An upside-down, or negative equity, car loan is when your loan balance is worth more than the value of your car. So if you owe $11,000 on your car loan, but the market value of your car is $9,500, than the loan would be upside down by $1,500. You could also say that you have $1,500 worth of negative equity.
Having an upside-down car loan can be risky, especially since standard insurance policies only cover up to the value of your car. But there are a few ways to turn around negative equity — or get out of an upside-down car loan altogether.
How does a car loan become upside down?
A car loan can go upside down in several situations. Financing a new car over a long term is one common way — especially if that term is longer than 60 months. Having a high interest rate, foregoing a down payment or buying a car that’s out of your budget can also lead to an upside-down car loan. And rolling over a previous loan during a trade-in also puts your loan at risk of becoming upside down.
One of the simplest ways to get out of an upside-down car loan is to make extra repayments. This reduces your balance until car loan is right-side-up again and gets you out of debt faster.
Before you get started, calculate your negative equity — the difference between your loan balance and how much your car is worth. Negative equity gives you an idea of how much you need to repay to flip your loan right-side up and how long it’ll take.
Watch out for early prepayment penalties
Some lenders charge a penalty when you repay your loan early. Not only does this mean you won’t be able to save on interest, but it’ll also cost you more to get above water. Reach out to your lender to find out its prepayment policy before you start making extra payments.
2. Refinance with another lender
Refinancing your car loan involves trading in your loan for different loan, ideally with more favorable rates and terms. Refinancing for a shorter term could also be a good way to pay off your loan early if your lender charges prepayment penalties. Refinancing at a lower interest rate can help you get out of an upside-down car loan by lowering the total amount you’ll pay towards your car loan overall.
Generally, you need to have good to excellent credit and a low debt-to-income (DTI) ratio to get the best deal on refinancing. Refinancing also might not be the best choice if you have a large amount of negative equity, since some lenders have maximum loan-to-value (LTV) ratios for refinancing applicants.
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3. Sell your car
When extra repayments and refinancing aren’t an option, you can sell your car to a private party and use the profits to pay off most of your loan. You’ll still be responsible for the rest of the balance — and be out of a car. But it could prevent you from defaulting on a negative equity car loan and taking a hit to your credit score.
Consider making repairs or having your car detailed so you can up the price — or at the very least give it a good wash. The more you’re able to sell it for, the more you’ll you can put towards your upside-down car loan.
4. Trade it in for a less expensive car
If you’d rather not sell your car, you can also trade it in at a dealership for a less pricy used vehicle. Try to go for a car with a value that’s close to your loan balance.
But watch out for dealership financing: It’ll often roll what’s left of your old loan into the new one, which could land you with another upside-down car loan.
5. Consider credit counseling
If none of these options seem viable, consider signing up for a session with a credit counseling agency. These nonprofit organizations can help you figure out your best plan of action and come up with strategies to better manage your personal finances.
How to avoid going upside down on a car loan next time
Here are a few strategies to help you avoid negative equity on your next car loan:
Buy a used car. Used cars depreciate at a much slower rate than new cars — a new car can drop up to 20% in value the minute you drive it off the lot.
Opt for a lease instead. When you lease a car, you’re essentially renting the car for a few years, so the car’s value isn’t your responsibility.
Make a sizable down payment. Putting at least 20% down when you buy a car reduces the amount of financing you need, lowering the likelihood of your car loan becoming upside down.
Go for a shorter term. A short term on a car loan means your repayments can better keep up with your car’s rate of depreciation while also helping you save on interest.
Get gap insurance. Unlike standard car insurance policies, gap insurance covers the difference between what your car is worth and the amount you owe on it should you get into an accident while you still owe money on your car.
There’s more than one way out if your car loan is worth more than the value of your vehicle, especially if you have good credit. Not sure which is right for you? Consider calculating your negative equity and going from there. For more information on how car loans work, check out our guide to auto financing.
Frequently asked questions about upside-down car loans
You can voluntarily give up your car for repossession if you’re seriously under water, but that doesn’t cancel out your loan. You’ll still owe the difference between what your lender was able to sell your car for and the outstanding balance on your loan. Voluntary repossession also shows up as a negative mark on your credit report, so avoid it if possible.
You’ll pay your loan off as scheduled and have an upside-down car loan for longer. Generally, this just means you could end up paying a lot more out of pocket if you get into an accident. And you might not have the funds available to pay for a new car until your current loan is paid off.
Generally, no. Debt settlement programs are typically designed for unsecured debt — a negative equity car loan is a secured form of debt as it uses your car as collateral, so it wouldn’t qualify.
However, you might benefit from reaching out to your lender and explaining the situation. They might be willing to rework your repayment plan to help you get out of debt faster.
Anna Serio is a lead editor at Finder, specializing in consumer and business financing. A trusted lending expert and former certified commercial loan officer, Anna's written and edited more than 1,000 articles on Finder to help Americans strengthen their financial literacy. Her expertise and analysis on personal, student, business and car loans has been featured in publications like Business Insider, CNBC and Nasdaq, and has appeared on NBC and KADN. Anna holds an MA in Middle Eastern studies from the American University of Beirut and a BA in Creative Writing from Macaulay Honors College at Hunter College, CUNY.
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