How to Shop for the Best Deal When Financing a Car

financing a car

You know you need a new car, but the thought of setting foot on a car lot makes your palms sweaty. It’s a high-pressure situation that can lead to bad decision-making — which isn’t what you want when you’re buying and financing a car.

Whether you’re a novice to the car-buying process or a veteran, don’t overlook the importance of car financing. Consumers financed 85.5 percent of new car purchases in the first quarter of 2017, according to Experian, and chances are you’ll need an auto loan too.

So, on top of shopping for a vehicle, you also have to shop for the best deal for financing a car. Get it right, and you can drive home in the car you need, face an affordable payment each month, and pay less over time. Here’s how to find a great deal on an auto loan.

Financing a car soon? Start preparing now

If you have a car purchase in your future, whether it’s two weeks or six months away, prepare now.

With car financing, four factors will affect the process:

  • Your creditworthiness
  • The car loan and payments you can afford
  • Vehicle makes, models, and years that match your budget
  • The financing option you choose

Here’s what you need to know about each factor.

The credit you bring to the table

First, start with the non-negotiable of buying a car: you. While you can shop around for a different car, lender, or loan, there’s only one you. So, you’ll want to understand how lenders will view you and your credit history and how likely you are to get approved for a car loan and receive low rates.

“The first thing [a car buyer] should do is they should run their credit,” said Matt Jones, senior consumer advice editor for Edmunds. “A person should know where they stand as far as their credit is concerned before they start looking for any kind of car financing.”

You can request a free copy of your annual credit report at AnnualCreditReport.com or visit a site like Credit Karma for a preview of your credit score. Or you can check your monthly credit card statements, where many credit card issuers are now including free, up-to-date credit score estimates, Jones pointed out.

These credit scores might be estimates based on a different scoring model than your lender uses, so they might not match up exactly. But they’ll give you a good idea of the credit score tier you likely to fall into.

Once your know your credit score, “you can look pretty easily and understand what rates are available for people with your credit profile,” Jones said.

This chart from Experian will tell you which category you fall into as a borrower:

financing a car

Image credit: Experian

Depending on your credit score, you also can estimate the kinds of auto loan rates you qualify for. The closer you are to the “super prime” category, the better auto loan rates you can get.

The lower your score, the more likely it is that you’ll have to rely on subprime auto loans that carry higher interest rates of 11.05% on new cars, according to Experian.

However, you have other car-buying options if you have bad credit. You could try to get a co-signer or spend a few months intensely improving your credit before purchasing a car.

These graphs from Experian show the average auto loan rates by credit score tier:

car financing

Image credit: Experian

Other factors also could influence your car financing. Most lenders will want to see a steady income source. A decent down payment of 10 to 20 percent of the total purchase cost also can increase your chances of approval. The lender might consider other debts and payments you have too.

For instance, where you live can affect interest rates and what you’ll pay on a car loan. This auto loan rate estimator from MyAutoLoan.com can give you an idea of the rates in your area based on your credit score and zip code. Overall, however, the better your credit score and history, the better the deals you can get when financing a car.

The car payment you can afford

Next, you should figure out how much car you can afford — and how much you can afford to borrow. To figure it out, you’ll need to look at your own financial situation first.

1. Review your monthly budget

Perhaps you have a fixed amount you can afford to spend on a car payment each month. The average monthly car payment on new purchases is $513 for buyers with good credit, according to Experian. That’s a huge chunk of change, and you’ll need to decide if you can afford to spend that much, more, or less.

To do so, you’ll want to review your monthly budget and figure out how much you can pay and are willing to pay toward an auto loan each month.

Make sure you’re accounting for new transportation costs related to your car purchase too. Insuring a second or new car also will add to monthly costs, for example. You also might have more maintenance costs, such as oil changes, tire replacements, or repairs.

2. Calculate total loan amounts and monthly payments

If you have a specific monthly payment in mind, you can work backward from there to figure out how much you can afford to borrow and spend by using this calculator.

Then, use our loan payment calculator to see how different initial loan amounts and loan lengths will affect monthly costs.

3. Look at the total costs for each loan term

It’s important to keep total costs in mind as well as monthly costs. Auto loan lengths have been creeping up for years, with the average length sitting at 69 months.

A longer term will give you lower monthly payments. However, it’ll also increase the total interest you pay on financing a car and keep you in debt longer. And longer auto loan terms can land you underwater on a car loan if your car’s value depreciates faster than you pay down the loan balance.

Play around with the figures to settle on an affordable loan amount, term, and payment — every month and over the life of the loan.

The car you’re financing

Now, you have a car budget that makes sense and is affordable based on you and your budget. Next, you’ll want to start looking for the right car.

