JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - Putting money toward gifts during the holidays and putting off paying important bills is something many people are used to doing every year.
This last year, more people took that route and ended up late on their auto loan payments.
More Americans fell behind on those payments in the last three months of 2012. But overall, beyond that seasonal increase, the late payment rate on auto loans actually fell extremely low.
It's been good news lately for the auto industry. After a horrible recession, the market has been making a remarkable recovery, with more people wanting new cars and trucks.
"The car sales, people waited through the recession and everything to buy a car, and so now we are seeing more people that it's time to buy a car," VP of lending at 121 Financial Credit Union Cathy Hufstetler said. "They need a new car. Instead of, for a while it was a trend: Just fix the one they had because they didn't want a car payment or whatever. We are seeing more people buying cars."
Auto sales in the U.S. grew 13.4 percent last year to 14.5 million, and they're projected to get even better this year -- climbing up to 15.5 million.
Strong sales and low interest rates have re-energized auto financing.
"Rates are really good right now," Hufstetler said. "Of course there's a lot of competition. The dealers have their low rates. We have low rates. Credit unions and banks. You can get a car loan for like 1 percent, 1.5, stuff like that."
The good news is more people are starting to make auto loan payments on time.
Transunion said late payments are at the lowest in more than 10 years -- the only time it was up was in the fourth quarter of 2012.
Lending experts said that's pretty typical around the holidays, but there are still consequences.
"You, of course, might have to pay a late fee," Hufstetler said. "The other problem is if you pay over 30 days late, then it will show up on your credit report as a 30-day late notice. And the more times you do that, the more recent that is in your history. It's going to bring your credit score down."
The rise in auto sales has also sparked banks and credit unions to lend more to borrowers who have less than perfect credit.
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