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