A sound outside awakens a man in the middle of the night. He looks out in time to see his car being towed away.
At first he thinks itâs an auto theft in progress. Then, half awake, he recalls how far behind he is on his car payments. Could it beâŚ?
It could. About 1.5 million cars a year in the U.S. are repossessed from owners seriously in arrears.
Thatâs expected to increase, as the auto-financing industry anticipates more loan delinquencies in 2008, according to a survey of lenders.
âBetter than 50% of respondents project that,â says JJ Hornblass, chairman of the Auto Finance Summit, an annual industry conference. âIt is consistent with a poor credit-performance environment. More lease delinquencies also are expected.â
It will be âa tricky environment,â he says.
The forecasted rise in repos would continue an upward trend that started in 2006 when 1.4 million vehicles were confiscated, a 5% increase, according to Manheim Consulting.
Tom Webb, chief economist for Manheim, estimates delinquency rates increased repossessions by 10% in 2007.
There are assorted reasons car owners default on their loans to the point that a lender sends out agents to get the vehicle back. Reasons range from falling on hard times to irresponsible behavior with finances.
Another cause is that some dealership customers pay less attention to the price of a costly car and more attention to the monthly payments, without grasping how long those financial obligations can last.
âItâs sad,â says Mark King, general manager of Roy Robinson Chevrolet Subaru in Marysville, WA. âThey lose sight of the effect of 6- to 7-year payments. All theyâre looking at is the monthly payment.â
Protracted payments can lead to loan defaults, especially as vehicles age and depreciate, and owners risk becoming âupside down,â or owing more on a car than it is worth.
âDealers donât advocate 84-month loan payments,â King says. âItâs really a last resort. The problem is that a new SUV on the high-end side is $40,000 to $50,000.â
Some financially unsavvy customers need to be educated on the downsides of long-term loans and of buying a vehicle beyond their means, say experts.
âWe need to make sure that the loan you are buying is the loan you think you are buying,â says Alexander J. Keechle, senior vice president of Drive Financial Services in Dallas.
âAlso, get more money down,â he advises dealers. âThatâs not an industry secret, but yesterdayâs exception is todayâs expectation.â
Lenders differ on when to pull the trigger on someone who is delinquent on a car loan. Some lenders are more patient, trying to right-size the situation in hopes of getting the money due. Others are quicker to repossess the car.
âIâd rather take the money than the car, even at the risk of the delinquency going up,â says Joseph Pendergast, group vice president-operations manager for Chevy Chase Bank.
âWe wouldnât adapt that policy,â he says. âIf the customer can bring the payment up to date, and if there are indications of that, it is best for everyone. If not, it is best to collect the car ASAP. Waiting means the car is that much more devalued.â
People depending on a car to get to work âwill do everything they can to pay their car loans,â Keechle says. âBut when they canât pay, they wonât. When they make that decision, itâs best to get the car without delay.â
Itâs not that clear cut, says Jonathon Levin, president and CEO of auto-lender Turner Acceptance Corp.
âThere always will be some customers who will stop paying on their loans,â he says. âBut if you give the tools to others to pay, they will â or will try to. It is not wise to just yank the car from them.â
Levin says his firm is âreaching out to borrowers more than everâ in efforts to make sure customers donât default and risk vehicle repossession.
Thereâs a chance for success âas long as thereâs a voice on the other end of the line,â he says. âWe make it clear that we want them to succeed. And they want to, as well.â
Contributing to the expected rise in car-loan defaults is the ripple effect of the subprime mortgage crisis, some lenders say.
âThere was a shock in the mortgage market, and liquidity dried up,â says. Keechle. âClearly there were some missteps in doing loans without proven income.â
But the shock to the system âallows a return to a more rational way to underwrite,â he says. âItâs good for all of us.â
Some financially strapped consumers, facing a choice of defaulting on their car loan or home mortgage, will choose the latter.
âYou can always sleep in your car, but you canât drive your house to work,â Pendergast says.
Adds Keechle: âIf you default on your car, the options are much fewer. In the U.S., people need cars to get around. If you default on your home, you have the option of renting an apartment.â
The No.1 reason for auto loan defaults is the vehicle owner canât afford it, and No.2 is the car breaks down, he says.
Avoiding loan defaults includes making sure dealers are acting properly, Levin says. âItâs a matter of putting customers in the right car with the right payment plan.â
Lenders that proceed with vehicle repossessions should make sure they are following the letter of the law lest, they be sued by an irked consumer, says lawyer Mark Edelman, who represents financial institutions.
âWeâre seeing litigation involving repo notices,â he says. âYou canât use the same form in all 50 states. Eighteen states require a notice before repossession. Eight more states have a requirement that you must say, âIâm not taking late payments; you must come up to date or weâll repo your car.â
âIt requires a high level of specificity or you risk court action,â he says. âAnd in the court of public opinion, you donât want to look like someone who is abusing customers.â
The legal term for a repo is âloss recovery.â In effect, it is a âdispossession of property,â Edelman says. âMy legal advice: take care.â
As an auto-auction owner, Lynn Weaver can easily spot the repossessed vehicles in the bidding lanes.
Compared to âa bunch of program vehicles of the same model and color, the repo cars are different colors and have different variations,â says Weaver of Harrisburg Auto Auction in Mechanicburg, PA.
He says lenders selling such repossessed cars are up front about their origins when putting the vehicles on the wholesale market.
With good reason.
âIt doesnât do us any good to sneak anything by anyone,â Neil Boardman of the Regional Acceptance Corp. says at a recent National Remarketing Conference in Las Vegas.
Adds Steve Norbut, vice president of dealer sales for Universal Special Auto Finance: âA national lender is not going to slide something by.â
Most repossessed cars are in pretty good shape, although âa few are tagged with a golf club or every window is broken out,â evidence of a former ownerâs anger at the prospect of losing the vehicle, Boardman says. âOn average, our vehicles are three years old and with 45,000 to 50,000 miles.â
Repossessed vehicles at auction include a broad mix of models, mileage and conditions because they come from an array of lenders financing various products and customers, says Manheimâs Webb.
Weaver says, âThere is no stigma at all towards repo cars.â
Still, some wholesale buyers steer clear of them.
That includes Mike Cunningham, owner of Payless Cars and Trucks in Tucson, AZ. Almost always, he personally buys cars in his inventory.
That doesnât include repossessed vehicles.
âI almost never buy repos,â says Cunningham. âPeople quit maintaining those cars longer before they quit making payments. Iâm skeptical of any repo.â