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Attention Car Owners – Do You Need a Reality Check?

This is a guest post from Joe Plemon from Plemon Financial Coaching who authors the blog Personal Finance by the Book.

“Geraldine”, a sassy lady portrayed by the late Flip Wilson, answered her husband thusly when he demanded an explanation for yet another new dress: “The Devil made me do it! I was walking down the street minding my own business when he snuck up behind me and pushed me into that dress store. He MADE me try on! Then he pulled a gun on me and forced me to buy it and sign your name to a check.”

Geraldine’s humor is timeless because so many of us can relate to it. For example, have you ever bought a new car and then wondered what possessed you to do it? I doubt if it was the devil, but the devil’s first cousin, car fever, will have the same results.

Do you currently own a car you wish you had never bought? Are you asking yourself if you should try to sell it or just live with it? This post is designed to help you think through this dilemma.

Start by asking yourself these questions:

How much do I owe on it?
If you paid cash, then you are probably not facing a financial crisis necessitating the sale of the car. If you simply don’t like the car, then take your time, sell it and pay cash for another one. If you are in debt, move on to question two.

How big a burden is this car on my budget?
If one hiccup in your life will cause you to start missing payments, then you need to amputate this car before that hiccup occurs. Even if you are easily making your payments, you still might be deceived into thinking all is well. Long term debt on a depreciating asset such as a car is a formula for staying perpetually in car debt. To break that cycle, you need to get the car paid off in 24 months or less and then keep driving it while you save cash for your next car. If you are on track to do so, then keep the car and enjoy it. If not, you should seriously consider getting rid of it.

If I am seriously considering selling, how do I go about it?
Knowledge is power. First, you need to learn if you are upside down (owe more than the car is worth). Check https://www.kbb.com/ to learn the private party value* of your car. If this value is less than what you owe, you are upside down. *(Use private party value because you are money ahead selling the car yourself).

But how does this work? Here is an example: You owe $22,000 on your “Geraldine” car and you could sell it for $18,000 (private party sale on www.kbb.com), thus putting you $4,000 upside down. If you decided to buy a $3,000 car (we will call the “beater”), your new debt would be $3,000 plus $4,000 = $7,000. You are still upside down, but you have eliminated $15,000 of debt.

How do I go about selling a car I am upside down on?
Unless you have an extra $4,000 available, you will need to borrow it in order to get the title released. So where do you borrow the money from?

Start by checking with the title holder. You have done your homework, so explain your rationale. In effect, you are asking for an unsecured loan on your upside down amount. Most lenders are not thrilled by this, but explain that this same amount of the current loan is already unsecured and you are simply asking that they move this amount from a more expensive car to a less expensive car.

If the title holder balks, don’t give up. Try your credit union or your home town bank, explaining that you will be moving your business to them. If you simply can’t find financing, consider other options such as selling stuff (Craigs List or Ebay or yard sales) or temporarily working a part time job.

REALITY CHECK: Are you ready to get your Geraldine car out of your life? Good! Doing so will not only be a huge relief, but will teach you to never again succumb to car fever. Still, you need to go into this decision with both eyes open, so the following pros and cons will help you preview the reality of your decision:

The Good
â—¦LESS DEBT. You have just reduced your total debt by $15,000!
â—¦OUT OF DEBT QUICKER: From our example, with an 8% loan and monthly payments of $400, your Geraldine car will be paid for in 5 years and 9 months. Your “beater”, on the other hand, will be paid off in only 19 months.

â—¦STAY OUT OF DEBT: Once the beater is paid off, you could save $4,800 toward another car by making payments to yourself for one year. Assuming your beater would bring $2,000, you could upgrade to a $6,800 paid for car. Had you stuck with your Geraldine car, it would have depreciated to about $12,000 by now and you would still owe $13,300 on it.
â—¦PEACE: You will know that you have taken the steps to undo that Geraldine decision. This is a great feeling.

The Reality Check
â—¦INCONVENIENCE: Selling your car and buying another is a hassle.
â—¦A DOWNGRADED DRIVE: Face it: your Geraldine car is nicer than a beater will be. Be prepared for it.
â—¦LESS DEPENDABILITY: No doubt your beater will have some issues. You need to be realistic in assuming that it will not be as dependable as a newer car.
â—¦MORE MAINTENANCE: With less dependability comes more maintenance.
â—¦FRIENDS WON’T UNDERSTAND: Reality? Yes. Negative? Not really. Just be prepared for it.

One Final Reality Check
You may not be able to arrange the necessary financing. Why? Either your credit score is not adequate or you are too far upside down. Should this be your scenario, you will need to strategically pay down all other debt in order to free up enough cash flow to make huge car payments. Keep the car until it is paid off or you will be swimming in car debt for years to come.


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