Whether you buy a car new or used, the dealer might try to load you down with add-ons and accessories of every sort — and they’re likely to tell you that it will only add a few dollars to the monthly payment if you fold it into the cost of the loan. In truth, add-ons can quickly tack hundreds or thousands of dollars extra onto the sticker price. Some might be dealer add-ons that they try to slip past you. Others they’ll try to sell you outright. Before you buy, know which car add-ons you don’t want to buy at the dealership.
Last updated: Jan. 28, 2020
The dealer might tell you that by etching your car’s vehicle identification number (VIN) into the windows, your car will still be recoverable and traceable if it gets stolen, even if thieves remove the metal plate VIN by the windshield. That might be true, presuming they’re not just joyriding or dismantling it to sell for parts. VIN etching isn’t necessarily a bad idea, but don’t pay the dealer hundreds of dollars for this service when you can get a DIY kit for around $20 on Amazon.
Express Code Marking
Express code marking is a theft-deterrent/recovery system that’s similar to VIN etching. Invisible labels that can only be read with ultraviolet light are placed on key parts of the car, so if it’s stolen, law enforcement can trace the car or even individual parts back to the owner. Edmunds reports that this service — which, like VIN etching, doesn’t work for the majority of cars that are stolen for joyriding or for use in other crimes — can cost $400.
Wheel locks and locking lug nuts are another iffy and expensive theft deterrent that you shouldn’t let yourself be talked into. The idea is that when thieves go to steal your rims or hubcaps, they’ll see a locking mechanism and move onto a softer target. The truth is, they’re little more than a nuisance for all but the most incompetent thieves. They tend to be made of softer metal that wears out or even strips, and at the end of the day, it’s just another key to lose — you’re more likely to lock yourself out of your own wheels. According to Edmunds, dealers commonly charge $189.
Rear-Seat Entertainment Screens
At one time in the not-so-distant past, rear-seat entertainment displays were game-changers for long road trips, especially when antsy kids were involved. In the last decade, however, personal handheld devices like tablets and smartphones rendered them obsolete. Your back-seat passengers — even the little ones — almost certainly already have their own personally customized entertainment systems with them in their pockets, saving you $1,000-$2,000 for a factory unit, according to AutoTrader.
Factory crossbars and roof-rack accessories cost more than aftermarket brands, and they only fit that specific vehicle. If your surfing, kayaking or road-tripping adventures require roof storage, brands like Thule and Yakima cost less, function as well or better and can be removed and adapted to almost any vehicle you buy in the future — all without a big dealer markup.
Losing your car keys was always a headache, but with remote entry and remote start devices, laser cutting and high-end fobs, today it’s not just an inconvenience, but it’s a hefty expense. Replacing sophisticated key systems, particularly on luxury cars, can cause hundreds of dollars, which your car insurance is likely not to cover — and dealers know it. Some dealers offer key protection, a separate insurance policy just for your keys. That, too, can easily cost more than $100, which is an unnecessary expense for an unlikely event. Instead put that money into a savings account, which you should do anyway to budget for unforeseen mishaps, like losing your keys.
The ACE Group is one of the many companies that offer windshield insurance coverage to car dealers to sell to their customers at a markup — it says “maximize your profits” right on their website. Yes, windshields can sometimes break, and yes, they’re expensive. The truth, however, is that modern resins can fix the most common cracks, and windshields rarely have to be fully replaced. If you’re truly worried, you’d be better served by budgeting for repairs like broken windshields than handing over money to your dealer as an add-on for a service you’ll likely never need.
Like windshield protection, the odds favor the dealer with extended tire warranties. Virtually all tires come with prorated warranties that cover craftsmanship defects, which are very rare. Your dealer might try to sell you an extended warranty that covers what standard prorated warranties do not for, say, $10 per tire. First of all, some tires come with more inclusive warranties and even if they don’t, the cost of a standard new tire isn’t particularly high when you factor in the $40 you didn’t spend on unnecessary protection.
Like windshield protection and key protection, a long line of little-known and sometimes-shady third-party companies offer dent and ding coverage to dealers as an upsell to push on their customers. These companies sell the plans for $300-$500 to the dealer, who then sells the plan to unsuspecting buyers for anywhere from $600-$1,500 — pure profit for no work. The dealer also has no further responsibility and doesn’t aid processing claims. You get an 800 number to call to deal with a company you’ve probably never heard of before. You’ll likely have little or no say in who fixes your car, and you’ll almost certainly learn that there’s plenty that isn’t covered.
Your dealer also might try to talk you into credit insurance, which comes in the forms of credit life insurance, credit disability insurance, involuntary unemployment insurance and credit property insurance. They all serve the same purpose: to continue making your car payments if you lose your job, become disabled or die. There are few reasons to get credit insurance and many reasons not to. If you think it’s right for you, you’ll almost always do better buying through your own insurance company with no dealer markup. Also, it’s illegal for dealers to tell you they can’t sell you a car or approve a loan unless you buy this optional coverage.
Guaranteed asset protection (GAP) insurance is less scammy than the previously mentioned “coverage” plans that dealers often push. If you total a car shortly after financing it, your insurance company will compensate you for the value of the car, which, thanks to depreciation, is often less than what you owe on the loan. GAP coverage is designed to fill that gap, and in some cases, it makes sense to buy it — but buy it from your insurance company. When you buy it from a dealer, it will almost certainly be more expensive and, here again, you’ll wind up dealing with an unfamiliar company you’ve never heard of if you ever need to cash in on it.
