U.S. consumers’ credit scores dipped slightly during the recession and the total number of credit card accounts per household declined, but average credit scores remain well within the prime range, according to new data from Experian PLC.

Considering all household debt, including mortgage loans, the average U.S. credit score in August was 748 on the VantageScore scale, down eight points from 756 in August 2007, Experian says. Credit scores sank gradually throughout the recession. The average VantageScore credit score was 755 in August 2008 and 750 in 2009, according to Experian.

The overall decline is surprisingly small in light of the length of the economic downturn, Michele Raneri, senior director of analytics for Costa Mesa, Calif.-based Experian Consumer Information Solutions, a unit of the Dublin, Ireland-based credit bureau Experian, tells PaymentsSource.

 “Lenders at the start of the recession (in December 2007) pulled back sharply on credit lines and consumers steadily reduced their debt, so that when we officially pulled out of the recession in August of this year, average credit scores had not changed dramatically,” Raneri says.

Stamford, Conn.-based VantageScore, a joint offering by credit bureaus Experian, Equifax Inc. and TransUnion LLC launched in 2006 to compete with Fair Isaac Co.’s FICO score, produces credit scores in the range of 501-990. Most lenders consider scores above 700 to be prime, or acceptable risks, Raneri says.

The total number of credit card accounts per individual shrank during the recession, while average balances remained about even, Experian says. The average number of bank-issued credit cards accounts per individual dropped 25% to 1.79 per person in August from 2.39 three years earlier, according to Experian. The average outstanding balance on bank-issued credit cards declined 2.2% to $3,713 per person in August from $3,797 three years earlier.

While the average U.S. credit score is somewhat lower than it was before the recession, lenders are “warming up” to borrowers again, Raneri says.

“In the last few months lenders have indicated to us they are getting ready to book new accounts and extend credit to new borrowers,” she says. “As cash flow improves and the credit environment stabilizes, we expect that by next year we will begin to see credit accounts begin to grow again.”

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