5 Steps for Getting a Car Loan

This Article was Updated July 5, 2018

When you are looking to buy a vehicle, the first thing you should do is apply for a preapproved loan. The loan process can seem daunting, but it’s easier than you think and getting preapproval prior to going to the car dealer may help alleviate a lot of frustration along the way.

Here are five steps for getting a car loan.

  1. Check Your Credit
  2. Know Your Budget
  3. Determine How Much You Can Afford
  4. Get Preapproved
  5. Go Shopping

1. Check Your Credit

Before you shop for a loan, check your credit report. The better your credit, the cheaper it is to borrow money and secure auto financing. With a higher credit score and a better credit history, you may be entitled to lower loan interest rates, and you may also qualify for lower auto insurance premiums.

Review your credit report to look for unusual activity. Dispute errors such as incorrect balances or late payments on your credit report. If you have a lower credit score and would like to give it a bit of a boost before car shopping, pay off credit card balances or smaller loans.

If your credit score is low, don’t fret. A lower score won’t prevent you from getting a loan. But depending on your score, you may end up paying a higher interest rate. If you have a low credit score and want to shoot for lower interest rates, take some time to improve your credit score before you apply for loans or attempt to secure any other auto financing.

2. Know Your Budget

Having a budget and knowing how much of a car payment you can afford is essential. You want to be sure your car payment fits in line with your other financial goals. Yes, you may be able to cover $400 a month, but that amount may take away from your monthly savings goal.

If you don’t already have a budget, start with your monthly income after taxes and subtract your usual monthly expenses and how much you plan to put in savings each month. For bills that don’t come every month, such as Amazon Prime or Xbox Live, take the yearly charge and divide it by 12. Then add the result to your monthly budget. If you’re worried, you spend too much each month, find simple ways to whittle your budget down.

You’ll also want to plan ahead for new car costs, such as vehicle registration and auto insurance, and regular car maintenance, such as oil changes and basic repairs. By knowing your budget and what to expect, you can easily see how much room you have for a car payment.

3. Determine How Much You Can Afford

Once you understand where you are financially, you can decide on a reasonable monthly car payment. For many, a good rule of thumb is to not spend more than 10% of your take-home income on a vehicle. In other words, if you make $60,000 after taxes a year, you shouldn’t spend more than $500 per month on car payments. But depending on your budget, you may be better off with a lower payment.

With a payment in mind, you can use an auto loan calculator to figure out the largest loan you can afford. Simply enter in the monthly payment you’d like, the interest rate, and the loan period. And remember that making a larger down payment can reduce your monthly payment. You can also use an auto loan calculator to break down a total loan amount into monthly payments.

You’ll also want to think about how long you’d like to pay off your loan. Car loan terms are normally three, four, five, or six years long. With a longer loan period, you’ll have lower monthly payments. But beware—a lengthy car loan term can have a negative effect on your finances. First, you’ll spend more on the total price of the vehicle by paying more interest. Second, you may be upside down on the loan for a larger chunk of time, meaning you owe more than the car is actually worth.

4. Get Preapproved

Before you ever set foot on a car lot, you’ll want to be preapproved for a car loan. Research potential loans and then compare the terms, lengths of time, and interest rates to find the best deal. A great place to shop for a car loan is at your local bank or credit union. But don’t stop there—look online too. The loan with the best terms, interest rate, and loan amount will be the one you want to get preapproved for. Just know that preapproved loans only last for a certain amount of time, so it’s best to get preapproved when you’re nearly ready to shop for a car.

However, when you apply, the lender will run a credit check—which will lower your credit score slightly—so you’ll want to keep all your loan applications within a 14-day period. That way, the many credit checks will only show as one inquiry instead of multiple ones.

When you’re preapproved, the lender decides if you’re eligible and how much you’re eligible for. They’ll also tell you what interest rate you qualify for, so you’ll know what you have to work with before you even walk into a dealership. But keep in mind that preapproved loans aren’t the same as final auto loans. Depending on the car you buy, your final loan could be less than what you were preapproved for.

