Monday, November 11, 2019

Negative Equity

(aka "Upside Down" & "Underwater")
You’ve probably seen a lot of car advertisements claiming, “WE WE’LL PAY OFF YOUR OLD CAR, NO MATTER HOW MUCH YOU OWE”! This is a lie, because no car dealer every pays of your car for you; you pay off your car because the dealer adds the payoff amount to the price of the car that he’s selling you.

The Wall Street Journal recently (11-11-19) featured a front-page story, “Car Debt Traps More Drivers”. The article begins “John Schricker took out a loan to buy a car in 2017. Then he took out another. And then another. In two years, the 40-year-old electrician signed up for four auto loans, each time trading in the previous car and rolling the unpaid balance into the next loan. He recently bought a $27,000 Jeep Cherokee with a $45,000 loan from Ally Financial Inc.”

This practice has been going on as long as there’ve been car dealers, but it’s worsened in recent years due to sharply increasing car prices with sharply reduced dealer profits on new cars. Car prices are soaring from the revolution in digitalized electronic safety features, but dealers’ profit margins have shrunk from the increasingly educated 21stcentury consumer, armed with the Internet and online buying. 33% of new car buyers that traded in their old car so far in 2019 owned more on their trade-in than its actual value, compared to 28% five years ago and 19% a decade ago, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Due to car dealers’ reduced ability to make large profits on the sale of new cars, they are focusing on their finance profits. Finance profits are enhanced by the sale of extended services contracts aka warranties, pre-paid car maintenance, GAP insurance, road hazard and roadside assistance insurance, and a litany of other overpriced and usually unnecessary services and products. Car dealers make more money in their F&I (Finance and Insurance) departments than their new car sales departments. Adding the negative equity from car buyers’ trade-ins to the loan on their new cars further enhances the dealers’ profits in their Finance and Insurance Departments.

Many new car buyers with negative equity in their trade-ins are not aware of it, and car dealers don’t bring it to their attention for fear of losing the sale. The facts are revealed in the sales and financing contracts which most buyers don’t read carefully or understand. Most car buyers are focused on one thing…their monthly payment. If a dealer can offer a monthly payment close to their current payment, this usually satisfies the buyer. Dealers can often do this by extending the terms of the loan to a much as 72 months, surprising the buyer with a large down payment, or “flipping” the buyer to a lease.

All the above is why new car buyers should make a point of completely understanding all the numbers of their purchase or lease transaction. This is best done by separating the new car purchase into (1) establishing the actual value of the trade-in compared to the payoff to the bank, (2) knowing the out-the-door selling price of the new car, and (3) the best interest rate, down payment, and terms usually obtainable from their bank of credit union. Car dealers finance most of the new cars they sell through kick-back arrangements with their banks. These interest rates and terms are usually not best for the buyer.

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