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I will be financing* the purchase of a brand new car that I plan to keep for 3 years. Based on this I am trying to understand how to structure the loan variables (term, rate) appropriately.

Should I get a loan that lasts only as long as I plan to keep the car? Or how should I think about this? One problem with getting a 3 year (36 months) loan is that my payments are very high.

So I am looking for advice on how I should be configuring my loan.

*Note: A lease is not an option in this case.

UPDATE: I wanted to provide more context to my question. I'm already decided that this car will be brand new and I will keep it for a limited period of time, e.g 3 years. Those are not variables that will change. For the purposes of this question I am thinking of this car as one might consider a Tesla (although it is not a Tesla) - that is, I have the following ideas in mind:

  • I am buying a piece of technology on wheels (similar to a Tesla) and as such it's future value is highly unknown, given the pace of tech
  • I am an early tech adopter and since tech moves so fast, I am going to want the latest and greatest version of that model after this one. That's why I plan to hold for a short period of time.
  • For the purposes of this question I am not considering a lease as an option.
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    What do you plan to do after three years? – pboss3010 Aug 23 at 17:36
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    By "new" do you mean "not used" or "new to you"? – D Stanley Aug 23 at 17:43
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    I don't want to be disrespectful of your wishes to ignore the option of leasing, but you're describing one of the few scenarios where leasing actually makes sense (desire to replace with a new vehicle after a specific time frame, desire for a brand new vehicle, unsure if the vehicle will actually have a certain value after a certain time frame). – dwizum Aug 23 at 19:43
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    @Howiecamp: Could you perhaps share that reason? WIthout it I think the question is a lot less meaningful and it's possible that the reason is not as hard a requirement as you think it is. – R.. Aug 24 at 15:13
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    @Harper: In any case there are intentionally hidden constraints that (1) might suggest alternatives, even if normal leasing isn't an option, and (2) probably affect the tradeoffs between, or motivations for/against, other non-lease options. IMO questions with obscure arbitrary constraints and no information about how those constraints arise are a poor fit for SE sites because they're unlikely to be useful to future readers. – R.. Aug 24 at 16:53
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The general advice for this site the shortest loan period and the largest down payment; this makes sure you aren't under water and your interest costs are low. This means that the best loan options are for 0 months and 100% down.

The advice is to purchase a car that isn't new. The idea is to get those cars coming off lease after two or three years. It is also possible to buy a car that is even a little older.

The advice from this site is to drive the car for as long as possible. But because you only want to drive it for three years, getting a moderately older car so that you have missed the steep decline in value at the start, and get rid of it before the number of repairs becomes large.

If you must finance, then setting a goal to pay off the loan in three years will simplify the selling of the car when you want to get rid of it.

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    Is it still a bad idea even if one gets a near 0% (say 1 or 2%) loan for the car? – Sathish Sanjeevi Aug 24 at 21:07
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    The last few times I purchased a car I have skipped the loan. Even though The interest rate at the time as about 1.5%, the costs involved in getting the loan were not worth it. I saved about 2K in interest with the last purchase. – mhoran_psprep Aug 26 at 9:58
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A car is not an investment. Cars drop in value over time, so you should not put yourself in a position to ever owe more than the car's worth. Most new cars drop in value by 20-30% in the first year, and 10% per year after that. Many experts recommend buying a car that's at least 2-3 years old and never financing a "new" car.

That means that you should put down as much upfront as you can (ideally 100%) and get as short a loan term as you can afford.

So 100% down is the best decision, and 0% down for 7 years is a horrible decision. You decide where on that spectrum you want to be.

Note: A lease is not an option in this case.

Good. Leases are an incredibly expensive way to operate a car. You're essentially renting the car, and the payback amount is usually more than what the car's worth. They count on people being willing to may more than it's worth to avoid the hassle of finding a replacement or out of sentiment.

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    @D - Ironically while leasing is not an option for me (for reasons that don't matter here), I do agree with @dwizum that my requirements - (a) keep the car for 3 years, (b) replace it with a newer version of the same car, (c) eliminate risk of car value uncertainty after the 3 years, etc. - really do suggest a lease in this case. But again, for reasons that don't matter, leasing is not in the cards here. – Howiecamp Aug 23 at 20:43
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    It's irrelevant what the money is being used for, all that matters are the loan fees and interest rate. The statement that cars drop in value over time is an argument against buying a car in the first place, it has no impact whatsoever in determining which type of loan to get. – Brady Gilg Aug 26 at 20:42
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There are a handful of things to consider when trying to determine term for something like a car loan. For the purpose of keeping this on topic and about finance, vs personal preferences or decision making about cars in general, let's assume you've chosen a vehicle, or a type of vehicle at least, and you have an idea of about what the purchase price will be - and you are able to afford that purchase price. That leaves the following considerations:

