Your goal is to get the best car at the best price. The dealers' goal should be to help you do this, but too often it's simply to make as much profit as they can. As a smart shopper, you need to know the common strategies that dealerships use to pad their bottom line—from tricky negotiating tactics to trying to sell you unnecessary extras—and how to avoid playing their game.
Mixing negotiations. Salespeople like to combine the vehicle price, trade-in,
and/or financing negotiation, often asking you what you can afford to pay per
month. This gives them more latitude to provide a favorable figure in one area
while inflating figures in other areas. In the end, this could cost you more
Avoid this trap by negotiating one thing at a time, starting with the price of the car. Approach this as if you were paying cash, with no trade-in. To get the best deal, you should go in with a starting price that's based not on the vehicle's sticker price but on how much the dealer paid for it. The dealer invoice price is commonly available on Web sites and in pricing guides, but that isn't necessarily what the dealer paid. Behind-the-scenes bonuses, such as dealer incentives and holdbacks, give the dealer more profit margin—sometimes thousands of dollars—which gives you more room to haggle. To help, Consumer Reports New Car Price Reports includes the CR Wholesale Price, which is the dealer invoice minus any incentives, holdbacks, or rebates. A reasonable starting price is 4 to 8 percent over the CR Wholesale Price, depending on how much demand there is for the model.
Make it clear to the salesperson that you want the lowest possible markup over your starting price, and that you'll visit other dealerships selling the same vehicle and will buy from the one with the best price.
Once you've settled on a price, discuss financing and any trade-in separately. This makes it easier to get the best deal at every step of the transaction.
0 down, 0 interest, 0 payments for one year. This may sound good, but there are downsides that can cost you money. After the first year, you still owe all the monthly payments you've delayed, often at a higher-than-necessary interest rate. In short, you end up owing much more than the sticker price on a vehicle that is now a used car.
Consider this kind of deal carefully. No down payment, for instance, means you'll have to finance more, which makes the monthly payments higher and increases the amount you pay in interest over the life of the loan. Be sure you know what the interest rate will be after the first year, and compare with rates that are currently available. Keep in mind that many buyers don't qualify for zero-percent loans and other low rates. Knowing the current rates can also help you avoid being talked into a rate that's higher than what you could get elsewhere.
The leasing game. Many leasing customers assume that the monthly payment the salesperson quotes is a nonnegotiable figure. That's not true. The figure is often based on a vehicle's sticker price with no discount, and can be negotiated just as if you were buying the car. In fact, to keep the transaction simple, you can negotiate the vehicle price before mentioning that you want to lease.
Other negotiable lease items include the down payment, annual mileage limit, and purchase-option price. Just as when buying, you can have dealers compete against each other, giving your business to the one that offers you the best deal.
Financing and your credit score. Dealers like to arrange the financing for your vehicle because it gives them another source of profit. But the interest rate they offer may be higher than you could get elsewhere. Don't make financing a purchase-time decision. Before visiting the dealership, make sure you know how you'll pay for the vehicle. Call ahead to find out what the dealer's rate is, and compare it with what you could get from banks, credit unions, or other lending institutions. If you are preapproved for a loan, you can keep the financial arrangements out of the negotiations.
Remember that your credit score will affect what interest rate you're offered, so it's good to know it in advance. Ideally, check your credit score a couple months before buying the car so that you have time to correct any errors in your report.
Knowing your credit score can also protect you if a disreputable dealer tries to give you a higher interest rate than you deserve. Any score over 700 should ensure you the lowest rates. A report with a credit score costs $15 or less at each of the major credit bureaus: Equifax, www.equifax.com, 800-685-1111; Experian, www.experian.com, 888-397-3742; and TransUnion, www.transunion.com, 800-888-4213.
Loading on the options. Salespeople will sometimes try to make up for a low price on a vehicle by talking you into a lot of optional equipment. Do your homework, so you know what options you want and which you can live without. Many options are available separately, but others can only be bought as part of a package. Consider these carefully. Option packages can make you pay for features you don't need to get a few you want. It's best to choose a vehicle trim level that gives you most of the options you want, then add other options separately. If a model doesn't have the features at the price you want, consider another.
Remember that you can negotiate the price of options. Various Web sites and Consumer Reports' New Car Price Reports give you dealer invoice price for all available options.
Extras you don't need. Another profit source for dealers is extras such as rustproofing, fabric protection, paint sealant, and etching your Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) on windows to deter thieves. Sometimes, these types of charges will simply appear on your bill of sale without anyone having mentioned them to you. Don't waste your money. What could cost the dealer about $90 can cost you $1,000 or more.
Vehicle bodies are already treated to protect against rust. Upholstery is typically treated at the factory, or you can do it yourself with a can of spray-on fabric protectant. Paint sealants and waxes are available for under $15 at any auto-parts store or supermarket. Some states do require dealers to offer VIN etching, but none require that you buy it from them. If you want VIN etching, you can do it yourself with a $25 kit.
Dealer prep fees—such as checking tire pressure—should be included in the purchase price, not listed as extras. If these items are on your bill of sale, refuse to pay for them.
The question of extended warranties. At some point in the buying process, the dealership's financing manager will try to sell you an extended warranty, which can cost hundreds of dollars. Consumer Reports does not recommend buying an extended warranty unless you plan on keeping a trouble-prone vehicle for an extended time after the original warranty runs out. Most manufacturer warranties are sufficient, with bumper-to-bumper coverage of at least three years or 36,000 miles and powertrain coverage that's often longer. If you want an extended warranty, ones offered by the auto manufacturer are typically better than those offered by third-party companies.
Some disreputable dealers may tell you that you must buy an extended warranty because the bank requires it. In fact, lenders typically don't require it, and making you pay for one under these pretenses is illegal in some states.
Car buying kits
If you are unsure about the type of car that best suits your needs, a Consumer Reports Car Buying Kit can help. It provides side-by-side comparison to any make or model you choose, access to all new-car pricing information, and advice on how to get a good deal.