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How to get the best loan rates

6. The skinny on personal loans

What impacts rates: Interest rates for personal loans are comparable to interest rates for credit cards, which are loosely pegged to the prime rate.

"In many cases they're sort of substitutes for each other," says Greg McBride, senior financial analyst at Bankrate "That's another product that really doesn't move around a whole lot. It's a higher risk product and it's not as sensitive to interest rate changes."

Financial institutions will also base personal loan rates on other factors unrelated to such indixes as the prime rate.

"By and large, we set the rates to be competitive in the marketplace," says Phil Greer, senior vice president of loan administration at the Raleigh, N.C.-based State Employees Credit Union. He adds that the credit union also takes into account a number of other factors, including its own financial picture.

Highs and lows: Personal loan interest rates, for which Bankrate has data for 10 years, is based on an assumption of a $3,000 loan repaid over 24 months.

Interest rates ranged from a low of 13.72 percent in July 2008 to a high of 15.43 percent back in January 1998.

How to get the best rate: Shop several lenders. Sooner is better than later because personal loan rates are lower than they've been in several years.

Credit unions are a viable alternative to traditional lenders. They generally offer favorable rates on loans and credit cards to their members. (Customers are actually dividend-eligible shareholders and are referred to as members rather than account holders.)

Credit unions charge an average of 10.64 percent nationally for a 36-month fixed-rate personal loan, significantly lower than the national average for other types of financial institutions, according to data reported in June by the National Credit Union Administration.

They tend to look at a member's overall financial situation and relationship with the credit union rather than the FICO score alone.

You may also be able to secure a lower interest rate for a personal loan from a traditional lender by using collateral, such as home equity or a free-and-clear car title, according to Bankrate's Greg McBride.

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