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Product Reviews

The confident way to buy a car

Getting the best deal takes a little extra effort, but can save you a lot of money

Scott Olson/Getty Images

Driving off a dealer’s lot in a shiny new car can be exhilarating, but the hours you might spend haggling to get to that point can be about as pleasant as a tax audit.

Consumer Reports offers these effective tricks and strategies:

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Start Online. Before you head to dealerships, go to automaker websites. There you can check out prices, trim lines, and options. And go to the websites of dealerships in your area. Dealer sites might list actual cars on hand and advertise any incentives.

Take test drives. Go to dealerships and drive any vehicle you’re considering with the options and powertrain you plan to get. Spend about a half-hour in each car and drive it in a variety of road conditions. Don’t let the sales staff pressure you into negotiating at this stage.

Get approved for financing early. Shop online for financing or contact local banks, credit unions, and other financial institutions to see what interest rates they are offering on auto loans. Then see how the dealership’s financing compares.

Find your old car’s trade-in value. Get the book value by using online car-pricing services such as Edmunds and Kelley Blue Book. Focus on the wholesale value; factor in mileage and features.

Get price quotes. You can do that from home by sending e-mail requests or calling several dealers in your area. Tell them the exact model, trim level, and options you want and ask for their lowest price. You can also get quotes online at such sites as AutoTrader, CarsDirect, and Cars.com.

Have dealers compete. You can often whittle the price down by asking dealers whether they can beat a competitor’s price. Once you settle on a dealer, you’ll have to go in to close the deal.

Negotiate everything separately. Once you’re in the showroom, a salesman will probably want you to focus on how much you can afford in monthly payments. Don’t go down that road, though. Lumping together the new-car price, trade-in, and financing (if needed) allows a dealership to give you a good price in one area while making up for it in another.

Skip the add-ons. Extra-cost items like VIN etching on the window glass, paint sealant, fabric protection, wheel-nut locks, and extended-service warranties are a waste of money. If those items are printed on your purchase order, cross them out before you sign and make sure the dealership adjusts the price.

Check the math. Take a calculator to the dealership to verify that the terms match the amount you’ve agreed to finance. Dealerships can pad the monthly payment to add extras into the contract.

Finalize the paperwork. Don’t sign any forms with lines left blank, and don’t drive any car home until the financial terms have been approved by the lender. Some dealerships have been known to call back customers, saying that the financing fell through, just to get them to sign new — and less favorable — financing terms.

Consumer Reports writes columns, reviews, and ratings on cars, appliances, electronics, and other consumer goods. Previous stories can be found at consumerreports.org.
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