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How Do I Finance a Used Car?

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When shopping for a used car, it’s critical that you think about how you are going to pay for it. For most buyers, that means getting a used car loan. While purchasing a used car can save you thousands of dollars compared to buying a new car, the financing aspect of buying a used car can be more expensive. With preparation, persistence, and a bit of patience, you can get a great deal on an auto loan for your new-to-you vehicle.

Here are the steps to getting financing and buying your used car:

  1. Be Prepared - Knowing your credit score and what’s in your credit score will give you an idea of the interest rate and loan term you can expect.
  2. Where to Find Used Car Financing - Learn the difference between national banks, credit unions, community banks, and more for getting a used car loan.
  3. Why Does Used Car Financing Cost More? - Understand why there is more risk associated with used car financing.
  4. How to Apply For a Used Car Loan - See the steps for applying for a used car loan.
  5. Comparing Different Used Car Financing Offers - Compare offers to arrive at the best financing option for you.
  6. Working With Used Car Dealers - See what to expect when you go into the dealer to buy your used car.
  7. Words to Watch Out For - Know which words and phrases are dangerous in the used car finance world.
  8. Working With Private Parties - Understand the difference when buying from a private party vs. a dealership.
  9. The Next Steps - Know what you need to do after you've gotten your financing and used car.

Be Prepared

The most important tool you'll have in getting a great deal on financing is knowledge. Knowing about your credit history, where to find financing, and how to apply for a car loan will put you ahead of the game before you approach a dealer or private party.

Know Your Credit Score

Most lenders will look at your credit history before they decide whether or not to extend financing. Most will use your credit score, which is a snapshot of your credit history. It's a number between 300 and 850 that's generated from the information in your credit reports. It’s sometimes called a FICO score, though you actually have multiple credit scores, and it’s based on information from the three major credit reporting bureaus – Equifax, TransUnion, and Experian – though their numbers are usually pretty close to one another.  

With your credit score in hand, a potential lender will classify you in categories ranging from deep subprime at the low end to superprime at the top. Borrowers at the lowest end of the spectrum will have a hard time getting an auto loan, while those at the top will have lenders falling over each other trying to loan money.

If you pay, you can receive your credit score from one or more of the credit bureaus. You’ll have to enter several pieces of personal information, including your social security number, in order to see your credit score. Many credit cards now offer a glimpse of your credit score as a benefit of having the card.

If you don’t understand why you have the credit score that you do, or you think there might be an error, you’ll want to delve into the credit report that it is based on for more information. You’re entitled to a free copy of your report from each of the three bureaus once each year. The only site authorized to give you the reports with no strings attached is AnnualCreditReport.com. Other sites with similar names will capture your personal information, try to sell you information about your credit, or enroll you in costly credit monitoring services.

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Your credit report has information about the accounts that you have open, your credit limits, how many times you’ve applied for credit, and your history of making on-time payments. From the data in the credit report and information on your loan application, lenders try to build a complete picture of your ability to repay the amount of money that you want to borrow. They want to be confident that you will make every monthly payment, and make them on time.

Lenders will look at the amount of credit that you are using and compare it to the amount that you have available. It’s called your utilization of credit, and they don’t want to see it too high. They’ll also look at the credit that you are using compared to the income you report on your application. Your debt-to-income ratio is a key component of any loan decision.

Repair Your Credit

You’ll want to look for errors when reading your credit reports, along with areas where you can improve your score. It takes time to do both, and that’s why patience is part of getting a used car loan. Paying toward your debt and getting overdue accounts up-to-date will have the most significant positive effect on your score.

If you have tons of credit card debt, you’ll want to pay at least the minimum on every card with a balance. To bring the overall balance down the fastest, pay more than the minimum payment on the card with the highest interest rate. That way, you’ll be paying down debt that accrues the most interest.

Whatever you do, don't start closing accounts in an effort to raise your credit score. Doing so increases your percentage of credit that is utilized, and this has the tendency to lower your score, not raise it.

