you’ll be a reliable tenant.
Remember, you have to give your written consent before a hard credit check can be performed. You have the right to decline, although it may impact the results of your application.
Tips for Managing Credit Checks
Approaching your credit inquiries with an informed strategy can help you stay in control of your credit standing.
- Avoid Multiple Hard Checks in a Short Time Frame- Because each hard credit inquiry can decrease your credit score, try to avoid having multiple hard checks in a short span of time. Wait six months to a year between submitting applications, especially before big purchases and applying for a mortgage or auto loan, so your score has time to bounce back. Multiple recent credit inquiries may also signal to lenders and other entities that you’re in a financial predicament, which could factor into their judgment.
- Dispute Any Errors- By law, you’re entitled to free copies of all three of your credit reports every 12 months. You can request your copies online at AnnualCreditReport.com, which is federally authorized. When you receive your reports, check each one for inaccuracies or suspicious activity, like an unauthorized hard inquiry. Some lenders and other entities may only communicate with one bureau about your accounts, so each report may contain information not included on the other two. If you find concerning activity or inaccurate information, contact the credit bureau that issued the report for guidance on next steps, such as filing a dispute to have it removed. If the information is on all three reports, you’ll need to contact all three bureaus individually.
- Take Advantage of Preapprovals- Since preapprovals are soft checks that don’t impact your credit, they’re a smart way to shop for a credit card, loan, or insurance. Preapprovals will give you a reasonable estimate of the rates and terms you may be eligible for, without having to worry about your score dropping. You can compare those preapprovals to find one that best fits your needs, and let it guide your spending plan. When you’re ready to make your purchase, you can officially apply for the offer you choose. This process can help you find your preferred terms without having multiple hard checks on your credit report.
- Be Aware of Safe Harbor Periods- For some financial decisions – such as taking out a mortgage – you may want to know your exact offers before making a final choice, which requires lenders to perform hard inquiries. Fortunately, credit scoring models make allowances for hard credit checks of the same type made within a specific time frame, called a safe harbor period. This period can be between 14 to 45 days, depending on the scoring model.
With this safe harbor period, every hard inquiry will still appear on your credit report, but only one will impact your credit score. Additional inquiries for the same type of financing within the allotted time won’t decrease your score any further. Planning your applications accordingly allows you to make an informed decision and find the best rates, with only minimal change to your credit score.
Better Credit, Better Rates
Your credit scores can impact major moments in your life, from buying a home to landing a job. Wisely managing your credit checks can help you maintain healthier credit scores, which may lead to money-saving benefits like lower interest rates on loans or smaller premiums on car insurance. Take time to build your credit score before applying for credit by spacing out your hard credit inquiries and following other healthy financial habits.
Good credit management is just one component of staying financially fit. Call us at (877) 773-6605 to learn how we can help support your financial health.