Narrow your car search down to a specific make, model, and year. Then, research prices through pricing sites like Edmunds or Kelley Blue Book. You’ll want to choose a car with a purchase price that’s within your budget based on the monthly payment and loan term you’re shooting for.

On top of the sticker price of the car you want, research other costs too: title transfer fee, state car sales tax, and so on. Add up all these costs and make sure your car purchase will stay under your budget.

You’ll also want to decide on a car because the vehicle you choose can affect your financing offers. Car lenders often charge higher interest rates if you’re buying a used car, for instance.

Most will ask for information about the car you plan to buy in preapproval applications since the loan will use the car as collateral. That’s why it’s important to decide on a car before you shop for car loans.

Don’t worry — you won’t be locked into shopping for just one model. The lender will use the car as a baseline for a rate offer.

If you buy a car of similar value to your original choice, it shouldn’t affect your loan terms much. If you end up with a radically different model in a different price range, however, your lender likely will adjust the terms to account for the change.

The auto lender to get the best deal

Lastly, you’ll want to research options for financing a car. You usually have two main options for car financing: applying for preapproval or going for dealer financing. Exploring both options will lead you to the best deal for financing a car.

So, where should you start? Dealer financing offers and credit union auto loans often offer the best auto loan rates, according to a report from WalletHub.

Source: WalletHub

The average financing offered through dealership financing incentives was 1.74% across all manufacturers for a 36-month loan. Credit unions come in second, with 2.48% average rates on the same loan.

Don’t rule out any options just yet, however. Shop around for favorable rates from lenders and car dealers.

Get preapproval offers for financing a car

Getting a great deal on financing a car requires comparing prices and shopping around.

However, the deal you get on an auto loan will be customized to your creditworthiness. You’ll have to apply for auto loan preapprovals to get actual rate quotes you can compare to find the best deal.

“If a person is purchasing a car, you should contact a credit union or your private bank or some lending institution and get a preapproval,” Jones said.

This preapproval can be an invaluable way to know for sure that the deal you’re getting — whether it’s from a credit union, bank, or dealer — is a good one.

“You can have that preapproval and then use that as a benchmark to compare against any offers that you’re going to receive at the dealership,” Jones pointed out.

Here are the steps to apply for a preapproval.

1. Find the lenders you’re interested in

Identify three to five lenders you’re interested in applying for preapproval with. You might want to choose different kinds of lenders so you can compare offers.

A smart place to start is with your main bank or credit card companies. You already have an established relationship and know the lender is trustworthy. And since you have an account with this bank, “that might make you eligible for a discount because you’re already an existing customer,” Jones said.

Next, shop around at credit unions. As not-for-profit institutions, credit unions offer the best deals on auto loans. You can check with national credit unions, such as Alliant Credit Union, or find credit unions in your area.

Lastly, you can look around at other kinds of lenders — such as regional banks, major banks, and online lenders — to round out your search.

2. Gather important documents

Next, you’ll want to prepare to apply for preapproval with your lenders of choice. For most auto loan applications, you’ll be required to submit proof of identity, income, and other financial information. The more paperwork you can get together and have on hand before applying, the easier the process will be.

Gather the following documents:

  • Personal identifying information: You’ll need your name, birthdate, Social Security number, and other identifying information to apply. You might be asked to submit a copy of your driver’s license or other proof of identity.
  • Proof of income: This might be a copy of your most recent pay stub or child support income, for example. You’ll also need employer details, such as your company’s address and phone number. Self-employed applicants can use the previous year’s tax statements to verify income.
  • Financial records: You might be asked to submit a bank statement, mortgage statement, or other debt information as part of the underwriting process.

Complete all preapproval applications within two weeks

Next, you can start submitting your preapproval applications. They’re usually straightforward and ask for your name, home address, employment information, income, and other debts. Submit them online, by phone, or in person.

These applications for auto financing will lead to hard inquiries on your credit report, but don’t worry. “Shopping for the best deal on an auto loan will generally have little to no impact on your credit score,” according to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB).

Credit checks that occur within 14 to 45 days of one another will be counted as one inquiry on your report, so batching your preapproval applications close together can help.

Compare auto loan offers

Upon processing your preapproval application, each lender will give you a quote on the interest rates and loan terms it’s willing to offer. You can compare these offers to find which one will give you affordable monthly payments while delivering savings in the long run. Revisit the loan calculators linked above to see each loan offer in action.

If the best rate is from a lender you’d prefer not to bank with, you can try to negotiate. Reach out to your preferred lender, say you were offered a better rate elsewhere, and ask if it can match the better rate offer or get you close with a discount. Not every lender is open to negotiations, but some will be willing to negotiate to secure your business, according to Autotrader.

Research dealer financing incentives

Research dealers in your area that might have cars you’re interested in. Dealers often offer incentives and rebates to car buyers who get financing through them.

