I fear the time has come for me to bid farewell to my trusty, but aging, Subaru. Like most people, I’m not thrilled by the prospect of shopping for a new car even though my last experience was relatively painless. I’d researched makes and models, so I knew what I wanted. And I’d bought in September, the month when new models generally come out, so I was able to get the previous year’s model at a good price. On top of that, I found a dealership with a no-haggle policy, which relieved some of the pressure. But I certainly could have gotten a better price if I knew then what I know now.
Here’s what I should have done — and how you can get the best price on your next new car.
Study up online first
First, decide what models you’re interested in. Think of what will fit your lifestyle (SUV, sedan, minivan, truck), and then check online quality and safety ratings to narrow it down. To find a model that suits your budget, you can compare different manufacturer suggested retail prices (MSRP). But those are only “suggested” prices — the actual price can vary. If a dealer has too much inventory, they may offer a price below MSRP, and if demand is high, the vehicle may go for more than its MSRP.
To get a better idea of what you can expect to pay, use an online pricing tool to look up the dealer cost of the vehicle. Kelley Blue Book’s Fair Purchase Price aggregates data from thousands of transactions to tell you a model’s current average selling price, while the Edmunds Price Promise(SM) will give you a guaranteed, up-front price on a car at a local dealer within their network.
Optional equipment can jack up the price of a new car substantially. To find out if your desired features will break the bank, go to the automaker’s website and build your car online. You’ll see how adding a seat warmer or cruise control will affect the cost (plus, it’s fun!).
Finally, if you’re trading in your old car, it’s important to know how much it’s worth. You can look up its wholesale or trade-in value online at Kelley Blue Book or the National Automobile Dealers Association.
Look for incentives
Manufacturers often use cash rebates or low interest rates to stimulate sales. Find out if deals are being offered on the model you’re considering and take advantage. Special financing may only be available to buyers with excellent credit, though, so it’s wise to call the dealership first to see if you qualify. Getting pre-approved for a loan can also simplify negotiations at the dealership.
Choose the right time of year
You’ll find the best deals during periods when inventory is high and/or showroom traffic is low. Late September is good because dealerships are usually flooded with new models and face a post-summer slowdown in customers. But the prime time to shop is late December. While would-be customers are busy with Christmas activities, dealers are hit with a trifecta of sales pressures: they need to clear out last year’s models, they may need to reduce their inventories by year’s end for tax reasons, and they usually have annual quotas to reach in order to get their bonuses. This tends to put them in a deal-making frame of mind.
In general, you want to be shopping when everyone else isn’t — weekdays, rainy days, the mid-winter doldrums. If you can’t wait until the end of the year, dealers also have monthly quotas to fill, so the end of any month can yield savings.
Skip the dealership and buy online
If you’re tech savvy (as our readers usually are), why not forgo the pressure of the dealership and purchase your car virtually? Many dealerships now have internet sales departments that let you handle most of the purchase process online or over the phone. One example is General Motors’s new Shop-Click-Drive tool, which enables shoppers to get price estimates, review incentives, select vehicle features, and apply for financing, all online.
Negotiate like a champ
Before starting any negotiations, find out if the exact model you want is in stock. A dealer may be able to trade another dealership for your model, but you’ll probably get a better deal on a car they can sell you today.
If and when you do start haggling, keep the various parts of the negotiation (price, trade-in, and financing) separate. Use the research you did earlier to get the best possible deal on each. Settle on price first and then talk trade-in value and financing.
Ultimately, be ready to walk away. A dealer’s first offer is almost never their best or final offer, even if they tell you they can’t go lower. Be firm on what you’re willing to pay, and if you feel pressured or the dealer tries to raise a previously quoted price, head for the door. Most likely, the dealer will respond with a better offer.