Earlier this week I wrote about mistakes we make when buying a car. One of those mistakes is overlooking the importance of the auto financing in the overall cost of your new car.
The example I gave is if you are buying a new Honda Civic, the difference between “sticker price” and the dealer’s invoice price (what the dealer paid for the car) is about $1,500. If you negotiate well, you could save $1,000 or more on the price of the car. If you then finance the car for four years at 6% with nothing down, you’ll pay over $2,000 in interest. Financing the car for three years at 4% with a $1,500 down payment, however, can save you over $1,000.
If you’re willing to negotiate the price of the car, you shouldn’t ignore the rates and terms of your financing. I made this mistake the first time I bought a car many years ago and vowed never to do it again. I posted some of this article based on my personal experience a couple years ago, and have vastly enhanced it for today. If you’re in the market for a new car—don’t wait until you’re in “the box” (what some dealers call the offices where you finish the paperwork) to think about your financing.
AUTO FINANCING TIPS
Cars aren’t investments. Quite the contracy, cars depreciate like crazy. For this reason alone, it’s not smart personal finance to pay interest on a loan to buy a car. What happens in many cases is the value of the car drops faster than you repay the loan leaving you upside down or underwater (when you owe more on the loan than the car is worth).
That said, many of us need cars to get to our jobs and don’t have the cash lying around to buy a reliable ride. So we get a car loan. That’s cool, but of course there’s a difference between using a car loan wisely and using it to buy a lot of car you can’t afford. I have the credit and income to go out and get a loan for a BMW M3. And I would love that car. But that doesn’t mean I should get it. What the dealerships will tell you can afford and what you should spend are two very different things.
So whenever you finance a car, you want to think about it not just from a monthly payment standpoint (how will this $350 payment affect my monthly expenses) but also from a total cost point of view. Here’s what I recommend:
Understand Your Credit!
If there’s ever a time to check and understand your credit report and credit score, it’s before you get a car loan.
Here’s the deal: unlike mortgages or a credit card, you can usually get a car loan even if you have pretty bad credit—you’ll just pay (a lot) more. The reason? It’s relatively easy for the banks to repossess a car if you don’t pay.
But if you have shaky credit, you’re likely to be excited to get a loan at all, so you’re not going to want to ask if there’s a lower rate available. Dealers know this and they make a lot of money based on it. Free tools like Credit Sesame or Credit Karma can help you understand where your credit score falls and what kinds of interest rates you might qualify for. You can check the latest average auto loan rates at Bankrate as an up-to-date benchmark.
Shop Before You Go
If you have excellent credit and you know it, you can usually get the best financing rates right from the dealership, who serves as a broker for multiple lenders. With great credit you may qualify for incentive 0% APRs or other low financing rates. The key is to know your credit is good so they can’t try to tell you otherwise.
If your credit is only average (say less than 700), you can benefit getting some loan quotes before you hit the dealership. You can visit your bank or a local credit union and apply for an auto loan before you start car shopping or use an online loan broker like this one (an affiliate of this Website). Most of the time local banks and credit unions can offer borrowers with average credit the most competitive interest rates on both new and used car loans. Even better, you may be able to use the pre-arranged financing as a bargaining chip with the dealership’s finance and insurance (F&I) manager and score an even lower interest rate.
Keep The Term Short
Shorter loan terms come with lower interest rates but higher monthly payments. And that’s what you want.
It’s tempting to stretch out a loan over five or even six years to watch the monthly payment drop, but this means you’ll pay a lot more in interest and almost certainly be upside down on your car.
Put 20% Down
In addition to a short loan term, you can avoid a situation in which you owe more money than the car is worth by putting money down. This may seem like a no-brainer, but many dealerships don’t even require buyers with good credit to make any down payment at all!
Pay For Taxes, Fees and “Extras” With Cash
When you buy a car, there are always miscellaneous expenses like sales tax, registration fees, documentation fees and any extras you choose to purchase like extended warranties. Often, dealers are more than happy to roll some or all of these fees into your financing. Unfortunately, doing that just ensures you’ll be upside down on your car loan, at least for a while, since you’re increasing the amount of your loan but not the value of the car securing the loan.
Gap insurance (guaranteed auto protection insurance) is something car dealers and lenders sell you to cover the “gap” between what an insurance company thinks your car is worth and what you owe on your car loan in the event you’re in an accident and the insurer declarres the car a total loss. (The insurer will only pay book value for the car, regardless of what you owe on the loan.) So if you crash your car and still owe $12,000 on your loan but the insurance company only covers the car for $10,000, you’re responsible for paying back the $2,000 (and you’re without a car).
People buy gap insurance based on fear because nobody wants to be in the position of owing a couple thousand on a totaled car. But if you structure your car loan correctly (put money down and stick to a three year term, you can feel confident that you won’t need gap insurance because your car shouldn’t be worth less than what you owe.)
Prices for gap insurance vary widely (from $30 or so a year to over $600 for the term of a car loan). The policies the dealers offer may be the most expensive, so if you feel like you need gap insurance, contact your auto insurance agent.
REFINANCING A CAR LOAN
So you didn’t see this article in time and got stuck with a really bad car loan. No big deal. If your credit is good and your car isn’t too old, you should be able to refinance your car loan just like you can refinance a house.
The best place to ask about car loan refinancing is a local credit union, but you can also get free quotes from online loan brokers like this one. Ask about any fees for applying or initiating the loan and avoid lenders who want to lower your monthly payment by extending the term of your loan. (With an auto loan refinance, you want to get a lower interest rate and pay down the loan over the same or a shorter term).
Unless you’re looking at 0% or another really low APR, the best way to buy a car is with cash. If you have to get a car loan, be as pragmatic as possible. Know your credit score going in. If it’s less-than-perfect, shop for a loan before you go to the dealership and use these offers as leverage to get the lowest APR possible. Keep the terms as short as possible and put money down to avoid a loan in which your destined to become upside down. And remember to shop around and compare insurance quotes often once you have the car– putting in that extra effort really could save you hundreds over the lifetime of the car.
What about you? Have you learned lessons the hard way about the auto financing process you can share with others? Let us know in a comment!