To make your best deal, focus on only one part at a time, starting with getting the best price on your new car. Only after you have that in writing do you start talking about incentives which would be subtracted from the negotiated price, or the trade-in, or the financing, says Reed. What you don't want is the money you saved on one part of the deal added on somewhere else.
5. Realize that everything is negotiable. Many times, add-on fees are preprinted on auto sales contracts, says Ostroff. The not-so-subtle message to buyers: This is a fixed cost and non-negotiable.
Wrong, Ostroff says. In reality, everything is negotiable, and smart buyers know it. Preprinted numbers can be crossed out, or an equal amount can be subtracted elsewhere on the same form.
6. Get educated. "Know what a good deal is," says Carter Myers III, president of Carter Myers Automotive, a Charlottesville, Va.-based dealership group.
Manufacturers are offering incentives on more than two-thirds of the vehicles on the market, Reed says. What you need to know are the incentives that manufacturers are giving to buyers or dealers on the car that you want.
You can get some great information on sites like Edmunds.com, ConsumerReports.org, KBB.com, NADAguides.com, CarBuyingTips.com and JDPower.com. Edmunds has a "true market value" feature that reveals what buyers are paying for the same make and model in their area and nationally.
One of the most powerful sources for information on incentives is the automakers own Web sites, says Reed.
"Become an expert in over three weeks or so," he says. "It can save you a lot of money."
You can also enter your chosen car model and "incentives" or a similar term into a search engine, Consumer Reports' Evarts says.
Because safety is important as a way to save money on insurance, check out the crash tests and other safety factors at IIHS.org and SaferCar.gov.
7. Time the market. One more way to save: Buy at the end of the model year, Ostroff says. "August through October is usually a really good time to buy if you want to get the current year at a discount," he says.
If that doesn't suit your schedule, you sometimes can get a better deal by buying at the end of the month if the sales staff is trying to make its quota, Ostroff says.
8. Shop your trade-in. The dealership selling you a new vehicle isn't necessarily the one that will offer you the highest price on your old one. If you have the time, take it around to a handful of dealers and see who can offer the best price on a straight sale.
9. Think hard about vehicle choice. If you want to get the most for your money, look carefully at the car, not just the deal. Will it serve your needs now and into the future?
"In this era of great car deals, it's important not just to get a great deal on a cheap car but to get a great car," Evarts says. For buyers these days, that means picking "a car you can hang on to," he says.
When it comes to choosing a dealer, convenience also can be important, especially if dealer maintenance is part of the equation. So is finding a dealership that makes you comfortable.
If you find a dealer that is "convenient, trustworthy and gives good service," it can make smart financial sense to buy there even if that isn't the rock-bottom price, Myers says. "You're buying a $30,000 vehicle. Every once in a while, you get one that's got a problem. You want someone who's going to go to bat for you."
10. Pull a switch. What if the dealer you prefer doesn't have the vehicle you need? Many times, dealers can do a swap, says Caudill, who used this strategy to purchase his car from the same dealer he planned to service the car.
These days, if you've found the right car and the right dealer, says Caudill, "they'll find a way to make it work."