Credit scores have become all-important to financial well-being - well, at least to whether someone will give you a mortgage. They reflect creditworthiness and are based on credit reports, which indicate whether you pay your bills on time.

Lenders use someone's credit score to decide whether to lend that person money and at what interest rate. Credit scores also are used for screening insurance and other applications.

In the heady years leading up to the collapse of the housing market, it became obvious that people with credit scores that weren't very good were being given mortgages that they would never be able to repay.

Then the bottom fell out of the market, trillions of dollars were lost, and years of record foreclosures began.

Since the burst of the housing bubble, lenders have gotten understandably hard-nosed about credit scores, despite suggestions that the new rules might be holding back market recovery.

Let's not forget, too, that insurance coverage today also is based on credit scores, and that you need proof of a homeowners' policy before you get the keys to your new front door.

So what do people looking for a house, having read that it's 38 percent cheaper to own than rent these days, do to get their credit scores high enough for a bank to look favorably at them? And to offer them competitive interest rates to boot?

"The more you know about your own credit history, the better you can position yourself for lower rates when applying for a loan or insurance coverage," said Nessa Feddis, a senior vice president and deputy chief counsel for consumer protection and payments for the American Bankers Association.

Here are nine ways to boost your credit score, according to Feddis:

Order a copy of your credit report annually. The three major credit bureaus are required to provide you a free copy of your credit report at your request each year. Go to www.annualcreditreport.com or call 1-877-322-8228.

Use credit wisely. Banks look at your credit history as an indication of your future financial behavior.

Read the fine print on applications. Credit-card companies are very competitive, so interest rates, credit limits, grace periods, annual fees, terms, and conditions may vary.

Pay at least the minimum due and contact your creditor if you have trouble making payments. To pay off your balance more quickly, pay more than the minimum due.

Be wary of anyone who claims he or she can "fix" your credit report. No one can legally remove negative information from your credit history if it is accurate.

Don't pay bills late; it can affect your credit rating and increase your balance. If you are unable to pay the minimum monthly payment, let your creditor know and it may be able to lower your payments.

Don't spend more than you can afford. Credit is a loan and has to be repaid. Avoid reaching your credit limit or "maxing out" your cards.

If you pay late, take cash advances to fund daily living expenses, or transfer a lot of balances, you might be in the credit "danger zone." Talk to a nonprofit financial counseling organization like the National Foundation for Credit Counseling (www.nfcc.org) to regain control of your finances.

Never give out credit-card or personal information if you have not initiated a transaction. If you suspect that your identity has been compromised, call your bank and file a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission at 1-877-438-4338 or www.ftc.gov/idtheft.

aheavens@phillynews.com

215-854-2472 @alheavens