Where to Shop for a Car Loan

The best options don’t always come from a bank

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The auto-finance business is enormous, with hundreds of institutions making hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth of car loans every year. For many consumers, though, it can be hard to know which type of lender is right for their financial situation.

The largest lenders are big national banks, such as Bank of America, Capital One, Chase, and Wells Fargo, but there are other choices out there. The captive finance companies that belong to the automakers, such as Ford Motor Credit and Toyota Financial Services, are big players. Some of the best deals come from those captives, especially when the automaker is subsidizing the loans.

Because it can be a challenge to determine which is the right choice, we have created this list of the pros and cons of each lending institution. And after that, we discuss why it is so important to get preapproved for a car loan.

Banks

They generally have very specific, conservative loan policies, and some may cater only to those borrowers with a better credit standing. These institutions are in a position to offer some very competitive loan rates. Offerings vary tremendously, though, and some banks are more willing than others to make loans to people with marginal credit.

Because a car shopper probably has a relationship with at least one bank already, the local branch might be a good place to start. Most banks have websites that make it easy check their current loan rates, and shoppers can apply for a loan either online or at a local branch. Visiting the branch is a good way to avoid any mistakes or misunderstandings, and might result in an even better offer.

Credit Unions

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These lenders operate a bit like banks, but they are usually nonprofits owned by their depositors, with lower operating costs than banks. Many credit unions lend money only to their members. However, some will make loans to people who don’t have deposit accounts with them. The website credit maintains links to several credit unions that will make loans to the general public.

Online Lenders

This is a very convenient way to borrow money, and it’s easy to find competitive rates. Sites such as Clearlane (operated by Ally Bank), E-Loan, and LendingTree farm out requests to numerous lenders and usually provide you with several competing offers. Individual lenders like Capital One, Wells Fargo, and Chase also have online loan operations.

As a precaution, check the Better Business Bureau rating for every lender that is contacted before you file an online application.

Dealerships

Dealers typically work with their automaker’s financing group, as well as banks and other sources. Shoppers with offers from some of the other sources we’ve mentioned may be able to negotiate the dealer’s initial loan quote down to something more attractive. That’s why it’s important to do research.

Get Preapproved

There are many advantages to shopping around for auto loans and lining up financing before striking a deal on a car.

Loan shopping gives buyers the chance to compare interest rates. Those rates can vary a lot, regardless of credit standing. The wider the net is cast, the better the chance of landing a bargain.

Second, getting preapproved buys peace of mind. While the deal may not be the best one possible, buyers will at least know they have enough money to cover the purchase, and know the interest rate, and length of the loan.

To get preapproved, buyers must have a pretty good idea of what the new car will cost, including all taxes and fees. Deduct the down payment to determine how much the loan will have to be.

Once the lender approves the loan amount, say $25,000, he or she will give the buyer a blank check good for any amount up to that limit. The check can be returned if it turns out that a better deal is available elsewhere, such as through the dealer. There may be fees involved in returning a check, though, so read the fine print before agreeing to any deal.

Keep in mind that each time a consumer applies for new credit, it lowers his or her score a little for a limited period of time. But credit bureaus treat a cluster of auto-loan applications occurring in a short period as a single application rather than several, and the negative affect should be minor and short-lived. Loan aggregators such as E-Loan and Clearlane make this easy because they pull a person’s credit score one time and use it for the various lending institutions they work with. Still, try to keep all loan applications confined to a short time period, about 30 days.

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