Can A Middle-Class Budget Buy A New American Car? Probably Not

Friday, November 22nd 2019, 11:02 am

By: News 9

Americans were paying about 38% more for a new car or truck over the summer than they were just 10 years ago. The average transaction price for some popular vehicles is up nearly 50%, 60% or even 70%. So how are drivers affording it? As CBS News found, many are not.

In Vineland, New Jersey, the typical family takes home about $39,000 a year after taxes. CBS News business analyst Jill Schlesinger recommended spending 10 to 15% of that income monthly on a vehicle. That leaves an average family there with about a $400 a month budget. 

With that in mind, "CBS This Morning" co-host Tony Dokoupil visited family-owned Lilliston Ford. Manager Ivan Nelson showed Dokoupil a Ford Explorer, packed with technology. He also saw a powerful F-150 Lariat.

But did any of it fit that $400 budget? Not even close.

"Your monthly payment would be $853," Nelson said.

And that's life for a record number of Americans these days. The big three automakers are retiring many family sedans while rolling out souped-up SUVs and trucks at premium rates that families often can't afford without taking on loans that are now larger and longer than ever.

Nelson did find a simpler truck closer to our budget, but with a catch. The $446 monthly payments lasted for 96 months. That's eight years. And while long loans can create reasonable-sounding monthly payments, it doesn't always mean you can afford the car.

More and more vehicles are ending up at repo lots. Last year, a record number of Americans fell behind on their car payments. More than 7 million people were at least 90 days late. And when that happens, people like CJ Faison get a call. His family sells repossessed vehicles at auction in Delaware. Dokoupil asked if he's seen more business. 

"Tons," Faison said. "I would say it's probably doubled, if not tripled… [I] think mainly because there's people who are going longer terms on cars. They're more expensive. You owe more on the car than what it's worth."

Faison said he thinks manufacturers have a role in that.

"They have priced cars out of a lot of people's budgets," Faison said. "There's finance companies through these manufacturers now to let people afford these cars by stretching the loans out to six, seven, eight years on a car. That blows my mind."

CBS News reached out to the three biggest American automakers about their role in setting vehicle prices, but none of them would go on camera to discuss pricing.

Down south, Dokoupil searched for a better deal. In Winter Haven, Florida, a typical family income is about $35,000 a year after taxes, which means a responsible monthly car payment might be about $350.

Dokoupil zeroed in on a new Chevy Impala, but once again his hypothetical budget was shot. The budget would comfortably allow a family to buy a Chevrolet Malibu. The model's average transaction price has risen just 8% since 2009, according to Edmunds. But the Malibu was out of stock at the dealership Dokoupil visited, so the only car in stock that was in the middle-class budget was the Spark, the smallest vehicle that Chevy makes. 

In statements to CBS News, GM pointed to a "customer-driven trend to larger vehicles," and said "household incomes are rising too and interest rates are low," so "on a relative basis, new vehicles are a steal."

Chrysler told CBS News it prices vehicles "based on what the customer wants and feels they are worth."

Ford declined to comment for this story.

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