In a perfect world, we could all pay cash for our cars and never have to worry about debt or monthly payments. We would likely negotiate the sale price more aggressively because the salesperson would know that we had the money and could take our business elsewhere at a moment's notice. In the real world, however, only a few of us are able to save up enough cash to pay for a car in full. The rest of us have to finance.

The problem with starting your car financing at the dealership is that you don't know whether the loan you're being offered is the best financing you can get. It can also complicate the negotiations and limit where you can shop to get the best price. A better way is to get preapproved for your car loan. Getting preapproved is the closest you can come to the perks of paying with cash while not having to save up for months or years in advance.

You can get preapproved for a car loan at a bank, credit union or online lender.

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Where Can I Get Preapproved for a Car Loan?

Auto loans are available from traditional banks (Bank of America, Chase, Wells Fargo), credit unions (USAA, Boeing Employees Credit Union) or an online lender such as Capital One or Up2Drive. The interest rates and requirements will vary by lender, so it doesn't hurt to shop around. Lenders will finance new cars and used cars, and some also offer car refinancing.

What Are the Requirements?

The advertised interest rates you'll see on websites are usually reserved for those with good credit. If you have poor credit, however, there are still options. Lenders such as myAutoloan or SpringboardAuto will lend to consumers with bad credit scores. The rates will be higher, but at least you'll know what you can afford. NerdWallet has compiled a list of online lenders that focus on people with poor credit.

If you haven't looked at your credit score in a while, it is a good idea to do so. This will let you know what to expect when you're applying for a loan. All consumers are entitled to one free credit report per year.

How to Shop with a Preapproved Loan

Once you're approved, the lender will give you the total you can spend and the interest rate for which you were approved. What you do next will depend on whether you are buying a new or used car.

If you know the exact new car you want to buy, you negotiate for the car as you normally would and the dealer will get in touch with your lender to arrange payment. Some lenders have a list of approved car dealers, so make sure you verify that the dealership at which you're shopping is on it.

If you are undecided about what new car you want, many lenders will give you a sort of "blank check" that isn't limited to a certain car or dealer. The check isn't truly blank: Its maximum amount will be the one for which you qualified. With this check in hand, you can visit multiple dealerships and test-drive as many cars as you want before making a decision to buy. Once you've found the right car for you, hand over your check and the dealer will make the arrangements with your lender.

The requirements for buying a used car are slightly different. Most lenders will specify that the car must be purchased at a franchised dealership. This rules out buying from private-party sellers and independent dealerships. There are also restrictions on the age and mileage of the vehicle. Capital One, for example, says borrowers can only finance up to $40,000. The vehicle must be 10 years old or newer and can't have more than 120,000 miles on the odometer.

If you wanted to buy a used car from a private seller or independent dealership, you would have to take out a personal loan, which usually carries much higher interest rates.

Why Get Preapproved for a Car Loan?

Preapproval might seem like an extra step in the car-buying process (which already has plenty of them). But there are good reasons to take a little extra time to get a preapproved car loan:

  • It encourages you to stick to a budget: A preapproval notice will let you know exactly how much you can spend. Keep in mind that you will need to account for taxes and other fees. In other words, if you have been approved for a $30,000 loan, try searching for something that costs a few thousand dollars less.
  • It allows you to compare interest rates: There's no guarantee that you'll get the best rate by getting preapproved, but at least you'll have a baseline with which to compare the rates that dealerships offer you. It is likely that the dealer will try to beat the interest rate you already have. You can either tell the dealer you're not interested or fill out the dealer's credit application to see what's offered. Automakers often offer highly subsidized loan interest rates as a means of getting people to finance with them. We keep track of these advertised rates on the incentives and rebates page on Edmunds, and it's a good idea to check them.
  • It simplifies negotiation: Once you're preapproved, you can shop for the car as if you had a check in your pocket. This helps you keep focused on the actual selling price of the car rather than keeping track of the interest rate, down payment, loan term and trade-in. When asking for the price on the car, you can simply ask, "What's the 'out-the-door' price on this car?"
  • It reduces the risk of spot delivery complications: "Yo-yo financing" occurs when a dealer allows a consumer with shaky credit to take possession of a vehicle without the dealer-arranged financing being fully sorted out. This can happen when the sale falls on a weekend or late at night, when the bank is closed. A few days later, the buyer gets a call from the dealer saying that the loan was not approved and that he has to bring back the car to either reapply for a loan (usually with higher rates) or, worse, come up with a larger down payment. Buyers can avoid situations like this if they have been preapproved for a loan.
  • It saves time and hassle in the finance and insurance office: Car buyers dread the finance and insurance (F&I) office because of the time it takes and the sales pitches the F&I manager makes. Some of the delay is unavoidable. There is a lot of paperwork involved in the purchase of a vehicle. But if you have been preapproved, the time — theoretically — should be cut in half. And when the F&I manager pitches tire warranties and paint protection, you can always use your preapproval limit as an easy way of saying no. Let the manager know that you've been approved for a certain amount and you don't want to spend any more.

Final Notes

You might not always use your preapproved car loan, and that's OK. There are times when the dealer can beat the rate you initially received. But having that preapproval puts the rates in context and gives you the flexibility to take your business anywhere you want to.