We love recommending great cars in our reviews, but we’re not the ones who have to haggle at the dealership. The reality is that buying a car can be unpleasant, and it’s hard to know whether you’re getting the best deal. So we decided to take a closer look at the process, and here’s what we came up with. If you want to save money when you sign on that bottom line, here are our top five ways to get it done.
1. Set a monthly payment ceiling.
It’s easy to get sucked in by the attractive leasing and buying offers in car commercials, but those are just the beginning. Once you’re at the dealership, you’ll be pitched all sorts of exotic add-ons, from extended warranties to dealer-installed accessories, that can inflate your monthly payment considerably. Here’s our advice: Before you set foot on a dealer lot, crunch the numbers and figure out what you can comfortably afford each month. Then tell the salesperson you’re not going to sign up for anything that puts your monthly payment above that number. That way, it’s guaranteed that you’ll never bite off more than you can chew.
2. Read AutoTrader.com’s expert car reviews.
One of the biggest mistakes you can make is going to the dealership without having read up on the car you’re interested in. If multiple engines are offered, for example, you should know which trim levels they’re available with, and whether the upgraded version is worth the price. If there’s a feature you really want — a navigation system, say — you should know which models feature it, and whether it’s any good in the first place. At the dealership, it’s easy to be seduced by various packages and enhancements that you’ve never heard of, only to realize later that the entry-level model would have been just fine. That’s why our reviews arm you with crucial information about the car before the negotiations begin.
3. Be mindful of the model cycle.
Assuming you don’t absolutely need to have the latest and greatest, the best time for buying a car is when next year’s model has started to appear on dealer lots. If current models are left over, you can bet your bottom dollar that the dealer wants them gone now. So, figure out when that turnover will happen for the car you want (a simple phone call should suffice; it’s not classified information) and casually stroll into the dealership at just the right time. There are literally thousands to be saved this way if you play your cards right, particularly if next year’s model happens to be a full redesign.
4. Try to sell your old car rather than trade it in.
Hey, we get it — busy people don’t necessarily have time to take out an AutoTrader.com classified ad and field queries from strangers. That’s why so many car shoppers simply trade in their old rides when they upgrade. While that might save you time, it almost certainly won’t save you money. Trade-in values are often significantly lower than so-called "private party" values (i.e., the price you can expect to get if you sell the car yourself). Again, we’re talking about potentially thousands of dollars. So if you can spare a few minutes, take nice photos of your car and try one of our classified ads. We make the process as easy as can be, and it could pay off handsomely if you price your car correctly.
5. Don’t be afraid to haggle.
Dickering over price is highly unappealing to many car shoppers, but we like to think of it as a necessary evil. Remember, you’re not going to hurt the salesperson’s feelings by asking for a better number, and you won’t offend anyone by walking away from a final offer that doesn’t feel right, either. If you’re fully armed with the facts, the only question is whether a satisfactory agreement can be reached; that should be your focus. Be polite but firm, keep your price ceiling in mind and you’ll have a fighting chance of getting a great deal on your next car.
6. Look Outside Your Home Town
Like most things today, car-shopping and car-buying can be much easier online. One way to get a great deal or find a rare car is to look nationwide for just the right car. If you want a modern car with a manual transmission or, say, a sedan with leather seats but no sunroof or if you just want a specific color (even on a common car), you might have to look outside your immediate area. Marketplace listings from companies like Autotrader typically use your zip code to find cars that meet your search criteria AND are close to you. If you aren’t finding the exact car you want, try expanding the search area or pick something like “Any Distance” so you can see every car that meets your search criteria within the U.S.