12 Tips for Buying a Car With Bad Credit

Man purchasing a car
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Your credit history plays a major role in getting approved for a car loan as well as the interest cost you pay for financing your purchase. Unfortunately, buying a car with bad credit is tough, even if you have the income and a stable job history. A history of late payments, high debt, bankruptcy, or repossession is a sign to the lender that you'e at risk of defaulting on your loan payments and the lender wants to avoid the expensive process of repossessing your vehicle.

Bad credit doesn't have to stand in the way of your new set of wheels, but you'll have to shop a little differently and be prepared for a higher cost. Go into the process as informed as possible to avoid being taken advantage of.

1. Work on your credit before going car shopping.

Check your credit report as soon as you start thinking about buying a new car, even if it's months or years in advance. By cleaning up your credit before applying for a loan, you improve your chances of being approved with good terms. Cleaning up your credit will include paying off past due accounts, disputing credit report errors, and adding positive information to your credit report.

2. Avoid additional bad credit items.

In the months leading up to your loan application, be on your best behavior. Pay everything on time. Don't take on any other major credit obligations, including new credit cards. Potential red flags for an auto lender include rent late payments, charge-offs, debt collections, bankruptcy, tax liens, and lawsuit judgments.

3. Check current interest rates before buying a car with bad credit.

You can check online for the latest average auto loan rates to better understand what rate you should expect. With good credit, you would qualify for a rate at or below average. With bad credit, you'll typically have a higher interest rate, but be skeptical of any loan rate more than double the average.

Your loan rate will not only affect your monthly payment, but the price tag of the car you can purchase too.

4. Make a bigger down payment.

Your credit history will limit the size of car loan you can get and a high interest rate will make the amount even lower. A down payment can offset the interest, taxes, and fees and widen the selection of vehicles you can choose from.

5. Know what you can afford to pay.

You may be tempted to overestimate what you can afford so you can get into a better car. Consider how much extra money you have leftover after paying bills each month. That's the amount you're able to afford. Check your budget to see what you can really afford to pay and stick to that amount, even if you're approved for a loan with bigger payments.

6. Get pre-approved.

You can shop more realistically when you have a pre-approved loan amount to work with. Talk to your bank or credit union about getting a car loan and to find out the pre-approval process. If you can't get approved with your bank, your car salesman may be able to put you in contact with a lender who caters to car buyers with bad credit.

7. Skip the extras.

When you're buying a car with bad credit, you may not be approved for high loan amount, which may mean you have to sacrifice some of the features you want.

Leather seats, sunroof, premium speaker system may not be options when you're trying to buy a car with bad credit. You're already facing a higher loan payment because of the interest rate. Don't make it bigger by adding features to your car.

8. Check with nonprofit agencies.

Before you take on an expensive car loan, check to see if your state has any non-profit agencies that provide loans or vehicles to low-income consumers. Check out this PDF listing car ownership programs by state. Unfortunately, there's not a program in every state.

9. Tread carefully with buy here, pay here.

Buy here, pay here car lots offer on-site financing with less stringent credit qualifications (sometimes with no credit check), but they also have a reputation for being overpriced, selling poor quality vehicles, and taking advantage of consumers with bad credit.

Ask for recommendations for a dealership, check the value of the vehicle and the vehicle history. If you can, take a mechanic friend shopping with you to check out the car to make sure it's in good condition.

10. Read all the paperwork.

Loan documents can be confusing, but your money and your credit are on the line, so it's important to take time to understand the terms of the loan. Make sure the paperwork matches what the dealer verbally agreed to. If you agree to the terms, sign the loan documents before you drive the car off the lot. Some shady dealers let you drive away without signing, then call you back to sign papers with terms that are drastically different from what you originally agreed.

11. Don't buy with the expectation of trading for a new vehicle in a couple of years.

One of the ways car salesmen get you into a car is to build up your hopes of trading in next year. Sounds like a great deal, but when you do this, the balance of the old loan is added to the new loan and your payments increase or your repayment period extends. Don't trade unless you improve your credit and can qualify to refinance at a lower interest rate.

12. Watch out for scams.

People with bad credit are the target of countless scams. Don't fall victim to predatory loans no matter how much you want to be in a new car. Too often these loans end up poorly for the car buyer and result in yet another blemish on an already tarnished credit record. No matter how desperate you are for a new vehicle, take your time, get all the facts, and make the most financially sound decision you can.