6 tips if you must buy a vehicle from a buy-here pay-here dealership

The L.A. Times is currently running an investigative series on so-called Buy-Here Pay-Here auto dealerships. The first installment describes the basic business model used by these businesses and identifies a number of the pitfalls of buying a vehicle from them.

A buy-here pay-here dealership is, as the name suggests, a dealership that finances the car loans itself, rather than using banks or finance companies. They market to people with low-income and bad credit that can’t qualify for conventional financing. In return for agreeing to finance borrowers that don’t have access to mainstream credit, the buy-here pay-here dealers drastically inflate the price of their vehicles, charge very high interest rates, agree to payment arrangements that they know you can’t honor, and aggressively repossess the vehicle once it’s in default, keeping all of the money that the borrower has already paid. And once the vehicle is repossessed, they sell it again. And again. Sometimes the same vehicle is repossessed and sold as many as eight times, creating another revenue stream for these business. The L.A. Times succinctly–and accurately–describes the business model as “sign, drive, default, repossess, and resell. The entire Times piece is a fascinating look into this booming industry and is definitely worth your time.

It would be too easy to advise everyone to steer clear of buy-here pay-here dealerships. After all, they do allow people without access to mainstream credit to buy a vehicle. And let’s face it, most people need a vehicle to get to and from work these days. But buying a car from them is very, very risky. Here are some tips if you’re considering buying a car from a buy-here pay-here lot:

Decide whether you really need to buy from them. Obviously, if you’re considering a buy-here pay-here dealership, you’ve decided that you need a vehicle and have been rejected by conventional lenders. But consider whether you would be better off taking the money that you’ve earmarked for a down payment to the buy-here pay-here dealer and instead using it to buy a used car outright from a private party. This would solve your transportation and financing problem, without taking on all of the risks of buying from a buy-here pay-here dealer.

Do your homework on the purchase price. Because the buy-here pay-here dealer knows that you’re desperate, they often inflate the list price well-over the vehicle’s Kelley Blue Book value. The Times story reports about one particular transaction where the purchase price was inflated to double the KBB price. Do your homework and make sure that you are getting a fair price.

Review the interest rate carefully. The Times story tells the story of one person who thought she purchased a car with an APR of 12%, when it actually was 20.3%. Make sure that the APR is actually what the contract says it is. There are a number of online APR calculators that you can use to verify the dealer’s numbers.

Be sure that you can afford the monthly payment. The Times story reports that 1 in 4 buy-here pay-here customers defaults on their loan. And there is ample evidence that the dealer may deliberately agree to a payment plan that they know you can’t afford because they know that they can just repossess your vehicle and sell it again to someone else. So be conservative in your estimates of how much you can afford each month and be sure to plan for emergencies when doing your budget.

Don’t believe what they tell you about re-financing or trading up. As the Times story details, these are often lies to pressure you into the purchase. If something doesn’t feel right to you, walk away.

Don’t expect them to work with you if you fall behind on payments. Their business model is heavily premised on repossessing cars in default and reselling them. So they aren’t going to be interested in working with you if you fall on hard times. They’re just going to repossess and sell the vehicle again. The Times story reports that many buy-here pay-here dealers outfit their vehicles with GPS devices and remote-controlled ignition blockers to allow for easy repossession. Those that don’t often resort to deceptive or very aggressive repossession tactics. In my experience, some of the most dangerous repossession encounters that I’ve heard about were ordered by buy-here pay-here lenders.

A vicious cycle in the used-car business | Los Angeles Times | October 30, 2011