Cars And Stupidity

Fat Car

This sort of thing makes my blood boil, and not for the reasons you may think:

If you think cars are getting too expensive, you may be right. A new report shows that the average price of a new vehicle is out of reach for people in medium-income households in all but one of the 25 largest metro areas in the U.S.

The report by Interest.com shows that Washington, D.C. is the only American metropolitan area in which a family earning the city’s median income can afford the average price of a new vehicle, which was $32,086 in 2013, according to Kelley Blue Book. That price equates to a monthly payment of $633, assuming the buyers put 20 percent down, financed for 48 months and principal, interest and insurance did not exceed ten percent of the household’s gross income.

$32,000 for an average new vehicle is utterly nuts.

Flat-out, stark raving nuts.

First off, virtually nobody puts 20% down on cars any more; almost everyone I have heard from or about is buying them with 100% financing — which is stupid all on its own, because if you don’t take GAP insurance and wreck it you’re totally screwed.  If you do take GAP insurance then you’re paying for yet another service and your monthly cost goes up even higher.

Second, there is this claim that the car should be “no more” than 10% of household gross income.  What are you smoking over there?  We are talking about two-income households, right?  So now we’re also talking about two cars, right, or is the second person walking to work?  20% of household gross tied up in vehicle payments and insurance?

Are you stark raving mad?

To put some percentages on this that actually matter my “reasonably safe” financial leverage limit for most people stands at 28% maximum for all fixed housing-related expenses, which means principal, interest, hazard insurance, any mandatory association or coop fees and property tax (or rent + tenant insurance.)  The maximum safe leverage limit for all fixed obligations (including housing and transportation) is 36%.  That means that you can afford one vehicle that has a carrying cost of 8% of your gross assuming no other debt of any sort, such as credit cards or student loans, if you are up against the 28% maximum on housing expenses.  By the way note that taking on that 8% obligation means you are locked intonot taking any more debt until either your income rises or you pay off the note — it is not just a “qualify and then do what you want” ratio.

But this, by the way, this is not what you’ll be sold at any dealer.  If you actually run to my limits (36% maximum gross income obligation against housing and transportation) you will find that your household is pretty damn tight on money.  Not desperately so, but moderately.  That means you won’t be buying fancy vacations nor will you end the month with a bunch of extra cash and then going out on shopping sprees to spend it.  Instead you will be coming to the end of the month juggling a few things — that night in the bar will burn your last disposable $50 but you’ll still manage to hit the match on your 401k at work — barely.

If you go the limits “recommended” by the “finance guys” you will instead be eating Mac-N-Cheese on a fairly regular basis or you will start doing really bad, destructive things — like carrying a credit card balance from month to month, having zero in cash reserves and, when the inevitable bad thing happens that requires you to spend a few hundred dollars without prior warning or planning you will be screwed.

I am not surprised though.  What did surprise me, as I recently shopped for a new car (and ultimately bought one as I wrote about here a few weeks ago) was how utterly outrageous vehicle prices had gotten over the last few years in comparison to what you actually got for your money.

Why, one might ask?

That’s pretty simple — the financialization of vehicles has advanced to the point that we no longer do “traditional” car loans from a bank or credit union, or paying cash, as our primary means of purchase. This has taken what should have been a dramatic and continuing technology improvement process that reduces price and led to everyone along the way, from manufacturers to banks to dealers scalping all of the value add from that process for themselves, increasing prices so that all but the last ten cents of that value goes to them and only a tiny bit comes to you.

This is exactly what has happened in both education and health care — and what happened in housing as well.

This pattern is self-destructive for the economy as a whole but it will not stop until something breaks the financialization model — and there is no indication we’re going to see that from the car industry or the finance industry any time soon.

Can you fight back against it?  Yes and no.  Unfortunately this same trend causes used prices to rise too, so there is only some defense available by buying a quality used vehicle instead of a new one.  But what you can do is stop playing “I need a Lexus” and start showing the car dealers the back of your head on a regular basis.

I don’t think that’s going to happen, however, which makes this a problem that we’re going to have to deal with for some time to come — right up until it blows up in all of our faces in aggregate, just as college loans and medical spending are destined to.

The Market Ticker

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