Delinquent car loans are on the upswing

The turmoil that has roiled the housing market is also making waves in the auto loan industry. Although auto loans have fixed interest rates — compared with the adjustable mortgage rates that have pummeled homeowners — many consumers are finding that they have taken on more debt than they can handle to purchase their cars as well.

Delinquencies on indirect auto loans, which are made through a third party and constitute roughly 90 percent of car loans, reached more than 3 percent in the fourth quarter of last year, the highest rate in at least 17 years, according to the American Bankers Association. Delinquencies are defined as payments that are more than 30 days past due.

The reasons for that rapid rise are varied, and anecdotal evidence suggests that the delinquencies affect a broad swath of economic classes. Some are the result of homeowners with ballooning mortgages making tough decisions about which bills they can afford to pay. Other car owners succumbed to repayment plans of as long as seven years, compared with the traditional maximum of five years. As a result, estimates, more than a quarter of auto loans are "upside down," meaning the borrower owes more than the car is worth. The average negative equity was $4,305.05 in March, up 32 percent from March 2002.

"The auto industry is not exempt from the current stress that's out there in the economy," said Carol Kaplan, spokeswoman for the ABA. "If you're going through it right now, you're not alone."

The worst thing to do if you find yourself in trouble is to ignore it, according to lenders and financial advisers. Whether you're in danger of missing a payment or you're so far behind that repossessors are knocking on your door, the first step toward resolving the problem is to come clean. Call your lender and discuss your options — you may have more than you think.

"Yes, you can recover," said Philip Reed, consumer advice editor at "But essentially what you need to do is start building your credit up."

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