Used Car Finance – Lessons for Making Money

You might think that used car finance simple involves a dealer, a bank or other lender, and a down payment on the part of the buyer. That is how it works in some cases, but it gets much more creative than that. Let’s look at a real life example, and see what lessons can be learned to apply to making money in other businesses.

A friend of mine used to have a used car lot. He teamed up with a creative used car finance company to sell cars to people who had trouble getting traditional loans. I don’t recall the name of the company, and I may get a few figures wrong, but I remember the principles very clearly.

A typical deal might have started with the dealer taking a trip to the auction. He would buy a car there for $1,200 (wholesale) which might have had a retail value of about $2,200. But because he is making it easy for somebody to buy the car, he can sell it for perhaps $3,000 after cleaning it up.

How does he make it easy to sell at a high price? By arranging financing for the buyer, who typically cannot get a bank loan. How does he do that? With a very creative finance company that rarely refuses to make a loan.

How can they make loans to people who are a terrible credit risk? By putting much of the risk onto the dealer and charging outrageous interest rates. Specifically, in this case, they would finance the $3,000 car at say 20% annual interest. But they also would only forward half of the loan amount to the dealer. The rest would be paid only when and if the payments from the buyer came in.

In this example, then, the buyer might have to pay a $600 down payment. A young couple can put together a couple paychecks to afford this. Payments on the $2,400 loan arranged by the dealer might be $200 per month. As I recall, weekly payment plans might have been available as well, to make budgeting easier for those with weekly or biweekly paychecks.

The loan would be for $2,400, but the dealer would get $1,200 when the sale was made – half of the loan amount. As you can see, the dealer is already okay, since he has received a total of $1,800 for a car that cost him $1,200. In other words, if he receives nothing more he may be able to squeeze a profit from these deals even after overhead costs.

What about the used car finance company? So far they have only risked $1,200, on a car which is worth that much at a wholesale auction. They collect 20% interest on the entire $2,400 however, as well as some kind of “loan processing fee” up front. This makes their real rate of return over 40% annually.

Of course, these are high-risk loans. I heard through the grape vine that 50% of these loans were in default at some point. But the finance company had an aggressive collection team, which called borrowers as soon as they were a week late, and quickly repossessed cars when necessary.

What does that mean? As an example, suppose a buyer ran into trouble and stopped paying after the first eight payments of $200. The principle amounts had been forwarded to the dealer, but the lender would have already collected about $400 in interest and fees. When they took the car and sold it for $1,100, they might net $800 after the repossession fee and other costs. In other words, they broke even on the deal. When you make a 40% return on the good deals, you can break even on a lot of the others, right?

Used Car Finance Lessons

One dealer who had used this finance company was still receiving checks for principle years after he retired, so he liked the arrangement. Despite the high interest rate, the buyers now had a car to get to work in, so they liked the deal, or at least found it better than all other options. The owners of the used car finance company were happy making money where nobody else dared to loan. It was very creative all around, so what specific lesson can we learn to apply when making money in other businesses? Here are three:

1. High-markup products allow for more creativity in marketing and selling.

2. Making it easy to buy allows you to charge more for your product (or service).

3. Finding a way for everyone involved to “win” helps you make money.

There are other lessons in this story of used car finance, of course. For example, in the case of the lender you can see that going where others fear to go opens up new opportunities. Sharing the risk is also a useful way to make things possible that otherwise might not be. Of course, the buyers out there might see the lesson that you pay a lot more when you finance things, and especially when you have bad credit.