Research before you look at cars
Set your price — before you start shopping
Decide how much money you can spend and what type of car best suits your needs before you visit a car lot. Make a list of all the makes and models that interest you and include the features and options you want. Then, do some homework on those cars. Use online sources and consumer and automotive publications to compare different vehicles, reviewing information about reliability, frequency of maintenance, trunk space, passenger comfort and other practical features. The more you know about your individual needs, the quicker you can drive the car you want off the lot.
Pick your potential cars based on more than one factor
Research various models to determine which are the safest, most reliable and otherwise suitable to your needs. Consider a car’s safety features – more auto makers are offering side air bags in addition to driver’s side and passenger side airbags. Other optional safety features include built-in child safety seats, anti-lock brakes and traction control. Also, consider the car’s outward visibility, blind spots and instrument panel visibility.
Check out crash tests and accident data
View crash test videos on our site to see how various models hold up in 10- and 40-mph collisions and in side impacts.
Keep more than one car in mind
Narrow your choices to several cars, not just one. Setting your sights on only one car may reduce your bargaining power.
What to do when you’ve chosen a car
Compare dealer costs with window stickers
Find updated price lists to compare dealer costs with window sticker prices. You’ll know how much bargaining room you have on the basic car and individual options on it. Negotiations often have a vocabulary of their own. Here are some terms you may hear when you’re talking price with a salesperson.
- Invoice Price — the manufacturer’s initial charge to the dealer. This price usually is higher than the dealer’s final cost because dealers receive rebates, allowances, discounts and incentive awards. Generally, the invoice price should include a charge for freight/destination and delivery. If you buy a car based on the invoice price — at invoice, $100 below invoice, 2 percent above invoice, etc. — and freight is already included, make sure freight isn’t added again to the sales contract.
- Base Price — the cost of the car without options, but including standard equipment and factory warranty. This price is printed on the Manufacturer’s Suggested Retail Price.
- Manufacturer’s Suggested Retail Price (MSRP) — also known as the Monroney sticker, this shows the base price, the suggested retail price of manufacturer-installed options, the manufacturer’s transportation charge and the fuel economy. Federal law requires this sticker to be affixed to the car window, and only the purchaser can remove it.
- Dealer Sticker Price — usually printed on a supplemental sticker, this is the Monroney sticker price plus the suggested retail price of dealer-installed options, such as additional dealer markup (ADM) or additional dealer profit (ADP), dealer preparation and undercoating.
Get a dealer quote — in writing
Agree with the dealership that the written quote is firm. If the dealer refuses to give a written quote, find out why.
Shop at more than one dealership
Check out several dealerships and their reliability with the local Better Business Bureau.
Consider questions about financing, service contracts, trade-ins or other extras after you have settled on a price.
If you’re uncomfortable negotiating, consider a car buying service
Negotiating is an understood factor of buying a car. If you’re unsure of your negotiating skills, a car-buying service can step in and work on your behalf.
Shop around for financing, and compare the offers
Contact lenders directly — don’t just let the dealership find financing for you. Compare the financing offers you receive with what the dealer offers you. Offers vary, so shop around for the best deal, comparing the annual percentage rate (APR) and the length of the loan. When negotiating to finance a car, be wary of focusing only on the monthly payment. The total amount you will pay depends on the price of the car you negotiate, the APR and the length of the loan.
Sometimes, dealers offer very low financing rates for specific cars or models, but they may not be willing to negotiate on the price of these cars. To qualify for the special rates, you may be required to make a large down payment. Sometimes it’s more affordable to pay higher financing charges on a car that is lower in price or to buy a car that requires a smaller down payment.
Shop around for auto insurance before you buy a car
Make sure you understand the cost of insurance before you buy a new car. Calculate how your insurance will change with other car scenarios — depending on your insurance company, you may be able to do this online or through your insurance agent/broker.
Test drive before you buy
The only way to get a proper feel for the performance, handling, ride and comfort of a new car is to drive it. Here are a few helpful test driving tips:
- Test drive all the models you are considering.
- Drive the cars on different types of roads.
- The test drive should last long enough for you to get an accurate feel for acceleration, braking, steering, and overall stability.
- Listen to the radio for sound quality but turn it off during the test drive so you can listen to car, wind, and road noises.
- Rent a car of the same make and model you anticipate buying for the weekend.
Make sure you read and understand the contract before you sign
Take the time to read the sales agreement — especially the fine print — and don’t accept what you don’t want. Don’t hesitate to ask for clarification on points you don’t understand. If you leave a deposit, be sure you understand the conditions and your obligations. Remember, a contract is binding (on you and the dealer) and it may be difficult to get your deposit back.
As with all contracts, don’t rely on verbal promises, and do not sign a contract that has blank spaces. A contract is binding only after an authorized dealership representative (the sales manager or general manager, for instance) has approved it, so before you leave the showroom, be sure someone in authority has signed it. Finally, be sure to get a copy of the signed contract for your records.
Look over the car before you drive it off the lot
Make sure everything you ordered is on the car and that everything is working properly before you leave the dealership. Also make sure that:
- The salesperson reviews the owner’s manual, explains any special break-in procedures and discusses routine maintenance schedules with you.
- You look under the hood and ask fundamental questions, including where to locate the oil dipstick, the windshield washer fluid reservoir, the coolant overflow/fill canister and the brake master cylinder fluid reservoir.
- You inspect the trunk and check the spare tire, jack and any special instructions.
- The salesperson introduces you to the service manager and shows you the service department.