My Strategy for Buying a New Car
I recently bought a new car and wanted to share the process that I use with the hope that it may help someone who may not know where to start. In my opinion, car buying is a far more unpleasant and convoluted process than it should be. Car dealerships sell multiple cars per day and are staffed by professional negotiators that have the average car buyer (who may buy one car every few years) at a great disadvantage. To get an idea for what goes on behind the scenes at a car dealership and how they view customers, I highly recommend reading the Edmunds.com article "Confessions of a Car Salesman", which oddly seems to have disappeared from their web site (see an archived MS Word version here).
Before you are ready to buy
- Test drive cars at a dealership you probably won't end up buying from. While you should give the salesperson that you are working with every opportunity to earn your business, chances are that they will not be able to match deals that you can find via contacting dealers online. Keep in mind that the salesperson will probably be eager to get you to sit down and discuss pricing after the test drive. During my initial visit to the dealership I always tell them that we are just starting the process and are trying to decide on what car we are going to buy and name some competing makes and models that I am considering. Even if I love the car and know I want to buy it I will never show my hand before I've thoroughly researched the car and what others are paying for it. It goes without saying that now is not the time to say "Oh, I LOVE the red one!". ;)
Once you know the make and model you want to buy
- Have your financing in place before you start talking pricing, even if you do not end up using it for your purchase. My personal favorite is the pre-approved automobile loan draft from Penfed, which is basically a credit union "blank check" pre-approved for a specific amount. You simply use this like a regular check to purchase your vehicle with the loan interest rate and terms already in place. For Penfed, I called their main number (800-247-5626) and spent about ten minutes on the phone with a helpful CSR applying for the loan and getting a quick approval. The Penfed loan terms were locked in for 90 days and I also elected to pay a $15 fee to have the check sent to me via next day Fedex instead of waiting for standard USPS delivery.
- Know the available manufacturer incentives for your vehicle of choice and when they expire (they can be found on the manufacturers web site like acura.com or at other sites like edmunds.com or kbb.com). If you have the option of cash back or a low financing rate, use a calculator like this one at Bankrate.com to determine which is the better deal. FWIW, in virtually every scenario I've run for my car purchases it was a better deal to take the cash back and finance elsewhere.
- Research what others in the country are paying for the same car. Some car buying sites will list the average price paid by others who live in your neck of the woods (Edmunds.com has True Market Value (TMV®), carsdirect.com has "Target Price", etc.), but I don't put much stock in these numbers since I've always been able to negotiate a lower price ($1,000+) on my own. In my opinion, the best place to learn what others are paying is to find a brand/model specific forum. For example, when I was researching the Acura TLX I found the tlxforums.com site. From this discussion, I was able to see what others were paying for this car all over the country. I also found out about an unadvertised $1,500+ edmunds.com exclusive incentive from this discussion. We didn't end up buying the Acura because Mrs. Frugalson preferred the Nissan Maxima, but this type of information is invaluable when you are trying to determine if you are getting a good deal on your car purchase.
- Ignore the invoice price, since it has no bearing on the actual dealer cost for the car. Miscellaneous manufacturer kickbacks to the dealer that the consumer never knows about allow the dealer to make a profit even if they sell the car for below invoice price. Focus on getting the best price you can without worrying about "dealer cost" or other meaningless distractions.
- Use the manufacturer and dealer web sites to research area inventory for models with the specific colors and options that you are interested in. If possible, note the VIN number for specific cars that you may want to target. For our purchase I targeted all dealerships within a 45 minute drive from my home.
- Consider a leftover car from the previous model year. We ended up buying a leftover 2016 Nissan Maxima at a nice discount since the 2017 models had started to arrive on the lot. The 2016 and 2017 Maximas were nearly identical, except the 2016 model can be had for a lower price.
When you're ready to buy
- The end of the month is the best time to buy a car as dealerships may be willing to offer better deals to try to reach sales targets and receive additional financial incentives from the manufacturer. Also, since dealerships are usually busier on weekends, try to work on your deal during the day on a weekday when buying traffic is slower.
