"There's a sucker born every minute," carnival
king P.T. Barnum allegedly proclaimed in the fall of 1869. And while
Barnum was never known to own an auto dealership (after all, he died
in 1891 -- several years before Henry cranked out his first Ford),
some might believe his words live on in the heart of every car salesman.
OK -- they're not all out to rip you off. Most are just out to make an honest dollar.
But most are experienced and aggressive salespeople. So if you're
going out to buy a new car this year, you'll want to make sure you
know what you're doing.
You'll need to be an educated, assertive consumer. While
this requires a bit of research and number crunching, with the volume
of information available online and in print, you should be ready
to head to the showroom in just a few hours.
Here are the come-ons, misrepresentations and mistakes
you'll want to watch for:
To avoid being misled, know your credit score before
you head to the showroom. Contact the three major credit bureaus
and ask for a copy of your credit report. You may have to pay a
nominal fee. The credit agencies are: Experian,
The transaction trick
Many people view buying a car as one transaction.
It's not, and dealers know this. "There's really three transactions
rolled into one -- the new car price, the trade-in value, and
the financing," says Brian Reed, director of Internet channel
at Capital One Auto Finance, San Diego. "The dealer sees
all three as ways to make money."
Treat each of these as separate transactions,
and negotiate each one. If you get a new car for $200 over invoice,
but only receive $1,000 for a trade-in car that's worth $2,500,
you haven't done as well as you could.
"You need to manage all parts of the
process by doing research ahead of time," says Joe Wiesenfelder,
senior editor of cars.com. "It's very important that buyers
not think of the dealer's finance department as their loan agent.
The dealer is not required to find you the best rate, and might
add to the number by serving as the middleman."
A dealer might say, "We can get you into this car for only
$389 a month." Probably true, but how? In some cases, the
dealer may have factored in a large down payment, or may have
stretched the term of the loan out to 60 or 72 months.
Focus on the price of the car rather than the monthly
payment. "Never answer the question, 'How much can you pay
each month,'" says James Walsh, editorial director with Silver
Lake Publishing, Los Angeles. "Stick to saying, 'I can afford
to pay X-dollars for the car.'"
The vehicle price listed on the window is what's
known as the MSRP, or manufacturer's suggested retail price. Who
cares? You want to know the invoice price -- the amount the dealer
paid for it. Working from the invoice up is much easier than trying
to cut dollars from the MSRP.
You should also find out what cars actually are selling
for, after taking into account any consumer and dealer incentives.
A number of Web sites provide information on the actual selling
prices of cars, as well as rebates and incentives. These include
Of course, some popular cars go for sticker
price. The Honda Odyssey minivan currently falls into this group,
says Wiesenfelder of cars.com.
The holdback hustle
Manufacturers often give cash incentives --
sometimes called "holdback" -- to their dealers to encourage
them to move slow moving models, says Reed of Capital One. However,
this typically isn't mentioned in advertisements.
You'll want to search for holdbacks or other
factory-to-dealer incentives available for the car you're considering.
While it's not a given that the dealer will apply any of these funds
to the car you like, it doesn't hurt to ask.
The financing four-flush
Some dealers have been known to call customers
days or even weeks after they signed a purchase agreement to tell
them that the financing fell through. "It's a crock,"
warns Jeff Ostroff, president and chief executive officer with
ConsumerNet Inc., the Fort Lauderdale-based publisher of carbuyingtips.com.
"They can check your financing in 15 minutes."
The goal of these unscrupulous dealers often
is to put you into a more expensive car -- another red flag. "If
you didn't qualify for $299 per month, how would you qualify for
$450?" points out Ostroff. To avoid this, you may want to have
financing in hand before you head to the dealer.
The insurance illusion
Some dealers may try hard to get you to purchase
an insurance policy when you're buying your car. One type, gap
insurance, covers the difference between what the car is worth
and the amount you still owe on it. Say the car is worth $10,000
but you still owe $12,000. If your car is a total loss, a gap
insurance policy will cover that $2,000 difference. Another favorite,
life insurance, will pay the balance of your loan if you die
before you've been able to repay it.
These policies may or may not make sense for
you. In either case, you want to understand what you're purchasing,
and have the opportunity to decline it and shop around for better
The rate razzle-dazzle
It certainly sounds tempting -- zero percent
interest to finance a new car. However, this deal may not be the
best one for your pocketbook. For starters, "Most financing
incentives are for shorter terms and you need a stellar credit
record," says Wiesenfelder of cars.com. With very short-term
loans, such as 24 or 36 months, payments on even a moderately
priced car can be sky high.
In addition, you may be better off finding your
own financing, and then taking the dealer rebate, if one is offered.
Say you're looking at a $20,000 car and will get $4,000 on your
trade-in. You can choose between zero-percent financing, or financing
at 3.49 percent with a $2,000 rebate. The term of the loan is 36
months. Over the course of the loan, you'll come out ahead by more
than $1,200 if you take the rebate and the 3.49 percent financing,
says Reed of Capital One.
The rollover ruse
Often, it's tempting to want to trade up to
a more expensive car -- even before you've finished paying off
the car you're currently driving. One way that some car buyers
do this is by "rolling over" the remaining payments
on your current car into a new car loan or lease.
While this isn't illegal, it's risky. Why? You'll
end up owing more on the second car than it's worth. In the parlance
of the automobile world, you'll be "upside down" in the
vehicle. If it's totaled in an accident, or if you decide down the
road to trade it in, you'll end up writing out a big check to cover
the remaining amount of the loan.
The balloon bamboozle
Similarly, there's nothing illegal or even
deceptive about dealers offering loan periods extending out six
or seven years. After all, many cars last longer than they used
to, and longer loan terms mean your monthly payments are lower
than they otherwise would be.
Still, there's a danger. "These loans take forever
to pay off," says Mark Perleberg, lead automotive expert with
You're likely to continually owe more on your car than it's worth,
because your car is depreciating faster than you're paying it off.
If you're considering a long loan period, you may want to consider
a less expensive car better suited to your budget.
Similarly, some dealers will encourage you to purchase
a car for unrealistically low monthly payments now, but with a balloon
(inflated or much larger) payment at the end of the loan period.
In a few cases, this can be a legitimate way to finance a car. For
instance, you may just have graduated and can realistically assume
that your income will rise by the time the balloon payment comes
Be wary, however. "Make sure you know what you're
doing," says Wiesenfelder. "If you're only paying $198
a month on a $35,000 car, there's a reason. Eventually, you have
to pay the principal."
How can you avoid all of these come-ons? Educate
yourself. "Many dealers are good and honest, but there are
some that you need to be more careful of," says Reed of Capital
One. "Know what you want to buy and know your alternatives
to dealer financing. Then, be careful of the dealer selling you
things you don't want."
-- Updated: Jan. 20, 2005