Sadly not an angel dust-fuelled night club.
Once upon a time you walked into greasy Tony’s car dealership, slapped down your hard saved cash, and walked out with a creaky Lada/ British Leyland motor with build quality as questionable as Katie Hopkins.
Now we walk into a car megamart warehouse to be met by bright young things in shiny suits and pleather brogues. If we feel we are worth it we walk into glass prisms of monochrome and steel to be fed posh coffee by bright young things in shiny suits and pleather brogues who tell us we are definitely worth it, sir.
The world of buying a car has changed a lot, and numerous products now cater to whim and desire to self-indulge. The current petrol on the bonfire of consumer car culture is PCP, or Personal Contract Purchase, sometimes confused with Personal Contract Leasinging which is a more traditional rental option.
What is PCP?
A very clever tool to sell cars.
PCP is essentially a loan on the depreciation on a car you ‘buy’. You don’t really own the car despite assurances to the contrary (although this is a whole other thorny area). You pay a deposit, then a monthly payment on the loan that finances the value the car loses in your use, then hand it back to the finance company at the end or buy it off them. Money Saving Expert says it better than I can (1):
The deposit (usually around 10% of the car’s price).Dealers offering PCP finance will typically want around 10% of the car as a deposit. Some car manufacturers’ finance arms offer valuable ‘deposit contributions’ of £500-£2,000 or more if you’re buying a new car but only if you take their finance – eg, VW Finance offers £1,000. The larger the deposit, the less you’ll have to borrow.
The amount you borrow. The amount you’ll have to borrow is based on how much the finance company predicts the car will lose in value over the term of the deal (usually 24 or 36 months) minus the deposit you’ve put down. You’ll pay this amount off during the deal, plus interest. So you’re not paying off the full value of the car. Typical APRs are 4%-7%.
The balloon payment (a balancing payment you pay IF you want to own the car). Also often referred to as the Guaranteed Minimum Future Value (GMFV), this is how much the dealer expects your car to be worth after your finance deal ends. It’s agreed at the start of your deal. You don’t have to pay this, as you get a choice of what to do at the end of the deal. But it is the sum you’ll pay if you want to keep the car.
So far so clever, the difference to a more standard agreement such as Hire Purchase being that you are not paying for the whole of the vehicle, just the depreciation. Therefore the monthly payments are much lower. This, combined with various incentives such as the ‘scrappage scheme’ (hack-spit) have meant that new cars are available to people previously unable to afford them. Often with these contributions and incentives the cost of a new car is lower than a used car for monthly payments. A worked example from Carbuyer (2):
– A new car costs £25,000
– The GMFV after three years is £15,000
– Over three years, you need to cover £10,000
– Subtract the a deposit of £1,000
– You’ll pay the remaining £9,000 over 36 monthly payments of £250
And some from national car retailers:
As Graham Hill, director at the National Association of Commercial Finance Brokers, says (3):
“Drivers who might have been looking at hire purchase on a second-hand Ford Focus can find themselves paying less on PCP for a brand new BMW 1 Series or a Mercedes A-Class”
Which is where some of the warnings begin.
PCP is a complex product often used to sell high value items to people who may not be as financially savvy. As a complex financial product, there are often T&C’s to be aware of. A recent survey by the CarGurus found 9 out of 10 people didn’t understand the small print of their PCP contract (4). Though there are many online guides to PCP, that same survey found although 91% of people thought they had a good grasp of car finance, only 47% knew what PCP meant (4, 5).
Two big stings are the condition the car is returned in, and the agreed mileage limit. The condition is a standard agreement that the car will be returned in good condition ready for sale at the end of the term. This is usually assessed by the finance company, and repairs charged at in-house rates. That parking ding can quickly becomes £hundreds to repair, with limited ability to contest. If you happen to crash the car, or it is seriously damaged, you have to buy out of the deal, usually with a penalty. For servicing, some PCP deals require you use the manufacturer/ sellers in house servicing department, placing you over a barrel.
The agreed mileage limit is another bit of small print worth looking at. In seeking a good GMFV most finance companies set low average mileage limits (5-10k common). Go over that and every additional mile can be charged, typically at 5-10p a mile (5). So that 5k extra a year costs you £500 at 10p/mile, but with some bombsite backstreet dealers charging 30-50p/mile (6). Going back to that CarGurus study, more than half of those surveyed didn’t know what the penalty charges were on their contract (4).
Warning sounds are beginning to be made about PCP for two reasons. The first is a flashback to 2008’s grim figure, sub-prime lending. It is unclear how many loans made for PCP in the UK were sub-prime, that is to people who will probably default. The car finance industry states it to be around 3% (7), but given the demographic PCP is aimed at this seems low. Outside of those selling PCP, economists at the BOE have privately expressed concern (8). The sale of sub-prime auto loans in the US is already becoming big business (9).
The BOE’s concerns touch on some of my own. PCP leaves the lenders exposed in many ways. An economic downturn could mean a default on that PCP loan (10). The same economic downturn could knock value of second hand car values and residuals, therefore devaluing the asset. The value is highly dependent on the GFMV.
PCP is often sold as ‘this is the minimum it will be worth at the end, but if it’s worth more then the equity can be used on another car’. The issue I have with this is that values are estimated years in advance, while on the ground prices change with fashion, numbers sold and all the other factors that effect car residuals. If most cars are being bought on PCP, as the people who used to buy the cheap secondhand car now buy a new one on PCP, the demand and value drops off in the second handmarket. We’re already seeing that at the bottom end of the market, with a bumper crop of cheap serviceable vehicles. Additionally a car manufacturer may be the focus of a scandle (say relating to falsified emissions results), which knocks consumer trust and desire for the brand and knocks prices. Ultimately someone will be left holding the difference between the predicted value and the actual value; an overexposed lender or a broke consumer. We are beginning to see this, but the train is still coming down the tracks. Rant over.
The final caution is on the reason people buy PCP deals. Some argue they will save on tax or help the environment compared to their old car (false economies for the most part, and a sad endictment of our broken car tax system). Others want a reliable car that’s in warranty that functions as a white good and can just be used. Here the disconnect is new=reliable, which is a cognitive bias that’s not always the case. More on that another time.
PCP is good if:
- You read the small print
- Maintain the car impeccably
- Do less than the mileage limit
- Don’t mind an unfashionable, unflashy car
- You can afford to buy out of the PCP if something untoward happens.
PCP is not as good if:
- You don’t read the T&C’s
- You do big mileages and work the car hard
- You want a flashy fashionable car
- You can only just about afford it
As with any purchase, a car on PCP is a personal choice. There are risks, but with discipline and sense it can work. Just not my cup of tea.
Next time on Frugal Motoring- Bangernomics
Have a great week,
The Fire Shrink
N.B. If you are thinking of getting a car on PCP, check out Ling’s Cars, if only for the WTF.