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Car buying: What I've learned from buying over 100 cars

Consumer Reports News
February 25, 2013

Google "I hate buying a new car" and you'll get about 96,900,000 results. Yes, many people can't stand the process buying a new car. But over the last 13 years and 102 transactions buying cars for Consumer Reports' test program, I've seen and heard a lot about what works and what doesn't. And I have a few tips to share.

Can I guarantee to make car buying painless? No, but I think my experiences can help.

Is it all about "price?"
It shouldn't be. For consumers, it is more important to focus on buying a great car, than nailing a deep discount. In buying cars for the test program, we don't always focus on this since we're usually in a mad rush to get a particular car soon as it hits the market. And when inventories are tight and demand is high, the salesperson knows he/she has us over a barrel. Still, I always say, "What's your best price?" I also remind him/her that I'm going to buy this car and can give a deposit right now to show that I'm serious.

To empower your negotiations, you should know how much the dealer paid for the car. And with that information, always bargain up from the dealer cost, not down from the sticker. (See our car prices and deals.)

Can you negotiate prices over the phone?
I do this all the time. See, for me, I don't want to go to the dealer more than once. The difference between buying cars for CR and how everyone else does it is that we know what we want... We're not vacillating between two or three different models. Again, getting the dealer cost and knowing the gap between that and the sticker gives you terrific leverage. Of course, I feel great if I can get the car for a little over cost. But I'm not going to spend tons of time going back and forth between Dealer "A" and Dealer "B" over 200 bucks. For me, it's just not worth it. (Learn more strategies in "How to negotiate effectively.")

Is it worth it to use manufacturer's websites?
I always configure the car as needed for our test program on the manufacturer's website. I then send the configuration to two or more dealers. I do business with the dealer who best follows up. The goal is to spend the least time on the process. I want the dealers to do their jobs and hustle for a sale. For me, it's simple: The more hustle by them and the less hassle for me wins the business.

I don't trust that the dealer's inventories are always faithfully updated online, so I don't normally check. I am very specific telling the dealer what I want, and the dealer either has it or claims they can get it. It's up to them to follow up. I'm often pitched with buying something other than what I asked for. They're just trying to sell what they have in-stock. Can't blame them, but, obviously, I don't bite.

What about "special online prices"?
We don't often see these promotions on models we're shopping for, as they're usually to move excess inventory. In other words, these discounts are typically on older models that we are not testing. The best salespeople will tell when there's a special sale or rebate, but you can't always count on them volunteering this information, especially if it involves a hidden direct-to-dealer incentive. The lesson here is that you shouldn't be talked into buying something that the dealer wants you to buy.

Is it better to do business with a big-volume dealership?
Dealerships do so much swapping with each other that high-volume dealers don't often have an advantage in my experience. I recently bought a Toyota Avalon from a dealer that wasn't the biggest Toyota store in the area. But they hustled for the sale, found the car I wanted, and we were done with it. Great service. As the saying goes, bigger isn't always better.

How about buying services?
I've used them on occasion, but you're still faced with how responsive the dealer is. In other words, whether I use a buying service or go through the manufacturer's website, the transaction is only going to be as good as the person at the dealer who's fielding the inquiries.

Using the Consumer Reports Build & Buy program online solicits competitive quotes from dealerships who agree to a high level of customer service. It works well, but frankly, it takes out some of the sport, making the process too easy.

What tricks do dealers try and pull?
Be very careful about what the dealer prints on the purchase order. In Connecticut, the law says that dealers must offer VIN etching, and many dealers already have that preprinted on their forms, but you don't have to buy it. I've also had a dealer try to sneak a $49.99 "nitro" fee for filling the tires with nitrogen. Refuse to pay these charges. Also, dealers pre-print a conveyance fee, typically a $300-$500 paperwork charge, on the purchase order. You may be successful in the negotiating down this fee or deduct it from the total cost of the car. It has worked for me. (Watch for these sales pitches.)

The Don'ts
Don't assume the salesperson knows the product. Believe the printed materials far more than the spoken words. Trust your gut: If you're getting a bad vibe at dealer, there's usually a reason.

Don't assume that your car has everything promised. More than once, I left with a new test car only to find out that the owner's manual, floor mats, tow hitch, and more were missing.

Don't assume every salesperson will follow up. You might leave voice-mail messages or send him/her emails with questions about a potential sale, but not all dealer employees are on the ball. In fact, several times my salesperson quit in the middle of the process... and no one from dealer picked up my file to finish the sale. Be ready to walk away from a lazy dealer.

Don't assume the dealer is going to get all the numbers right. Check their math and be sure that all the fees are correct and that everything adds up. I swear, every dealer thinks they know how much a registration transfer costs and they're almost always wrong.

Taking delivery
The day before delivery, make sure the dealer will have the final paperwork, car, and keys ready before you arrive. Be clear that your time is limited. Otherwise, it could easily take well over an hour to get take delivery and get out of there.

Prepare yourself to get in your new car and find the radio blasting, the clock not set for the proper time, and very little fuel in the gas tank. All of these things have happened to me, although fortunately, not at the same time. Make sure the satellite radio is working, that you can synch your phone, the seat heaters turn on, and all the stuff you plan to use on a day-to-day basis works. Anything that is a true problem needs to be identified and documented before leaving the parking lot. (See more tips for picking up the car.)

Living near a city gives you some leverage: If "XYZ Toyota" isn't following up, you can contact "ABC Toyota"; if all the Nissan dealers aren't following up on your inquiries about a new Altima, consider going to a Honda store and buying an Accord. Don't fall in love with one particular make or model; be flexible and ready to jump to another brand, if your chosen dealers aren't doing their job. After all, a bad buying experience may portend a frustrating service experience.

And don't forget car insurance
Also, take some time to call your insurance agent and tell him/her what new car you're thinking of buying. It's very likely that if you're driving a 10-year-old car that a new one will bring a steep spike in your premiums—especially if you indulge in a midlife crisis car.

These are just a few of the tidbits I've gleaned from years of buying lots of cars. Use the comments section below to share your stories. And check out our new car buying guide for more advice.

More from Consumer Reports:
2013 New Car Preview
Best & worst used cars
Complete Ratings for 200 cars and trucks

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