In most cases, if you secure a pre-approved loan, you shouldn’t have any problems getting a final loan. But being preapproved doesn’t mean you’ll automatically receive a loan when the time comes. Factors such as the info you provided or whether or not the lender agrees on the value of the car can affect the final loan approval. It’s never a deal until it’s a done deal.

If you can’t get preapproved, don’t abandon all hope. You could also try making a larger down payment to reduce the amount you are borrowing, or you could ask someone to cosign on the loan. If you ask someone to cosign, take it seriously. By doing so, you are asking them to put their credit on the line for you and repay the loan if you can’t.

When co-signing a car loan, they do not acquire any rights to the vehicle. They are simply stating that they have agreed to become obligated to repay the total amount of the loan if you were to default or found that you were unable to pay.

Co-signing a car loan is more like an additional form of insurance (or reassurance) for the lender that the debt will be paid no matter what.

Usually, a person with bad credit or less-than-perfect credit may require the assistance of a co-signer for their auto financing and loan.

5. Go Shopping

Now you’re ready to look for a new ride. Put in a little time for research and find cars that are known to be reliable and fit into your budget. You’ll also want to consider size, color, gas mileage, and extra features. Use resources like Consumer Reports to read reviews and get an idea of which cars may be best for you.

Once you have narrowed down the car you are interested in, investigate how much it’s worth, so you aren’t accidentally duped. Sites such as Kelley Blue Book or Edmunds can help you figure out the going rate for your ideal car. After you’re armed with this information, compare prices at different car dealerships in your area. And don’t forget to check dealer incentives and rebates to get the best possible price.

By following these steps, you’ll be ready to make the best financial decision when getting a car loan. Even if you aren’t ready to buy a car right now, it doesn’t hurt to be prepared. Start by acquiring a free copy of your credit summary.

It is always a good idea to pull your credit reports each year, so you can make sure they are as accurate as they should be. If you find any mistakes, be sure to dispute them with the proper credit bureau. Remember, each credit report may differ, so it is best to acquire all three.
If you want to know what your credit is before purchasing a car, you can check your three credit reports for free once a year. To track your credit more regularly, Credit.com’s free Credit Report Card is an easy-to-understand breakdown of your credit report information that uses letter grades—plus you get a free credit score updated every 14 days.

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Should I Buy or Lease My Next Car?

Gas can make summer road trips expensive, but the right credit card can earn some of that spending back.

One of the most common questions I am asked as a financial planner is “should I lease or buy my car?” Leasing commercials on the radio make it sound like leasing a car is the only cheap, intelligent choice. However, it really depends on how you define “cheap.” If it means a lower monthly payment, then leasing is usually cheaper. If it means what you pay long term, though, leasing is usually not the best option.

What’s the Process of Buying a Car?

Buying a car is a relatively straightforward process. Essentially, you negotiate the price of the car at the dealership and you secure financing. After providing a down payment, you’d finance the entire remaining value of the car, usually through a loan from a bank or credit union. You would then make payments that include both principal and interest for a specified period of time. Once your contract is complete, and the loan or other financing is paid off, you’d own the car outright.

At that point, you could decide to keep it or sell it. If you sold it, you’d have to negotiate the sale to get the price you want. One disadvantage of owning the car is that thanks to regular wear and tear and other factors, you have no guarantee of what the car will be worth at the end of the financing period.

How is Leasing Different from Buying?

Leasing is a bit more complicated, but it’s basically just another method of financing a car. The difference is you aren’t financing the entire car—just the use of the car during the first few years of the car’s life. The payments you make would still consist of principal and interest, but only for the portion of the car’s life you’d be using up.

The biggest difference is that unlike buying a car, you don’t own anything once a lease is complete—and if you still needed a vehicle, you’d have to acquire another one. Typically, you can purchase the car for a pre-set price (known as the residual value) once the lease term is over, or you can give the car back to the leasing company and decide to either purchase or lease another vehicle.

