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Need a Loan? Think 'Union'

Trouble getting a loan? You're not alone. Consumer lending rates are down, despite the efforts of the Treasury Department to grease lending wheels.

But if you need a loan, consider skipping your local bank and checking out your neighborhood credit union.

Credit unions are still lending. In fact, Mike Schenk, vice president of economics and statistics at Credit Union National Association ( CUNA), says that loan growth among credit unions is growing. He notes that loan growth during recessions in the '80s and '90s were around 3%. "We're more than double that today," he says. "There is still a lot of lending going on."

Here are a few facts about credit unions that hint as to why they may be your best bet for landing a loan in this tight lending market.

Different management. Credit unions are run as nonprofits, they largely avoided the subprime mortgage mess and they tend to be portfolio lenders, meaning they keep at least 70% of the loans they make in-house as opposed to selling them to the secondary market. "When credit unions make loans, they keep them on their books," says Schenk. "They care what happens on those loans, and because of that, they're not experiencing the same level of deterioration of asset quality as other types of lenders."

Same loan, different rates. A car loan from a credit union is the same as a car loan from a bank. One difference, however, is that lending rates are often lower at credit unions than at bigger banks.

How much lower? The interest rates on credit cards average about 118 basis points lower when offered through a credit union than a major lender, according to recent figures from research firm DataTrac. (A basis point is one hundredth of a percentage point.) Interest rates on new car loans are typically 152 basis points lower, while rates on home equity lines of credit are around 14 basis points lower.

Rates on 30-year fixed-rate mortgages are even between credit unions and other lenders, because such rates tend to be determined by a variety of market forces, according to Schenk. (To read more on what drives mortgage rates, check out Fed Funds Rate Cut a Double-Edged Sword).

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