Getting a new car is awesome. But buying a new car is stressful, expensive and filled with traps set by skilled salespeople who — even the most honest among them — are trying to get as much of your money as you’re willing to part with. The average person only buys a car a few times in their life, while salespeople do their jobs every day. You need to watch out for these common and costly traps so you don’t get burned the next time you’re shopping for a car.
Last updated: Nov. 25, 2019
1. The Dealer Marks Up the Loan Rate
Dealers partner with many lenders, often as many as 20, with some specializing in certain types of loans, such as prime or subprime. In exchange for getting a customer — a car buyer in need of financing — the lender often lets the dealership mark up the interest rate to turn an extra profit. For example, if a lender approves a buyer at 6% interest, the dealer can present an offer of 8% interest without the buyer knowing any better. On a $15,000 loan that extends over 60 months, that’s more than $1,000 out of your pocket and into the dealer’s bank account.
Get Your Financing Preapproved
Dealers make much of their money through their financing departments, often presenting only the offers that earn them the most commission or highest markup rate, not the offer that’s best for you as a buyer. The remedy is to get preapproved for financing before you walk into the dealership. Local credit unions often offer better rates than traditional lenders, such as banks, so you can bargain from a position of strength and know that you got the best deal possible. You can ask to see the actual lender approvals on paper, but the dealer might not comply.
2. Negotiating From the Sticker Price or MSRP
The sticker price sometimes, but not always, is the same as the Manufacturer Suggested Retail Price and represents what the dealer hopes to get from the buyer. It includes the price the dealership paid for the vehicle, add-on costs and the profit the dealer hopes to earn on the sale. The sticker price often represents the starting point of negotiations — but it shouldn’t.
Instead, Negotiate From the Invoice Price
Negotiations should start with what the dealer paid for the vehicle, which is sometimes the same as the invoice price, but not usually. Just as the buyer tries to negotiate down the sticker price, the dealer often negotiates down the invoice price and pays less than what the manufacturer hopes to get. Although dealers have been known to show customers something that resembles an invoice to show how little they’re making off the sale, you can find the true invoice price by searching sites such as Edmunds, CarsDirect and Consumer Reports.
3. Combining Car Price and Financing Negotiations
If dealers know that you’ll be financing the car through their dealership, they can factor that into their negotiation strategy. That strategy often involves convincing you that you’re getting a great deal on the car by slashing the MSRP from $22,000 to $19,000, for example, and then making up for the price decrease by raising the interest rate on the loan.
Don't Tip Your Hand
To avoid this trap, keep financing negotiations and car price negotiations separate. In fact, don’t reveal how you plan to pay at all. When the dealer asks if you’ve been preapproved, if you’re paying cash or if you’re looking for dealer financing, respond that you’re not sure, haven’t decided or that you’d just like to square away the price of the vehicle first. Once you settle on what you’ll pay, then discuss financing.
4. Getting Talked Into Unnecessary Options
Modern vehicles are packed with options that are useful by adding value and safety to your vehicle. Your budget, of course, will decide which trim package you choose, but your dealer will likely bombard you with “must-have” options. Most of these additions are unnecessary and can add thousands to your purchase price.
Just Say No
Avoid costly and unneeded options such as rear-seat entertainment screens, which were great in the 1990s and early 2000s but now come standardly in almost every passenger’s pocket. Paddle shifters are amazing for Ferraris, Shelbys and other performance vehicles, but they add nothing to a Honda Civic or Toyota Camry. Social media integration is also unnecessary. It’s already integrated into your phone, not to mention, tweeting while driving is a hazard. Also avoid things such as gesture control, touchscreen climate vents, digital shifters and heads-up displays.
5. Shopping at the Dealership
Buyers who don’t know what they want are a car dealer’s best friend. Walking into the dealership blind is an invitation for a salesperson to, well, sell. When you enter a dealership knowing only that you want something bigger than your last car, for example, salespeople can steer you toward the cars they want to offload. If you’re uninformed about models and features, salespeople can tell you all about the pros while leaving out the cons.
Do Your Homework First
When it comes to buying a car, knowing what you want can go a long way. Narrow your options ahead of time by determining your budget, the vehicle class you want and brands you like or don’t like. Use sites like Edmunds, Kelley Blue Book (KBB) and J.D. Power for insight into value, ratings, awards and consumer reviews. You can also use other sites, such as RepairPal to learn about the average cost of ownership when it comes to repairs and maintenance, and Motor Trend to see the results from actual road tests. By the time you walk into the dealership, you should have specific makes, models and trim packages picked out so you’re not susceptible to falling for an impulse buy from a talented salesperson.
6. Negotiating Monthly Payments Instead of Price
When it’s time to talk dollars and cents, the dealer will likely ask you what you can afford per month. That’s a trick question. With a long enough loan term, virtually anyone can afford any car. If you say you can cover $500 a month, for example, the finance office can string payments out into a longer loan term to make the payments fit your budget — even though you can’t actually afford the car. They want to sell you a more expensive car and have you on the hook for interest payments for a longer period. Good for them, but bad for you if you’ll still be making payments when the car is out of warranty and prone to mechanical breakdown.
Squeeze Into a 60-Month Loan
According to Edmunds, 60-month loans were the most common financing framework 10 years ago, but today, 72 months is the most common term, with 84-month loans serving as a close second. When you budget for 60 payments, you’re budgeting for a car you can actually afford. You’ll own your car free and clear just as your powertrain warranty expires, and will have saved real money in interest payments never paid and enjoy a payment-free car for a year or two longer than you would have.