If your credit score is on the cusp of a different tier – you have fair credit, for example, but it’s almost in the range of what is considered good credit – it might be worth putting your used car purchase off for several months. During that time, you can focus on improving your score and putting some money away for a down payment. When you’re close to being in another tier, a little bit of work can go a long way in getting you better loan terms.

Where to Find Financing

Many used-car buyers don’t even think about an auto loan until they are in the dealership’s financing office. If you’re looking for a good deal on financing, however, that’s not the best way to find it. While the dealer may be able to find you a great deal, they’ll have no incentive to do so unless you have a preapproved offer in place that they have to compete with.

Fortunately, there are lots of places where you can pre-qualify for financing outside of an auto dealer. Some financial institutions have special programs for first-time car buyers and consumers with bad credit.

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Large National Banks

America’s biggest banks – such as Bank of America, Wells Fargo, Capital One, and Chase – have massive auto lending operations, with a vast array of services and the ability to assist you at thousands of brick-and-mortar branches and comprehensive online sites.

Large banks tend to have higher interest rates and fees than other lenders, though they occasionally offer specials with lower interest rates. If you have bad credit, the rigid lending policies of many large banks could make you ineligible for financing.

Credit Unions

Credit unions are member-owned cooperatives that serve specific member groups or communities. They typically offer better deals than other lenders because their profits are returned to their member-owners through lower interest rates for loans and higher interest rates for savings accounts.

Not everyone can join a credit union, though most people can find a community credit union that they are eligible to join by using the credit union locator at MyCreditUnion.gov. Before you can apply for a loan, you’ll need to become a member of the cooperative by purchasing a share of stock for between about $5 and $25.

Credit unions range in size from tiny, single-employee operations to large operations rivaling the size of many national banks. If you have challenged credit, a small or midsize credit union may be a good option. You are more likely to make a personal connection during the loan process and explain your financial situation.

Community Banks

Community banks are smaller financial institutions with more geographically limited branch networks. Like smaller credit unions, community banks can be more flexible – and more willing to listen to your personal story – than massive national institutions.

Online Banks

Online banks, such as Ally Bank, operate entirely on the internet, without costly brick-and-mortar branch operations. Because their footprint is completely digital, many offer streamlined loan application and approval processes that you can complete without leaving your couch, along with a higher level of affordability when it comes to interest rates.

On the flipside, having no branches means that you have little opportunity to talk with someone outside of an impersonal call center about your specific circumstances.

Finance Companies

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Once more common than they are today, finance companies only make loans and don’t offer many of the other products offered by many financial institutions, such a checking accounts. Instead, they borrow money from banks, which they then lend to you for your auto purchases.

Many finance companies now cater to niche customers in the automotive market, such as those with bruised credit. Other finance companies include the auto lending arms of automakers, such as Ford Motor Credit, Honda Financial Services, and others. Some of those “captive” manufacturer finance companies offer used car deals, with rock-bottom pricing on loans for certified used cars.

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Why Does Used Car Financing Cost More?

When you start shopping for used car financing, you’ll see that it typically comes with higher interest rates and shorter loan terms than you find on new car loans. There are frequently restrictions on the age and value of the vehicles that are financed.

Why the difference? It has to do with the risk of the loan. Lenders have found that there is slightly more risk when they lend money on used cars. That additional chance of not being repaid is priced into the loans by charging higher interest rates. The shorter terms and other restrictions lower the likelihood that the lender will take a major loss if the loan is not repaid as agreed.

Depending on the car that you choose, some lenders will treat it as a new car. Vehicles that have low miles and aren't very old are the most likely to be treated this way, though some lenders will offer new-car interest rates for any manufacturer-certified used car.

How to Apply for a Used Car Loan

Lenders will have a car loan application that you are required to complete before they approve a loan. It will ask questions about the money you owe, your monthly expenses, your income, and the amount of money that you are asking to borrow. With some lenders, you can fill out the entire application online, including the ability to e-sign the paperwork, while other lenders still require paper applications and traditional signatures from applicants.

