Business

The Rising Costs of Owning a Car

It’s getting more expensive to own and operate a new car.

The average annual cost of ownership is up more than 13 percent from last year to more than $12,000, or just over $1,000 a month, according to the latest research from the automobile owners group AAA. Higher car prices and the surging costs of financing, insuring and maintaining a new car all contributed to the increase. The analysis also considered depreciation a cost even though it’s not paid out of pocket.

Where does that leave consumers who are already squeezed by rising gas prices, the higher costs for food and other goods, as well as increasing interest rates on their credit cards?

Drivers should consider their true needs and driving habits when choosing a vehicle, said Greg Brannon, director of automotive research for AAA. “It’s really up to your specific situation.”

The average cost per mile for a vehicle driven 15,000 miles a year is about 81 cents, AAA says. But it’s $1.06 for a popular half-ton pickup truck like a Chevrolet Silverado. If you need a truck only occasionally to haul mulch from the garden center, it might make sense to buy a smaller car — say, a compact sport utility vehicle like a Nissan Rogue — at about 67 cents per mile and rent a truck when you really need one.

“It’s very expensive to own a pickup that you only use as a pickup once or twice a year,” Mr. Brannon said.

The cheapest option is a small sedan, at about 60 cents a mile, AAA found. For shoppers, however, it may be challenging to find lower-priced sedans on dealer lots, said Benjamin Preston, an automotive reporter at Consumer Reports. That’s because automakers have been emphasizing production of more profitable models, like big S.U.V.s and trucks with lots of extra features, he said.

While new car inventories are improving, Mr. Preston said, “if you’re looking for an affordable car, it’s a tough time.” If you can wait a few months for delivery, you can order the specific model you want — without extra bells and whistles — through a dealer, he said.

While used car prices have moderated, Mr. Preston said, higher interest rates, particularly for older, lower-priced models, may make them more expensive to buy. According to Experian Automotive, which tracks automobile financing, the average interest rate for a used car loan rose to 11.38 percent from 8.84 percent last year, while the average payment rose to $528 from $519.

According to an analysis from iSeeCars.com, an online car search site, buyers with a $23,000 budget could buy a three-year-old car in 2019, but the same amount is not enough for the average six-year-old car today.

If you do choose an older used car, Mr. Preston said — five years old or more — keep in mind that it is unlikely to be covered by a manufacturer’s warranty. So choose a model with a history of reliability and have a mechanic check it out before buying.

The average price of the new cars included in AAA’s 2023 study, based on the manufacturer’s suggested retail price, is about $35,000, up 4.7 percent from last year, while the average annual finance charge almost doubled, to $1,253, AAA found. The report projects new cars will depreciate by an average of $4,538 per year over five years of ownership, up 24 percent over 2022.

(The higher depreciation reflects the slipping used car prices and high new car prices. “You pay more, but it’s worth less,” Mr. Brannon of AAA said.)

The report, based on information from the automotive data researcher Vincentric and other sources, used the five most popular 2023 models in nine categories, excluding luxury cars. It estimates the cost of using a new car over five years and 75,000 miles, considering costs for fuel and maintenance, insurance, license and registration fees, taxes, and depreciation. It doesn’t include the cost of parking, which can add hundreds or thousands of dollars to the cost of car ownership if you live in a big city.

Other analyses show new-car prices to be even higher. Kelley Blue Book, a unit of Cox Automotive, said the average transaction price for a new car — what buyers actually pay — was about $48,500 in August, roughly flat with a year earlier, held in check by growing inventories and incentives like cash-back rebates. (Kelley’s figure includes luxury cars, like those from Audi and Mercedes-Benz, which have raised prices.)

One unknown is the possible effect on car prices of the United Automobile Workers strike. The strike isn’t expected to affect consumer prices in the near term, according to Cox Automotive, but prices could rise if the strike lasts long enough to affect the supply of new vehicles.

Here are some questions and answers about managing car costs:

What are current interest rates on new car loans?

The average interest rate for a new-car loan rose to 6.63 percent in the second quarter this year from 4.6 percent a year earlier, according to Experian Automotive. More borrowers are choosing shorter-term loans, said Melinda Zabritski, head of automotive finance insights at Experian, because shoppers can usually get lower rates on shorter-term loans, and because carmakers are offering extra incentives on those loans. A shorter loan reduces the overall expense but increases the size of monthly payments.

The average monthly new-car payment rose to $729 from $672 in the second quarter. Maintaining a good credit score can help you get a better rate on your car loan.

My auto insurance premium is increasing. What can I do?

Car insurance costs are rising as insurers face higher losses for accidents, repairs and natural disasters. In some cases, according to the consumer research firm J.D. Power, drivers are skipping coverage, even though most states require minimum coverage, because they can’t afford premiums. The number of households with at least one car that said they didn’t have auto insurance rose to 5.7 percent in the first half of 2023, from 5.3 percent in the second half of 2022. (J.D. Power said it did not have data for first half of 2022.)

Drivers should get quotes from several insurers and ask what steps they can take to lower their costs, the company said, such as raising their deductibles — the amount of a claim they must pay out of pocket.

What about going carless?

As car ownership becomes more costly, you may want to consider if you can get by without one, especially if you live in an urban area with good public transportation or wide availability of ride-sharing services. Zipcar, a unit of Avis Budget Group, says members can save thousands of dollars annually by using its self-service car rentals.

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