7. Not Questioning Fees
When you’re buying a car, budget for legitimate charges such as sales tax, title and registration fees, as well as delivery fees that the dealership pays to get the car delivered from the manufacturer. What you shouldn’t budget for and should always question, however, are the hundreds of dollars dealers often try to add on for things such as documentation processing or conveyance fees and advertising fees. They also might try to tack on dealer prep or predelivery inspection fees, loan payment fees and market adjustment fees.
Contest All Nonessential Charges
You’re never going to win a negotiation involving sales tax or any of the other essential fees, but you should contest every other previously mentioned fee or charge that isn’t mandatory. If the dealership won’t waive them, you can ask for a reduction or for something of value in return, such as accessories or extras you otherwise wouldn’t buy.
8. Falling For the Yo-Yo Financing Scam
A common and often illegal scam is for a dealer to sell a car, let the buyer drive it home and fall in love with it, and then call a day or two later to report that there’s been a “problem” with the loan, lender or the buyer’s credit. Then comes the money grab. The dealer reports that the buyer needs to pay a larger down payment, refinance at a higher rate or bring back the car. It’s called the yo-yo scam, and it tends to target buyers with iffy credit who believe — perhaps correctly — that they don’t have good options.
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Avoid Spot Delivery
The yo-yo financing scam is also called the spot delivery scam because it only works if you take delivery on the spot. Sometimes, perfectly honest dealers will offer spot delivery to their customers as a courtesy. That occurs when the dealership couldn’t complete the financing process — maybe you bought the car in the evening after banking hours — but gives you possession of the car right away while things are being finalized. No matter the circumstances, or how trustworthy you believe the dealer is and how much you want the car right away, be patient and politely refuse spot delivery. Once the financing clears, the paperwork is signed and the car is registered in your name, the yo-yo scam simply can’t work.
9. Buying GAP Insurance From the Dealer
Guaranteed asset protection — known as GAP — insurance bridges the gap between what it costs for your insurer to replace your car should you total it and what you still owe on your loan. It’s not a bad thing to consider, but be prepared for the dealer to try to sell you their own GAP coverage — at a huge markup.
Buy GAP Insurance From Your Insurance Company
Your dealer likely will paint a nightmare scenario in which you total the car as you drive it off the lot and owe $28,000 on a loan, only to receive a $20,000 check from your insurance company. Although that’s the worst-case scenario, the concept is real, and it’s worth considering taking out a GAP policy. Since dealers routinely charge four times the going rate, however, it’s best to buy it directly from your insurer. You might even save money by bundling GAP coverage into your current policy.
10. Getting Roped Into an Extended Warranty
Extended warranties offer peace of mind by extending bumper-to-bumper warranties for a longer period of time. They make dealers tons of money in commissions and come with a lot of fine print. According to Consumer Reports, people who buy extended warranties typically pay more for the coverage than they receive in benefits.
Buy a Reliable Car Instead
The average extended warranty costs $1,500, although the price can be negotiated just like the price of the car. The average repair, on the other hand, costs $180. That, combined with the fact that extended warranties often come with high deductibles and other catches, means it’s usually better to put that $1,500 toward a car that’s known for reliability. RepairPal reliability ratings are a great place to start.
11. Getting Talked Into VIN Etching
Your vehicle identification number (VIN) is a serial number that is unique to your specific car. It’s located in the front corner where your dashboard meets your windshield, which car thieves know. When they steal cars, they often remove or deface the VIN in an attempt to make the car anonymous and difficult to trace back to the owner. For a few hundred bucks, the dealership will etch that number into each of the car’s windows to deter thieves and make your car less valuable if it’s stolen.
Do It Yourself
Before you spend $400 on VIN etching, consider that this might not deter thieves at all if they’re just joyriding, stealing a car to commit a different crime, selling it for parts or simply are unaware of VIN etching. If you do want the service but not at the dealer’s price, you can do it yourself with an $18 kit available on Amazon.
12. Getting Talked — or Tricked — Into a Lease
Dealers love leases because they make a lot of money off of them. Interest rates are easy to manipulate, the buyer never owns the car but they still end up eating all the depreciation. Then, the dealers get the car back in great shape with low mileage — and get to sell it all over again. Dealers have been known to tout the benefits of leases — including lower monthly payments and the fact that you’re always under warranty and get a new car every few years — which pressure buyers into leasing. The most unscrupulous dealers might even lead customers into thinking they’re buying a car but instead set them up with a lease.
Know What You Want and Stand Firm
There are pros and cons to both leasing and buying, and if you’ve decided that you want to one day feel the joy of making your final payment and owning your car free and clear, politely but firmly say “thanks, but no thanks” when the salesperson asks if you’ve considered leasing. In the rare case the salesperson tries to trick you into signing a lease, the remedy is to read all the paperwork carefully before you sign anything — as you should with any contract.
13. The Classic Bait and Switch
One of the oldest tricks in the car salesperson’s book has been updated for the digital age. Dealerships advertise a stellar deal online and when you stop by to check out the car, the one from the ad has been sold, but a similar model is right there in the showroom or on the lot. Of course, it’s more expensive than the car that got you into the dealership. Alternatively, a dealer might show you a car you thought was from the ad, only to find out it’s a higher trim package that costs thousands more.
As the buyer, you have one fallback position that gives you all the leverage. You can just walk away and give another dealer your business. In the case of the bait-and-switch tactic, you should play this trump card. If your relationship with the dealer starts out with a lie, then you can expect dishonesty and self-dealing throughout the entire transaction.
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About the Author
Andrew Lisa has been writing professionally since 2001. An award-winning writer, Andrew was formerly one of the youngest nationally distributed columnists for the largest newspaper syndicate in the country, the Gannett News Service. He worked as the business section editor for amNewYork, the most widely distributed newspaper in Manhattan, and worked as a copy editor for TheStreet.com, a financial publication in the heart of Wall Street’s investment community in New York City.