Consumers, salespeople and lenders are treating cars a lot like houses during the last financial crisis: by piling on debt to such a degree that it often exceeds the car’s value. This phenomenon—referred to as negative equity, or being underwater—can leave car owners trapped.
Some 33% of people who traded in cars to buy new ones in the first nine months of 2019 had negative equity, compared with 28% five years ago and 19% a decade ago, according to car-shopping site Edmunds. Those borrowers owed about $5,000 on average after they traded in their cars, before taking on new loans. Five years ago the average was about $4,000.
Rising car prices have exacerbated an affordability gap that is increasingly getting filled with auto debt. Easy lending standards are perpetuating the cycle, with lenders routinely making car loans with low or no down payments that can last seven years or longer.