Q: I’ve been saving for a few years for a down payment on a house, but I just realized my credit score isn’t excellent. Is there a minimum credit score required to buy a house in 2011?

A: In 2011, it’s a little harder to buy a house than it was a few years ago. With the crackdown on subprime mortgages, the standards are a bit higher. According to Bankrate, in order to get the best interest rate on a mortgage, you now need a credit score of 740, up from 720 before the financial crisis (read more about it here). Some lenders require credit scores of 760 and up for the best rates.

You can still obtain a mortgage with a credit score lower than 740, but it will be at a higher rate. For an FHA loan, the federally mandated minimum credit score is 500, but good luck finding anyone who will lend to you with a credit score of 500. You’ll have much better luck if your credit score is in the “fair” range, or at least 640.

If you can afford a house, now is a good time to buy one. If you can’t, though, it will end up being a financial burden, with costs like property taxes, repairs, and PMI. Even if you can afford one, it might be smart to work on your credit score first if it isn’t in the “good” or “excellent” range. Experts don’t think the housing market is going anywhere fast, and the difference of a couple percentage points can save you tens of thousands of dollars over the course of your loan.