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The High Cost of Buying a Car If You’re Poor

September 26, 2016 Featured, Transportation 24 Comments

For months now I’ve been wanting to post about auto financing. Last month John Oliver did a segment on it (below) that got me motivated:

Is there another subprime loan crisis brewing?

John Oliver, host of HBO’s “Last Week Tonight,” found disturbing similarities between the easy loans dished out for used cars and the mortgage crisis that devastated the economy in 2008. 

Now, car dealers are making high-risk, high-interest loans that “trap people with few options into paying vastly more than a car is worth,” Oliver said. “It’s just one of the many ways in which when you are poor, everything can be more expensive.” 

The average interest rate on a “buy here, pay here” loan made by used-car dealers is 19 percent, but some buyers are paying up to 29 percent for loans that many default on within an average of just seven months.  (Huffington Post)

Oliver pointed out bad subprime auto loans are being bundled and sold as investments — the same way bad subprime mortgages were dome a decade ago.

Note: a few words aren’t suitable for all work environments.

Some have pointed out that the auto loan market is too small to cause another recession. Even assuming these won’t cause another recession, the reality is disturbing.

In most places, the working poor need a reliable car to get to work. Even in regions with high frequency public transit, commutes can take hours. We’ve designed our built environment to male car ownership mandatory. So you ask?

For those who live paycheck to paycheck, buying a car isn’t an easy task. When my husband and I bought our used Honda Civic in 2014 we got a loan at our credit union. We didn’t qualify for their best interest rate, but still got a reasonable 3.69%APR. They required the vehicle not be more older than 7 years and have under 100,000 miles. Being pre-approved allowed up to go car shopping with confidence.

Here’s the numbers for our auto loan:

  • $9,003.75 financed
  • $596.01 in interest
  • $9599.76 total after 42 months

Our last payment will be in November 2017. We got a good price on the car in 2014 so we’ve never been upside down on our loan.

For millions of people, their experience is very different. Their car breaks down, or they get a new job where they suddenly need a car. They turn to a nearby used car dealer where they can pay there.

The problem with this route is:

  • The sales price is well-above the value of the car.
  • The interest rate is 19%-25%.
  • The total paid, if paid in full, is double the value of the car at purchase. Double!

Wednesday 9/14/16 I went to the website of one such dealer, picking out a car with a high reliability rating, decent fuel mileage, and less than 100k.

This 2006 Toyota Camry met the qualifications listed above.
This 2006 Toyota Camry met the qualifications listed above.

To someone needing a car to get to/from work at 4-cylinder Camry is a good choice, with only 88,749 miles it should have a lot of life left. The asking price is the first problem. Sure, prices are negotiable — but not much.

I also went to Kelly Blue Book to see what someone should expect to pay at a dealer for a 2006 Toyota Camry LE with 88,749 miles.

They list the fair market range as $5,471-$6,922 -- five thousand below the asking price!
They list the fair market range as $5,471-$6,922 — five thousand below the asking price!

But this Camry is too old to get financed through my credit union, right now the oldest year model on used car loans is 2009. So I went back to the website and filtered their 299 cars in inventory to narrow down to 2009 & newer models under 100K miles. I got 59 matches — so 20% of their inventory could be financed elsewhere. I then sorted the 59 by price, ranging from $9,995-$15,995.

The listing has lots off photos -- all stock images of a white Aveo. This one is red.
The listing has lots off photos — all stock images of a white Aveo. This one is red.

But it’s new enough (2011) and low milage enough (97,257) that it could be financed at my credit union. But the credit union wouldn’t lend more than the value.

Not a surprise, their asking far more than the value.
Not a surprise, their asking far more than the value.

So I wanted to compare this 2011 Chevy Aveo purchased/financed two different ways. First up, buy here pay here:

  • Financed: $9,995
  • Term: 48 months
  • Interest: 22% (middle range)
  • Payment:$314.90
  • Total:$15,115.36
  • Interest: $5,120.36 (33.88% of payments made)

Wow, those are big car payments for a 7 year-old car with nearly 100K miles. At this price it would be hard to afford routine maintenance and repairs for the length of the loan. Now let’s look at the same car if bought elsewhere for the suggested price and financed at a local credit union:

  • Financed: $7,105
  • Term: 48 months
  • Interest: 3.69% (lowest rate is 2.49%)
  • Payment:$159.44
  • Total:$7,653.14
  • Interest: $548.14 (7.16% of payments made)

The monthly payment is half with a reasonable interest rate, so hopefully the buyer could afford to keep up the car, not miss any payments, etc. I used an auto loan calculator to do the math for both.

