10 steps to your best deal on a car loan

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Negotiating a great price on a new car is just half the battle: You also need a great car loan to make it a great deal.

Here are 10 tips to help you get the best auto loan:

1. Shop the loan separately from the car.

Before starting negotiations on the exact car and price, begin the loan application process with credit unions, banks, well-respected online lenders and even your auto insurance company. “Generally, we’ve seen that online banks have been the best,” says Anthony Giorgianni, associate finance editor of “Consumer Reports Money Adviser” newsletter in Yonkers, N.Y. “The little banks might be very competitive,” he says. “A lot of them didn’t get caught up in the credit crunch.” And credit unions rates tend to be about 1 percent to 1.5 percent lower than banks, says Jim Hanson, a vice president at the Credit Union National Association in Madison, Wis.

You can get prequalification for a loan, which would enable you to go to the dealer with a blank check — good up to a specified amount, says Phil Reed, senior consumer advice editor for Edmunds.com. Once you have a solid, written contract with the dealer, only then ask if they can beat the financing deal you already have.

2. Limit your loan shopping to a two-week period.

Every time you apply for a loan — whether you are approved, whether you use it — your credit score goes down and it makes it slightly more difficult to get a prime-rate loan. But if you make all of your applications within a two-week period, they count as only one inquiry.

3. Get familiar with your own credit history.

Get free copies of your three credit reports, from Equifax, Experian and TransUnion at www.AnnualCreditReport.com. If you want to learn your exact scores from the three agencies, you can order them for a small fee from their individual Web sites. The credit or FICO score you buy is probably not the same one your lender uses, but it should be close. With an auto loan, you have a little more wiggle room in terms of your score. “What’s considered good for a car loan will be a little lower than what’s good for a mortgage,” says Gail Hillebrand, senior attorney with the San Francisco office of Consumers Union.

4. Shop the total loan amount, not the monthly payment.

The only time you should consider the monthly payment is when you privately calculate how much you want to spend for your car. After that, don’t discuss monthly payments. Some lenders may focus on the payments to induce you to borrow more money by extending the number of months you pay. That way they make more in interest, and you have to drive your aging car longer.

5. Don’t assume the best.

Lenders aren’t obligated to offer you the best rate for which you qualify. In 2007, car dealers marked up loans by an average 1.8 percent on used cars and 0.6 percent on new ones, according to Josh Frank, senior researcher for the Center for Responsible Lending in Durham, N.C. Let the lender know you’re shopping around or already have another offer. You’re more likely to see a better rate. You can find the best available auto loans in your area at Bankrate’s auto rate tables.

6. Get the right tools.

What’s better for you — super-low dealer financing or cash rebates? You can get a quick answer to that by using Bankrate’s car rebate vs low-interest calculator. Within a few seconds, you’ll know to the penny which is the better deal. Usually, it’s the cash, says Giorgianni.

7. Read the fine print.

Take the loan paperwork home and read it before you sign anything, advises Massachusetts consumer attorney Yvonne Rosmarin. If a lender or dealer balks at that, walk out. This is a binding agreement that’s going to last for years, so you need to know exactly what’s in it. Some points that warrant special caution:

  • Mandatory binding arbitration: “It takes away your right to go to court for anything,” says Rosmarin.
  • Variable interest rate: Figure out the highest possible payment. If you can’t afford it, the loan’s not for you.
  • Prepayment penalties: How much will it cost you to pay off the loan early if you want to sell or refinance?
  • Is everything the lender promised in the contract? Oral promises are hard, if not impossible to enforce, says Rosmarin. If there’s something missing that’s important to you, don’t sign until it’s included. If it’s work that’s promised, don’t sign until it’s completed.

8. Check the math.

If the monthly payment is even slightly different from your calculations, the loan might not have the terms you think you negotiated. Use Bankrate’s auto calculator to double-check.

9. Avoid conditional financing.

Never take a car from a dealer until the financing — down payment amount, interest rate, length of loan, monthly payments — is finalized. If the financing is “contingent” or “conditional,” they can change later and you could get stuck with less advantageous terms.

10. Investigate your lender.

“Check on anyone you’re dealing with,” says Rosmarin. Try your state attorney general’s office and office of consumer affairs, the Better Business Bureau, as well as any government agencies (state or federal) that regulate lenders. Search online to learn what customers and former customers are saying. While you should take online comments “with a grain of salt,” says Rosmarin, they can also provide an early warning to possible problems.