DETROIT -- New vehicle prices and interest rates are on the rise, causing millions of people to fall behind on their auto loan payments.
But experts say you can avoid being one of them by preparing yourself before you buy and not getting caught up in the emotional moment of going after all the options that you desire.
Last month the Federal Reserve Bank of New York reported that more than 7 million Americans were 90 or more days behind on their auto loans at the end of 2018, a number not seen since delinquencies peaked at the end of 2010. The number of delinquent loans was 1 million more than eight years ago, according to the bank.
The statistics, while worrisome, aren't quite as alarming as they sound. They come after four straight years of new-vehicle sales above 17 million, including the record of 17.55 million in 2016. With more sales, there are more loans, and more delinquencies. Automakers sold only 11.59 million new vehicles in 2010 as the nation edged its way out of the Great Recession.
Still, delinquencies are increasing, and experts say the price of vehicles, rising interest rates, and higher monthly payments are the biggest contributors. Part of the problem is that people expect to keep their vehicles longer, so they buy more expensive ones with more luxury and safety options. They're also stringing out the payments longer, sometimes for as long as seven years, and buying SUVs and trucks, which are more expensive than out-of-favor sedans. And since they've been used to low interest rates that have kept payments down, many aren't willing to buy less-expensive vehicles with fewer options.
Put it all together and it can spell financial trouble.
"People do get in way too deep on auto loans, between the absolute value of the loan and the length of the term," said Mark Hamrick, senior economic analyst for Bankrate.com. "Too many people are making unsound decisions when it comes to car purchases."
Average new vehicle prices have been rising steadily for the past five years, hitting $36,331 in February, according to estimates from the Edmunds.com auto pricing site. Last month average new-vehicle loan rates hit 6.26 percent, the highest point since 2009, Edmunds said. That's up from 4.56 percent five years ago. On a $30,000, five-year loan, that's a difference of $24 per month.
Monthly payments, on average, hit $556, and the average loan length went to 69.4 months, up nearly three months over February of 2014, according to Edmunds, which provides auto reviews and other content to The Associated Press.
Buyers should beware of dealers who offer their own financing and cater to lower-income people, according to U.S. PIRG, a public interest group. They often charge unreasonably high interest rates, expecting that people will default so they can repossess their vehicle, the group said. Some also add on unnecessary preparation fees and insurance products to drive up costs.
Experts say the best time to keep yourself from buying more vehicle than you can afford is before you go the car dealer. Tendayi Kapfidze, chief economist for Lendingtree.com, said buyers should check their credit scores before shopping for a vehicle, fixing any mistakes and settling up on any late payments.
He suggests limiting vehicle payments to 10 percent of after-tax take-home pay, and keeping the length of loans to five years for new vehicles or 36 months for used. Kapfidze also suggests lining up financing from a bank or credit union before shopping because often they have better rates. But keep an open mind. Dealers can have loan rates that are subsidized by auto companies.
Dealers, Kapfidze said, will try to talk people into buying more expensive vehicles with more options, and lenders often will approve larger loans than people can reasonably afford, especially when other auto expenses such as insurance, gasoline and maintenance are factored in.
Buyers should make financing decisions before going to the showroom and "before you're looking at the car and you're playing around with the buttons inside and saying 'wow, these are some really comfortable leather seats,'" he said. "Create a budget and try not to break from it in the face of temptation."
Ana Orozco, 29, of Athens, Georgia, did just that when she bought a used 2014 Nissan Rogue SUV for $12,000 in late January. Orozco, the office manager for a family heating and air conditioning business, said she had a budget and stuck to it. "The new ones were over $20,000, or $25,000," she said. "That's not something I can afford right now. Or I could afford it but I'd be living paycheck to paycheck."
Even if you buy more vehicle than you can afford, there is still some hope. Kapfidze said you can refinance your loan, perhaps getting a better rate and lower payments, especially if your credit score has improved.
Not all dealers try to get people to spend more than they can afford. Chris Hemmersmeier, CEO of the Jerry Seiner chain of General Motors and Kia dealerships in Salt Lake City, said showing someone a decked-out car and then finding out they can't afford it doesn't help the dealer. "It's really hard for them to go backward to a lesser-contented vehicle," he said. "Generally speaking we lose that customer."