Some of you likely think this is just the free market at work. It is, which is why unregulated free-market capitalism means a few profit while others are bankrupted. We shouldn’t force people to buy a car so they enter into an unjust racket.

By contrast, those with higher incomes have many more options. When we’re in Chicago dealers there routinely advertise new car leases with one up front payment.

A one pay lease, also known as a single pay or pre-paid car lease, is similar to a standard lease in that you are purchasing the use of the vehicle only for a set period of time. Like a standard lease, you agree to return the vehicle to the dealer in good condition and under a pre-determined number of miles at the end of this time. The difference is that instead of making monthly payments throughout this period, the entire amount is paid at the beginning of the lease. (Carintelligent)

That one payment of $12,000 will save you interest, but also cost you on interest it would’ve earned. It’s expensive to be poor.

— Steve Patterson


Currently there are "24 comments" on this Article:

  1. JZ71 says:

    Being poor sucks. Predatory lending suck. Living in an autocentric world without a car is definitely a challenge. But there are other options. Walk. Bike. Public transit. Taxi. Uber. Online shopping with home delivery. I make decent money and there are plenty of cars that I can’t afford, either. By definition, “It’s expensive to be poor” because you don’t have as much (any?) money left over after the basics of food and housing are paid for, as do people with more disposable / “extra” income. But the solution is not accepting that you “need” something, anything, “now”, and that you “need” to go to a buy-here, pay-here place to buy a piece of crap at 18% interest. It’s a choice. Instant gratification and/or buying into the salesman’s BS may be hard to resist, but that’s part of being a responsible adult – you gotta live within you means. Bottom line, life ain’t fair!

    • Many do take public transit but if you work out in the far suburbs that could mean a 2-4 hour daily commute. Biking is even less realistic. A cab or Uber would use most of the earnings so also not realistic.

      • JZ71 says:

        Some would disagree: http://www.freep.com/story/news/local/michigan/oakland/2015/01/31/detroit-commuting-troy-rochester-hills-smart-ddot-ubs-banker-woodward-buses-transit/22660785/

        And that is a part of the larger cost-benefit analysis, much like paying for daycare and working, versus staying at home and caring for your kid(s) yourself. If you choose to take a job “out in the far suburbs”, you have to put a value on what you earn versus the cost, in time and money, of getting to and from said job. Does it make sense to just move closer to that job? Look for a job that’s closer and/or offers better non-vehicular access? Or, to invest in a car?

        Back during the recession, I had an opportunity for a decent job out of state, but turned it down. Even though I’d be making more money, the costs of renting an apartment and commuting back on the weekends ate up nearly all of the added income. It’s not much different when you’re poor and looking for work – does taking a minimum wage job in Chesterfield make much sense if you live in north county or the east side and spend more than half your pay just on commuting costs?!

        If/when you two decide to move to Chicago, odds are both your housing costs and your transportation costs will increase – it’s simply a bigger, more-expensive place to both live and work. Whether it’s “affordable” gets down to multiple variables, including what/how much more you can earn. There are many people that do make it work (obviously), so if it’s not an insurmountable goal, but there’s also no “right” for anyone to be able to move to anyplace they want to and “afford” to live there – I probably couldn’t afford to move back to Denver, now, since housing costs have sky-rocketed, there. It’s not “fair”, but it’s life . . .

      • Mark-AL says:

        …so when someone is confronted with so many “unrealistic” options, what does he do? Maybe one answer is that he considers more options: 1) finds a job closer to home; 2) finds a house/apartment closer to work. Sure, it would be preferable not to have to make any changes, but that’s not how life works. Since HS, I’ve relocated from Alabama 7 times in 17+ years (4 different states, 2 different countries), and I’m currently in the middle of move #8 to yet another different state. It’s not fun or exciting anymore, but it’s necessary in order to provide better opportunities for my family. Sometimes we make choices that aren’t necessarily pleasant.

