At the core, most dealers aren't out to rip you off. But they employ experienced and aggressive salespeople who have a bag of tricks designed to maximize the salesperson's cut and the dealer's profit.
Here are ploys that some dealers -- even the most scrupulous -- may try to run on you when it comes time to buy:
1. The credit cozen: A dealer may say something like, "With your credit score, you won't qualify for competitive financing rates.'' This may be true. However, some dealers will imply your credit is worse than it is so you think you'll have to pay a higher interest rate. That's why it's important to know your credit score before you head to the showroom.
2. The single-transaction strategy: Many people view buying a car as one transaction. It's not, and dealers know this. It's really three transactions rolled into one -- the new-car price, the trade-in value and the financing. The dealer sees all three as ways to make money. Treat each as a separate transaction, and negotiate each one. If you get a new car for $200 over invoice but receive only $1,000 for a trade-in car that's worth $2,500, you haven't done as well as you could.
3. The payment ploy: 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 stretched the term of the loan 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?'' Stick to saying, "I can afford to pay X dollars for the car.''
4. The sticker shenanigan: The vehicle price listed on the window is what's known as the manufacturer's suggested retail price, or MSRP. 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 from the MSRP. You should also find out what cars actually are selling for after taking into account any consumer and dealer incentives. Of course, some really hot cars go for sticker price and even above. Be patient and wait: The prices will fall as demand slackens. And three years later, you'll be selling or trading a car for the same money as the early buyers who may have paid thousands more initially.