For more than a decade, lending institutions have used credit scoring to determine an applicant’s credit-worthiness. The score ranges from 300 to 850, derived mathematically from information in credit reports, and thanks to new legislation, consumers now have access to that number. Regulators are still wrangling about how that access will work, but once you do get it, there are some important things to know.

In general, a score of 700 or more will qualify you for the best loan rates, says Scott Mitic, vice president of business development at Fair Isaac, creator of FICO, the most widely used number. At 600-650, a lender may ask for more information about assets and income before offering a loan. With a sub-600 number, you’re likely to still get credit, but at a much higher interest rate.

What can you do about a low score? First, find out what’s hurting your score. Mitic suggests starting this process at least six months before you plan to apply for a loan. Get copies of all three of your credit reports and look for reporting mistakes. The credit score is based on payment history, amounts owed, length of credit history, new credit, and types of credit used — with the first two criteria more heavily weighted. Another way to spruce up a credit score is to pay bills on time and pay down the balances carried on credit cards. Also be wary of opening new lines of credit, which will reduce your score. By the same token, don’t start closing long-standing accounts, either, as this will also lower your number. (For more details, check out Fair Isaac’s website at www.myfico.com.)

“Now there is no excuse for consumers to be uneducated about this,” Mitic says. “You should be able to walk into a lender and say, ‘I know my FICO score is this and I want your best rate.’ If they’re not doing that, consumers are disempowering themselves.”