        Everyone, myself included, is given an opportunity to attend, free of charge, grade school and high school in a public institution. And while enrolled there, we have the option to either apply ourselves to academia, or to take a path of lesser resistance. Public schools are not all created equal, and every public school teacher is not necessarily engaging, has a passion for children, a superior knowledge of the subject matter, has acquired excellent classroom management skills, or is an excellent communicator , but a student) can learn in any school if his mind is made up to do so. Hell, even if the daily lectures are uninspired and if the teacher proves to be totally inept, a student can read the book and end up learning considerably more than he knew before…..IF he wants to learn and to improve his lot in life. I suspect that many (not all) of those who chose the easy route are primarily those who are included in the group that today’s conversation is about. It’s all about the choices we make.

      • JZ71 says:

        More current: “This teenager was walking for hours to and from work — until a police stop changed his life . . . [the teenager] explained that he had just graduated from Jesse Bethel High School the year before. He had gotten a job at Pro-Form Laboratories in May, and enjoyed being around his co-workers. . . . When the timing belt and an engine valve on his 2001 Volvo broke in July, Duncan got a few rides from friends and co-workers, but soon decided he would try to walk to avoid burdening others. I didn’t want to always call somebody and be like, ‘Hey, can you pick me up?’ ” he said. “That would have took a lot of people’s time.” . . . The first time he plotted out a walkable route on Google Maps, it spit out an estimated commute time of 2 hours and 15 minutes. “This is going to be a long walk,” Duncan thought. On his first day going to work by foot, he didn’t know what to expect. “The whole way there I just had my earphones in, kept quiet and I just power-walked the whole way.” That was in July. Gradually, the foot commute grew easier for him. “The walk now, it’s not a problem for me,” he said.”


    • Taylor Sky Collins says:

      Walk, Bike, Public Transit, Taxi, and Uber? Let’s take your suggestions and run them through Metairie, LA where I live. First off, Walking. Metairie was built out almost entirely postwar, completely car-dependent. It’s denser than you’d expect but only because from the outset people knew that there was limited space to build on (surrounded by natural/artificial barriers). I live in a neighborhood chock-a-bloc with working-class and working poor families. It’s not “the ghetto” but it’s not Park Avenue either.
      Here are the figures for walking: First of all, the county is 9mi long east-west and if you want to travel north-south across it there are a total of 7 points where you can cross the I-10 safely (read “on a sidewalk”). There are 10 points total but the other 3 are two cloverleafs and lopsided one with a grassy shouldered underpass. My (lousy) grocery is 10min by foot, bank is at least 20min, jobs…too complicated to work out probably. Suffice to say there’s a single office tower next to the grocery store and then nothing but parking lots and low-rise development along a 200′-wide thoroughfare with few crosswalks and 90-second intervals.
      Biking: A little rosier, but still rubbish considering the heat indices hit the triple digits for weeks on end during the summer. Grocery is ~5min, bank is 10-15, jobs are actually a bit more complicated than walking since the thoroughfare is 40mph and everyone drives 50. There are ways around it but you have to know the streets better than a London cabbie.
      Transit: bloody hell, that’s a joke. Our buses stop running at 10pm and if you’re coming from the city (New Orleans) you have to make your transfer at the county line by 9pm. Weekday intervals are 20min (even during peak), Saturdays are 30, Sundays are 40). The buses are also never on time due to getting stuck in long lines of traffic waiting to turn onto the I-10. People use them, but if you want to make something of yourself you have to own a car. You can’t trust JeT.
      Taxi: are you nuts? For the same reason transit doesn’t work, neither does taking a cab everywhere. When things are so spread out you cannot simply take a cab “to an area” and then run your errands. You take that cab from store #1 to store #2, to store #3, etc. If you have them wait, that adds up damned fast AND stresses you out.
      Uber: a slightly better option but still not ideal. Uber drivers aren’t as common in low-density areas in my experience. I drive for Uber and I have been called for a ride by someone over two miles away before while in Metairie.

