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How to get a car loan in 7 steps
Find the right financing for your budget by comparing lenders before you hit the dealership.
Comparing car loans from different providers is one of the most important parts of the car-buying process. Taking the time to get preapproved can help you qualify for the most competitive rates and terms available to you.
What's in this guide?
Step 1: Check your credit
Your credit score determines how much you can borrow and at what rate. Knowing your credit will help you understand when you’re getting a good deal — and when it’s best to find another lender.
In general, a higher credit score will mean a lower rate. But lenders may also offer a lower APR for shorter loan terms or new car purchases. And if you have bad credit, you may want to take steps to improve your score to qualify for more competitive rates in the future.
Step 2: Create a budget
Before you apply for a loan or buy a car, you’ll want to know what you can afford. Our auto loan calculator can help you determine what your monthly repayments would be based off your potential APR and loan term. For example, the total interest you pay on a $20,000 car loan — along with your monthly payment — can change drastically based on your loan term:
|Loan term||APR||Monthly payment||Total interest|
In addition to your monthly car payment, you’ll also want to account for upfront costs that come with buying a car, including taxes, fees and your down payment. These can quickly add up, so knowing how you’ll cover them will help avoid any unexpected hits to your savings.
Step 3: Get preapproval from multiple lenders
Car loans work differently than other types of personal loans. When you apply for preapproval, your lender will confirm that you’re eligible to borrow a specific amount at an estimated rate. Then you’ll have 30 to 45 days to shop for the right car. And because of recent changes to how credit bureaus classify loan applications, it will only count as one line on your credit report — provided you apply for preapproval with multiple lenders within a 14-day period.
After you’ve confirmed you qualify, gather the information and documents and start the preapproval application. You’ll generally need your personal, financial and employment details. While some might ask for information about the car you want to purchase, this isn’t always required.
Compare car loan providers
Step 4: Compare your preapproval offers
After you’ve collected a few preapproval offers, compare your options by looking at the following features:
- Loan amount. If a lender is unable to offer you a loan that covers the anticipated cost of your car, you may want to cross it off your list.
- APR. Loans with a lower APR tend to cost less, but you’ll still want to account for how much you can actually borrow and the loan term before settling on the lender with the lowest APR.
- Loan term. The length of your loan will have a big impact on how much you actually end up spending. While shorter terms will mean larger monthly payments, you may end up saving thousands in interest over the course of your loan.
- Restrictions. Take note of any restrictions your lender has on how you use your loan. For instance, many lenders only accept used cars under 10 years or 100,000 miles.
Step 5: Shop for your car
After you’ve calculated how much you can spend and have a few loans to choose from, it’s time to shop for your car.
Going online is a great first step because it allows you to compare dealerships’ advertised options against sources like Edmunds and Kelley Blue Book. You’ll also be able to compare the dealership against the manufacturer — giving you access to the best potential deals.
Visit the dealership
Even if you already have a loan, apply for financing with the dealership. You’ll have the upper hand when it comes to negotiating interest, and if you aren’t interested in dealership financing, you’ll at least be able to to skip some of the sales pitches. This means more time to negotiate the car’s actual price rather than just the potential monthly payments.
Step 6: Finalize your loan and receive your funds
Whether you choose to accept the dealership’s offer or simply go with the loan you’ve already been preapproved for, you’ll need to follow the lender’s instructions to finalize your loan.
If you opt for financing from a third-party lender, your loan funds will be transferred in one of two ways:
- Sent to you so you can pay the dealership
- Sent directly to the dealership
If you opt for dealership financing, you’ll simply have to sign some paperwork to finalize your loan.
Step 7: Plan for paying off your loan
Many lenders allow you to set up automatic repayments, sometimes with the added benefit of an interest rate discount. But if that’s not your style, you should also be able to make payments manually, either online or by check.
Whichever you choose, be sure you have enough to cover the amount due each month. A history of on-time payments can build your credit score — giving you access to better terms if you decide to refinance your car loan in the future. while missing even one can lower it by a few points.
Checking your credit, creating a budget and getting preapproved with a few lenders can up your bargaining power when you hit the dealership. You can learn more about how car loans work and compare other lenders with our guide.
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