Meeting the dealer head-on

You're in the market for a new car, but you're more than a little apprehensive. Your last excursion into a new-car showroom was a nightmare, and the horror stories you've heard are even worse. How do you make sure you don't get ripped off? By learning dealers' tactics and preparing yourself to handle them.

3 simple rules to assure success:
  • Do your homework.
  • Don't become a hostage.
  • Be prepared to walk away.

This chapter will provide you with an overview of how to handle a trip to a dealer showroom. Not all salesmen are dishonest, and not all dealers encourage or even allow deception in their sales force. But it happens too often for anyone to go in unprepared for the worst. In following chapters, we'll fill you in on the common strategies and techniques -- some deceitful, others merely clever -- dealers use to persuade you to buy from them.

Here's what to do:

Once you have a good idea of the type of vehicle you want, get yourself a Ph.D. in the subject. Web sites such as Autobytel, CarsDirect, Edmunds, Kelley Blue Book, and InvoiceDealers have tons of information on vehicle features and options, what the dealers really pay, current factory rebates, incentives and holdbacks.

Don't wait until your old rust bucket is dying. It can take weeks to choose a car, get financing, haggle a price and finalize a deal. Plan ahead so you aren't forced into hasty decisions.

Prepare for battle

Put together a folder of information on the cars you like and their prices. Take it with you to the dealer and make sure they see it. If your spouse is with you, agree beforehand: No impulse buys and no discussion of exactly what you are prepared to pay, even if you're alone in a sales office -- it might be bugged.

When you tell the salesman what you're looking for, inform him that you know what the car cost the dealer. You're ready to pay a fair profit to him, but you are not going to hand over several thousand extra dollars. This is critical. It will stop most of the nonsense that all too often follows.

You can also head the salesman off at the pass by letting him know you are not willing to spend hours playing games. Some salespeople will go to great lengths to tie up your day so that you're tired and ready to surrender. Plus, it stops you from going to a rival dealer for a comparison price.


Don't be a hostage on the test drive

Make the most of the test drive. Don't just cruise around a few blocks and play the radio. Check things like sight lines and how easy it is to reach important controls. Test acceleration onto highways and whether you feel entirely comfortable at the wheel. But when the salesman asks you for your driver's license, that "ka-ching" you hear is the sound of a cash register and should alert you to hold onto your checkbook.

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Tara Baukus Mello

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