Car Buying

Buying a Car: Should You Get an Offer in Writing?

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author photo by Doug DeMuro September 2014

If you're interested in buying a car, one piece of advice you may have heard is that you should get every offer and deal in writing from a dealership. Common thought is that this is because dealerships may otherwise try to "go back" on a deal if you leave and consider another vehicle at another dealer. But is it true? Let us explain.

The Perils of Negotiating

Unfortunately, buying a new car isn't exactly like buying a new pair of shoes. Not only are there a lot more factors to consider, but you also have to negotiate the price. That makes the process a lot more challenging for most car shoppers.

Because of the negotiation process, car prices can fluctuate wildly from one dealer to another, from one customer to another and even from day to day. As a result, it's certainly possible that a deal you had negotiated yesterday won't be available today -- even if the dealer is the same, the car is the same and your trade-in value is the same. So if you come to an agreement, should you get the offer in writing?

Err On the Side of Caution

We think it's a good idea to get dealership offers in writing. There are many reasons for this, but the primary one is that a dealership might not be as interested to sell you the car the next time you visit the showroom. As a result, a written offer is an important way to make sure the dealer sticks to the price originally agreed upon.

As an example, consider a dealer that's trying to meet a monthly sales goal. If you arrive on the last day of the month, the dealer might be willing to discount a car by $3,000 in order to hit its sales target. But if you show up a few days later to buy the car, the dealer may only be willing to drop the price by $2,000. That's because the dealer was only willing to knock off the extra $1,000 in order to meet the monthly sales goal.

Imagine that there are 50 examples of the car you're considering on a dealer's lot. That's a lot of inventory, which means that the dealer might be willing to give you a big discount -- say, $3,000 or so. But if you come back in two weeks and there are only five models left, the dealer might not be so willing to drop the price.

This type of practice is fairly common, so you'll want to consider these possibilities when buying a car. As a result, getting a written offer is a good way to ensure that the deal you've made today will still be good tomorrow -- even if inventory levels fluctuate or dates change.

A Written Offer Isn't a Guarantee

One thing that's important to remember, however, is that a written offer isn't necessarily a guarantee that you'll be getting the car you want at the price you've negotiated. Oh, sure, if you negotiate a price on a Friday night and come back with your payment on Saturday morning, you'll probably be fine. But if you wait a few days or a week, a dealership might sell the car you're interested in -- after all, car sales typically happen on a "first come, first served" basis.

As a result, we suggest that once you've received a written offer, you make plans to buy the car within the next few days -- or you might find that the dealer sold "your" car. Of course, a written offer isn't a commitment to buy, so you can always find a different car somewhere else, but we'd make sure that this is one of the last steps you take in the car-buying process.

This image is a stock photo and is not an exact representation of any vehicle offered for sale. Advertised vehicles of this model may have styling, trim levels, colors and optional equipment that differ from the stock photo.
Buying a Car: Should You Get an Offer in Writing? - Autotrader