The 2013 Lexus ES 350 in Dallas. Photo by Don Bain

Why auto sales are surging while homes are not

Automobile and truck sales have surged this year, with 7.3 million retailed during the first six months of 2012, while the housing industry shows signs of life, but still is not in full-blown recovery.

It all comes down to the availability of credit, borrower ratings and the average age of American vehicles.

Part of the increase in auto sales this year has resulted from pent-up demand as Americans held on to their cars longer during the economic downturn. The age of the average American vehicle rose to 10.8 years during 2011.

Most of them are already consuming alcohol – give them a few more years and they’ll want to vote, too.

The simple fact is it’s much easier to get a loan or a lease for a vehicle, than it is to close a mortgage on a home or condominium. Only those with the best credit can buy a house these days, as the home loan lenders remain twice shy – a result of providing adjustable rate mortgages to virtually anyone with a pulse regardless of their means. That’s what created the bubble that burst four years ago.

Small businesses still have a hard time obtaining loans. Credit card access remains restricted despite the ads on the television and the come-ons in the mailbox.

Meanwhile, sales of existing homes are up 5 percent to 4.61 million annually, but prices remain depressed due to a glut on unsold properties on the market, according to the National Association of Realtors. This is partly because or stringent lending practices, but they may be well justified as one of every three pending contracts is canceled.

Housing starts are also showing mild recovery with five months of slight improvement projected to surpass 700,000 units, a three and a half year high. In fact, according to the Dept. of Commerce, new housing starts may contribute to economic growth this year for the first time since 2005.

Give all that, it is considerably easier to obtain an automotive loan or lease and there are several good reasons for that, according to Brad Plumer of The Washington Post.

Equifax states the total of automotive bank loans is at its highest point in seven years, at $47.5 billion in the first quarter of 2012. Interest rates are still declining and it doesn’t take a perfect credit rating to obtain an auto loan. New-car financing needs only a credit score of 760, down six points from last year, according to Experian. For a used car purchase, you can get by with a rating of 659.

“The spigots are being opened,” The Washington Post quoted Peter McNally, an analyst at Moody’s, as stating. “The finance companies are really stepping in to fill a need.”

Reportedly this is to some degree a result of investors and private-equity firms buying securities comprised of bundled auto loans. It would seem to be the same way the mortgage bubble was created, but funds tend to look at these assets as both safe and lucrative. In the year’s first half, America’s biggest auto lenders, GM Financial and Santander Consumer USA, have resold $10 billion in subprime auto loans to investors, up 20 percent over last year. This in turn allows these firms to make more consumer loans to even higher risk buyers.


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