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4 Car Dealer Tricks You Need to Know Before You Buy a Car

Car salespeople aren’t necessarily evil, but they’re the only people who can prevent you from getting the best price for your next car. It’s a good idea to keep these four car dealer traps in mind the next time you decide to go car shopping. Doing so might save you the gut-wrenching regret of being screwed over and forced to overpay for your new vehicle.

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Dealer Trick #1: Negotiating on Monthly Payments

When the salesperson starts talking about monthly payments, watch out.

Clever salespeople want you to focus only on low monthly payments because it gives them room to inflate other variables, such as the loan interest and length. This increases the dealer’s profit — while you spend thousands more on the car overall.

Some dealers pull out what’s called a four-square chart, which is confusing as hell. A former car salesman unveiled on The Consumerist how that shell game is played: You’re put on the defensive and worn down with tricky math, while the salesperson appears to knock down prices.

Counter Strategy: Don’t even discuss monthly payments. Tell the salesperson you can talk financing later, but first want to know their best price.

Pay for the car in cash or get your own financing if you can, but don’t reveal how you’re going to pay until after you’ve negotiated down the total car price. (Dealers may be less likely to negotiate if they know they can’t profit from your financing.)

If you do need to discuss dealer financing, do that after you’ve negotiated the car price. From there you can focus on the annual percentage rate (APR) rather than payments.

Related Article: How Much Should I Spend on a Car?

Dealer Trick #2: Telling You Your Credit Sucks

4 Car Dealer Tricks You Need to Know Before You Buy a Car

If you don’t know your credit score, all dealerships have to do to rip you off is say you don’t qualify for a better rate. Perhaps a bank would offer a 5% loan; the dealer might say 7% is the lowest for your credit score.

Counter Strategy: Pull your credit report for free and know your credit score before setting foot in a dealership. Again, shop around for financing and get it on your own if you can. Whatever your credit score, at least you’ll know if the dealer’s trying to pull a fast one on you.

If you do have credit problems, a common strategy for rebuilding credit is using a secured credit card to keep you paying off what you spend.

Dealer Trick #3: Baiting and Switching

Salespeople can disarm you with humor and appear to be on your side in your battle against a faceless manager in the back room. You might even get a great trade-in offer or discount on the total price.

Inevitably, lowball offers and inflated trade-in values are squashed by the manager later. Edmund.com’s Confessions of a Car Salesman series reveals how numbers previously agreed upon can somehow be “lost” or “forgotten” by the dealership.

Counter Strategy: Not all car salespeople are scumbags, but remember, they’re doing their jobs and are not your friends. Don’t fall for the good guy/bad guy game, and walk if they don’t honor what you agreed upon. Better yet — get a copy of the numbers in writing from the dealership.

Dealer Trick #4: Pushing Add-Ons and Fees

4 Car Dealer Tricks You Need to Know Before You Buy a Car

Finally, be on the lookout for extras added to your purchase or financing. Dealers can increase your car payment price by “packing” extras like an extended warranty, perhaps saying it’s “only $40 more” a month. That $40 extra will cost you $2,400 over a 60-month loan.

Counter Strategy: Know which add-ons are truly unnecessary and check the financing and sell sheets carefully. Things you shouldn’t be charged for include a hidden loan acquisition fee and other fees, such as “customer service” or doc preparation fees.

Related Article: How Accurate Are Car Dealership Reviews?

Your Best Strategy

You only need to do two things to come out on top: research car prices and comparison-shop multiple dealerships. One recent car survey found that knowing the dealer’s invoice prices and visiting two dealerships saved car buyers an average of $800. TrueCar, Kelley Blue Book and Edmunds.com can all help you find invoice prices and what your trade-in is worth.

My favorite method is simply this one published on GetRichSlowly.com: email all of the dealers near you and say, “Hi, my name is so and so. I plan to buy such and such a car today at 5pm. I’m going to buy it from the dealer who gives me the best price. What is your best price?” Bam. Straight to the chase.

Tips for Buying a Car

  • Determine your budget. Buying a car is an investment, and a financial advisor can help you determine how it will impact your budget. A matching tool like SmartAsset’s SmartAdvisor can help you find a person to work with to meet your needs. First you’ll answer a series of questions about your situation and your goals. Then the program will narrow down your options to three fiduciaries who suit your needs. You can then read their profiles to learn more about them, interview them on the phone or in person and choose who to work with in the future. This allows you to find a good fit while the program does much of the hard work for you.
  • Do your research. Assess cars’ features to determine what’s important to you and note prices, including projected ownership costs. Also make sure you’re aware of all available discounts, as many automakers offer discounts to military members and students.

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Melanie Pinola
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