The prices of new and used cars keep rising every year, which means consumers are borrowing more to make the purchases – and the monthly payments for cars and car-related expenses are squeezing many households budgets to the maximum.
New cars now cost an average $35,000, compared with an average $31,000 in 2013, according to Edmunds.com, an automobile industry information service based in Santa Monica, Calif.
The payments on a new car with a $31,000 outstanding loan are about $516 a month, even before insurance, gasoline and maintenance are factored in.
Meanwhile, used cars also have become pretty expensive in recent years. The average loan on a used car bought at a dealership is running about $21,000 and carries an average $380-a-month payment.
"It's no longer that easy to pick up a used car for $5,000 to $10,000 that's in good condition. Those deals are getting harder to find," said Ivan Drury, a senior analyst at Edmunds.com. "People will probably have to go to a dealer to buy a used car, and they will pay more."
Some are having trouble keeping up with the payments.
The Washington-based American Bankers Association reported this month that delinquencies for fixed loans with fixed payment periods rose in the first quarter, driven by an increase in late payments on auto loans.
Delinquencies in indirect auto loans – those arranged through third parties, such as auto dealers – rose to 1.83 percent, although they remain well below the 15-year average of 2.20 percent. Delinquencies in direct auto loans – those arranged directly through a bank – rose to 1.03 percent, also under the 15-year average of 1.57 percent.
"The gloss is fading a bit on auto lending as delinquencies rise," said James Chessen, chief economist at the American Bankers Association. "Institutions will be more careful as they think about how aggressive they will be in lending, knowing there are early signs that some people are having difficulty paying back their loans."
For a time during the 2007-09 recession, it was difficult to qualify for a new or used car loan. But as credit began to loosen up around 2013, banks and other lending institutions began vigorously pushing auto loans, even subprime loans to meet pent up car-buying demand.
Gus Faucher, chief economist at PNC Bank, Downtown, in Pittsburgh, said that while auto loan delinquency rates throughout the broad financial system have jumped, they remain low on a historical level and do not threaten the economy.
"We have seen auto sales slow in 2017, and some of that is because lenders are pulling back," Faucher said, adding that 17.5 million new cars were sold in 2016. This year's new car sales are running at an annual rate of 17 million.
While cars top the list of late payments, consumers also have overextended themselves on other loans, according to the American Bankers Association.
Delinquencies in bank credit cards rose to 2.74 percent but remain below their 15-year average of 3.65 percent. Home equity lines of credit delinquencies rose to 1.11 percent but also remain below their 15-year average of 1.18 percent. Home equity loan delinquencies, on the other hand, decreased to 2.59 percent, holding under their 15-year average of 2.95 percent.
The American Bankers Association defines a delinquency as a late payment that is 30 days or more overdue.
Credit advisers at the nonprofit Advantage Credit Counseling Service in Pittsburgh suggest that consumers hold their car expenses to between 10 percent and 20 percent of their income. That includes payments, auto repairs and insurance.
Heather Murray, manager of education at Advantage Credit Counseling, said the agency records data on unsecured debt, such as credit cards, but does not maintain data on secured loans, such as car notes and mortgages.
Still, people with credit card debt often struggle with car loans and mortgages, too.
"We've run into consumers in class with upside-down car loans, where the value of the car is worth less than what the car is costing them," Murray said. "It's often due to higher interest. These consumers are a higher credit risk. They go to places like mom-and-pop car lots that will take a higher-risk customer.
"But they end up buying lower-quality cars at a higher price, and oftentimes the loan outlasts the car," she said. "Usually, if you are in that situation where that's the only option for a car loan, there are other credit issues to deal with."