Buying a New Car | Tips to Negotiate Like a Pro

Over the weekend I bought a new car.  It is not exactly a “fun” activity, but this was certainly less painful.  I can count on one hand how many cars that I have bought in my life, and the last car I bought was almost 7 years ago.  Despite that, I think I am getting pretty good at this.  So I will share what I did “right” and what I will do better next time (hopefully another 7 years).

Ready for trade-in
Ready for trade-in

Research – I researched my current car for trade-in value and I knew what it was worth for private sell versus what the dealership would “pay” for it. According to Kelly Blue Book there was a $2,000 difference between what I might get from a private seller and what I “should” expect from the dealer. Who knows how long it would take for a private sell, and the last time I did that I met way too many weirdos.  Many of these interesting people thought I was Bank of Jen and that I would finance them (um, NO!). Not to mention the logistics of trying to find a time to schedule a test drive when I am available, they are available, and a bank is open.  For $2,000 or more I would broker the deal, if I have to. The “little-known-secret” is that trade-in amount is taken off the car purchase price BEFORE tax, so do the math and know the break even point of private sell versus trade-in for the sales tax difference!  Now that I know this information, it can be a very useful negotiating tactic.

Example, $30,000 purchase price less $10,000 trade-in value means $20,000 is subject to sales tax at 8%. With the trade-in, I would pay $1,600 in sales tax, but with cash from the private sale I would pay $2,400.  In essence it is $800 sales tax penalty for private sale money paying for the new car rather than trade-in!

More research – I researched what manufacturer and model car I wanted to buy, and from which possible dealerships.  I read car reviews, asked my friends what they like about their cars and reliability, and test drove several cars at various dealerships.  When one of our cars goes in for maintenance, I mention that we are considering a new car so we get to drive a variety of “loaner” cars, this is far better than any 15 minute test drive (and no pesky salesman). I actually ended up buying the same model (different year and features) of a loaner car we had last year because I liked it so much. Once I narrowed it down to a couple different model cars and dealerships, I signed up for the dealership emails to keep me informed on specials and events.

Total Cost of Ownership – Understand exactly what each car will cost for the entire time you will own it.  Above and beyond sticker price, what will it cost you annually?  What kind of gas mileage does it get?  What are typical repair costs?  What are typical maintenance costs for oil change, tires, and scheduled service tune-ups?  Are you buying a subscription service such as satellite radio, navigation, road-side assistance, etc?  How much is the car insurance premium?

Timing – Timing for the dealership is very important.  January & February are slow months for car sales.  February is a short month, but dealerships still need to make their sales  quotas and this is great for buyers!  They are really motivated at the end of the month, one more car may make a huge difference for them.  Normally, I would go on a week night and avoid the weekend for even better deals. Thanks to a email sent Friday, I knew about 30+ new vehicles that were demo or display from the Phoenix Open golf tournament at really great prices including the model that I wanted.  I shopped the sale early to get the best selection to choose from, and to ensure they had enough inventory for motivation of a great offer to me.

Comparison Shop – I knew what model car I wanted, but I still needed to compare all of the features.  Unless you custom order your vehicle, it is super rare to find the car with exactly the features that you want and nothing extra that you are “stuck” paying for.  I picked out 2 cars, same model, same year, same 90% of everything and drove them both. The 10% difference was worth several thousand dollars and I wanted to be sure of exactly what I was getting or giving up. I had also reached the optional features ahead of time, but no amount of academic research beats actually driving and pushing all the buttons.

Financing – Determine ahead of time how you are going to pay for the vehicle. Trade-in car? Bank loan?  Check? Cashier’s Check?  Maybe a combination?  I paid with trade-in car, check, and the remainder bank loan.  For any bank loan, check your credit score before negotiations, this will allow you to clean-up any mistakes or issues before you are sitting in the finance office.  Because I knew my credit score ahead of time, I had already researched what the best APR they should offer me. Anything less would be a deal breaker for their financing, and I would go visit my bank for a better deal.  Determine exactly how much you can and will pay in “cash” (which is never really cash, but personal check or cashier’s check).  Determine how much you can comfortably pay each month, and do not let anyone or anything make you “car-poor” (when you feel poor because all of your money goes to pay for the car)!  Since I knew I was going to finance part of the total price, I brought my last pay stub with me which was good because I honestly did not remember my base salary amount.

Negotiation – So much of negotiation is preparation in all the steps above, so do not skip!  I brought a print-out of my KBB car values with me.  I brought both sets of keys, my registration, original owner’s manual, and my very clean car (washed, vacuumed, and detailed) for the very highest trade-in amount possible.  I knew how much I was willing to “sell” my car for, and I was not about to accept a $2,000 loss on trade-in!  Most importantly, I knew how much I was willing to spend on my new car.  Have the absolute maximum in your head and NEVER share it with the salesman.  Dealerships play a game with car payment, but good preparation includes knowing the full price of the car as well as monthly car payment, if you are financing.  Cash buyers have added advantage in negotiations, by removing the monthly car payment “game”.

Getting the Deal – I rejected the first offer, and I made them a lower offer of what I was willing to spend for the new car (which was actually a smidge less than what I would really pay, to leave myself some wiggle room if I needed it).  I also did not need to leave with a new car that day, so I was calm and relaxed.  While they kept me waiting, I played games on my phone to seem bored and uninterested.  Yelling or demanding is far less effective than calm attitude of “take it or leave it”.  When they came back with a counter-offer, it was still over the maximum threshold that I set for myself, so I turned it down and got ready to leave. I mentioned that I would keep my car another few months and maybe come back for a car another year older.  Because I stood firm on my reasonable price, they came back with more money for my trade-in and the lower purchase price that I originally offered.  I was able to buy a great car at an fantastic price!

What would I do differently?

  • I forgot the title for my trade-in and had to make another trip home and back to the dealership to drop it off.  If I had brought my car Title with me it would have saved an extra trip to the dealership and about 30 minutes of the whole paperwork process.
  • I ate a very light lunch before going to the dealership, so I started to get hungry at the end.  Since I was hungry, I skipped through a few details before I left. Nothing major, but I need to read the owner’s manual to set the clock because I did not notice that it was wrong before I left.  A lite snack or slightly bigger lunch would have given me more energy to ask the last few questions before I left.
  • My biggest mistake was not calling the Insurance company before I bought the car. When I read the email telling me about the super sale, I should have called for an insurance quote immediately to avoid surprises.  Now I know how much it will cost me, but I was really going in blind this weekend and the Insurance premiums could have made the deal cost-prohibitive or at the very least change the maximum threshold price I set for myself.