- Use the manufacturer or dealer web sites to ask for a quote on the specific VIN numbers you have decided to target. Ask for an OTD price itemizing the price of the car, all discounts, manufacturer incentives, taxes, tags, and fees. I would suggest something like the following:
I am interested in purchasing the following vehicle by the end of the week:
New 2016 Acura TLX Base Model
Crystal Black Pearl exterior color, Ebony Leather interior color
Technology Package Option
Would you please provide your best out the door price for a sale with no trade in for this vehicle, specifying the purchase price including all applicable incentives, taxes, tags, and fees (destination, documentation, etc.)? Please note that I have already test driven the vehicle, so there is no need for me to visit your dealership until we are ready to close a deal.
I'm looking to act quickly, so please include your direct phone number along with your best OTD price in your email response so I can contact you once I receive the quote. Please know I do not wish to waste anyone's time and therefore would appreciate a confirmed offer.
If the price is right, I will make this a quick sale. Thank you for your time, and I look forward to hearing from you.
- Your initial batch of quotes will probably vary quite a bit. Some will be aggressive, some will be near MSRP, and for some odd reason a few dealerships will not even bother to respond. Take your best quote and try to use it to drive down the price at the other dealers you contacted. After a few emails/texts back and forth, you will probably find a couple of dealers who will offer good pricing if you agree to a quick deal.
- Even if you are pre-appoved for a great rate on your "blank check", don't rule out financing your car with the dealership. For each of my last two car purchases, I financed at a higher rate to get an additional discount from the dealer. For the Maxima purchase, I financed with the dealership at 3.99% to receive an additional $500 discount on the price of the car instead of using the 1.99% rate offered by my pre-approved Penfed loan. Once you get your initial statement or "welcome letter"from the lender, it is very easy to refinance that loan before you ever have to make a single payment.
- The finance person will try to get you to purchase several add-ons as you fill out the paperwork (extended warranty, Gap insurance, paint warranty, road hazard warranty, etc.). If you think you may be interested in some of these options, try to do some online research and figure out what people are paying for the same options. The Nissan finance person was relentless trying to get me to spend $2000+ on an extended warranty, $500 on a road hazard warranty, $1000 on a paint warranty, etc., but I politely just kept saying "no". It's always interesting to have the salesperson tell you what a great car with a great warranty you are looking at only to have the finance person tell you it's a piece of junk to try to get you to buy an extended warranty.
- Always use a credit card if you give the dealer a down payment on the car. If you end up having any problems with the dealership, you at least have some recourse via credit card chargeback if they won't refund your money. If you use cash or a check for your down payment, the dealership may not be cooperative since they already have your money. And of course, use a credit card with rewards to maximize the benefit.
After you've bought the car
- Consider refinancing your car loan to a better rate. This process is similar to the ten minutes it took to apply for the Penfed automobile loan draft. As always, Penfed is also a great choice for refinancing a loan (currently 1.99% for a five year loan), but I ended up using Alliant Credit Union (also currently 1.99% for a five year loan) for the last two car loans I've refinanced (Alliant main number: 800-328-1935). They simply need a copy of the Bill of Sale and a 10 Day Payoff Letter (typically available on the original lender's web site in my experience) to get the process started. Once everything has been approved, Alliant sends you a check that you send to the original lender for full loan payoff. You are also required to name Alliant as the lienholder on your car insurance and car title, which is pretty straight-forward. FWIW, if you are not a current Alliant Credit Union member they will pay a $100 bonus if you get an auto loan within 90 days of joining (details here).
- A manufacturer survey will likely be headed your way. The dealer places great value on these silly surveys and it is widely known that a non-perfect score is a failing score. Even though I have never had a "perfect" car buying experience, I do try to give a perfect score if they sold me a car for a fair price and treated me reasonably well. On the other hand, this survey can be a small bit of leverage against the dealer if you have any outstanding issues or complaints with them. If given the opportunity, why not ask "What is a perfect score worth to you?" and see if you can work something out. Failing that, I wouldn't hesitate to submit a survey with truthful, but "non-perfect" scores. When I bought a Honda that was in high demand years ago, I was told by the dealer what the price would be and that there would be no negotiation. I eventually relented, but I refused to finance through the dealership with the hope of denying them extra profit from a lender-supplied loan origination fee and my phone survey from Honda honestly reflected my non-perfect buying experience.