Buying a car and haggling over the price can be a notoriously agonizing process.
Car salespeople are trained to get shoppers to spend more than they want to. From negotiation tactics and bundled features to information overload and decision fatigue — dealerships have a lot of sneaky strategies up their sleeves to inflate the bill.
Here are a few tricks car salespeople use to get shoppers to walk out the door of the dealership with a new vehicle and a lot less cash.
1. Framing the deal on monthly payments, not sales price
The number one ploy dealerships use to try to get you to spend extra money is framing a deal around monthly payments, rather than the actual price of the car, fees for upgrades and financing, says Kelan Kline, who runs the personal finance and lifestyle blog The Savvy Couple.
“By breaking it down into a monthly payment they can easily hide add-ons and upgrades,” says Kline.
This conversation usually occurs after you’ve taken a test drive and return to the showroom. That’s when the salesperson will negotiate the monthly payment with you instead of the price of the vehicle, according to Brian Meiggs, founder of the personal finance site MyMillennialGuide.com.
“This has two benefits for the (car dealer),” Meiggs explains. “Making an affordable payment is relatable and gets your mind off of the actual price. This can lead you to end up paying more.”
Focusing solely on the monthly payment also takes your focus off other parts of the deal.
“The interest rate and the length of the loan can quickly fall into the background with this payment-focused presentation,” Meiggs says. “You are more likely to digest the affordability of monthly payments versus the pricey sticker price. Over (five) years, a $100 increase (in your monthly payment) is not that much, but by doing the math it will add-on $6,000 to the total price – which can make a big difference.”
2. Getting you to divulge a number first
Salespeople may try to get you to share how much you can afford to pay per month before they divulge the price of a car. According to Accredited Financial Counselor Roslyn Lash, keeping that key piece of information to yourself can help you negotiate a lower price.
“Once you’ve answered, you’ve been duped,” Lash says. “If you only consider your monthly payment, the loan term will be extended by months or years to accommodate the payment amount. You should always buy a car based on the sales price and then adjust your payments accordingly.”
3. Paying for bundled features you hardly care about
Another easy way car dealerships get you to spend more money is by bundling together pricey features and packages that you may not actually want or need.
According to Sonia Steinway, an attorney focused on consumer finance regulation and the co-founder of Outside Financial, this form of upsell is called the bundle of features.
“Unlike in most European countries, where it’s possible to order a car to spec, most American cars are sold with pre-set packages of features,” says Steinway. “That means the car buyer has to pay for the power sunroof to get the heated seats she really wants.”
This is an easy upsell for the dealership as long as they pitch the extra cost on a per-month basis rather than in an aggregate.
“Most consumers don’t blink at paying $10 extra to get the features they want, and those extra features just seem like a perk,” says Steinway.
4. Ramping up decision fatigue
Buying a car is a time-consuming experience that may leave you broke and very tired. Sometimes, both of those things happen on purpose. Steinway calls this decision fatigue.
“Car dealers know that most consumers hit the cognitive overload point after a long day of car shopping,” Steinway says. “That’s one of the reasons they wait to present financing options until after you’ve already spent a few hours test driving and haggling over price.”
By then, Steinway says, they’re banking on the fact that you’re tired, hungry or overwhelmed by decisions. And that’s when psychological research suggests you’re the most vulnerable to being taken advantage of. Often, the parts of the deal that costs you the most, such as financing and the interest rate you end up paying, are negotiated at the end of your purchase.
“And that’s exactly what happens: car dealers now make more money selling you financing than they do selling you cars,” Steinways says. “That’s a result of markups on the loan itself and on ancillary products typically bundled into those loans, like (an insurance) GAP waiver or vehicle service contracts.”
So who should you really watch out for at the dealership? Steinways says the finance and insurance salespeople are often the best that the dealership has to offer, and they’re incentivized to encourage customers to take as many products and for as high a markup as they can.
To avoid falling for sales ploys that result in you paying more than you should, do as much research as possible before going car shopping. Come to the dealer showroom prepared with the total price you want to spend and question everything. That way, you won’t be duped into making higher monthly payments for longer loan terms that end up costing you more.