Times are tough. Millions are unemployed. House prices are wobbling, and bankers don’t dare lend money due to the risk that customers will lose even more of it than the banks have managed to lose for themselves.
In this climate, it’s more important than ever to know your credit score  (also known as your credit rating) before you apply for a mortgage or a loan.
The days of banks literally mailing you blank cheques to encourage you to sign up for credit cards are gone. Nowadays you need to check your credit score, and if necessary try to repair your credit record before you apply.
Know that in most cases, a company searching your credit file will leave a note that it did so. Too many credit searches – perhaps due to companies checking your record and then rejecting you – will only make a bad credit score worse.
Avoid this spiral by knowing how to get a good credit score in advance.
What is your credit score?
There are three main credit reference agencies  in the UK: Experian, Equifax, and Callcredit.
Banks and other companies use the data held by these companies to assess your creditworthiness.
The reason you have no single ‘credit rating’ is because the three companies have different ways of assessing you as a credit risk.
Unfortunately you don’t know which agency will be contacted after you rock up demanding £200,000 and a smile from your friendly neighborhood bank / online comparison website.
To be extra diligent you can check all three, using the statutory method I’ll detail below.
I think the best thing to do first though is to check one for free, to see if there’s any low-hanging rotten fruit on your record that you can fix.
If you’re not registered on the electoral roll, for example, or if a former inhabitant at your address – and his unpaid bills – is being erroneously linked with your own finances, then you’ll need to write to the appropriate authorities and/or the agencies to get that sorted.
You should get out of debt  as a matter of urgency whatever your situation; this will usually improve your credit score, too.
How to check your credit score for free
A very easy way to check your credit score for free is by signing up to the CreditMatcher  service from Experian.
CreditMatcher claims to enable consumers to check their Experian Credit Score entirely for free and is updated every 30 days.
If you’ve never checked your credit score it can be quite an eye-opener seeing how lenders may view you. If you’re new to credit scores, you could consider signing up  even if you don’t think you’ll need credit in the near future, just to get better informed.
Discover my credit score
I wanted to check my credit score because I constantly vacillate as to whether I should buy a home.
Since I think house prices are too high , the main reason to do so would be to lock-in a cheap mortgage rate. However only squeaky-clean customers get the best deals these days, hence I wanted to know my credit score in advance and take remedial action if I need to.
Signing up to the free trial with Credit Expert took all of five minutes, but you can’t get instant access to your credit score.
For security reasons you are not given a secret PIN when you sign-up. Instead, you are mailed it separately by post.
I think this is a sensible precaution (you don’t want criminals impersonating you) but it did take about six days for my PIN to arrive. That’s six days used up out of the 30-day free trial – because membership starts as soon as you complete the online registration.
Once you have the PIN number, it only takes a moment to complete the registration process and see your credit score.
Experian rates you on a score from 0 to 1000. When I last checked my credit score five or six years ago, I scored in the mid-700s, which the company described as “fair”.
You can imagine I was pretty pleased when I saw my new rating:
My new credit score of 999 is only one off the maximum mark of 1,000!
What’s interesting to me is that my financial situation – as far as Experian  can tell – is little different to how it was in 2005.
My net worth has multiplied, but the credit agencies can’t see inside my savings and broking accounts. I paid my bills on time back then, and I pay them now.
I seem to have managed to accidentally improve my credit score by:
- Staying in the same house for five years.
- Getting a Platinum American Express  cashback credit card.
- Getting a land line and certain utilities in my own name (I shared these 5-6 years ago with a mix of housemates).
- Changing from PAYG to a monthly iPhone  contract.
Alternatively, maybe the rumours of ruin for much of the population are true, and everyone else has simply slid further down the credit rankings! If that’s you, see this article  from MoneySavingExpert for information on how to improve your credit score.
It’s possible that my credit score could actually hinder some applications – for example if a bank decided it wasn’t likely to make any money from me running up a credit card balance. (It would be right – I pay them off every month).
My score should be good for getting a good mortgage rate, though it would only be one part of a picture including salary, outgoings, and so on.
How to cancel your Credit Expert free trial
Before I signed up to the Credit Expert free trial , I had read that it was very difficult to cancel.
These reports turned out to be misleading, in my experience.
It is true that you can’t cancel online, which is annoying, and perhaps does encourage some people to stay subscribed longer than they mean to out of laziness.
However it took me two minutes to cancel via a phone call.
I called on a Thursday afternoon. The chap on the other end was perfectly polite. There were no hard sales tactics, although I was given the option of identity fraud expenses insurance at a cut-price rate, which I declined.
I can’t discount the possibility he was employing subtle persuasion strategies that evaded my radar. Given that I cancelled successfully, however, it seems unlikely, or at least he failed.
Perhaps the hardest part is finding the number to call to cancel! It may be buried in the service’s FAQ, but I couldn’t find it.
So for reference, to cancel I called:
0844 4810800 – but you can call free on 0800 561 0083
The 0844 number isn’t free, but I didn’t have the free number at that point and I doubt it cost me more than 20p to make the call. (Note you have to call the free number from a landline to avoid being charged).
To ensure you don’t accidentally start paying for Credit Expert membership, mark the 30-day expiry date on a calendar when you set up your account, or better still take off a few days for luck.
Remember the trial begins from when you open the account, not from when you’re granted access, so be diligent to avoid an unwanted bill.
How to get your statutory credit report for £2
Under the Consumer Credit Act, you are entitled to obtain a full credit report from the three agencies I mentioned for £2 for each, via the post (or in the case of Callcredit, also online).
I’d probably do this once I’d cleaned up any obvious black marks via a free trial, as otherwise you’ll need to keep spending £2 to see what’s changed.
Here are the web pages for each company that detail how to get your statutory credit report:
Each company gives you a form to fill-in that you can post with a £2 cheque in order to get your report.
Future credit checks
After you’ve cancelled your free trial membership  with Credit Expert, you can reopen your account at any time using the same log in details, which will save you waiting for confirmation.
I presume you don’t get a second chance to check your credit score for free, but I could be wrong.
I’ll check-in again with Experian in six months and let you know.