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How to Research a Car Invoice Price for Free

This is America. We have more cars than people. Very few of us are able to survive a single day without a personal automobile. And yet, car buying is one of the biggest hassles in life.

Who knows why car shopping developed into the difficult, mistrustful, guessing game that it is. Thankfully, the Web is helping level the playing field. Now, you, the Net-savvy consumer, can more easily access information that many dealers would prefer you didn't know.

And I say, 'Viva la revolucion!'

Generally when you look at the sticker on a new car, it tells you the Manufacturer's Suggested Retail Price (MSRP). Keep this one thing in mind -- the devil with the MSRP. Read the sticker only for information on options -- ignore the numbers. Anytime a salesman mentions the MSRP, yawn, pick at your nail, blow your nose or wander off. If he or she suggests you actually pay the MSRP, consider laughing out loud. The MSRP has nothing to do with the price you should be willing to pay.

Where you need to start your shopping is by knowing the invoice price. This is a little tricky, but only a little bit. The definition of the invoice price is what the dealer paid to the manufacturer for the car. However, this is not always what the car cost the dealer. Quite often manufacturers offer special discounts to dealers called holdbacks (to help cover overhead costs) and incentives (to help dealers move cars).

A holdback is like a rebate. It's like this: say I buy a 4 pack of film for $10. Then I send away that little bar code and my receipt and get a rebate of two bucks. I paid 10 dollars, but the film only cost me eight. Understand the difference?

If you've got numbers like invoices and discounts at your fingertips, then ...

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  • You'll have a strong leg to stand on during negotiations.

  • You'll be able to make an offer that leaves the dealer with a profit and yet leaves you a little something for gas.

  • You can't be bullied by double-talk and intimidation.

  • You'll know when to walk away from a smooth, polyester-wearing, Dale Carnegie-dropout salesman.

Yes, there are honest car salesmen (I haven't met any personally, but rumor has it they do exist). However, be wary of a dealer who is over-eager to show you his invoice price, and offers you the unbeatable bargain of one dollar over invoice. You can almost be certain that hidden incentives are making this a still-profitable price for them.

The mouse who roared

A little time with a mouse and a keyboard can save you big bucks. The Web offers free sites that provide invoice prices for new and used cars. It's best to check out more than one site because each one has advantages and disadvantages, and you'll glean different bits of info from each.

For example, while all the sites give you the base price of any car, who buys a basic model vehicle? The extras may be called options, but every car on the lot is loaded with some, so you need to know how to figure in those prices as well. Some sites are better at explaining the different option packages and the prices.

The best sites are offsprings of famous invoice print publications: Kelley Blue Book, Edmunds and The Complete Car Cost Guide.

  • Edmunds' site is easy to navigate. After narrowing down to the make and model, you end up at the top of a lengthy page of information. Scroll down through a menu of links to VEHICLE PRICES (MSRP AND DEALER INVOICE). Click it and you'll find your magic number.

    For example, a 2000 Honda Accord LX four-door, with automatic transmission, has an invoice price of $19,526 plus a $415 destination charge (those aren't negotiable so don't waste your breath). Right below this you discover your local Honda dealership gets a holdback of 2 percent of the MSRP. Edmunds also includes a handy link to explain what a holdback is.

  • The Kelley Blue Book site navigates well enough, and, like Edmunds, deposits you on a long page of details and figures. KBB keeps the pricing nearer the top, though it still takes a couple of scrolling steps to find it.

    Lo and behold, on KBB, that same 2000 Honda Accord has the same invoice price as above. Sadly, the dealer-friendly KBB doesn't put holdback information right on the car page -- you have to go searching for it. But they do provide a detailed list of the option packages, which is vital to figure the final cost.

  • IntelliChoice CarCenter is the name of Complete Car Choice Guide's well-designed site. Sadly, these folks like to hold back nearly as much as the dealers do. IntelliChoice wants you to flash some cash for info on dealer incentives. Then again, do consider this option. Paid information tends to be more timely than the free stuff, and the $4.95 price for a report can result in big savings.
  • You can also find invoice pricing on sites that work with dealerships anxious to sell to Internet shoppers. Try out Autobytel.com and Stoneage.com.

On all these sites, you'll find more than the invoice and MSRP prices on new and used cars, trucks and motorcycles. You'll also discover the holdbacks and incentives that sometimes assure dealers a profit even if you pay that invoice price. Some also offer reviews, articles explaining how to use the information, and links to online financing and insurance.

These sites are best for looking for new car prices, because there are set nationwide invoice prices and incentives. With used cars, the rules are thrown out the window. The condition of the car and your geographic region make a big difference, so this researched information can really only serve as a general guide.

If, while car shopping, you run across a slithering shuckster who disputes or ridicules your well-researched numbers, well, now you'll have his number. With a firm knowledge of invoices and discounts, you don't have to put up with him. Move on to another salesman, who takes you and your wallet seriously, and who won't mind making a polite and mutually beneficial deal.

-- Posted: Feb. 15, 2000

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