Here are common incentives that can influence financing:

  • Low-interest financing: Loans offered through the manufacturer’s lender might carry below-market rates. Your creditworthiness will influence the rates you’re offered, but dealers often use these low-rate loans to draw buyers in.
  • Financing incentives: The dealer might offer to knock a certain amount off of your purchase or provide you with a rebate against the car price if you choose to finance through the dealer.
  • Cash rebate: The car manufacturer will give you cash back at the time of purchase, which you can pocket or apply to your purchase as a down payment.

Looking for these dealer financing offers can alert you to opportunities to save. Don’t be shy about calling and asking for details.

Verify incentive details on the manufacturer’s site

“If a shopper is doing it the right way, they are looking not only at what a dealer is offering but what the car manufacturer is offering,” Jones said. It can give you a fast and clear idea of the financing incentives a manufacturer is offering for the make and model you’re interested in.

When you’re wading through dealer incentives and rebates, figuring out which offers apply and when can be confusing. A low-interest financing offer might be available only on certain models, for example.

Some rebates will require that you finance with the manufacturer’s lender; use a preapproved loan or pay in cash, and you won’t get that cash back. But this financing incentive might be lumped in with other incentives that don’t depend on financing. Or a low-interest financing offer might only be available on certain models.

“Check the manufacturer’s website to see how these incentives will apply,” Jones advised. “Dealers might not always be as clear about these incentives, but on the manufacturer’s site, these deals are always very clearly communicated.”

Edmunds has a tool you can use to quickly find manufacturer rebates and incentives. Check with your local dealer to see if it offers additional deals or savings.

Run some numbers before heading to the dealership

Maybe you’ve found some promising financing incentives offered in the form of a cash rebate.

You might want to compare these offers to your preapproval offers, but it can feel like comparing apples to oranges. This calculator from Bankrate can help you calculate the total and monthly costs of different offers to find the one you like best.

Financing a car at the dealer (or not)

The last step is to buy your car and finalize your financing. When you go to a dealer already preapproved for a loan, you can confidently negotiate on price as if you were a cash buyer.

“When somebody has a preapproval in their pocket and all that stuff is out of the way, it can allow that shopper to say, ‘OK. I don’t actually have to think about payments right now. Because I already know what they’re going to be, I can actually focus on a purchase price or what my trade-in is,’” Jones said.

Walk through all the details of your car purchase before you discuss financing. Once you have a price point you feel comfortable with, including any add-ons, such as sales tax or title fees, you can get to the auto loan.

Compare preapproval offers to dealer financing

If you’ve decided to go with a financing incentive, your lender is already locked in. If there are no such deals available on the car you’re buying, however, you can field an offer from the dealer.

“In my experience, the dealership financing is usually going to be better,” Jones said.

As a borrower, you probably shopped at just a few lenders. But a dealership will work almost like an auto loan broker. It’ll work with many lenders and know the specifics of working with each one, Jones said, so it can quickly match you with the lender that can offer you the best rate.

The dealer likely will have to run your credit anyway, Jones said, so it can’t hurt to ask the dealership what it can offer you for financing a car. You can then compare this offer to your preapproval to see which deal is better.

Sign the auto loan agreement

Once you’ve chosen the best deal for financing your new car, you’re ready to seal the deal. You’ll make your down payment on the spot too, so bring a checkbook to make this process easier. Lastly, you’ll sign your car-buying documents, including a loan agreement.

Once everything is squared away, you can drive away in your new car — knowing you can afford it.

Interested in a personal loan?

Here are the top personal loan lenders of 2018!
LenderRates (APR)Loan Amount 
1 Includes AutoPay discount. Important Disclosures for SoFi.

