A Chrysler dealership in Burlingame, Calif. (Feb. 28, 2011)

A Chrysler dealership in Burlingame, Calif. (Feb. 28, 2011) Credit: AP

Car loans are easier to get now and at lower rates than during the late recession, even for people with marginal credit scores, according to local auto dealers and the credit reporting firm Experian.

"The banks are back and they are competing and the more banks that jump into the market, the better it is for the consumer," said Mark Calisi, who owns dealerships in Riverhead retailing Chevrolets, Mazdas and Volvos.

He and other dealers say lenders are looking now at more than just credit scores -- focusing on an overall picture that includes how long the buyer has lived in the same place, how long the buyer has worked for the same employer and whether the buyer is generally paying bills on time.

"You can't just go by the credit score these days," said general manager Lenny Cafarelli of Huntington Toyota/Scion in Huntington Station, noting that the recession coupled with rising costs of things like fuel and food have made it difficult for many Americans to pay bills on time.

As an example, he says, Toyota's credit arm has extended special low-interest deals for purchases and leases to people with less than pristine credit scores -- instead of the usual 750 or more down to people with scores as low as 650. And the deals are good, including a $199-a-month Camry lease, for example.

"Their criteria have changed a little to give the customer a little more leeway to enable them to fit into the programs," said Cafarelli.

Experian, the British credit reporting company, said in an announcement May 26 from its Schaumburg, Ill., office that the percentage of new car loans to what it called "credit-challenged" new vehicle shoppers grew by 11.1 percent in January, February and March, compared with the first quarter of 2010, from 9.81 percent of loans last year to 10.57 percent in this year's quarter.

"As the automotive credit market continues to stabilize, lenders are showing a higher tolerance for risk," Melinda Zabritski, Experian's director of automotive credit, said in the statement. She said delinquencies are down, too.

"Additionally, with lower average scores for new vehicle loans and more loan activity for credit-challenged customers, it is easier to find a loan now than at any time in the past 30 months."

At Babylon Honda in West Babylon, owner Gary Schimmerling says the lenders he deals with, including Chase and Honda Finance, also are looking at more than just credit scores in determining whether to approve a loan. "It's definitely come back quite a bit," he said. "We definitely see things loosening up."

TransUnion, a Chicago-based credit reporting company said last Tuesday that the rate of borrowers 60 or more days past due on car payments was the lowest since it began tracking the variable in 1999 -- less than half of one percent.

The easing of credit comes at a good time for dealers, many of whom saw showroom traffic -- and sales -- slow last month. Major automakers reported Wednesday that industrywide sales fell by 4 percent from a year ago and 8 percent from April as high gasoline prices, less-generous rebates and other incentives and a shortage of some Japanese models because of the March earthquake and tsunami conspired to keep some buyers at home.

Chrysler and Hyundai were two exceptions. Chrysler said its May sales were up 10 percent from a year earlier, citing the Jeep Grand Cherokee and Chrysler 200 sedan as big factors; Hyundai said its sales for the month were a record, up 21 percent compared with the same period last year, with the redesigned Elantra the biggest gainer from last year.

This story was supplemented with reports from The Associated Press.

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