How to get the best deal on a car

Man and woman reading brochure at car dealershipImage: Man and woman reading brochure at car dealership

In a Nutshell

Once you decide on the make and model for your new set of wheels, it’s time to figure out how to get the best deal possible for you. Doing a little research, shopping around, negotiating a price and timing the purchase could be the keys to success.
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You want to make sure you’re not paying more than you need to when you drive your new car off the lot.

Getting the best deal possible for you might require upfront research, comparison shopping and negotiating. It may also require a shift in mindset if you’re focusing mainly on your monthly payment amount. To figure out a deal that works for you, you’ll want to think about car price and your financing separately.

Here are five tips to help you get the best deal for you on a car.

  1. Research the price range
  2. Apply for car loan preapproval
  3. Negotiate with the car dealer
  4. Time it right
  5. Be careful about extras

1. Research the price range

You may have already done a lot of research and taken some test drives to determine which car you want to buy. Keep your research cap on as you figure out an appropriate price range for the car.

You’ll likely come across several pricing terms in your research or at the car dealership.

  • Invoice price is how much the dealership paid the manufacturer for the vehicle, which may include destination and delivery fees. But the dealership’s profit depends on more than the difference between the invoice price and the sales price, because manufacturers often give dealerships rebates, discounts or other incentives for selling cars.
  • Manufacturer’s suggested retail price, or sticker price, is how much the manufacturer thinks the dealership should sell the car for. The dealer must display the MSRP on the car’s window but can choose to sell the car for more or less.

Edmunds’ and Kelley Blue Book’s pricing tools show a vehicle’s invoice price and MSRP, along with the fair market value for new and used cars. The fair market value is an estimate of how much you should expect to pay for the car based on the make, model, features and recent nearby sales of similar vehicles.

Knowing these prices can help you understand the price range you may be working within for that vehicle and help you find a car that fits your budget.

2. Apply for car loan preapproval

You can skip this step if you plan on buying a car with cash. But most buyers take out an auto loan to finance a new vehicle.

If you already know the estimated cost of the car, you could apply to get preapproved for an auto loan. This conditional approval from a lender can include estimated terms, such as the amount of money you can borrow, loan term and interest rate. Although getting preapproved doesn’t mean you’re approved for a loan, it helps you to understand whether you’re likely to be approved and the loan terms you may qualify for. Applying for preapproval can result in a hard inquiry on your credit reports.

Having a preapproval offer from a lender before you head to the dealership lets you focus on negotiating the price of the car rather than thinking about negotiating loan terms.

Researching several lenders can also help you save on financing — you can choose the lender with the offer that best fits your financial situation.

But don’t write off the dealership completely. The dealer may be willing to try to beat the terms of your preapproval offer. And if you’re purchasing a new car, have good credit and it’s available, you could qualify for a 0% APR auto loan.

3. Negotiate with the car dealer

Negotiating is important if you want to get the best price possible. You might find it uncomfortable or even frustrating, but using the facts you gathered in step No. 1 may help.

Focus on the car price separately

First and foremost, if you plan to finance with the dealership or want to trade in a car, negotiate those parts of the transaction separately. Focus only on the car price first. Otherwise, the car sales associate may try to shift the conversation to your monthly payment.

This can be tricky. For example, the dealer may offer a lower monthly payment by extending your loan term, but a longer repayment period could mean you pay more interest on the loan and risk becoming upside down.

Know the out-the-door price

It may be best to start your negotiations with the invoice price and negotiate up toward the fair market value. But be sure that you and the dealer are negotiating the same number — your final, out-the-door price. The out-the-door price includes costs like sales tax and registration, title and dealer fees that aren’t included in the MSRP. If you don’t focus on this number, you could find yourself going over your budget.

Get offers from multiple dealers

Visit several dealerships to gather price quotes. Take the lowest offer and follow up with the other dealers to see if they’re willing to beat the price. You can repeat this step to try and drive the purchase price down even more with counteroffers.

If you don’t have the time to do this in person, consider reaching out to dealerships via email for quotes and negotiating in writing. You can also outsource the negotiations by paying for a car-buying service to shop on your behalf.

4. Time it right

Timing can be everything when it comes to getting the best deal on a car. Some dealerships may feel extra pressure to sell cars at certain times of the month or year.

Here are a few time periods when it may be best to buy a car.

  • Holidays — Dealerships may have special rebates, cash back or financing offers. While these can occur at any time throughout the year, they’re often offered on national holidays like Memorial Day or Labor Day.
  • End of the month or year — The dealership may have a sales goal to meet by the end of the month and be willing to lower its price. Similarly, dealerships may have annual quotas that drive down prices toward the end of the year.
  • End of a model year — You might get a better price on last year’s model if you wait to buy until the new model year comes out.

5. Be careful about extras

Even if you’ve negotiated the car price, the dealer will likely offer you a few extras when you sit down to sign all the sales paperwork. Extended warranties, prepaid maintenance plans, upgrades and other add-ons can be tempting — particularly if you’re feeling happy about getting a good deal.

But before you say yes, consider the pros and cons. If you’re interested in extras, try to negotiate their prices as well. And, as always, keep your eye on the out-the-door price to make sure you stay within your budget.

Next steps

Getting a great deal on a new car can feel wonderful. But before you start negotiations, be sure you’ve considered the total cost of owning a car, beyond the car price and any monthly payments. Fuel, maintenance and auto insurance are among the ongoing costs to consider and work into your budget.

About the author: Louis DeNicola is a personal finance writer and has written for American Express, Discover and Nova Credit. In addition to being a contributing writer at Credit Karma, you can find his work on Business Insider, Cheapi… Read more.