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Car buying is a calculated decision. Before you head out to the showroom, make sure you’re prepared. Here are nine common car-buying mistakes — and how you can avoid them. The key to success comes down to doing your research and having a solid idea of what you want before visiting the dealer.
Top 9 car-buying mistakes
Buying a car can be a tricky process. To get the best deal, avoid these common pitfalls.
1. Buying the wrong vehicle
It’s rarely a good idea to buy a car solely based on its price or available rebates. If the vehicle is not good quality or does not suit your lifestyle, then it’s not the right choice and could cost you more money overall. To choose the perfect car for you, consider your lifestyle, budget and needs.
Research vehicles before setting foot on a car sales lot and decide what you need, can afford and would be happy driving. Websites like Consumer Reports make it easy to compare vehicles and see vehicle quality and reliability ratings, and a loan calculator can help you evaluate monthly costs.
2. Mixing your emotions and your money
If you fall in love with a car, give yourself some time to sit back and make sure it’s really the car for you. And if buying new might be out of your budget, consider buying a gently used model of the same car instead. Purchasing a used model that has a strong reliable history is a much better choice than a less reliable new vehicle option.
Before you make a final decision, look at all the numbers in the security of your own home, where you can make a more rational, analytical decision — and avoid a high-pressure sales pitch.
Never buy a car on impulse or the same day you test drive it. Instead, give yourself a few days to think it over. You should also shop around at multiple dealers and compare quotes.
3. Choosing whichever dealership is closest to you
Dealerships charge based on ZIP code, so the exact same make, model and trim may cost more or less depending on where your dealer is located. Choosing a dealership based solely on convenience can cost you money and result in a bad car-buying experience.
Don’t just go to the dealer closest to home. Ask around, learn from friends’ experiences and research each dealer’s Customer Satisfaction Index (CSI) score. These scores are developed based on customer feedback and satisfaction and are used by auto manufacturers to stay abreast of how well car dealerships are handling the sales process.
What’s more, a dealership’s CSI scores play a role in the inventory they receive from a manufacturer. Dealers with the best CSI scores tend to receive the most popular vehicles from auto makers. You can also check a dealership’s complaint record with the Better Business Bureau.
Before setting out to test drive cars, research the dealers in your area. Check out their websites and read reviews to find a dealership with a good reputation.
4. Talking trade-in too early
Don’t jump in too fast on negotiating your trade-in.
“Most dealerships like to negotiate the sale price of a car and the shopper’s trade-in price at the same time. Doing so can add confusion to the process, and shoppers rarely benefit,” says Matt Smith, deputy editor of CarGurus. Negotiate a satisfactory price for the new car first, then bring up your trade-in afterward.
Ideally, you should research the amount your trade-in is worth outside of the dealership so you can come to the negotiation table prepared.
Request to negotiate the sale price of your potential purchase first, then talk trade-in. Better yet, compare offers from multiple dealerships. You don’t have to trade your car in at the same place you buy from, so see where you can get the most money out of your current ride.
5. Going alone when you need a helping hand
If negotiation tactics are outside your wheelhouse, consider turning it over to an auto broker or consider purchasing through a service like the AAA Endorsed Auto Buying Program, which nets members special pricing through authorized dealers.
If purchasing with the help of a car-buying service doesn’t serve your needs, there are other routes. One way is to bring an experienced friend along with you. They can assist with negotiations and ensure you don’t walk away with a bad deal. You could also try asking an AI chatbot to pen a negotiating script for youl.
Bring a friend or relative who’s knowledgeable and comfortable with the car-buying process and can be your advocate — or consider hiring a professional. Some car-buying services offer discounted pricing on vehicles through dealers in your area, while others offer more personalized service that helps you through the entire process.
6. Agreeing with the sticker price
The sticker price you see on the showroom floor is rarely the final price you pay. Instead, it is a starting point for you or your trusted negotiator to lower your final cost. Compare the sticker price to the manufacturer’s suggested retail price (MSRP), which you can find on sites like Kelley Blue Book. But remember that the MSRP is just a guideline, not a hard-and-fast rule.
Your final price could be higher than the MSRP after add-ons, fees and more. Some of these costs may not be negotiable, and dealerships may be less willing to negotiate on MSRP if the vehicle is new. Dealerships may also advertise the MSRP of the basic trim while showing you cars with more features, which will add to the price tag.
The MSRP is a good benchmark for where to start your negotiations. The car dealer is expecting you to push for a price decrease, so remain steadfast in haggling for the price that’s right for you. And like every part of the process, know the suggested MSRP before you’re ready to buy. Having the information ready will help you at the negotiation table.
7. Not reading the paperwork
Negotiation is only the first half of the hurdles you will have to jump through at a dealership. The sales team will take you to the finance office after, so prepare to be pitched add-ons, like extended warranties, wheel protection, interior protection and more.
Dealers often make as much money in this room as they do on the showroom floor. Dealer add-ons, extra fees, insurance and interest rate changes tend to sneak up on you once the signatures begin.
“Each product on their own doesn’t seem expensive, but these add-on products can substantially increase the price of the vehicle,” says Scarlett Steuart, lemon law attorney with Burdge Law Office. And if you opt to finance these with your auto loan, you will be paying additional interest for products you may never use.
Keep your budget in mind when finalizing your deal. It’s perfectly okay to take a break from this final step in order to go run the numbers on your own and make sure that you’re still able to afford the vehicle with any add-on products you want.
8. Being afraid to walk away
You don’t need to close the deal the day you enter a dealership. Shoppers who keep their options open and visit multiple dealerships are in a far better position to negotiate. To stay in control, never hand over your keys or driver’s license before a test drive. Some salespeople hold onto these items as a tactic to keep you in the showroom for longer.
Ultimately, shopping around will help you feel more comfortable walking away if negotiation isn’t going to plan. Take your time researching comparable vehicles, visiting dealerships to view inventory and securing outside financing. If you can show the salesperson other vehicles you are considering, you can use those alternatives to strengthen your position.
When researching a vehicle to purchase, don’t settle on one option. Select three or four vehicles that you would like to buy and have an auto loan from a bank or other lender ready so you don’t need to rely on the dealership’s finance office.
9. Defaulting to dealership financing
Dealership financing often comes with markups — additional interest added to make the dealership more money. For most people, this will mean paying extra every month and over the life of the loan.
It may be convenient to let the dealership offer financing, but dealerships rarely offer the best deal on an auto loan. To avoid dealers taking advantage of you, don’t let them run a credit check until you are fully settled on a vehicle. This also prevents multiple hard credit inquiries, which can ding your credit score.
Shop around for auto loans. Check banks and online lenders for competitive interest rates for your credit range before going to the dealership. If a dealer can beat the best rate you’ve found, then great. If not, you’ve saved yourself some money.
How to better prepare yourself for buying a car
By now, you’ve likely noticed a common thread in this advice: Research. The best way to remain calm and secure in your negotiation is to have plenty of research to back up your claims.
Equally important is outside financing. You can apply to multiple lenders within 14 days, and it only counts as one inquiry on your credit report. From there, you will usually have 30 days to shop around with your quote. This gives you time to find the best rates and the dealerships offering the best deals.
Your budget should lead your choices. Know what type of vehicle you can afford and the features you want to have. Read up on common sales tactics so you can counter them with confidence. The more information you have at your fingertips when doing test drives, the better.
There’s a lot that goes into buying a car — and it’s easy to get overwhelmed. Research and preparation are your friends. Don’t go to the dealership without securing an auto loan, knowing the amount you want to pay and having a list of necessary features. Overall, remember that there’s more to a vehicle than its monthly payment.