      Your misconceived notion that you can simply “be sensible” and not get that 18% loan is where you’re wrong. There are thousands of places in this country where if you don’t have a car, you don’t have a job. Hell, here when you interview they ask if you have “reliable transportation”. If you say anything other than “yes” or “I have a car” then you immediately get the brush-off if its any decent job. The fact is that America decided it knew better than hundreds of generations of human civilization and tried to change how we built our civilizations and it backfired HARD. As Americans, we don’t like to admit we are wrong or that something can’t be fixed with hard work and determination. Let me tell you. I look around my neighborhood every day and i see the lines of hard work and determination on the faces of men and women far too young for them and I see the cars they drive get more and more battered as they can’t afford to properly maintain them. You’re right that life isn’t fair, but if the unfairness in question is due to bad planning and design on the part of the city and not something out of human control, like a tree falling on your house, then you’re just being ignorant. Bottom line: requiring people to take on a $10k/yr obligation in the form of a private car just to work a job that the majority of people in the rest of the world would either walk to or take viable transit to is NOT ‘unfair’…it is WRONG.

      • JZ71 says:

        So how do you / we change things?! Being poor has always sucked. Share croppers and live-in maids didn’t / don’t have to worry about the transportation component, but they’re still poor. Do we require businesses to locate in the middle of residential areas? Do we withdraw from NAFTA? Much like the “unaffordable” cost of housing, the “cost” of transportation is directly tied to what you’re earning! Minimum wage won’t cover the cost of living for most people – never has, never will – and “good” public transit is directly related to density that does not exist in 99% of this country. It sounds like you’re trying to find a legislative “solution” to something that is a basic part of our economy – work hard and be rewarded!

      • Mark-AL says:

        I view your response as nonsense! An excuse to complain about Metairie, La and to blame Metairie for whatever opportunities you may have missed in life due to whatever reasons. I grew up just down the path from you in, Elberta, AL, where there were NO sidewalks (walk rating of around 24 now; then it was worse); where residents had to drive 45 miles miles by car to Mobile to even see a taxi; where fewer than 10% of the roads were paved (now over 60% are paved), and since rock is an imported commodity in AL, the unpaved roads were and still are red-clay; where “transit” was a NY-City concept–one of those fun-to-ride, near-amusement-park rides that city-folk use. Our closest grocery store was in Foley, AL, 17.5 miles from my parents’ doorstep. We had one grade school (a converted barn), and it was 3.5 miles from my parents’ front door (and there was no school bus). We walked the clay covered roads every day to get to and from school in heat and humidity very much like Metairie’s heat and humidity, only we got more rainfall than Metairie gets, which kept the red clay roads sloppy. Sometimes, if the farm’s one horse or one donkey was available, we rode bareback into town, but it was dangerous to remove the donkey from the farm to protect the farm animals from predators. Hard work and determination are written on the faces of just about every Elberta residents I know today. They live happy, simple lives despite living in a town that was never planned, but just happened. For those who for whatever reason decide that Elberta doesn’t offer the desired or necessary opportunities, a viable alternative is to relocate and to live in one of the other thousands of towns in the US. Why would an able-bodied person feel stuck in a town that offers him/her less than what is needed or desired? Kinda reminds me of that political party that expects others to always bail ’em out!

    • Sanperson says:

      Living in an auto centric world without a car isn’t that hard . . . if you have enough money to buy or rent housing in a walkable/bikeable location (ideally with access to transit). If you don’t, then you are essentially forced to own a car because of the way almost all post-war housing was constructed. This is the cost of minimum parking requirements and single-use zoning rules.

  2. gmichaud says:

    This points to the poor transit system of St. Louis. There are plenty of cities that you can get around without an automobile. Those cities also have a broad cross section of riders. Here in St. Louis for the most part the only people that use transit are people that are forced to. Transit helps supply a quality of life and of equality and economic opportunity. These are reasons enough to develop effective transit, but now we also have climate change to consider. I ran across this drawing, a timeline of average temps since the ice age, http://xkcd.com/1732/
    It is a very interesting presentation that really illustrates the uncharted territory mankind is entering. Essentially the warming patterns are headed to the extreme temps of the ice age in a different direction.
    St Louis is far, far behind in the creation of transit and of environments that can accept transit. It takes decades to change direction. St. Louis has no indication that there is the awareness of the need to begin making changes. The urban patterns that have been established are headed for failure.