The application helps the lender build a complete picture of you, including the odds that you are financially stable and your ability to repay the car loan. While they might ask some personal questions on the application, they are limited by law as to what they can consider when making an auto loan decision. Several questions you’ll find on some loan applications ask for things like ethnicity. These questions are for legally mandated reporting purposes, and your answers cannot factor into a decision to approve or decline.

Be prepared to provide personal information, such as your social security number, bank account numbers, and credit card information during the loan process. Your social security number allows them to access your credit report, while your other account numbers are used to match the information on that report to your application.

It is crucial that you give prospective lenders complete and honest information on the application. If you are caught being less than truthful during the loan process, they’ll likely decline your car financing automatically. If the lender discovers that you provided false information after you already have the loan, they can immediately demand repayment and declare that you are in default.  

You can, and should, apply at several lenders so you have a choice of different loan offers. You’ll want to make all of your applications in a short time, though, so the credit reporting agencies will see them as one inquiry and only ding your credit score a few points. Spread the applications out over multiple weeks, and they’ll see it as multiple inquiries and take your score down a few points with each one.

Comparing Different Used Car Financing Offers

While it’s tempting to focus on the monthly payment of a loan offer, that shouldn’t be the only factor you use when deciding whether it is a good offer or not. Choosing a car, or its financing, on the monthly payment alone is a terrible way to buy a car. While some lenders offer variable-rate auto loans, most borrowers should seek simpler fixed-rate loans.

Instead of looking at monthly payments, you want to compare the total cost of the car, including the total of all of the payments due during the loan, plus the amount you have to pay up front, including any fees. You’ll need a used car loan calculator to figure out the monthly payment, but the rest of the math is pretty simple.

Here’s an example of how to do it: We’ll say that you’re buying a three-year-old Chevy Traverse SUV for $25,000 and paying $5,000 of that price as a down payment. You'll then need an auto loan for the remaining $20,000. We'll say you have found an offer for a five-year auto loan at a 6 percent annual percentage rate.

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Using our auto loan calculator, you can see that the monthly payment is $387. To find the total cost of the car, we’ll multiply that $387 payment by 60 (the number of months you’ll be paying), and then add the $5,000 down payment you made. The total cost of the SUV is $28,220.

You can use the calculator to compare offers, as well. Say another lender offered you a three-year loan, but with an interest rate of just 4.5 percent. Your monthly payments jump substantially to $595 per month, but the total cost of the loan is $26,420. By taking the shorter car-loan option, you could save $1,800.

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Working With Used Car Dealers

Now that you have a preapproval for your auto financing in place, you should explore our used car rankings to find a car that meets your needs and budget. Not only will you arm yourself with the information you need to buy the right car, but having a financing offer in your pocket will give you the confidence that you’re going to get a good financing deal.

Buying a used car involves a couple of steps you don’t have to complete when buying new. You’ll want to get a vehicle history report, such as a Carfax or AutoCheck report, so you can be sure that the car has not been in a major accident or has title issues. You’ll also want to have it checked out by an independent mechanic. If the dealer resists your efforts to accomplish either of those tasks, you should take it as a sign that you should walk away.

Negotiating the Deal

Car salespeople will almost inevitably try to merge the price of the car, your trade-in, and your financing into one transaction. Bundling the deal allows them to move savings and costs from one component of the deal to another, confusing you about whether you're getting a good deal or not. For example, they may give you a great price on your trade-in by boosting the cost of the car you're buying.

As a buyer, you want to keep each of those transactions separate, initially focusing on just the price of the vehicle you’re considering. You can keep the trade-in out of the conversation by selling it yourself to a private party or to another dealer.

Remember to be firm, but polite, through the negotiation process. Buying a car is a business transaction – nothing more, nothing less. You want the best deal you can get, and they want the most profit they can earn. Both approaches are fine, as long as both sides are ethical and use tactics that are legal. Remember, though, that you only buy a car every few years, and they sell cars every day. Salespeople and finance managers are skilled sales professionals with the ability to move you incrementally towards the deal that they want you to accept.  

