A lot of people will offer hints on what to do in the dealership when it comes time to buy a car. And tips on test driving, negotiation, and financing are valuable. But the path to a car purchase is so strewn with boulders that if you don’t watch your step, you can stub a toe or even break a leg, metaphorically speaking. Car buying can be such a complicated process that knowing what not to do in the dealership might be even more important than knowing what to do.
If you do one or more of these seven things we advise against, it will make getting a good deal harder. Don’t make things more difficult for yourself. You want to land the right vehicle for the best possible price, so here’s what you should not do when you visit the dealership:
1. Don’t Enter the Dealership without a Plan
You can stroll into a restaurant without knowing what you want to eat and get a good meal. You can wander into a big-box store just to kill some time and walk out with a decent microwave oven or button-down shirt. But if you mosey into a car dealership lacking a plan, there is a good chance you’ll come out with a crater-size hole in your bank account. Not only that, your misspent Saturday morning could haunt you for years to come. A car purchase should not be an impulse buy. Know—don’t guess, know—what your current car is worth, what the car you plan to buy is selling for, how much money you can put down, and how much money you can spend on a monthly car payment. If you know all this going in, you’ll be way ahead of most car buyers.
2. Don’t Let the Salesperson Steer You to a Vehicle You Don’t Want
Typically, a dealership is always trying to sell the vehicles it has in stock, Fuller told us. And that is not always in the best interest of the customer. “If the salesperson really knows the inventory, then he or she is trying to match up the customer with something that can be sold today,” Fuller said. If you are not specific and firm about what you want, the dealership will attempt to put you into a vehicle that it’s trying to move, even if it isn’t what’s best for you. Don’t let yourself be sold a car.
3. Don’t Discuss Your Trade-In Too Early
It’s almost always possible—with time and effort—to sell an old car privately for more than the dealer offers in trade. Many buyers nevertheless find the convenience of driving their old car in and their new one away compelling. If that’s your aim, research the value of your trade-in beforehand but decline offers or pressure to discuss it until after you’ve settled the price on the new car. If it turns out that you’re “upside down” on the old car—that is, you owe more money on it than you’re getting in trade—you probably don’t belong in a new-car dealership yet. At the least, the car should be sold privately to pay off the debt. Yes, the dealer will offer to roll your old debt into a new loan. But that’s not a good idea.
4. Don’t Give the Dealership Your Car Keys or Your Driver’s License
It is almost as anachronistic as a pocket watch, but some dealers—happily fewer than ever before, according to Christopher Sutton, vice president of automotive retail at J.D. Power—still engage in tactics designed to keep you in the showroom until a deal is made. A couple of the tried-and-not-so-true tactics revolve around test-drive vehicles. Before a test drive, the salesperson might ask for your car keys and/or your driver’s license “as security.” Then, when you return and want to leave without buying, the car keys or the license will go missing. “We don’t see it that much anymore,” Sutton told us, referring to abusive dealer tactics. “And I think the advent of ratings and reviews online . . . has contributed to that.”
Yes, a wise dealership needs to determine that you have a valid driver’s license before allowing you to take a car out for a test spin, but they don’t need to take it from you and hold it as some sort of deposit. It should be enough for them to know your identity and your address. Since you have typically parked your own car at the dealership, there is the strong likelihood you will return. Further, when you go on the test drive, it is obviously good for you to have your driver’s license in your possession.
5. Don’t Let the Dealership Run a Credit Check
If you are going to finance your new car with a loan, the dealer will have to run a credit check eventually, but don’t agree to this before you are well on your way to completing a deal. A full-on credit check, also known as a “hard pull,” can negatively affect your credit rating. There is no point okaying a credit check and risking a ding to your credit if you’re a long way from buying.
6. Don’t Engage in Monthly Payment Negotiations
Remember, you’re in the dealership to buy a vehicle, not to wedge a vehicle payment into your monthly budget. If you started with a plan that includes the maximum price you will pay for the vehicle based on your own affordability limits, the monthly payments should be a byproduct of the negotiation. “Problems arise when the customer is backed into a corner because he or she wants more vehicle than he or she can reasonably and rightfully afford,” Fuller said. “To make the deal work, a typical solution is to drastically extend the duration of the payment schedule. Maybe the customer can afford $500 per month, but at 60 months, that payment won’t work. So the dealer bumps it to 72 or 84 months. This is a really bad idea for the customer.”
7. Don’t Feel You Have to Buy Right Now
For many people, purchasing a new car is a stressful experience, so they try to get it over with as quickly as humanly possible, and that can lead to negative results. In their eagerness to get through it, they don’t consider their options carefully or negotiate skillfully. (For instance, walking away is an excellent negotiating tactic that you might hesitate to employ if your priority is simply getting the deal over with.) While dealer personnel will often put pressure on you to buy now, using gambits like, “I can only give you this price today,” you are very well advised to take your time. Today’s new-car market is hotly competitive. There is absolutely no reason to feel rushed by a limited-time offer; odds are that an offer just as good, or better, will be available tomorrow.
Heed these warnings, and your path to a car purchase should be far less strenuous. And you’ll be in better shape—financially, and maybe even emotionally—once the deal is done.
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