Do You Have to Pay Extra Fees to Lease a Car?

Many advertised leases also require a down payment. If you’re short on cash, you can skip the down payment, but your monthly payment would be higher because you’d be financing more of the car. Also, keep in mind that you’re still responsible for the condition and mileage of the cars you lease. When you turn the car back in, if it isn’t in good condition or if you’ve driven more miles than your lease allows (around 12,000 miles per year), then you’ll have to pay extra.

When Is It Better to Lease Rather Than Buy?

Before you decide to lease or buy, you’ll also need to determine how many miles you drive per year and how long you like to keep your cars. If you are a high mileage driver (say, more than 15,000 miles per year) or you like to keep your cars for three years or more, you are most likely better off purchasing the car. If you don’t drive much and you prefer driving new cars, then leasing may be a better option for you.

Regardless of whether you lease or buy, you’ll need good credit to qualify for a low interest rate. So before you shop for a car, see where you stand: check your credit score for free at Credit.com.

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4 Questions to Ask Yourself Before Leasing or Buying a Car

When you’re looking for a new car, it can be difficult to decide whether buying one outright or leasing one for a period of time makes more sense. It’s true that cars only go down in value the longer you own them, but there are still some solid arguments for owning one outright rather than essentially renting one.

Car-related decisions can be stressful, and there’s a lot you need to know before buying or renting, but don’t worry. If you’re in the market for a new car and aren’t sure which way to go, you can use the following questions to help you make the best decision for your situation.

Question 1: How Much Will I Be Driving This Car?

If you only need a car for weekend adventures and plan to use public transportation or to carpool during the week, then leasing might be the better option for you, if you can get a good deal. Most lease contracts come with stipulations on how many miles you can put on the car while you’re using it, but if you’re only using it for a few quick trips each week, you likely won’t come close to hitting that mileage mark. Still, you’ll want to pay close attention to that number if you do end up going for a lease. Always ask what happens if you go over the mileage count, since the penalties can be steep. On the other hand, if you have a lengthy commute to get to work and you need a reliable car to get you there—or you just aren’t interested in tracking miles—buying might be better for you.

Question 2: What Do I Plan to Use It For? 

You probably wouldn’t go into a car purchase intending to rough up the car, but stuff happens, so you’ll need to decide what you plan to use your car for to know if leasing is right for you. If you lease a car, the dealer generally allows normal wear and tear upon return at the end of your lease, but you’ll be charged extra if they think the car has been more weathered. Be sure to get the specifics from the dealership on what exactly they consider “normal” wear and tear, and if that doesn’t match your plans for the car—if you plan to off-road in the Colorado Rockies on most weekends, for example—it might be better to buy.

Question 3: How Long Do I Plan to Keep It?

One appealing thing about leasing a car is that most car leases end after three years—so you have the opportunity to upgrade to a new model every three years if you’d like. Of course you could buy a car and upgrade that way, but it can be harder to deal with the sale of a car than it is to just turn your lease back over to the dealer.

Question 4: How Much Can I Afford to Put Down?

Most lease agreements will come with lower down payments than buyer agreements have. In some cases, if you lease a car, you may even be able to negotiate with the dealer to skip a down payment altogether. (Keep in mind, though, that this will likely result in higher monthly payments.) Either way, if you really need a car now, and you don’t have the cash for a decent down payment, then going with a lease may put you in the driver’s seat faster than if you waited to buy a car.

Buying a car is a very personal decision, and whether you lease or buy will be determined by a number of factors. At the end of the day, buying a car is almost always the cheaper option if you need a car for the long term, but signing up for a short-term lease can be a solid option depending on your needs. Putting in a little bit of extra thought before searching for your next ride can ensure you make the right decision.

Whatever move you decide to make, be smart in how you approach car buying or leasing. Don’t forget that having good credit will improve your car-buying experience, so before you make car-related decisions, check your credit and see where you’re at. You can always check your credit for free at Credit.com.

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