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How Much Should a Car Down Payment Be?

The Big Risk Is Being 'Upside Down'

Conventional wisdom has long held that 20% is the magic down payment number when applying for an auto loan. But the vast majority of people are making far smaller down payments. An Edmunds analysis of new- and used-car purchases in 2019 showed that the average car loan down payment was 11.7%. In fact, people haven't been following the supposed conventional wisdom for years.

That raises a few questions: Why are people paying so little? Is the 20% down rule outdated? Are there any drawbacks to a smaller down payment? If 20% isn't the magic number, what is?

The following advice applies to the purchase of a new or used car. If you lease, the advice is much simpler: Put as little money down as possible. Ideally, you'd pay only the drive-off fees.

The ideal down payment is one for which you can reasonably save up without draining your savings account.

The ideal down payment is one for which you can reasonably save up without draining your savings account.

Why Such Small Down Payments?

The explanation for the prevalence of small down payments is simple: It's all people can afford.

"The main reason why people aren't putting enough down is because the cost of the vehicle has substantially increased, but people's income has remained relatively flat," says Jack Gillis, executive director of public affairs for the Consumer Federation of America.

The average down payment of 11.7% has actually gone up since 2007 when it was at 9%. Meanwhile, the cost of a new car has increased by 33% in that time, according to Edmunds. In other words, if you wanted to put 20% down on an average new-vehicle purchase today, you'd have to come up with approximately $7,255.

Minimize the Impact of Depreciation

A solid down payment will achieve three things: reduce your monthly payment, get you better interest rates (since you are financing less) and offset the initial hit in depreciation.

On average, a new vehicle depreciates by 30.5% in its first year, 7.7% in the second and 6.8% in the third year, according to Edmunds data. This depreciation is an average among all brands, but as a general rule, luxury vehicles will depreciate faster, while vehicles with higher resale value (Toyota for example) will be closer to 20%. Either way, if you only put down a small amount of money, you'll have negative equity in the car, meaning you'll owe more on it than it's worth.

See Edmunds pricing data

Has Your Car's Value Changed?

Used car values are constantly changing. Edmunds lets you track your vehicle's value over time so you can decide when to sell or trade in.

Price history graph example

The Down Payment Sweet Spot

The ideal down payment on an auto loan should be an amount you can reasonably save up, without emptying out your emergency savings account.  Keep in mind that your trade-in can also serve as your down payment provided it has enough value. You can put down less than 20% on a new car, provided you take some precautions against depreciation.

Here's what we mean: If your new car is totaled or stolen in the first couple of years, that average down payment won't provide enough equity to cover the balance of the loan, which is why you need gap insurance or new-car replacement insurance.

Gap insurance costs a few hundred dollars but can offset any difference between what you owe and what the insurance company gives you if your car is totaled. Dealerships, auto insurance companies and third-party brokers all offer gap insurance. One thing to note about gap insurance is that it does not cover you if you're simply tired of the vehicle and want to trade it in or sell it.

New-car reimbursement coverage is available from a number of insurance companies, including Farmers, Liberty Mutual, Travelers, Allstate, and Amica. If your car is totaled or stolen within the first or second year of ownership, the insurance company will pay the full cost of having it replaced. All you have to do is pay your deductible.

Prices vary. For example, Farmers Insurance said its customers pay an additional 4-6% of their comprehensive and collision premium for new-car replacement coverage. The company also offers gap insurance on a state-by-state basis, for approximately 7% of the customer's comprehensive and collision premium. These prices may vary based on the driver and other factors, a Farmers spokesperson said.

Combining a 10-12% down payment with gap insurance or new-car replacement coverage lets you keep more money in your pocket without the risk of being underwater on your car loan.

Used-Car Down Payments

It's a slightly different story when it comes to used-car down payments. In general, used cars depreciate at a slower rate than new cars. But if you've purchased a used car at a dealership, chances are that the dealership has marked up the price, inflating the first year of its depreciation. For example, a 3-year-old Honda CR-V, purchased from a dealership in 2019, will have depreciated an estimated 15.8% in the first year.

So, where does this leave the used-car down payment?

Edmunds data shows that the average used-car down payment is about 10.9% of the selling price. This amount should be adequate for a used-car purchase from a private party since the prices are lower and the depreciation is slower. If you've opted to buy from a dealership, however, make sure that you negotiate to minimize the effect on its depreciation.  Most importantly, don't get rid of the car in the first couple years. Give it time for the depreciation to settle down.

Here are a few other down payment philosophies, along with their pros and cons.

Zero Down

Paying nothing down keeps the most money in your pocket. You can get into a new car without having to save for months in advance. Your credit, however, needs to be in great shape in order for the finance company to approve a zero-down loan. Two drawbacks to paying nothing down are higher monthly payments and higher finance charges. (Finance charges aren't an issue if you qualify for 0% APR, though these are starting to be less common.) Plus, you will also be upside down on the car loan, initially owing more money than the car is worth.

If you want to go the zero-down route, we highly recommend gap or new-car replacement insurance.

Go With the Most You Can Afford

Though saving up for a 20% down payment may be difficult, it does give you many benefits. If your budget can accommodate it, a bigger down payment will allow you to choose a shorter finance term, which will save you money in interest charges. It will also cover most of the first-year depreciation and give you enough equity so that you don't have to come up with additional money if you decide to buy a different car before you pay off the loan. And if your car is stolen or totaled in an accident, you probably won't owe anything. Plus, you can safely skip the gap insurance and new-car replacement coverage.

Down Payments for Buyers With Subprime Credit

Having a low credit score doesn't mean you can't buy a car. But if you have a FICO score of about 620 or below, making a bigger down payment could increase the chances of being approved for a loan. Lenders want to lower their risk of not being paid, so they prefer loans of smaller amounts. The more you put down, the greater your chances will be of being approved.

If you're a buyer with a low credit score, you also should resist the allure of longer-term loans, even though they offer more palatable payments. Lots of people are extending their loan terms these days. Edmunds data shows that the average term of a loan has increased to 69 months: nearly six years. Seven-year loans are not uncommon. But you'll pay much more interest in the long run on these auto loans. And you may get tired of that car before you've paid it off, meaning the loan may outlive the car. Rolling over payments to the next car is a bad start for a new loan.

Find Your Right Percentage

Clearly, 20% down is more than most people can save up. And 0% down may not be available to everyone. So most car buyers wind up somewhere in between, putting some money down but not enough to strain their savings.

Take a look at your budget and see what percentage of the car's purchase price works best for you as a down payment. Use the Edmunds calculators to enter different down payment amounts and see how they affect the monthly payment. The general rule is that for every $1,000 you put down, your monthly payment will drop by about $15 to $18. If depreciation would put you at financial risk in the event of an accident, pencil out the cost of gap or new-car replacement coverage.


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