Why Do Dealers Want to Finance the Deal?

Both new and used car dealerships make much of their profit off of financing vehicles. While they don’t lend the money themselves, they mark up the financing packages that they arrange from third-party lenders and take the difference as profit. By having a pre-qualified financing deal before you head to an auto dealer, you limit their ability to mark up any financing deals.

The Power of a Down Payment

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You’re much more likely to get a good deal on a used car loan if you make a significant down payment. Putting something down reduces the amount you have to finance, enabling you to get lower monthly payments, a shorter loan term, or both. It also lowers your loan-to-value (LTV) ratio, which shows how much the car is worth in proportion to how much you owe on it. The lower your LTV, the more likely that a lender will give you a deal.

Making a substantial down payment also reduces the possibility that you will owe more than the car is worth. In that case, you have what is called negative equity, and some refer to the situation as being upside-down or underwater on your auto loan. If the vehicle is totaled or stolen when you are underwater on your loan, you'll still owe the bank the difference between your insurance settlement and the value of the car.

The Danger of a Long Car Loan

Many lenders are willing to loan money for six, seven, or even eight years. While doing so will get you a lower monthly payment, it’s one of the riskiest financial moves you can make. Long car loans typically come with higher interest rates and are significantly more expensive in the long-run than a shorter-term loan. Even if you qualify for long-term financing, you risk having the car’s depreciation outpace the rate that you pay it back, resulting in a situation where you owe more than the vehicle is worth.

When you have a long car loan on a used vehicle, you’re also at risk of your car suddenly needing expensive repairs. Costly problems become more common as cars age, and the last thing you want is to have to pay an expensive repair bill and a car payment at the same time. Even if you put very little mileage on the car, it will likely be out of warranty while you’re still making payments.

Don’t Finance the Fees and Extras

It's easy just to roll any fees and costly add-ons into your financing, but it's a horrible idea to do so. For one, it can make your loan exceed the value of the car, which puts you in financial jeopardy if anything terrible happens to the car. Second, it masks the true cost of the items that you're adding. If, for example, the dealer tells you that the paint protection package just adds $15 per month to your car payment, you probably won't do the math to realize that on a six-year loan it costs you $1,080, plus interest.  

Signing the Papers

Buying a used vehicle can take a long time. As you near the end of the process, you’ll probably just want to get the paperwork over with and drive home. You need to slow down, however, and check each of the loan and purchase documents. Make sure that they reflect exactly what you discussed and don’t have any errors or blank spots. Pay particular attention to the interest rate and loan amount. If they have discrepancies, politely request that they be completed before you sign. It’s a whole lot easier to correct any issues before they have your signature on them.

It’s a good idea to check the math using a car loan calculator on your smartphone. Just demonstrating that you’re checking may dissuade an unscrupulous dealer from trying to sneak something into the deal.

Beware of Yo-Yo Financing

Sometimes dealers will encourage you to take the car home, without the final financing paperwork in place. Several days later, you’ll get a call from the dealership saying that your financing fell through and that you need to come back to sign new papers. Usually, those new papers will make the car cost much more than the agreement you negotiated earlier. It’s called yo-yo financing or spot financing, and it can be hazardous to any customer’s wallet.

While sometimes there are legitimate problems with the financing, other times the dealership knew all along that you would never qualify. In the latter case, "spotting" the car to you is a ploy to get you attached to the car and willing to pay whatever they tell you it will cost. In some states, yo-yo financing is regulated in a way that benefits consumers, while in others the rules favor dealerships.

Words to Watch Out For

Not every dealer has your financial future in mind. Often you’ll see dealerships that advertise that they can finance anyone, regardless of their credit. While the advertiser may be able to do that, it will likely come at a high price, with less-than-stellar loan terms. Bottom line: if you have to stretch your payments out six years or more, or pay triple the going interest rate, you cannot afford the car that you are looking at.

For buyers with bad credit, the dealership of last resort is often a “buy here pay here” dealership. When you purchase a used car at a buy here pay here dealer, you're expected to visit the location as often as weekly to make your car payments. Not only do they typically charge incredibly high interest rates that create debt traps that are hard to escape, but they also aggressively pursue repossession if you are even a day late with your cash payments.