    • Fozzie says:

      Here is St. Louis, for the most part, Metro can’t seem to bother keeping riders or employees safe. Here in St. Louis, for the most part, Metro can’t get me to my 15-minute commute job in less than 90 minutes, either. Why bother?

  3. Interesting, but not surprising, that most comments focused on what the working poor should do rather than on what society should do to prevent businesses from taking advantage of the vulnerability of the poor, or that we should do more to make sure jobs and housing aren’t so far apart.

    As far a transit goes, every region in the US has the same problem — service suffers outside the dense core. This goes back to the fact we’ve built regions where the low-wage jobs are on the perimeter.

    • JZ71 says:

      Because it’s far easier to focus on individual actions than it is to focus on some nebulous group or to figure out which form of social engineering will actually work!

      Businesses take “advantage of the vulnerability of the poor” because “the poor” patronize those businesses! If “the poor” didn’t take out payday loans, that business model would shrivel up and die. If “the poor” bought kale instead of Fritos, the stores that cater to “the poor” would stock more kale.

      As for “jobs and housing [being] so far apart”, that, again, gets back to personal choices – if people CHOOSE to accept a job that involves a long commute, it’s a choice. If people choose to live in north county instead of north city, it’s a choice. If people are buying and renting more (and paying more to do so) in the outer suburbs than in the urban core, then, guess what? More stuff gets built in the outer ‘burbs.

      Life is full of choices, even for “the poor”. Cell phones, Air Jordan’s, smokes, alcohol, recreational drugs, tattoos, flat screen TV’s and 22″ rims are all discretionary choices. If you’re going to Rent-A-Center for instant gratification, instead of saving up for six months, that’s a choice. These businesses are all required to disclose the true cost of doing business with them. And if you CHOOSE to do so, even after being informed, it’s on you. It’s not society’s and/or the government’s job to protect you from making poor choices – everyone knows smoking is bad, yet a significant number of people still CHOOSE to do so!

      Getting back to the original issue, yes, buy-here, pay-here places do market more to “the poor”. Yes, it is a (very poor) option. Yes people who choose it rarely have other options. But if you outlaw the business model, what you’ll see is fewer people being able to buy something, anything, since business is in business to make a profit, and the default rate (lost dollars) at this end of the market is a big reason why the “costs” to consumers are so high. The NET income/profit isn’t much different than at the higher levels of the market, where lower rates are offset by fewer and smaller losses. If you have decent credit, there are leases being advertised for NEW vehicles in the $100-$120 range, not much different than what you spend for a POS, so it all gets back to credit scores and personal responsibility. Being “poor” doesn’t excuse bad decision making . . which can, and will, come back to haunt you!

    • Fozzie says:

      I suggest we plop a warehouse/distribution center right in the middle of the Gravois Park neighborhood with blocks and blocks of homes destroyed. Problem solved.

      • JZ71 says:

        . . . or replace the commercial block on the Hill with more housing, or convert industrial lofts, downtown, into housing . . .

        • Fozzie says:

          Or we put Gravois on a road diet to accommodate pedestrians’ access to check-cashing shops, but trucks wouldn’t be able to reach the warehouse. The back-up on Gravois would be like the environmentally unfriendly traffic queue in front of the downtown post office.

          (This is fun.)

    • Mark-AL says:

      “Interesting, but not surprising, that most comments focused on what the working poor should do rather than on what society should do to prevent businesses from taking advantage of the vulnerability of the poor, or that we should do more to make sure jobs and housing aren’t so far apart.”

      Do you actually believe that society is responsible to coerce businesses to make concessions with “the poor” or that we (? society, government?) should “make sure” that jobs and housing are mutually located within a distance acceptable to the poor? What is “acceptable”? 5 city blocks? 1 mile? And why should businesses have to deal with such things? “Watching over the poor” is likely not found in any business plan that I’m aware of.

      This is all more socialistic garbage, where everyone is given a prize just for participating, where a person’s past sins and omissions are automatically expunged from his personal history, where society is expected to share its resources with “underachievers” in order to constantly even the playing field…..again and again, ad infinitum.

