You’ve done your homework and know what kind of car you’re interested in and what optional features you want. You’ve checked to see whether your desired car will hold its value, decided whether to lease or buy, and brushed up on your negotiating tactics. Time to hit the dealership.

But, before you sign on that dotted line and drive your new car away, here are some things you’ll want to ask.

1. Is the car I want on the lot?

There’s no point in spending time and energy negotiating only to find out the car model you want, in the right color and with the right features, isn’t available. The dealer might be able to get your car from another dealership, but it won’t happen immediately. And the other dealer might not honor the price or financing you’ve settled on.

2. What’s the actual cost of the car?

There’s a vehicle’s MSRP (manufacturer suggested retail price) and then there’s the amount you’ll have to pay to get it out the door. MSRP can be higher or lower, depending on optional equipment and whether the car model is in high demand. In addition, you should expect to pay sales tax, a state licensing fee, and a documentation fee, which dealers charge for filling out the contract. Documentation fees can vary, so find out how much your dealer is asking for — it might be negotiable if the amount isn’t regulated by the state.

Some dealers may tack on other charges like “handling fees” or “advertising fees,” but these are not official fees and you aren’t obligated to pay them.

3. Have any aftermarket features been added on?

Along with optional equipment installed at the factory by the automaker, some dealers will add on extras like tinted windows or auto recovery systems. These may’ve been included in the price of the car without you knowing it, so ask about them and review your contract carefully. Add-on fees can be negotiated just like car prices can (if possible, find out the wholesale market value of the item or service).  If you don’t want the add-on at all, you can refuse to pay or ask for a different car that doesn’t have them.

4. What’s the mileage on my car?

This might not seem like an issue for a brand-new vehicle, but maybe your car was the one all the salespeople used for test drives. Or maybe it was traded from a dealership in another city. If the odometer shows more than 300 miles, ask for a discount.

5. What are the terms of my payment?

Deciding whether to lease or buy is only half the battle — you still need to determine how much you’ll be paying each month, and that happens in the dealer’s financing office. Don’t discuss financing or volunteer how much you can afford to pay each month until you’ve firmly settled the price of the car. Before you sign a lease, be sure you understand all the fees and conditions, including what is considered “excessive wear and tear” and which, if any, aftermarket accessories may be prohibited.

6. What’s the warranty coverage?

Your new car will come with a basic “bumper-to-bumper” warranty from the manufacturer that covers repairs to factory-installed parts for a specified period (usually 3 years or 30,000 miles). There’s often a separate “powertrain” warranty that covers the engine, transmission, and other moving parts and typically lasts longer than the basic warranty. The contract, however, usually requires you to take your car in for scheduled maintenance and keep accurate service records — otherwise, the warranty may be voided.

Warranties can vary by manufacturer, model, and year, so read yours carefully before you buy. Many dealers offer extended warranties that last longer or cover more than the factory warranty. But the majority of buyers don’t end up using the coverage or pay more for it than they would for the repairs. If you do decide to go for it, be sure to ask about any repairs that might be excluded from coverage. Extended warranties could have various tiers of coverage and price, so be sure you know what you’re signing up for.

7. Is there an authorized dealership or repair shop close to my house?

Maybe you saved a bundle by going to another town to buy your car. Good for you! But, before you drive off, find out if there’s a place close to home where you can take your car for repairs or maintenance. Your warranty might require them to be done by an authorized shop.

Once you’ve gotten all your questions answered and have picked out your shiny, fresh-smelling ride, make sure you have the right auto insurance. We’ll be glad to help you out — even if your car’s a lemon.


Safe and smart | Financial safety


about Ellen

Ellen has spent many years as a professional wordsmith, helping to shed light on such topics as world travel, cargo pants, and the porosity of bath tiles. As a freelance copywriter for Esurance, she brings her boundless curiosity to the world of insurance. Outside work, she can be found cheering on the San Francisco Giants, hiking in the Oakland hills, and (barely) resisting smuggling penguins home from Antarctica.