10 things to do before going to a dealership

On the Road 4 min read

Buying a car is one of life’s biggest purchases, which means it requires a bit more prep work than, say, picking out a head of lettuce or a new pair of sunglasses.

And yet, according to a 2018 study by Cox Automotive, nearly 50 percent of car buyers still walk into a dealership cold, without making contact with anyone there before arriving. It’s no wonder more than half of consumers are dissatisfied with the length of the purchase process.

In the digital age, you can do much of your research on vehicles and financing online. You can check your credit score and use a calculator to build a budget. When you’re ready to negotiate, most dealerships have online sales departments, so you can begin price discussions via e-mail or text.

In other words, you can do much of the legwork before you ever set foot in the dealership. Here are 10 things you can do that should save you time and money on your next car purchase:

1. Research vehicles that fit your lifestyle and your budget

It takes time to find the right ride. Whether you’re a turbo-commuter  or a tailgater, a muscle car fanatic or a family person, there are plenty of vehicles that will suit your needs. Use the wealth of online tools to shop for cars, read expert reviews, and research local market prices. The extra work will be worth it.

2. Decide if you’re going to buy or lease

There are solid reasons for both. Ask yourself a series of important and introspective questions: How many miles do you drive each year? Are you more comfortable renting or owning? Think through it, and you’ll find the right answer for your situation.

3. If you’re going to buy, determine if you want new or used

Cars depreciate quickly, and there are a lot of good deals on late-model vehicles coming off-lease. But if you plan to keep the car a long time, and you want to be the person to put the first scratch on it, brand new may be the way to go. New vehicles also come with the latest technology and safety features.

4. Check your credit and see about getting pre-qualified

Unless you’re going to pay cash, you will want to know your credit score and try pre-qualifying for a loan before heading to the dealership. Several lenders, including Capital One, provide online tools to pre-qualify with no impact to your credit score. Many dealerships will offer financing, and by pre-qualifying you’ll have a starting point for negotiations.

5. Create a realistic budget and calculate your total cost of ownership

It’s easy to focus on the price of your new vehicle and forget about things like tax, tag and title, which can add up. Don’t forget about insurance and annual fuel and maintenance costs, either. If you account for your Total Cost of Ownership, you’ll have a more focused picture of what you can afford.

6. Narrow your choices and comparison shop online

All the choices can get overwhelming, so after your initial wave of research, pick a few favorites and begin to shop for them online. Most websites will allow you to refine your search for specific trim levels, and some rate the dealer prices compared to local market values. Others provide car history reports for used vehicles. Take advantage of this intel and bookmark or save vehicles you want to test drive.

7. Check for incentives and rebates

Dealers and manufacturers regularly offer ways to save, especially on new vehicles. Several websites track rebates and incentives. If you’re buying new, consider a “leftover” vehicle when next year’s model rolls into dealerships.

8. Decide which type of dealership experience you want

Not all dealerships are created equal. Several national  chains sell used cars with a no-haggle pricing model. Rental car companies also sell late-model vehicles at set prices, or you can also opt for an online-only experience with either delivery to your house or you can pick up the vehicle at one of their vending machines. If you want to negotiate the lowest price, however, there are still many choices available.

9. Prepare for every stage of negotiations, and contact multiple dealers online or via text

No matter which style of dealership you choose, there will be some negotiating involved (yes, even at a no-haggle dealer), whether it’s over a trade-in, financing or add-ons and extended warranty. So do your homework, get estimates on the value of your trade-in, pre-qualify for financing and don’t hesitate to contact online sales departments via text or e-mail to limit the time you spend negotiating at the dealership.

10. Schedule your test drive(s) at one of the best times to buy

Now that you’ve done all your prep work, set up specific times to test drive the vehicle(s) you’re interested in. If you’re planning to negotiate, be strategic about when you schedule the test drives. If you want more time and less pressure, midweek is a good option. If you’re hoping to get a lower price, consider the end of the month or the end of the year, when discounts are typically a little deeper.

Disclaimer: This information is for educational purposes only and is not intended to provide legal, investment, or financial advice or to indicate the availability or suitability of any Capital One product or service to your unique circumstances. For specific advice about your unique circumstances, you may wish to consult a qualified professional.

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