Credit

Should You Refinance Your Car Loan?

You’ve likely heard about the benefits of refinancing a home loan. With today’s low interest rates, those who have enough equity in their home and the credit required for a refinance could lower their monthly payments considerably.

But did you know that, similarly, you could lower your car payments by refinancing your auto loan?

A common misconception about auto refinancing is that it is similar to home refinancing in complexity and requirements, says Phil Reed, the senior consumer advice editor at auto information website Edmunds.com. The process is actually much simpler, in terms of both qualification criteria (there is more emphasis on the applicant’s credit than on the balance and value of the car, according to Reed) and the time and costs involved.

Here’s what you need to know about auto refinancing and how to determine whether it could help you save.

Are you a good candidate?

Thanks to today’s low interest rates, anyone who purchased and financed a car a few years ago could potentially find an auto loan with a lower rate. A few general guidelines:

* Is your current interest rate significantly higher than what you could get today?

In the fourth quarter of 2008, a 48-month new auto loan issued by a commercial lender averaged 7.06%. Today, the average rate on a 36-month used-car loan is 5.47%, according to Bankrate. And the average rate on a 48-month new car loan is 4.89%.

“Most people aren’t aware of the interest rates’ impact to their monthly payment,” says Reed. Edmunds and other online resources offer basic calculators that allow you to quickly determine just how significant a lower interest rate can be on a monthly loan payment.

* Has your credit score improved?

You could save even more if your financial situation has changed for the better – and your credit score is higher — since you took out that original car loan.

As with any loan, you do need good credit to qualify for auto refinancing. However, the criteria is far less stringent than that associated with home loans, says Reed. According to FICO (the company that calculates the widely-used FICO scores), you need a FICO score of 720 or more to qualify for the best auto loan rates. On a $25,000 36-month loan at 4.784% (the national average as of March 30, 2011), your monthly payment would be $747. On that same loan, you’d have a $828 monthly payment if your FICO score was between 620 and 659, which would put you at an average 11.762% interest rate, according to FICO.

* Are you in a lengthy loan (five- to eight-year term)?

Jack Nerad, executive editorial director and market analyst for Kelley Blue Book advises anyone in a lengthy auto loan (with an original five- to eight-year term), to research auto refinancing.

Many people only pay attention to their monthly payment when purchasing a car and have no idea how much of that payment is interest. The longer the term of the loan, the more interest you’ll fork over to the bank until it’s paid off, even if your monthly payment seems low. Refinancing into a loan with a shorter term will lower the total amount of interest you’ll pay, even if it doesn’t considerably lower your monthly payment.

Avoid Refinancing Your Auto Loan If:

* Your existing loan has a prepayment penalty or the new loan is fraught with fees that would negate the potential interest savings.

Anyone seeking an auto refinance should completely understand the details behind the new and existing loan terms, says Reed.

* Refinancing will extend the life of your loan.

Unless you’re seriously in danger of missing payments or defaulting on your loan altogether, avoid refinancing into a loan that would extend your current one. Your monthly payment may go down, but you’ll end up forking more money to the bank or dealer’s financing arm over the life of the new loan.

How to Get Started

Unlike refinancing a mortgage, auto refinancing is quite painless, according to Reed. It can often be handled online, and might take just one or two hours to complete. The first step is to understand your current loan terms (check your monthly statements for the interest rate, remaining balance, and payoff amount) — which you already should have done to determine if you’d benefit from refinancing to begin with.

Reed also advises informing your current lender that you are actively seeking a better deal. They may be willing to refinance your existing loan and save you from switching to a new a lender. As with any rate-based loan, negotiation is always an option, but Reed acknowledges that particularly when dealing with large banks, auto refinancing interest rates may be fairly fixed. Further, the person you are dealing with may not be authorized to make sweeping changes to your loan agreement.

Where to Look?

Ready to get started? Shop around on sites like Bankrate.com and eLoan.com, where you can find current rate information and lender referrals, if necessary. Reed recommends Capital One Auto Finance as another potentially good option.

Don’t ignore dealer finance programs, either. They are currently subsidized by auto manufacturers, making them a potentially competitive resource, according to Nerad.