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A close friend recently asked me for advice about reviewing her credit reports and credit scores. A few years ago, when she got a mortgage, her scores were very good — in the 800s — but she has since had a run-in with a department store card that she fears may have had a negative impact on her credit. So it’s smart for her to find out what’s going on.

The only problem was her timing. A few days after our conversation, she made an offer on a house, and will soon be applying for a mortgage. That doesn’t leave her much opportunity to straighten out the issue with the store card issuer if her fears are confirmed and they have reported a late payment.

It’s not uncommon for us to only worry about our credit when we have to, but at that point it may be “too little too late.” In a recent Credit.com survey on credit reports, a quarter of those who said they have seen their credit reports did so in the process of applying for a mortgage, while 13% saw theirs when they applied for an auto loan. An additional 5% got theirs because they were a victim of identity theft, and 3% saw theirs when renting an apartment. Together, that means just over 40% of those who had seen their credit reports did so when they were already in the process of trying to get credit of some type.

If you are of the view that “no news is good news,” you could be in for a rude awakening when you finally request your free credit reports. Twenty-one percent of consumers in the Credit.com survey who saw theirs said they found an inaccuracy. And some were in for an unpleasant surprise: Nine percent found a late payment they didn’t know about and 10% said they discovered a collection account they didn’t know about.

In the case of applying for a mortgage, waiting until the last minute can be especially problematic. If you do find a mistake and try to dispute it, the dispute itself could block your home loan until it’s resolved.

The Best Time to Check Credit?

Ideally, it’s a good idea to review your credit reports and credit scores well before you plan to apply for credit. You can get your free annual credit reports and then monitor your credit throughout the year so you’ll be alerted to unexpected changes. You can get a free credit report summary, including two credit scores and an action plan for your credit, from Credit.com.

In the case of a mortgage, give yourself 60 to 90 days to clear up mistakes, if possible. Similarly, reviewing your credit reports at least a month before applying for an auto loan or rental house or apartment will give you some breathing room in case you spot an unexpected issue.

Checking your credit report is smart, but timing can be important. Knowing what’s on your credit reports can be empowering, but not when you feel backed into a corner.

More on Credit Reports & Credit Scores:

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