December 2, 2015 / 5:10 PM / 4 years ago

U.S. consumers stretch out auto loans to afford higher-priced cars

DETROIT, Dec 2 (Reuters) - Automakers are sustaining record transaction prices for new vehicles by stretching out loan payments for less credit-worthy customers, according to a new report Wednesday from credit monitoring company Experian.

As vehicle prices rise, U.S. consumers are battling to keep monthly payments affordable by taking out longer-term loans, or relying on lease deals which usually hold monthly payments lower than a comparable loan.

Experian found leases accounted for about 27 percent of new vehicle purchases in the third quarter, a record level. Financing of new vehicle purchases reached 86.6 percent, also a record level.

Experian’s report showed more people are taking out loans with payment periods longer than six years and the average credit score for consumer loans on new vehicles is 710, the lowest since before the Great Recession.

The average amount taken out for new vehicle loans rose 4 percent from a year earlier to $28,936, a record since Experian started making its quarterly auto financing reports public in 2006.

“As the price for a new or used vehicle continues to rise, leasing has become a more viable financing option for consumers looking to maintain an affordable monthly payment,” said Melinda Zabritski, Experian’s senior director of automotive finance.

Zabritski said consumers save an average of $84 per month by leasing rather than buying a new vehicle, but warned consumers must be aware of leasing provisions such as mileage caps that can greatly increase costs.

The Federal Reserve Bank of New York last month reported that by the end of the third quarter, U.S. auto loan balances reached $1.05 trillion.

Kelley Blue Book this week said the average price paid for a new vehicle in the United States rose to a record $33,800.

Automaker-owned “captive” financing fell sharply in the recession, but now is back in force as Experian found that automaker-linked financing that can boost company profit rose to 52 percent, from 37 percent a year earlier.

Most major automakers including each of the top four sellers in the U.S. market, General Motors Co, Ford Motor Co , Toyota Motor Corp and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles make auto loans.

U.S. auto sales are on a course to hit a record high this year, topping the 17.35 million vehicles sold in 2000, after November sales were issued by automakers on Tuesday.

Reporting by Bernie Woodall; Editing by Andrew Hay

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