It's easy to overlook the cost of auto loans with mortgage rates grabbing all the attention.
Yet rates on auto loans have edged lower as the cost of lending has gone down for banks. And car buyers who didn't get the best terms in the past year or so can capitalize by refinancing their loans.
The option should be of particular interest to anyone who obtained a loan from a car dealership. That's because dealers are a middleman in the transaction. They typically mark up the interest rates they get from lenders to make money. Another reason to check how much you're paying? Dealers are leaning more heavily on auto loans for profits as shoppers get savvier about researching car prices online.
The result is that refinancing could bring significant savings.
Let's say a borrower is paying 10 percent on a $20,000 loan. The average rate to refinance a three-year old car right now is about 8 percent, according to Bankrate.com. So refinancing on average would save around $250 a year. That adds up nearly $1,000 over the life of a typical four-year loan.
Here's a rundown on auto refinancing.
Refinancing an auto loan is far easier and cheaper than refinancing a mortgage.
There's no need for an appraisal and borrowers can usually find out if they've been approved within an hour of applying online.
If you decide to accept an offer, the lender will need some paperwork to complete the process. This will include copies of the car's title and registration. You'll also need to provide documentation of the amount of the loan, outstanding balance and interest rate.
There's no universal term for this document but try asking your lender for a "payoff quote" so that you can refinance.
Once the paperwork is in hand, the new loan can typically be refinanced in a day or so.
As with any financial matter, you'll want to be mindful of fees.
There will be charges to transfer the title of the loan and re-register your car. These fees vary depending on the lender and the state where you live, but the total cost shouldn't exceed $25 in most states, said Mukesh Chatter, CEO of MoneyAisle.com, a site that lets borrowers search for competing rates.
There may be additional fees depending on the lender.
Bank of America charges a $200 processing fee. But this includes the option to have the bank file the title transfer with the DMV on your behalf.
Unlike refinancing a mortgage, the cost of refinancing an auto loan is rarely a deal breaker.
Lending standards remain tighter than before the economic downturn. But if you qualified for a new car loan in the past year or so, refinancing shouldn't be a problem.
Don't be discouraged if you've been late on a few payments. Your chances of refinancing should be good as long as your overall credit profile hasn't deteriorated.
The standards vary but lenders will have certain requirements on the car's age, mileage and other terms.
At Bank of America, for example, cars can't be more than seven years old or have more than 100,000 miles. The bank also requires that there's at least $7,500 left to be paid on the loan.
It's usually required that there's at least one year of payments left on a loan, Chatter said.
The specific rates you're offered will depend on your credit score.
Average rates right now range from 5.7 percent for those with the best credit scores (720 and above) to 18.5 percent for those with poor scores (below 590), according to Yahoo's Auto Finance Center.
To start scouting what terms are available, go to comparison sites such as Bankrate.com or MoneyAisle.com. If convenience is important to you, it's also worth checking the rates at the bank or credit union where you already have accounts.
Note that refinancing may be particularly beneficial to borrowers whose credit scores have improved since they got their loans. This could be the case for borrowers who've been making timely payments.
"That extra year of credit experience may have helped their score," said Doug Melton of Bank of America's auto financing unit.
Don't confuse a refinancing with a loan modification.
The latter is when you renegotiate the loan terms with a current lender. The Better Business Bureau last month warned that auto loan modification scams have been preying on borrowers around the country.
Consumers reported paying hundreds of dollars in fees with the expectation that the companies would be able to lower their monthly car loan payments. The BBB says consumers complained that they couldn't get their money back even though the terms of their loans weren't modified.