      We’re surely removing the incentive among the poor to excel. Why bother, as long as they’re fairly sure that there’ll always be a Santa to leave gifts for everyone all through the year, even when they’re not warranted. Across-the-board welfare will ultimately disincentivize all the poor, even those who currently working hard to improve their lives.

  4. gmichaud says:

    Steve you are correct to point out the difference between the individual and the community. I know comments blame the individual for “poor choices” or “not working hard enough”, when it is the community making poor choices and not doing enough to insure a city of equality. I think the comment by Taylor Sky Collins hits the nail on the head, bad planning is the real problem in the St. Louis region. It is not like a tree falling on your house, an act of nature.
    For example I have mentioned previously Farsta and Vallingby, a book by David Pass about the process of building of suburbs outside Stockholm in the 60’s and 70’s. And if in fact you look at Farsta on Google maps, you see what you might expect. A train/transit goes into a central area, surrounding the station are commercial enterprises and numerous, dense apartment blocks and beyond them are the single family detached dwellings, with walking paths and scattered commercial. This basic form is known by beginning students of urban planning and no mystery
    In other words human beings use knowledge, their intelligence and build upon past experience to build a transit, pedestrian and auto friendly environment for the entire population.
    St. Louis in contrast has a Koch Brothers/oil cartel style of planning and a urban sprawl that creates permanent and continuous demand for their products
    The result is that you have a large segment of the population in St. Louis that cannot participate fully in economic, social and cultural life of the region. Of course much of it this comes down to racial discrimination. Certainly the elderly and disabled are left out also, but the second class transit system in St. Louis is a result of a lack of concern about the welfare of the poor, especially African Americans.
    So yes there are poor choices and a lack of hard work, but it arises from the community and not from those impacted by the poor decision making.
    One last thing, the constitution is a great document. The preamble says it all, “We the people…to form a more perfect union, insure domestic tranquility….promote the general welfare…for the United States of America.
    Promote the general welfare does not mean promote the general welfare of only those with automobiles.

    • JZ71 says:

      . . . but, at the time it was written, included the promotion of slavery and diminishing the power of women, while automobiles were 100+ years in the future and there was no form of public transit in existence! Read what you want into the preamble, but that was a time before steam engines, railroads and streetcars, much less the wide availability of cars and trucks, freeways, air travel or the internet. Everyone has (and had) their own definition of “the general welfare”, and the current consensus seems to be that suburbia, despite its flaws, is working for many, many people, including the elderly and the disabled. And I’d argue that since the vast majority of Americans do have access to, if not direct ownership of, a personal vehicle, catering to their broad interests IS promoting “the general welfare”. Yes, there will always be people who are both so poor and so disagreeable that transportation will be a real challenge, for them, but most Americans, even poor ones, seem to get around pretty well.

      • gmichaud says:

        So the invention of the steam engine invalidates principles in the constitution, is that what you are saying?I find it unbelievable you can defend the senseless sprawl of the region. And no, not everyone has their own definition of “general welfare”. The people of St. Louis do not have a choice, there is nothing similar to Farsta where the auto, pedestrians, bicycles and transit are equal in their treatment. St. Louis is auto only with its Koch Bros/oil cartel inspired planning and sprawl.
        Nor does it promote the general welfare when ground water is poisoned, when earthquakes occur, when the Gulf of Mexico becomes polluted, not to mention the impacts of climate change.
        You make generalized statements saying there is a “consensus” or that everyone gets around pretty well. The truth is you have no idea, you just make things up as you go.
        The bottom line is that there are much better ways of doing things. It is no longer just a matter of creating high quality environments of equality, but the very survival of life as we know it is thrown into question.
        Yet the St. Louis region does little more than give lip service to sustainable practices, of which the failure of transit to be a productive part of society, as it is in so many other cities around the world, is a major issue. St. Louis forces people into the absurd car loans that Steve is talking about.
        There are plenty of cities where car loans are not an factor in daily life, people are not forced into the auto, it is a choice
        St. Louis does not offer choices. You know capitalism 101. A balance between the auto, walking, bicycles and transit is necessary going forward.
        I won’t be a bit surprised if humanity has to abandon the auto suddenly based on outside events. Norway and I think Holland plan to outlaw internal combustion engines by 2025. At this point, as quickly as change is occurring, I’m not convinced the auto is going to even last that long.


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