Consumers are surprisingly ignorant about credit, according to a new report by Fannie Mae.

Half of the American adults surveyed for Fannie's 1999 national housing survey said that a poor credit history, resulting from making late payments, poses no obstacle or only a minor obstacle to obtaining a mortgage.

The survey was conducted this spring by the research firm of Peter D. Hart and Robert Teeter, using a sample of 1,812 adults.

"I was pretty surprised that there was a disconnect between how someone would be managing other credit obligations and not realizing the impact that would have on the ability to get a mortgage," said David Shellenberger, product manager for Fair, Isaac and Co. in San Rafael, Calif. "I think it's important to educate the consumers as much as we can about how credit works and how lenders go about assessing credit."

Fannie Mae was also surprised by the "high degree of misinformation that people were operating under," a spokesman said. The industry needs to do a better job of disseminating educational information so that consumers "better understand the benefits of credit scoring and automated underwriting," he added.

The survey found that Americans have a "pronounced" suspicion of computerized decision-making tools.

Only 25% of those surveyed believe computerized credit scoring is better than an approval committee, while 63% prefer the committee, precisely because humans would make the underwriting decision.

The survey revealed that a majority of Americans, 63%, are confident that their financial affairs are well enough in order to enable them to obtain a mortgage.

Even with this level of confidence, 31% said that being late paying a utility bill three times in the past year would not be a problem for qualifying for a mortgage. Among people who had applied for a mortgage, 30% said it would be no problem if a mortgage application showed these late payments.

On a positive note, the survey found that other obstacles have diminished. Only 25% of Americans said having enough money for a down payment and closing costs was "a major obstacle."

The study found that only 6% of people say discrimination is still a major obstacle, and an additional 15% say it is a minor obstacle. But 44% of African-Americans say that they continue to suffer from discrimination.

Among the Hispanics surveyed, 28% said African-Americans are more likely to suffer from discrimination, but 25% said Hispanics experience discrimination.

The report said the Internet remains a "source of information" for getting a mortgage, rather than a "very useful channel for the loan application." Since 1996, interest in using the Internet to finance or refinance homes has remained flat.

A strong economy and consumer confidence have also made a mark, with 54% of people indicating a preference for a mortgage with a shorter term, even if it results in higher mortgage payments.

What's more, the survey's findings point to a growing relocation market, with more than 50% of single parents, African-Americans, and Hispanics expecting to move in the next three years.

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