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Car-buying mistakes to avoid

Couple look at a car at a dealership
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Car buying is, or should be, a calculated decision. Before you head out to the showroom, make sure you’re prepared. These are nine common mistakes — but you can avoid them by 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. 

“Getting a good deal starts with picking the right vehicle in the first place – one that matches your lifestyle, budget and personality,” says LeeAnn Shattuck, creator of The Car Chick website and Car Chick TV. 

How to avoid: Research vehicles online before setting foot on a car sales lot and develop a thorough understanding of what you need, can afford and would be happy driving. Websites like Edmunds and 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.  

“Every buying decision we humans make is an emotional one, whether we realize it or not,” says Shattuck. “But a car is also the second most expensive purchase most people will make in their life, so an emotional decision can cost you money.” 

If the vehicle you want is out of your budget, consider buying a gently used model of the same car instead, Shattuck suggests. It’s usually better to buy a used model of a car that has a history of quality and reliability than to buy a new model of another vehicle that may be less reliable. 

How to avoid: 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. Before you make a final decision, look at all of 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. 

3. Choosing a dealer by location

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. 

How to avoid: 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 when it comes to trade-in chatter. Evaluate the true value of your car before mentioning trade-ins. Ideally, you should research the amount your trade-in is worth outside of the dealership so you can come to the negotiation table prepared. 

“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. 

How to avoid: Savvy shoppers will request to negotiate the sale price of their 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, turn 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. 

“Whether you’re a first-time car buyer, you’re not comfortable with the negotiating process, or you simply know that you’re an impulse buyer who needs someone to say NO for you, it’s ok to ask for help with car shopping,” says Shattuck. “It’s a major purchase, so it’s important to make a good decision and to get a good deal.” 

How to avoid: 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. Forgetting that it’s not over until the paperwork is signed

Negotiation is only the first half of the hurdles you will have to jump through at a dealership. The sales team will bring you to the finance office after, so prepare to be sold 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. 

How to avoid: Keep your budget in mind when walking into the finance manager’s office. 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. 

7. 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 

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. 

How to avoid: 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. 

8. Letting the dealer determine your purchase 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 

How to avoid: 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. 

9. 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. Known as the manufacturer’s suggested retail price (MSRP), it’s just a guideline that the dealership follows. 

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 trims with more features, which will add to the price tag. 

How to avoid: 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. 

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 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. 

Next steps 

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.  

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Written by
Rebecca Betterton
Auto Loans Reporter
Rebecca Betterton is the auto loans reporter for Bankrate. She specializes in assisting readers in navigating the ins and outs of securely borrowing money to purchase a car.
Edited by
Student loans editor