  • What interest rate are you willing to pay? Generally, longer-term loans have higher rates. This is essentially tied to the expectation that vehicles (as financial assets) are less predictable as they get older. If you are not willing to pay a high interest rate, generally you should keep the term short.
  • What monthly payment can you afford? As you identified, shorter terms means the monthly payment is higher. If you can only afford a certain payment, that may mean you need to think about a longer term (or, a cheaper car - although that's potentially outside the scope of the assumptions mentioned above).
  • How do you expect the value of the car to change over time? This is a hard factor to predict, but if you're buying a vehicle from a brand that tends to hold value well, and you tend to treat your vehicles well in terms of maintenance, it may be more likely to hold value longer, versus a less-reputable brand or a less-reliable vehicle. Generally, you should try to ensure that you don't end up upside-down - that is, owing more than the car is worth. If you do well at shopping (versus paying too much for a given vehicle), buy a brand known to hold value, and keep the term short, you are much less likely to end up upside-down. Bonus points for paying as much as you can afford for the downpayment, since this will both further prevent you from being upside down, and will significantly reduce the amount of interest you pay.

Noteworthy is the fact that "when do you plan to sell the vehicle?" isn't typically an important consideration. If you do your best to ensure that you don't end up upside down in the loan, it's generally not a problem to sell the vehicle before the loan term is up. In fact, that's the most common scenario - the majority* of auto loans are closed prior to their term expiring, because the individual sold the car (and paid off the loan).

*(The actual percentage is between 60 - 70% depending on the type of loan. The average age of a loan when it's paid off is between 28 - 34 months.)

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One problem with getting a 3 year (36 months) loan is that my payments are very high.

The typical advice is, don't buy a new car, and don't keep a car for such a short period of time. It is not financially prudent. Buying used and running it into the ground will almost always be

That said, the math will be based on interest rate and depreciation over 3 years. If you do a 36-month loan then when you sell it in three years you'll keep the proceeds, a 60-month loan means you'd owe the bank a chunk when you sell, as long as you can sell for more than you owe you won't have to come up with extra cash at that point.

The never finance a car advice is typically sound, but there are times when rates are low enough that it can be economical. For example, when I purchased my last used car they were offering financing at 0.9% interest on new vehicles and 1.9% on certified pre-owned. CD rates at the time were ~3%, so financing made more sense than paying cash. In such cases it also makes sense to finance for the longest term allowed.

If you are dead-set on a new car and only keeping it for 3-years and can't secure an incredibly low rate, then choose the shortest term to minimize interest cost, and if the payments are too high, choose a less expensive car or wait until you can put more money down.

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    I'm skeptical of the prudence of running a car into the ground. The hassle of constant repairs and the inconvenience of being periodically stranded roadside somewhere is worth spending some money to avoid. – Jared Smith Aug 24 at 16:31
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    @JaredSmith It's a bit subjective, but I'd argue that if it's at the point of 'constant repairs' then it has already been run into the ground. I agree though, everyone will have a different tolerance for inconvenience, the point is that many good cars will be reliable for 15+ years so there's little reason to refresh so frequently. – Hart CO Aug 24 at 16:46
  • Even if the repairs aren't constant I just don't want to deal with it. And I don't know how much you drive, but 15 years would be somewhere in the 250-300k miles territory for me. Few cars indeed will make that make that mark while remaining reliable. I'm not saying you're wrong, merely that looking at the financing costs doesn't tell the whole story, and there are some real tangible advantages to newer cars that don't show up if you just look at loan tables. – Jared Smith Aug 25 at 0:03
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Once you have settled on the car and the price you can ignore it. You have written a check to buy the car, which makes your balance negative. You need to solve that problem. You are borrowing a sum of money (which happens to be about the price of the car) for three years. Three years from now you will receive some money from selling the car. This can be used to pay off any residual value of the loan, but may not be enough or there may be excess depending on the loan you select. Borrowing against the car gives the lender assurance of being paid, which will reduce the interest rate compared to other loans.

The less you borrow the less you will pay in interest. A shorter term loan will reduce the balance faster, resulting in less interest to pay. The interest rate may also be lower if the loan is shorter. If you get a larger or longer term loan, you will have more cash in your checking account which can help with future financial issues. You need to decide how much liquidity is worth to you, because that is what you are paying for with the extra interest of a longer or larger loan.

If you take a shorter term loan, the extra payment is essentially a savings account that you will redeem in three years. If you pay an additional $100 per month at the end of three years you will receive $3600 plus interest more when you sell the car and pay off the loan. If having that $100 disappear from your checking account causes you to forego other purchases, you will be that much cash better off.

Really this question is not about a car loan, it is about alternatives in light of your whole financial picture. A shorter term with a higher payment is the conservative alternative, because it is creating an asset in the future. A lower payment leaves you more fragile because at the end of three years you may need to come up with money to pay off the loan.

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