How to Use an Auto Loan to Rebuild Your Credit

Auto loan

In a recent article, we provided three steps to rebuilding your credit. One concept we stressed is having a mix of credit—both installment credit and revolving credit. Among the fastest ways to rebuild your credit, we said, is with a car loan. A form of an installment loan, it’s payable in monthly installments over a set number of months. And, that payment history is the way in which you rebuild your credit. There are three steps to this process.

1. Getting Your Auto Loan

This is the most important step in this process, because your loan choice will determine the success of the strategy. The type of auto loan you can get depends on your current financial situation, especially your credit. There are four choices for vehicle financing: bank, credit union, finance company and dealership.

Many people assume that with poor credit, their options are limited to dealer financing or a subprime finance company (one specializing in consumers with poor credit). However, Charles Bernath, an Atlanta, GA tax and credit expert, says that’s incorrect. “Usually, you can go to a credit union, so check out that option first,” he suggests. Bernath also states, “Only dealers and subprime financing companies benefit from their loans.” Therefore, if you can avoid them and their typically double-digit finance rates, do so.

Michael A. Wishnow, Senior Vice President of Marketing & Communications for the Pennsylvania Credit Union Association, agrees. Actually, he says, “If you have a FICO score of 600 or better, you can probably get a car loan at most credit unions at single-digit interest rates.” He adds, “However, roughly only 50% of credit unions will write loans for people with FICO scores below 600.”

Banks, while more stringent than credit unions, are still better than dealer and subprime financing. But, says Jason Jewett, Personal Banker and AVP at SunTrust Bank in Laurel Springs, GA, “You’ll need a minimum credit score of 660 and clean credit report to get financed at most banks, and your finance rate depends on your credit score and history.”

Whatever your choice, do not borrow more than you can afford. Your monthly payment should fit your financial reality. So, while you may want that dream car, your vehicle is collateral for your loan. If you can’t pay your car note, you may lose the car and further damage your credit.

In fact, says consumer credit expert and author, Beverly Harzog, “Decide before you go car shopping exactly how much you'll spend, which might keep you from making an impulsive decision and financing a car that you can’t really afford.”

And, remember, the lower your FICO score, the less you’ll be lent to begin with. “With low credit scores, you should focus on a used vehicle and expect to be financed a maximum 80% of its Kelly Blue Book value,” advises Wishnow. 

Your choice of a loan type and amount, therefore, is critical to the success of this strategy.

2. Repaying Your Auto Loan

This is the most important and straightforward aspect of this credit restoration strategy. That’s because when you get an installment loan to rebuild your credit, naturally, you must pay it back. Harzog, whose latest book is The Debt Escape Plan: How to Free Yourself From Credit Card Balances, Boost Your Credit Score, and Live Debt-Free, emphasizes that “It’s critically important to make your car loan payment on time each month.” Even a single late payment can set back your credit rebuilding strategy.

Repaying your loan on time, for at least nine months to a year, will help increase your credit score. But, you’ll also have to pay all of your other bills on time, have the right mix of credit, and not have too much debt. You must manage all of your credit well. Otherwise, this strategy won’t help, and may even hurt, your credit.

3. Refinancing Your Auto Loan

“Sometimes,” says Wishnow, “your payment is affordable, but your interest rate far too high.” This is most often true if you quickly financed a vehicle because you must have one or felt forced to accept a high interest loan because of your credit. Bernath, who has refinanced all three of his daughters’ auto loans, says, “You should refinance your vehicle loan when that happens.”

And, in most cases, while you’ll need to take specific steps, you can refinance much sooner than you think. If you got a double-digit interest loan through dealer or other subprime financing, you’ll want to refinance that loan as soon as you can.

Often, if your credit score is above 600, you can go to a credit union and refinance your loan, even if it’s immediately after getting into the bad loan. But, Wishnow says, you’ll have to become a member of a credit union.

Jewett explains that if you’ve used this approach to successfully rebuild your credit and have no negative entries on your credit report, “Once your score is at 660, you can use a bank to refinance your auto loan.”

All three credit experts agree that refinancing is both a great way to reduce the amount you pay over the loan’s life and also to reduce your monthly payment, in most cases. So, pursue that as part of this plan.

If you apply all three of these steps carefully, using an auto loan to rebuild your credit is one of your fastest and best paths to boosting your FICO score.

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