Thinking about surprising someone special with a car this holiday season? Shop late.

“The best day of the year to shop for a car is New Year’s Eve,” says W. James Bragg, author of
Car Buyer’s and Leaser’s Negotiating Bible. “Walk into a dealer with a cashier’s check in your hand.”

Hungry salesmen can mean good deals
In general, the end of the month is the best time to shop for a car because salespeople who are striving to meet quotas are more eager to make a deal. Also, keep in mind that the month of December is a particularly slow time for car sales.

“The closer you get toward Christmas, the lonelier the dealer gets and the more likely they are to give you a better deal,” says Jack Nerad, author of
The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Buying or Leasing a Car, and co-host of the radio show
America on the Road.

Experts say those deals may carry over to financing as well, but new car shoppers should realize that the month of December is not the time that most manufacturers roll out rebates and other incentives.

“In the month of December the car business goes dead,” Nerad says. “The general rule is there’s not much incentive activity in December.”

Shop for the money
, then the car

Experts suggest checking out the best new and used auto loan rates at banks and credit unions before heading to a dealership for some last-minute shopping.

“Most people look at the monthly payment and say ‘Fine, I can make that’ instead of looking for better rates,” Nerad says. “Pre-shop for financing and then let the dealer compete for the business.”

And, while it makes sense to start saving now for a big-ticket holiday gift such as a car, shopping early doesn’t make sense.

For one thing, rebate offers and financing incentives fluctuate. The financing deal that catches a person’s eye now may not be available in five weeks, let alone five months.

“Those things come and go like the wind,” Bragg says.

In addition, it’s awfully tough to keep a car out of sight until the holidays.

“What am I going to do with it?” Nerad asked. “You can’t hide it in a closet.”