Working With Private Parties

When you buy a car from a private party, you’ll have no choice but to get financing from a bank, credit union, or another non-dealership lender (unless you pay cash for the car). It is critical that you get a vehicle history report, and some lenders offer them as a benefit of using their auto financing.

Unlike when you work with a dealer, you'll have to do all of the paperwork yourself, and ensure that the title gets expeditiously transferred to your financial institution, who will hold it until the vehicle is paid off.

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Some private sellers may be willing to accept peer-to-peer financing, taking third-party lenders completely out of the picture by accepting a payment plan on the vehicle they are selling you. Such auto financing is pretty rare, however.

The Next Steps

Insurance

Most lenders will require you to carry collision and comprehensive insurance with sufficient coverage so that the lender can be repaid if you wreck the car or it is stolen. The protection that a lender requires is different than the car insurance that you’re legally required to carry. State mandated insurance protects the people or property you might injure or damage with your vehicle. Lender-mandated gap insurance protects their financial interest in the car.

Refinancing Your Used Car Loan

Many buyers can save money by refinancing their auto loan to lower their interest rate or change the length of its term. If you don't think you got a great deal from your original lender, you can shop for refinancing almost immediately, so long as your initial financing doesn't have any prepayment penalties built into it.  

If you had bad credit when you initially took out the auto loan and have been paying faithfully for a year or so, you’re a great candidate for refinancing. Not only is your credit score likely to be higher, but a significant chunk of the loan will have been paid off, so your loan-to-value ratio should be lower (as long as your payments outpaced the rate that the vehicle depreciated).

According to the credit reporting bureau TransUnion, the average auto loan refinance lowers your interest rate 2.4 percent.

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Making Your Payments on Time

When you take out an auto loan, you sign a contract agreeing to pay back the loan by making monthly payments. Doing so will protect your good credit and allow you to build equity in your car. Failing to do so opens you up to major dings on your credit report, loan default, and the repossession of your vehicle. In many states, if the lender is not able to fully pay off the loan by selling your repossessed car, you’re liable for the difference between what they were able to get and the loan amount.

One great way to ensure that you’re never late on a payment is to set up autopay from your checking or savings account. This ensures that you make your automatic payment on a specific day each month, and you don’t have to worry about forgetting to send in the money.

What Should You Do if You Can’t Pay Your Car Loan

If your circumstances change or you have an emergency that prevents you from being able to make your payment, it’s best to talk to your lender before that installment is missed. They may be able to let you defer a payment or two, or refinance into a loan with a more affordable monthly payment. With few exceptions, they don’t want you to default on the loan any more than you want to default.

When repossession is imminent, it is best to take the car to your lender and voluntarily surrender it. The cost of repossession can be added to your loan balance in many states, and you'll be responsible for paying it. By freely letting your car go back to the lender, you minimize their repossession cost.

More Shopping Tools From U.S. News & World Report

Whether you're shopping for a new car or used, the expert researchers and journalists of U.S. News & World Report have the resources to help you find the right vehicle, the best deal, and a rewarding ownership experience.

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Our new car rankings and used car rankings will help guide you to a car that fits your needs, wants, and dreams. We base our reviews on the consensus reviews of the country’s top automotive journalists, blended with information about predicted reliability, safety, and ownership costs.

Before you buy a used car, explore our used car deals page, where you can find generous used-car financing deals from automakers for their certified pre-owned cars (CPO cars). New-car buyers will find the best financing and cash back offers on our new car deals page. If you’re considering leasing, our lease deals page shows offers with low monthly payments, little due at signing, or both. The U.S. News Best Price Program connects buyers with local dealers offering guaranteed savings. On average, new car buyers save over $3,000 off sticker price when they use the program.

In addition to savings off MSRP, getting the best interest rate on your car loan can save you thousands as well. Compare rates from up to four lenders with MyAutoloan to get the best deal.