If you're preparing to buy a new or used car and you need to finance that purchase with an auto loan, then it's important to consider your credit score, since your score will largely determine the auto loan interest rate you're eligible for.
About 90% of auto loan lenders use FICO's auto score, says credit expert Gerri Detweiler. FICO's auto scores range from 250 to 900 and look specifically at your creditworthiness for auto loans. When your score is calculated, the usual factors matter, like your payment history, whether or not your credit card balances have been increasing or decreasing, and your utilization rate, and there's also more weight put on your history with car-related debt specifically.
The higher your FICO auto score, the better your interest rate. The auto industry has its own lingo for the range of rate types: scores fall into five categories ranging from excellent (superprime) to bad (deep subprime). For the best, or superprime, rate, you'll need what's considered excellent credit, but you don't need a perfect score: According to FICO, you'll typically qualify for the super-prime rate with an auto loan score of 720.
You can't get a look at your auto score for free, but you can buy a glimpse as part of FICO's subscription products. Or you can take advantage of free resources to check your regular credit score: It's a good indicator of how auto lenders are likely to see you.
The number you need can vary by lender, though, says Detweiler. "It's important to note that FICO doesn't choose a cut-off score for various rates; lenders do," she says. "Lenders determine what rates to offer for various score ranges."
Let's say your FICO auto score is 700, putting you in the "good" range, according to FICO's calculator. The average new car loan amount for superprime drivers is $29,620, according to Experian, so you might qualify for the good (or prime) rate of 5.9% on a $29,620 loan paid over 60 months.
At a rate of 5.9%, your monthly payments will be $572 and you'll pay $4,649 in interest.
Now say your FICO auto score is 720 or above, qualifying you for the current best rate of 4.6%, on a new car, according to FICO's Loan Savings Calculator. Your monthly payments will dip to about $554, saving you $18 each month, and you'll pay $3,590 in interest over 60 months.
In other words, with a score of 720 instead of 700, you'd qualify for the superprime rate and pay $1,059 less in interest over the life of the loan.
Your interest rate will also change depending if the vehicle is new or used, says Ron Montoya, senior consumer advice editor at Edmunds. He says new car loans often have lower interest rates because automakers subsidize interest rates for finance firms as a motivation to sell more cars.
"When you look at used cars, it's more of a risk for a lender," he says. "You don't know what things may break down."
Car shoppers with higher credit scores tend to have more financing options available to them, like longer terms and better rates from multiple lenders, regardless if a car is new or used, says Melinda Zabritski, Experian's senior director of automotive financial solutions.
If you're shopping around for a car, Montoya suggests checking your credit score at least a few months beforehand. If your score needs improvement, then you'll have time to try and bump it up and snag a better rate.
These steps can help:
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