Like GAP insurance, extended warranties can serve a legitimate purpose, but in almost all cases, you’d be better served to put that money into an interest-bearing savings account set aside for repairs. Extended warranties are designed to stretch your coverage beyond the expiration of your bumper-to-bumper warranty, which is usually three years or 36,000 miles. The truth is, much of the cost goes to the salesperson’s commission, most people never wind up using them, and they cost more than the price of the average repair.
Car Alarms and Trackers
Most cars come with security systems or even trackers. When they don’t, dealers often try to sell them as an add-on. That, in many cases, is because car dealerships install alarms to prevent theft on the dealership lot, which means it’s already installed in the car. Instead of uninstalling it and letting you drive off with the car, this upsell allows them to sell cheap alarms and trackers at a premium and also charge you for installation. You can almost certainly do better buying a system on your own and paying a much lower installation fee to your local mechanic.
Modern cars receive factory paint jobs that are designed to withstand the elements — they have sealants and antirust properties built-in. Paint protection can cost several hundred dollars and it’s almost never worth the expense. Wash your car regularly and your paint will last the life of your car in almost all conditions.
The same rule applies to fabric and upholstery protection, which is applied by the manufacturer and built into the price of the car. According to Edmunds, this service can cost $195 or more. If you really feel you need extra protection because you have a dog or messy children or whatever, spend a few bucks on a bottle of spray-on Scotchgard, which is essentially what the dealer is offering anyway.
Another add-on that’s trending is nitrogen-filled tires, which your dealer will tell you is less susceptible to temperature-based pressure expansion and reduction. It’s also supposed to bleed from your tires more slowly than regular air. Edmunds reports that its own research says it makes almost no difference in real-world conditions and that the service costs roughly $100. Regular air is free — or close to it if you’re in a pinch and need to stop at a gas station.
Insider Secrets: 23 Things Car Dealerships Don’t Want You To Know
Window Tints/Clear Protection
You might be in the market for window tints or clear UV protection, but don’t let the dealer sell it to you as an add-on. Chances are they don’t do the work themselves and instead farm it out to the lowest bidder. You, of course, reap none of those savings — the difference is pure dealer profit. Check online reviews for local service companies and you’ll almost certainly pay less for work done by a company whose reviews you had a chance to research for yourself.
Door Edge Protector
You can pick up a DIY door edge protector kit for less than $10 on Amazon, yet according to Edmunds, dealers commonly charge $169. In theory, door edge protectors keep vulnerable door edges from chipping and scratching. The truth is, modern paint can resist most of this yesteryear type of damage, but if you want the peace of mind, it’s an easy, cheap, tool-free DIY job.
Exhaust tips modify your car’s tailpipe to make the exhaust sound more throaty or raspy — they can be modified up or down to do either. Aside from being fairly obnoxious — although plenty of people clearly think they look and sound cool — they don’t cost anywhere near the $149 that Edmunds says a dealer is likely to charge. Also, they’re cop magnets even where this kind of exhaust modification is legal.
Service and Maintenance Packages
Service and maintenance packages aren’t always, or even usually, a rip-off. Dealers make a lot of money in their service departments, and they’d obviously love to sell you a car and service it as well, both while under warranty and beyond. This incentivizes good service, as does the fact that good service means you’re more likely to come back and buy your next car there, as well. The problem is, buying a car is a ton of information to process on its own and you can opt into the service plan at any time. If they offer you a maintenance package, ask for the details in writing, say you’ll think about it and take a few days to look it over and decide if it’s worth it.
Upgraded Floor Mats
Your dealer might try to talk you into “heavy-duty” or “all-weather” mats. Regular floor mats often come standard from the factory, and in that case, the dealer might not be able to remove them for a discount. That, however, is different than upgrading to a more rugged version at the cost of hundreds of dollars extra, which you might pay for a full set of custom, laser-measured mats from a company like WeatherTech. If you must have generic heavy-duty mats, they’re easy to find online with a two-digit price tag.
Among the most common and costly dealer add-ons are so-called “appearance packages,” which often take the form of pinstriping or some other graphic design. While it appears to come from the manufacturer, dealers — particularly used car dealers — can add them on themselves, try to pass them off as standard and outrageously upcharge for them. Edmunds reports seeing appearance packages for $279. Jaloplink reports seeing them cost as much as $2,000.
Passenger cars don’t need mudflaps, despite what your dealer tells you about paint and undercarriage corrosion. Those who have them often find that they catch and trap sand and salt, causing more corrosion than they prevent. Large trucks are an exception, but not most standard trucks or SUVs. Find out if your state requires them on SUVs or standard trucks before letting a dealer explain why you can’t go without them. If you really want them, you’ll find, as with so many add-ons, that you can buy them and have them installed cheaper somewhere else.
Trunk trays are formfitting rubberized cargo liners for your trunk or the back of your hatchback or SUV — they sometimes come with raised cargo blocks. They protect against spills, upholstery tears and other damage, and they’re certainly not a bad idea — provided you pay $200 or so for one online or at your local auto parts store. What you shouldn’t do, however, is let a dealer talk you into buying one from them for upwards of $700, which isn’t unheard of, according to MotorTrend.
Color-Changing Valve Stem Covers
You might encounter a dealer who promises magic in your tires in the form of color-changing valve stems that change from green to red when your tires need air, all for the low price of between $40-$100 for a set of four. First of all, most new — or newish, even — cars come with low-tire-pressure indicators on the dashboard. Even if yours doesn’t, the two tools that have worked for time immemorial — your eyes and a pressure gauge — will serve the exact same purpose.
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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.