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What Credit Score Do You Need to Buy a Car?

Applying for a car loan? Lenders will check your credit history and credit score. Read about the score you need to buy a car—before applying.

By Mike Faden | American Express Credit Intel Freelance Contributor

4 Min Read | March 18, 2020 in Credit

 

At-A-Glance

In general, a higher credit score is likely to get you a car loan with a lower interest rate and lower monthly payment.

But you may be able to get a car loan even if you don’t have a good credit score.

In one analysis, the average credit score to buy a new car was 717; for a used car, it was 656.

If you’re looking to finance your next car purchase with an auto loan, you’re not alone. As car prices continue to rise, buyers are financing six out of every seven new passenger vehicles with a loan or lease—as well as more than half of used vehicles.1

 

What is a Good Credit Score to Buy a Car?

The good news is, you may be able to get a car loan even if your credit score falls into (or even slightly below) one of the “poor” or “fair” ranges—approximately 500-600 (to learn more about the ranges, see “Credit Score Ranges: What is an Excellent, Good, or Poor Credit Score?”).

 

But in general, a higher credit score is likely to get you a lower interest rate—which could make a substantial difference to your monthly payments and how much you’ll pay altogether over the life of the loan. As detailed below, someone with a poor score may have to pay more than $100 extra per month, for the same car loan amount, compared to someone with an “excellent” score (above 780). That translates to more than $7,000 in additional interest charges over the life of a five-year loan.

 

How Lenders Evaluate Your Credit Score When You Buy a Car

When you apply for a car loan, the lender will check your credit history and your credit score. It’s important to note that lenders use a variety of credit scoring models, which could affect your borrowing experience. For example, if a lender relies on the FICO Auto Score, which uses a scoring model specifically designed for auto loans, any past payment issues you've had with auto loans could make it more difficult to get approved, experts say.2 On the other hand, if you’ve made on-time car payments for 10 years, that could act in your favor.

 

Lenders may also look at other factors, such as your monthly debt payments relative to how much you earn, and your employment history. Those factors could improve your chances of getting a lower interest rate even if you have a less-than-perfect credit score.3

 

And if your credit score is below average, don’t let that hold you back: People with credit scores below 600 account for more than 20% of auto loans and leases, according to Experian, although they mostly opt for used cars.4

 

 

How Your Credit Score May Affect Car Loan Payments

The rising price of new and used cars is a key reason that most people finance their car purchases.

 

New car loans. The average sales price of a new car was over $37,500 in September 2019—and less than a fifth of U.S. households have enough ready savings to cover the full cost, according to one analysis.5,6 The average new car loan was a little over $32,000 in the second quarter of 2019. If you’re paying off that loan over five years, your credit score could significantly affect your monthly payments and how much you pay altogether over the life of the loan, as shown in the accompanying table. The average credit score of new car buyers was 717.7

Example Credit Score Ranges, Interest Rates, and Monthly Payments for a $32,000 New Car Loan

Credit score  Average Monthly payment
781+ 4.23% $593
661-780 5.17% $606
601-660 8.12% $651
501-600 12.2% $715
300-500 14.7% $756

Note: Average interest rates based on Experian data
for Q2 2019; monthly payments estimated using FICO online calculator, based on five-year
loan term.8,9

Used car loans. American car buyers reportedly financed more than 55% of used vehicles in the second quarter of 2019, with loans averaging a little over $20,000. On average, people who bought used cars had lower credit scores than new-car buyers: the average credit score was 656 for all used cars, or 680 for used cars acquired from a franchised car dealer.10 The accompanying table shows how buyers’ credit scores could translate into interest rates and monthly payments for paying off the average $20,000 used-car loan over five years.

Example Credit Score Ranges, Interest Rates, and Monthly Payments for a $20,000 Used Car Loan

Credit score  Interest rate Monthly payment
781+ 4.77% $375
661-780 6.54% $392
601-660 11.38% $439
501-600 17.36% $501
300-500 20.09% $531

Note: Average interest rates based on Experian data for Q2 2019; example monthly payments estimated using FICO online calculator, based on five-year loan term.11,12

 

Tactics for Reducing Your Monthly Payment

There are various ways to reduce monthly car loan payments, which may be worth exploring as costs continue to rise for both new and used cars. They include:

 

Build your credit score. If your credit score is less than exceptional and you can afford to wait before buying a car, you can take steps to improve your credit score, which may get you a lower interest rate. If you can’t wait, you could buy now and consider trying to refinance at a lower rate when you’ve improved your credit score, experts say.13

 

Make a bigger down payment. A bigger down payment reduces your loan amount, which reduces your monthly payment (assuming all other factors are equal).

 

Get a longer loan term. Stretching out payments over a longer period reduces your monthly cost, although it also means that you pay more in interest over the length of the loan (assuming all other factors are equal).

 

Shop around. You may save money by researching different lenders and getting pre-approved before you buy a car.

 

 

The Takeaway

You may not need great credit to buy a car, but a higher credit score is likely to get you a lower interest rate. That could make a significant difference to your payments each month and how much you’ll pay for the car altogether.

Mike Faden

Mike Faden has covered business and technology issues for more than 30 years as a writer, consultant, and analyst for media brands, market-research firms, startups and established corporations.

 

All Credit Intel content is written by freelance authors and commissioned and paid for by American Express. 

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