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Car Loans: How to Get the Best Interest Rate

CARS.COM — To get the best possible interest rate on a car loan, it's important to understand two things: the current marketplace for interest rates, including different lender options and financing offers, and your personal financial situation and its limitations.

Related: More Car Buying Advice

Several primary factors determine your interest rate:

  • Your lender. Unless you borrow money privately, you're going to be working with a bank, a credit union or an automaker's financing arm. There are various pros and cons to each scenario.
  • The vehicle you're buying. Are you buying a new car? A used car? A very used car? New-car rates are often the lowest.
  • Loan-term length. Automakers employed a lot of zero percent financing to keep cars selling after the recession, and now many automakers are offering it on loans up to five or six years. In general, though, a longer car loan comes with a higher interest rate — even if the extra length on the loan term lowers the monthly payment.
  • Your credit rating. Borrowers with better credit get lower rates. Some experts estimate that only 15 percent of vehicle buyers qualify for zero percent offers from automakers.

Lenders

Car buyers borrow money from three primary lending sources: banks, credit unions and automakers. Loans from any of these sources may come through the dealer, who often serves as the middleman and takes a cut in the process. Getting an auto loan through a car dealer is not, however, automatically more expensive. In fact, dealers provide the only way to get specialized low rates, including zero percent financing, from automakers.

Car dealers borrow money at wholesale interest rates, which they mark up and pass on to you. Because the dealer's rate is lower, the rate you get may be no higher than one you arranged yourself. Still, the only way to make sure of this is to know what your best rate is before you get to the dealership.

New or Used?

In general, loan rates on a new vehicle are better than those on a used car. Usually, only new cars qualify for zero percent financing, though some automakers occasionally push certified pre-owned cars with zero percent offers. In general, the older the car is, the higher the interest rate is.

Term Length

Sign up for the shortest-term length you can afford to keep your total interest lower. The longer term you have for a car loan, the more you'll pay in interest. The average term for a new-car loan is more than 60 months now, and this leaves consumers vulnerable to owing more on an auto loan than their car is worth, a condition that's often referred to as being upside down, or under water.

What to Do if Rejected for a Loan

If at first you don't succeed, don't try, try again until you've determined why you were rejected and have taken steps to address it. Credit scores are the primary determinant of who gets approved for loans, and if you didn't check your credit score before you applied the first time, it behooves you to do so before applying again. Many loan applications automatically trigger a credit check, each of which can knock a few more points off your credit score, making what might have been a bad situation even worse.

If your credit score is accurate and you've taken all possible steps to improve it, you're ready to do what we recommend for all car buyers: Shop around for a good interest rate before returning to a dealership. Credit unions are a great option; while they're perceived as exclusive, their interest rates are typically lower than many banks, and they're more likely to examine a subprime applicant's circumstances and make exceptions if problematic credit history results from one-time medical expenses, unemployment or divorce.

Don't overlook the bank where you have a savings or checking account. Your financial history won't be a mystery to any potential lender, but an existing relationship can work in your favor, as it's easier for a bank to sell services to its customers than it is to find new customers.

Finally, don't rule out financing a vehicle at the dealership. Only a dealer can offer new-car finance rates from the automaker; those rates are sometimes the lowest available. Also, if you've taken our advice but had little success with other sources for an auto loan, a dealership might be more willing to make financing accommodations if you're buying one of its cars, especially a used one. If the dealership that denied you the first time was smaller, a larger one might have more tolerance for risk or have good relationships with more lenders.

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