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Underwater trade-ins are costing new car buyers almost $6,000

After a brief respite from soaring auto debt, Americans are once again falling deeply underwater on their car loans.

Used-car values have tumbled about 16% from the pandemic-driven peaks of early last year, according to the Manheim Used Vehicle Value Index, and negative equity — the amount that debt exceeds a vehicle’s value — has been climbing fast. 

Among new car buyers, those carrying negative equity on their trade-ins were underwater by an average of $5,820 in September. That’s compared to a low of less than $4,100 in late 2021, according to automotive information firm Edmunds.

While it’s not unusual for motorists to accrue negative equity, the long-term trend has been exacerbated by low down payments and the emergence of six- and seven-year loan terms. Drivers got a measure of relief when a topsy-turvy auto market sent used-car values soaring during the pandemic, and some motorists discovered their vehicles were worth more than they had paid for them. 

Historically, around half of new-vehicle buyers trade in a car, and just shy of a fifth of those trade-ins actually carry negative equity, Edmunds data show. 

Even though only a sliver of US car buyers arrive at dealerships with trade-ins that are underwater, the rise is creating headaches for dealers and would-be car buyers alike — rolling negative equity into a new loan can be difficult if the amount owed is too high. 

In the Columbus, Ohio, area, dealer Rick Ricart was accustomed to seeing only a couple of shoppers on any given weekend day with $10,000 or more in negative equity. On one Saturday in late August, though, he counted 10 customers facing that scenario. 

Getting someone like that into a car “is not impossible,” Ricart said.  “But is the customer comfortable with a payment that could go up hundreds of dollars due to interest rates, and the negative equity that has to be rolled into it?” Underwater trade-ins are costing new car buyers almost $6,000

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