2 Important Disclosures for Citizens Bank.

SoFi Disclosures

  1. Terms and Conditions Apply: SOFI RESERVES THE RIGHT TO MODIFY OR DISCONTINUE PRODUCTS AND BENEFITS AT ANY TIME WITHOUT NOTICE. To qualify, a borrower must be a U.S. citizen or permanent resident in an eligible state and meet SoFi’s underwriting requirements. Not all borrowers receive the lowest rate. To qualify for the lowest rate, you must have a responsible financial history and meet other conditions. If approved, your actual rate will be within the range of rates listed above and will depend on a variety of factors, including term of loan, a responsible financial history, years of experience, income and other factors. Rates and Terms are subject to change at anytime without notice and are subject to state restrictions. SoFi refinance loans are private loans and do not have the same repayment options that the federal loan program offers such as Income Based Repayment or Income Contingent Repayment or PAYE. Licensed by the Department of Business Oversight under the California Finance Lender Law License No. 6054612. SoFi loans are originated by SoFi Lending Corp., NMLS # 1121636. (www.nmlsconsumeraccess.org)
  2. Personal Loans: Fixed rates from 5.49% APR to 14.24% APR (with AutoPay). Variable rates from 5.29% APR to 11.44% APR (with AutoPay). SoFi rate ranges are current as of December 1, 2017 and are subject to change without notice. Not all rates and amounts available in all states. See Personal Loan eligibility details. Not all applicants qualify for the lowest rate. If approved for a loan, to qualify for the lowest rate, you must have a responsible financial history and meet other conditions. Your actual rate will be within the range of rates listed above and will depend on a variety of factors, including evaluation of your credit worthiness, years of professional experience, income and other factors. Interest rates on variable rate loans are capped at 14.95%. Lowest variable rate of 5.29% APR assumes current 1-month LIBOR rate of 1.34% plus 4.20% margin minus 0.25% AutoPay discount. For the SoFi variable rate loan, the 1-month LIBOR index will adjust monthly and the loan payment will be re-amortized and may change monthly. APRs for variable rate loans may increase after origination if the LIBOR index increases. The SoFi 0.25% AutoPay interest rate reduction requires you to agree to make monthly principal and interest payments by an automatic monthly deduction from a savings or checking account. The benefit will discontinue and be lost for periods in which you do not pay by automatic deduction from a savings or checking account.

Citizens Bank Disclosures

  1. Personal Loan Rate Disclosure: Variable rate, based on the one-month London Interbank Offered Rate (“LIBOR”) published in The Wall Street Journal on the twenty-fifth day, or the next business day, of the preceding calendar month. As of August 1, 2017, the one-month LIBOR rate is 1.23%. Variable interest rates range from 6.02% – 15.97% (6.02% – 15.97% APR) and will fluctuate over the term of your loan with changes in the LIBOR rate, and will vary based on applicable terms and presence of a co-applicant. Fixed interest rates range from 5.99% – 16.24% (5.99% – 16.24% APR) based on applicable terms and presence of a co-applicant. Lowest rates shown are for eligible applicants, require a 3-year repayment term, and include our Loyalty and Automatic Payment discounts of 0.25 percentage points each, as outlined in the Loyalty Discount and Automatic Payment Discount disclosures. Subject to additional terms and conditions, and rates are subject to change at any time without notice. Such changes will only apply to applications taken after the effective date of change.
  2. Loyalty Discount: The borrower will be eligible for a 0.25 percentage point interest rate reduction on their loan if the borrower has a qualifying account in existence with Citizens Bank at the time the borrower has submitted a completed application authorizing us to review their credit request for the loan. The following are qualifying accounts: any checking account, savings account, money market account, certificate of deposit, automobile loan, home equity loan, home equity line of credit, mortgage, credit card account, student loans or other personal loans owned by Citizens Bank, N.A. Please note, Citizens Bank checking and savings account options are only available in the following states: CT, DE, MA, MI, NH, NJ, NY, OH, PA, RI and VT. This discount will be reflected in the interest rate and Annual Percentage Rate (APR) disclosed in the Truth-In-Lending Disclosure that will be provided to the borrower once the loan is approved. Limit of one Loyalty Discount per loan, and discount will not be applied to prior loans. The Loyalty Discount will remain in effect for the life of the loan.
  3. Automatic Payment Benefit: Borrowers will be eligible to receive a 0.25 percentage point interest rate reduction on their student loans owned by Citizens Bank, N.A. during such time as payments are required to be made and our loan servicer is authorized to automatically deduct payments each month from any bank account the borrower designates. Discount is not available when payments are not due, such as during forbearance. If our loan servicer is unable to successfully withdraw the automatic deductions from the designated account three or more times within any 12-month period, the borrower will no longer be eligible for this discount.
7.39% - 29.99%$1,000 - $50,000Visit Upstart
5.29% - 14.24%1$5,000 - $100,000Visit SoFi
8.00% - 25.00%$5,000 - $35,000Visit Payoff
5.99% - 16.24%2$5,000 - $50,000Visit Citizens
5.99% - 35.89%$1,000 - $40,000Visit LendingClub
5.25% - 14.24%$2,000 - $50,000Visit Earnest
Advertiser Disclosure

Student Loan Hero Advertiser Disclosure

Our team at Student Loan Hero works hard to find and recommend products and services that we believe are of high quality and will make a positive impact in your life. We sometimes earn a sales commission or advertising fee when recommending various products and services to you. Similar to when you are being sold any product or service, be sure to read the fine print, understand what you are buying, and consult a licensed professional if you have any concerns. Student Loan Hero is not a lender or investment advisor. We are not involved in the loan approval or investment process, nor do we make credit or investment related decisions. The rates and terms listed on our website are estimates and are subject to change at any time. Please do your homework and let us know if you have any questions or concerns.